By ART THIEL
The Huskies are in, but that doesn’t mean the College Football Playoffs had a good selection process. At least through the prism of ESPN, the owner-operator of big-time college sports.
The arrival of Washington among the heavy equipment of the college football industry allows a Seattle viewer of the selection process to offer an opinion that cannot be criticized with charges of homerism.
The opinion: My, that sucked.
Since the Huskies were not excluded from the College Football Playoffs, criticism from the “sweet-grapes” corner of the country resonates a little more than the “sour-grapes” areas of the fruited plain.
For UW and its fans, contention in this three-year-old CFP was new. With a dawg in the hunt, it was astonishing to witness how much yammering, hand-wringing and weapons-grade argle bargle went into the selection of the four participants.
The scrutiny did provide one remarkable side outcome: For most of six weeks, the football programs at Rutgers, Portland State and Idaho received immense national publicity that millions of dollars could not have purchased. Granted, the references were all bad. But as we’ve seen, even bad reviews can get you elected president.
They were the three non-conference teams obliterated by the Huskies cumulatively 148-30, the opponents’ weakness making for a vulnerability in the Huskies’ profile that became a cantaloupe-sized wart during the cover-boy shoots.
As it turns out, it seems all the contenders had festering pustules, if one were to listen to ESPN’s legions of pundits, which seemed to include everyone in Bristol with the strength to hold a microphone. The repetitive nit-picking of who beat whom, where, when and how, created enough hamster-wheeling to turn the turbines at Grand Coulee Dam.
Even ever-polite Huskies coach Chris Petersen, who would have a hard time publicly criticizing brown shoes with a tuxedo, couldn’t resist a modest shot Sunday morning during his ESPN interview after UW was selected.
“It was a little nerve-wracking,” he said of the delay in the announcement. “You guys drew it out as long as you possibly could.”
The ESPN host — can’t remember who it was among the cast of thousands; Ernest Borgnine? — countered that they didn’t yet have the results from the 12-person star chamber appointed to be college gridiron gods, so they had to keep talking.
The retort conveniently omits the fact that ESPN owns the entire college football industry, lock, stock and ratings points. If the network, which is paying $7.3 billion over 12 years to televise the CFP, had ordered the committee to deliver the verdict before the show while standing on their heads naked, they would have done so.
College athletics programs, and by extension the colleges themselves, have become addicted to the crack of TV revenues. By itself, that isn’t the worst thing if it kept athletics departments from stealing from public schools’ general-fund budgets. But many, including six Pac-12 schools besides Washington, aren’t breaking even despite selling out to TV’s need for 2 a.m. game starts with one hour’s notice.
So the athletics departments are paying themselves more to lose more money, as the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins put it.
Which is why, now that I’ve experienced up close the awkwardness of the beauty-pageant contest that remains in college football even with a four-team field — ooh, isn’t Penn State’s comeback win over Wisconsin prettier than Washington’s 31-point rout of Colorado? — I’ve become an even greater fan of the eight-team format.
Unlike the CFP, we’ll keep the rationale simple:
- College football has five power conferences and four berths
- Limiting to four is leaving money on the table
Since college football is nothing if not about money, the unsatisfactory experience of the selection process the past weekend fairly screams for amendment that works for everyone.
Create a tournament field of eight teams — five conference champions, a sixth from the Group of Five kids’ table, and two wild cards — and rancor is reduced, revenue is up with another round of games, and ESPN can stop bothering its cafeteria staff for hot takes on the playoff field.
Yes, there is something of a kick-the-can-down-the-road element by still having a committee for picking No. 6, No. 7 and No. 8, but the retching and heaving is reduced to a hanky and a pat on the head for No. 9. The committee can be cut from 12 to two, and Condi Rice and Tyrone Willingham can email their choices from the Pebble Beach clubhouse after the front nine and still have time for the back nine.
Then there’s the peace that comes from the dialing-down of selection chatter that will rejuvenate our souls.
CFP chairman Kirby Hocutt offered up a little insight during his interview. He said the committee analyzed much data, offering one tasty example of how they separated No. 4 Washington from No. 5 Penn State.
He said Washington ranked first in the significant statistic of turnover differential. Penn State was 50th. None among the gaggle of employees ESPN had servicing us with treacle offered up that nugget.
I confess I might have missed it, because I bailed on the four-hour show after the Petersen interview. Another 200 minutes of hamsters in the wheel, and I would have joined the movement to build a wall, topped with a lead lid, around Bristol.
(Art Theil is one of the best and most clever, creative and, yes, controversial columnists in the world. Never having met a metaphor he could not twist beyond recognition, Art has been illuminating, agitating, amusing and annoying in the Great Northwest for a long time. Along with Steve Rudman, he co-founded Sports Press Northwest because it didn’t seemright that Google monster should aggregate daily journalism into oblivion without at least a flesh wound from somebody. Thiel and Rudman labored under the Seattle Post-Intelligencer globe until the print edition died an undeserved death in March, 2009. Art continued on at its online successor seattlepi.com while working on SPNWs creation. His radio commentaries can be heard Friday and Saturday mornings and Friday afternoon on Seattle’s KPLU-FM 88.9. In 2003 he wrote the definitive book about the Seattle Mariners, Out of Left Field, which became a regional bestseller. In 2009, along with Rudman and KJR 950 afternoon host Mike Gastineau, Thiel authored The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists. A graduate of Pacific Lutheran University as well as two dead papers and a live one, the News Tribune of Tacoma, he has become a fan of entrepreneurial online journalism because it allows him to continue a lifelong passion to take the English language to places it rarely visits willingly, and does not involve the cleaning of kennels or stables.)