Reporting from New Orleans
Is it a crisis, or just Bowl Championship Series business as unusual?
January's national title game featured teams currently under NCAA investigation and was staged by a bowl, the Fiesta, beset by alleged financial improprieties.
Auburn (Cam Newton recruitment probe ongoing) and Oregon (recruiting service payments called into question) got to the title game through a complex rankings system that, because of a computer operator's error, had two teams in the wrong order.
USC, saddled with a two-year bowl ban for major violations, can expect to be stripped of its 2004 BCS title moments after the NCAA renders a verdict on the Trojans' appeal.
Utah's attorney general, perhaps thinking something's ripe for the picking, last week announced plans to sue the BCS for being an illegal monopoly.
And 11 BCS conference commissioners met Wednesday to discuss these and other issues at a fancy hotel, a few blocks from the site of the Sugar Bowl.
Ohio State, the defending Sugar Bowl champion, has an Aug. 12 meeting with the NCAA to respond to a 13-page indictment accusing Coach Jim Tressel of "potentially major violations" including withholding information and lying.
It looks bad … it sounds serious … what a field day for BCS bashers.
Wait … what's this?
"The system is as strong as ever," BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock said Wednesday.
Larry Scott, second-year commissioner of the soon-to-be Pac 12, agreed.
"I think the BCS system and college football is extremely healthy," Scott said.
And although all bowls were stained by the Fiesta Bowl scandal that led to the ouster of CEO John Junker, Rose Bowl chief executive Scott McKibben was unequivocal in saying: "I don't think college football has ever been in better shape than it is today."
The crazy part is everyone is right. College football is a mess and in "great" shape. It's the paradox of a BCS system that has been fabulously flawed since 1998.
Bad news has piled up at the same time networks line up to do business. The Big Ten Network, driven by football, is a cash cow that delivered $20 million per school last year.
The Pac-12, led by Scott, is on the precipice of getting a huge network deal, perhaps as much as $220 million.
"That's coming from renowned experts I've never met," Scott quipped after Wednesday's meetings.
Even the Big 12, which appeared close to extinction last spring when the Pac-10 attempted to raid the league of six schools and form the Pac-16, is back on solid footing. The league signed network deals that will total about $130 million annually. Member school Texas, in conjunction with ESPN, is starting its own network in a deal worth $300 million over 20 years.
BCS officials are concerned about the disturbing issues but are far from pulling the plug.
"Putting the political grandstanding aside," Scott said in reference to the latest legal threat from Utah, "there are issues and scandals in every major sport. Look at baseball, football, look across the board."
How much the BCS has to do with the larger problems in colleges is debatable. Breaches of ethics and rules violations aren't confined to football.
"The biggest concern that I have among the threats to the collegiate model is simply the threat of integrity," NCAA President Mark Emmert said at the Final Four.
Major-college football, though, is the only sport the NCAA doesn't control. It is the only sport that doesn't have a playoff, making its shortcomings easier to exploit.
Blaming the BCS for the ills of athletics is terrific political fodder. BCS-haters point to what happened at the Fiesta Bowl as a reason why the system must be revamped.
BCS officials don't see it that way.
"What happened there [with the Fiesta Bowl] was more of an individual aberration, but it's not playing that way," McKibben said. "But the Fiesta Bowl is going to be a red flag and a warning light to all of us. We've got to go back and take a careful look at how we operate our business."
McKibben says the scandal created "a little bit of backlash" and prompted the Rose Bowl to thoroughly review its books and procedures in accordance with its tax-exempt status.
He said the Rose Bowl continues to operate within the rules.
Those thinking recent problems will precipitate the end of the BCS may be out of luck. Officials here are meeting to reaffirm what they already have. The Fiesta Bowl, it's believed, is going to survive and be allowed to stay in the BCS rotation.
"Do I personally think all this will lead to the fall of the BCS and college football and the bowl structure?" McKibben said. "No."
The NCAA licensing arm is meeting with the Fiesta Bowl on Thursday, but it won't make any sort of ruling until a BCS task force investigating the situation rules, probably in late May.
The BCS has been dodging antitrust charges for 13 years.
"It's fair to say the attorney general of Utah just put fuel on a fire that was already burning," McKibben said.
Hancock said Wednesday BCS attorneys have assured commissioners the BCS complies with antitrust laws.
The BCS brand has been battered and bruised — but it's been kicked like an old car for more than a decade.
There certainly are issues.
"The only thing that risks the future is how leadership handles the issues," Scott said.