I would be a bad Cal fan if I didn't comment about the post-season tumult our football team has just faced.
We had a couple of issues as we headed into the waning days of the season. One, that our coach, Jeff Tedford, is awesome, and being so awesome was highly coveted by other teams. Like the University of Washington, who openly lobbied for him to come join them when the Cal Bears went up there to play their currently hapless Huskies. The other, that Cal was more successful this year than it had been for years and years previous, even decades and decades previous, and as such had its eyes cast on playing in the Rose Bowl, where it hadn't been since the 1950s. The Rose Bowl has traditionally been the game that the Pac-10 champion played against the Big 10 champion. This year we weren't the Pac-10 champion because we lost (barely) to USC, the reigning #1 team in the country. But because of the BCS system – a complex system for ranking teams and assigning them to the more prestigious bowls – the Rose Bowl was still a possibility for us. We went into the remaining week of the season the #4 team in the country, with a legitimate claim to being ranked that high and going to a commensurately desirable bowl. All we needed to do was win our last game. Right?
We did, and by 10 points. Near the end of the game when we'd built up steam and the other team had fizzled we could have tried to score more, but it was hardly necessary to do so to win and it might have been unsportsmanlike. Meanwhile, the rival in the rankings, Texas, was already done with its season and didn't play that day. Yet somehow, in the final analysis, when the final rankings were released Texas had crept ahead of us, taking our place at #4, knocking Cal lower and out of contention for a Rose Bowl appearance.
On the other hand, we did have a long-standing opportunity to go to the Holiday Bowl, which is not insignificant. In most of the years that I've been a Cal fan we could hardly dream of any Bowl game. In fact, four years ago we could hardly dream of even winning a regular game. In 2001 we were 1-10. In 2004 we were 10-1. In one sense the Holiday Bowl was good enough. In several others it wasn't.
For one, the Rose Bowl has sentimental meaning to many Old Blues, loyal alums from many years back who have rooted for Cal through thick and thin, increasingly few of whom can even remember the last time we went. Every year we hope and hope it will get to be our turn again. And every year something happens to ruin that dream. The same way the Red Sox fans hoped and hoped for an impossible World Series victory that was always snatched away, we hoped to go back to the Rose Bowl. It was that important to us. And our fate was surprisingly similar. (Until this year.)
Even if we'd managed to go to the Orange Bowl this year, ostensibly the game between the #1 and #2 teams for the alleged "national championship" it might not have meant as much to us, even though it would have been more prestigious than either the Rose Bowl or the Holiday Bowl we were relegated to. But at least it, like the Rose Bowl, would have had an upside that the Holiday Bowl doesn't have: revenue. The main BCS bowls pay the (I'm not sure if it’s the schools directly or the conferences they belong to) $15-17 million. The smaller Bowls, like the Holiday Bowl, pay up to $2 million.
So when the final rankings came out, and Cal was mysteriously and inequitably relegated to the lesser bowl, it was a $15 million snub. That's millions of dollars that can't be put back into our program, to develop our other sports, and to lessen the tension between academics and athletics as the latter manages to be more self-sufficient.
Worse, it's not that Cal has itself to blame for this strange turn of fortune (like it so often does). Cal did everything it needed to win 10 games this year. I think we should have and could have beaten USC, but that's the only mistake from the season. Our performance still should have justified the #4 ranking, and finally gotten us our Rose Bowl berth.
But the computerized rankings as part of the system objected to us not beating the teams we beat by more points than we did. A simple "W" was not good enough it seems: apparently we needed to make the opponents cry. And the human polls evidenced a ridiculous pro-Texas (or anti-Cal) bias. Texas was our nearest competitor in the rankings with a similar record, and though almost as similarly worthy as we were for the #4 slot, it wasn't quite. And in a week when they didn't play but we won, there was nothing that would justify boosting them over us. And yet that's what certain (currently anonymous) pollsters did.
People everywhere are in an uproar over the BCS system. Cal wasn't the only school reamed – Auburn also got proportionately jilted in its ranking. Some in response to the mess are calling for a playoff system instead of the BCS but I don't tend to think it's the answer for college football, given the short season and league complexity (among other things). Instead, if there is going to be a system, BCS or otherwise, it needs to be transparent and equitable. Right now it's not. The computer polls that are part of the equation are immune to bias but fail to measure most of the intangibles (like whether it would have been appropriate to go for an extra touchdown near the end of the game, before penalizing a team for a smaller point differential in its victory). The human polls can better account for the intangibles, better considering the overall quality of the performance that may not be revealed in the final score itself (for instance, Cal started to dominate a tough, tenacious opponent near the end of the last game, which is testament to our excellent conditioning and a better measure of our quality than a point spread), but are subject to manipulation by the voters (as was the case here). The previous BCS system was actually recently changed to this half-human, half-computer formula in order to improve it, hoping that by combining both types of polls it could mitigate the flaws in each. But perhaps it's time to eliminate the downsides of each outright. There's just too much at stake.
That may actually be the larger problem, that there is so much at stake in college football. Football becomes an end to itself, tenuously attached to academic institutions but bearing little connection to the academic learning they are supposed to foster. Vast amounts of money are involved, vaster than that available for academics. Incredible pressures are placed on the players, not just to play well for the joy of it and the pleasure of their peers at school, but because other people's fortunes ride on their performances, now and in the future.
When Tedford was being so openly recruited in Seattle it brought to the fore the hazards of superstardom, that underlying quest for fame and fortune and winning at all costs that seems to fuel the sports engine. Massive amounts of money were being offered trying to lure him away, amounts that we now needed to match in order that he stay. Because even though there were many intangibles we could offer instead, and even though we were already paying him quite a bit, how can you ask or expect a coach, in an industry where employment can be so fleeting (see Tyrone Willingham fired from Notre Dame after a winning season where apparently there wasn't quite enough winning...), to walk away from more money than most of us can ever dream about having.
It turns out we met the price, though not entirely. And Tedford will stay. And we're happy. And maybe that's ok.
Because college sports can still be about college. College is a community that we students, alums, athletes, faculty and staff get to be part of. It's a family that nurtures us for several years in our lives before setting us out in the world. And like a family, it's a place to go home to and a culture that connects us to each other no matter where we are in the world. I'm constantly bumping into Cal people hither and yon, and though we've never met before, because of this connection we are not strangers either. If the athletics can help strengthen this connection, through the games themselves and their supporting pageantry, then it provides an important service that should not be undervalued.
The trick is to make sure the athletics complement the fundamental mission of the university without compromising it. Sports can't be the end itself, where if we throw a little more money at it, where if we manage to win a little more, we will be proportionately enriched in response. It's not a case of "little must be good a lot must be better." Such a notion is a fallacy. The question is where to draw the line so that the investment is returned not only in the context of the football team but in a net positive way for the university as a whole.
Posted 12/8, written 12/7.
Edit 12/10: The combination of the high financial stakes and the potential for vote maniupulation and abuse has prompted at least one newspaper to withdraw from the AP polling system. See this article for some of the unseemly behavior that caused Cal to drop in its ranking inexplicably.