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Roy Kramer: Radical Change Is Bad, Except When I Initiate It

Tony Barnhart conducted an fairly lengthy interview with Roy Kramer about the prospective changes to college football's postseason. Kramer's thoughts are interesting because he understands the politics involved in modifying the bowl system and he is retired, so he can speak his mind without worrying about the effects of his words on his or other constituencies. Here is the cautionary advice that Kramer offers for his successor and the other major conference commissioners:

But Kramer remembers that college football, by its nature, is resistant to big change. It prefers, and is more comfortable with, incremental change. Kramer remembers how the Big Ten and Pac-10 had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the BCS.

"One of the toughest things I've ever been a part of," Kramer said. "I don't blame them -- they were trying to protect the Rose Bowl."

Kramer said he has looked at all the options for a playoff that have been reported. They range from a four-team playoff with the semifinals on campus to a four-team playoff with all three games (semifinals and championship) at neutral sites.

If an agreement can't be reached on one of the four-team options, there is always the possibility of a true "Plus-One," in which two teams are picked after the bowl games rather than after Conference Championship Saturday, as is now the case.

There was also this silly notion of a format that would protect the Rose Bowl by creating an extra semifinal game in Pasadena if the Big Ten or Pac-12 finished in the final top four. That is simply not going to happen.

Now 10 years removed from his post at the SEC, Kramer has two words for his former colleagues: "Be careful."

"I always believed there would be changes down the road after we started the BCS," said Kramer, who retired in 2002 and was replaced by Mike Slive. "Change is inevitable. But the truth is, your options are more limited than most people think.

What's interesting about Kramer's rejection of "big change" (although I am quoting Barnhart here, so this might be more of a poke at Tony) is that he initiated one of the most radical and ultimately successful (as evidenced by how much it has been copied) changes in recent college football history: expanding the SEC to 12 teams, splitting into two divisions, and initiating the first conference championship game. Prior to 1992, the SEC was a ten-team league in which each team played seven conference games and the champion was the team with the best record at the end. As of 1992, the SEC was a 12-team league split into two divisions with protected cross-division rivalries and the champion was the team that won a game between the winners of the East and West divisions. Florida had to win seven conference games in 1991 to win the conference; Alabama had to win nine the next year to do the same, the last of which was a "neutral" site game against the Gators. Bama's highest SEC hurdle was its last, not unlike what it would face in winning its next national title in 2009.

Kramer's change met with resistance from the coaches in the league, but it was ultimately a complete success such that every major conference now either has a conference championship game (Big Ten, Pac Ten, and ACC) or would have one if it could keep 12 stable members (Big XII, Big East). In fact, the solution that Kramer suggests for the college football post-season - a four-team playoff comprised of three conference winners and then the highest-ranked remaining team - is made possible by the conferences moving themselves into a format where the league season progresses to a final game and then produces an ultimate champion. Kramer's solution for the college football postseason is an incremental change in the same way that the Bowl Alliance and then the Bowl Coalition were, but Kramer's career was not marked solely by smaller alterations. His best change was his biggest.

Speaking of the danger of change, Kramer's point at the end of the article about college football avoiding the fate of college basketball is music to my ears:

"My criticism of college basketball is that it has become a one-month sport," he said. "You just can't do that to college football. If you do, you break the foundation of college athletics because football finances everything. The donor programs and all the stuff that people don't want to talk about is built around [regular-season] football. That's just the way it is."

Since I like to think of everything in terms of eating, college football is the main course and college basketball is dessert. I can afford to have empty calories, i.e. a season where only the tournament matters and I can ignore the regular season, for dessert, but I can't for the main course.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.