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Hatch, U. president throw flag on BCS college playoff system

Published July 7, 2009 6:49 pm

Football » Change still unlikely as TV contract is set to extend current system through 2013.
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Washington » During a Senate hearing Tuesday, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch called college football's Bowl Championship Series an illegal monopoly benefiting six conferences at the expense of schools such as the University of Utah.

But a BCS leader warned that even if a judge agreed with Hatch and struck down the way college football now crowns its champion, officials wouldn't create a playoff like so many fans, sports pundits and even the president have called for.

"Honestly, it's hard to see why anyone would litigate this," said Harvey Perlman, University of Nebraska chancellor and chairman of the BCS' presidential oversight committee. "The end result of that -- this isn't a threat, it's just an observation -- would be we are back to the old system."

The BCS was created in 1997 to pit the nation's top two teams in a national championship game. It also hypes four other prestigious bowl games. Before that, the top conferences inked their own big money deals with bowls, leaving pollsters to decide who was the champ.

BCS officials like Perlman argue the current system has brought more exposure, opportunity and cash to smaller programs than ever before, especially with recent changes making it likely that at least one spot every year will go to a team from one of the five non-BCS conferences.

But schools on the periphery of the system, like the U. of U., say the BCS makes it almost impossible for them to get a chance at the championship. And since the top conferences get more than 80 percent of the money, the BCS has created a permanent second-class status for nearly half the football programs in the nation.

"Championships should be decided by competition, not conspiracy," said U. President Michael Young, who testified Tuesday.

The U. went undefeated last year, but had no chance to play for the national championship. The Utes were selected for one of the BCS' other four major games, beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Critics of the BCS used the Utes unexpected rout as the latest argument for reform. Other teams, from BCS-affiliated conferences, such as Texas and Southern California also believed they should have had a shot at the title.

But it appears unlikely that the BCS will make any major changes on its own. The heads of the conferences are expected to finalize a television contract with ESPN on Thursday that extends the current system through 2013. The only conference that has not yet agreed to the TV deal is the Mountain West, which includes the U. and Brigham Young University.

If the Mountain West doesn't sign the deal, the teams will not be eligible for BCS games during the next four years, Perlman said.

Hatch wants the BCS to push that deadline to explore changes, though he expects the contract will go through.

"Frankly there is an arrogance about the BCS that just drives me nuts," Hatch said. "They will continue to do it until somebody does something about it."

Hatch called for Tuesday's hearing to delve into potential antitrust violations. But for much of the two-hour affair he was the only senator present. Along with Perlman and Young, two antitrust lawyers on opposing sides also testified.

Hatch chaired a similar hearing five years ago, which included Lavell Edwards, who was then the coach at BYU. But at that time, Hatch said he was "unclear" whether the BCS violated federal competition laws.

He was more decisive Tuesday, saying the Justice Department should investigate.

"I think there is a fairly strong case, in fact, an overwhelming case," he said afterward.

Tuesday's Justice subcommittee hearing is the latest attempt by Congress to pressure the BCS to reform, either by giving more opportunity and more cash to the smaller schools or by creating a playoff.

A House committee held a hearing in May where the leading Democrat and Republican threatened to push legislation barring the BCS from advertising their game as a national championship unless the teams were determined in a playoff.

In a recent interview with RealClearSports, BCS commissioner John Swofford said a good part of Hatch's angst is a direct result of Utah's recent success.

Hatch denied he was pandering to home state football fans.

"That's just bull," he said. "Anyone who says that is a mouth-off artist."

Hatch believes the BCS violates the Sherman antitrust laws because it limits competition among the teams for the top bowls, which he says are a "monopoly" run by the six major conferences. The teams are selected using polls and computer rankings, making it much tougher for universities with less exposure to get a shot.

Even when the Utes earned a BCS berth in 2004 and 2008, they received only half of the money that their BCS-affiliated competitors received.

Hatch called the BCS conferences "privileged," but Perlman said they were "essential"

Perlman said the six major conferences are stocked with better teams that attract bigger TV audiences. And none of these conferences is willing to simply give away the money they could be making if they went out on their own.

"Hopefully we will find a way to make people happy, but making people happy means that the six conferences are going to have to come out and believe themselves to be equal to or better off than they are now," he said.

mcanham@sltrib.com