Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Roy Kramer and Radical Change

I wrote a piece yesterday at SB Nation about how Roy Kramer expresses concern about anything more than incremental change when it comes to a college football playoff, but he had no such concerns when he reorganized the SEC in 1992 in a significant, swift fashion:

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.
Upon reflection, the salient difference is that Kramer was in charge of the SEC, but not all of college football.  As the SEC Commissioner, he could expand the league and create the division structure, albeit with ultimately approval of the SEC presidents and athletic directors.  He was not in charge of major college football as a whole.  The SEC was merely one voice at the table when the BCS was created, so Kramer would have had a much tougher time implementing a playoff in 1995 and 1998 as opposed to simply creating a bowl structure to guarantee a #1 versus #2 matchup.  If that's the case, then he ought to identify the times where significant change is possible and the times where we have to move slowly because the SEC's interests are not wholly aligned with those of other major conferences.

The post also led to a little Twitter exchange with Blutarsky about Tony Barnhart. I will admit to having the same reservations about Barnhart's writing, a feeling that was crystallized when Barnhart was apparently aware of the SEC inviting Missouri to join the conference and participated in a Q&A about the subject that was packaged to run when the news broke, but did not share this information with his readers.  At this stage, reading Barnhart is like reading Pravda during the Cold War: he is more interesting as a gauge of what newsmakers (in this case, major players in the SEC) are thinking and what they want to disseminate.  If you accept his writing on that principle, it's worthwhile.  In this case, he is disseminating the opinion of Roy Kramer, who doesn't really have a stake anymore and is therefore an interesting analyst of the playoff discussions.

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