[This story is part two of a series of stories which chronicle the evolution of college football’s postseason. This series originally appeared in the Official Game Program for the 2014 Allstate Sugar Bowl.]
Part 1: The Bowls: A Historical Perspective
Part 2: The Father of the BCS
Part 3: Looking Back at the BCS
Part 4: The College Football Playoff and the Allstate Sugar Bowl
The Father of the BCSRoy Kramer laughs when he thinks how his simple intention to create a process to choose the nation’s two best college football teams to play in a national championship game turned into a media monster known as the BCS.
ESPN has a weekly show analyzing the “BCS” standings. The phase “BCS Busters” was created about teams from non-major conferences trying to crash their way into one of the BCS bowls. Books were even written using the term “BCS.”
“I wish I’d known it would take on the life it did,” Kramer says, “because we should have copyrighted the phrase `BCS’ and held on to the title. As years passed, it got used it every kind of situation you can think of good and bad.”
Kramer’s baby turns Sweet 16 this year, but it’s about to become a man.
Late on the night of Jan. 6, when the final snap is taken in the BCS championship game in Pasadena, Calif., the BCS will morph into the College Football Playoff.
Instead of having a combination of polls and computer ratings determine college football’s top two teams for the annual national championship game, a 13-member selection committee will select and seed the top four teams that will meet in the semifinals and then in the national championship game.
Kramer, Mike Slive’s predecessor as Southeastern Conference commissioner, never believed the BCS would last forever.
“I knew there would be changes and change is good,” he says. “Will the playoff work? It may result in less controversy, or it may be more difficult to decide between the third, fourth and fifth best teams than it is the first two teams. It’s a step in a different direction and we’ll see how it works.”
It’s hard to imagine the playoff drawing more public attention and opinion than the BCS did from day one in 1998 when Tennessee beat Florida State in the first BCS title game.
Anytime there was a hint of controversy at the end of the season when the top two teams weren’t clear-cut, Kramer got sautéed in every court of public opinion known to mankind.
But it never bothered him. He always understood it was part of the deal to help grow the sport he dearly loved.
Kramer’s first job in 1954 was as a $3,600-per-year assistant football coach at Battle Creek Central (Mich.) High after getting degrees from Maryville (Tenn.) College and the University of Michigan. In nine years at four Michigan high schools as a head coach, he won state championships in three different classes.
He was named head coach at Division II Central Michigan in 1967 and went 83-32-2 in 11 years. After his 1974 team went 12-1 and won the national championship, he was named national Coach of the Year.
And he cashed in on his success. Well, sort of.
“I wrote a book called The Complete Book of the I-Formation, though I didn’t think it was more complete than anybody else’s,” Kramer recalls. “I sold enough copies to buy a used 1956 station wagon.”
Herb Deromedi, a Kramer assistant who succeeded him as coach and who later became Central Michigan’s athletic director, says Kramer was a passionate coach.
“He was a great motivator,” Deromedi says. “He never used profanity, but he could strike fear in you. His pregame talks were so motivating that he had you charging through the door without it being open.”
Kramer measures his words on many subjects, but the conversation flows when he talks about his afternoons on the sidelines.
“The best part of coaching was 3 o’clock every afternoon during the season when you walk on that field and leave the world for 2 1/2 hours,” Kramer says with a tinge of nostalgia. “The teaching. The close relationships. Game days. Those things never leave you.”
Kramer walked away from coaching at age 48 just before the 1978 season. No reason, he said. It was just time, and moved self-assuredly to become Vanderbilt’s athletic director.
There, in 12 years at the SEC’s only private institution, he immersed himself in fund-raising and facility improvements. His jewel was a $6 million renovation of McGugin Center, Vandy’s athletic administrative and training center.
All the while, Kramer was building a national reputation serving and chairing NCAA committees. At conventions, his eloquent, logic-filled speeches usually left his contemporaries nodding their heads in agreement.
“Roy is the only one willing to stand up and be accounted for,” former Mississippi State football coach Jackie Sherrill once said. “He does it because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s the political thing to do.”
After Kramer arrived in the SEC as commissioner in January 1990, the conference expanded to 12 teams in two divisions in 1992 when he also created a league championship football game. He also signed a multi-million dollar TV contract with CBS that suddenly gave the SEC coast-to-coast exposure and filled the wallets of every league school.
Yet all the while, he felt that college football wasn’t completely healthy.
“I thought we needed to do some things, particularly to put together some better matchups in some of our bowl games to find a way to increase the excitement,” Kramer explains. “The NFL was so strong and so big that we needed to way find ways to increase the interest in the college game.”
So Kramer enlisted the help of his fellow major conference commissioners, especially Jim Delany of the Big 10, to devise a plan to create more yearlong interest in college football while protecting the bowls – in January of 2009, Kramer was presented with the Football Bowl Association’s Champions Award for his contributions to the bowl industry (pictured right with Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan).
One of the biggest hurdles was prying loose long-time conference affiliations with major bowls. The Big 10 and Pac-10 champs had always played in the Rose Bowl, the SEC champion was usually in the Sugar, and the Big 12 title winner went to the Orange.
“The greatest fear of the Rose Bowl people was that in a given year the Big 10 and Pac 10 champs would finish 1-2 in the BCS and that year the national championship would be played in another BCS bowl like the Sugar,” Kramer says.
“We researched it, and it had only happened one time in 50 years that those leagues were Nos. 1-2 nationally. But as it would happen, one year in late November when Michigan and UCLA were ranked as the top two teams, the Rose Bowl people called me.
“They said, `Roy, you said this wasn’t going to happen.’ I said, `Just think of this. If it happens, it won’t happen again for 50 years.’ That didn’t go over very well.”
Despite much teeth gnashing in October and early November when there were multiple undefeated teams, the BCS got it right almost every season.
Even after Kramer retired as commissioner in May 2002, BCS critics still roasted him every season. But he never ran and hid. He was and still is a popular radio talk show guest.
“Roy is someone with phenomenal intelligence, courage and foresight,” says Bill Hancock, who’ll soon transform as executive director of the BCS to the same title with the College Football Playoff. “He had the ability to see if a butterfly flaps its wings how that’s going to affect college football 20 years from now.
“Many people get caught up in the moment, but not Roy. He understands cause and effect beyond anybody else I’ve ever known. He knew the BCS would be successful and he knew it would be great for the game.”
As the BCS comes to a close, Kramer is more than satisfied he hit all the marks.
“We wanted to create new interest in college football, and it did that to a far greater degree than we ever imagined,” he says. “College football has always been extremely popular, but it became more of a national sport with people becoming more interested what was going on in other parts of the country. Fans in Tuscaloosa became interested what was going on in Oregon.
“We also wanted to improve and maintain the bowl system. The bowl structure is extremely important to all levels of college football, not just to the top three or four teams. Conferences that didn’t have many bowl tie-ins before, like the Mid-American and the Mountain West, suddenly had several bowl selections.
“And some conferences, which never had access to the major bowls, had a process to qualify for them, like Hawaii and Utah playing Georgia and Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma and Northern Illinois in last year’s Orange Bowl vs. Florida State.
Not that Kramer felt he needed validation for the BCS, but he got it late one night driving home to Birmingham after a speaking engagement.
“I’m listening to a call-in show,” he recalls, “and the show hosts were applying the BCS formula to picking the NFL wildcard playoff teams. I said `Well, we’ve finally arrived.’ ”
As Slive says of the man he replaced as SEC commissioner, “Roy can take satisfaction knowing he improved the health of college football.”
Story by Ron Higgins.