January 5, 1999
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The University of Tennessee Volunteers are the new national champions. They beat Florida State 23-16 in the Fiesta Bowl last night. Tennessee's Peerless Price earned his name, catching two long catches, one a 79-yard touchdown. And Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin took his team where even his great predecessor Peyton Manning hadn't gone - to the number one spot - but not without some controversy since, as usual, the championship did not represent the final game of a playoff series in which other top teams competed.
For more on all this we turn to John Feinstein, an author and commentator for National Public Radio.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: John, last night's game first, did the best team win?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Oh, yes, the best team won, Elizabeth. It wasn't a good game, but they were the better team. Florida State might have broken records for penalties if the game had gone on much longer, but they were the best team last night. They were the only team in the playoff series that finished undefeated. Tulane, which was not included in the playoff series, also finished undefeated, and that's one of the problems with the college bowl system, that a team can go undefeated and still not be given a chance to compete for the national championship.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Explain how that happens and how Tennessee and Florida State got in this championship Fiesta Bowl game.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, if I tried to explain to you the computer system that picked Tennessee and Florida State to play, we would be here until the 2000 election was over.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I think you have to have an IQ of 200 to understand it.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Much higher than my IQ, that's for sure.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Higher than mine.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: But the way it works, college football is unique in that unlike every other college sport, unlike every other professional sport, there is not a tournament per se that decides the champion. In college basketball 64 teams are selected based on their regular season play and you play an elimination tournament until you have a champion. In college football it doesn't work that way. The new system, which is the fourth system we've worked under in the last six years, which tells you that they know they haven't gotten it right yet, this new system employed three different computers, and at the end of the season those three computers spit out Tennessee, which was undefeated, and Florida State, which was one of seven major teams with one loss, but Florida State did something smart; they lost earlier in the season than anybody else. And apparently the computers are human and picked the team that had lost earliest to play against Tennessee. So everybody else with one loss - based on computers rather than based on competition on the field-was eliminated, and Tennessee and Florida State played the game for the championship.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Was anybody paying attention to any of this? How were the ratings for the four major bowl games?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, the ratings for all the games before last night, the championship game, were down, way down, because there's been so much emphasis put on this one game that the other so-called major bowls - there's a four-bowl coalition that will rotate the championship game for the next four years.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We should name those: Sugar Bowl -
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Sugar Bowl; Orange Bowl; Fiesta Bowl; and Rose Bowl. And we'll leave their corporate titles off until later. But the point - they will rotate and the Fiesta Bowl had the first crack last night, but the other bowl games, because they didn't involve the national championship game the ratings were down. The Rose Bowl, which is the oldest and most traditional of the bowl games, was down 39 percent in its television rating, which is a huge drop, and it was an excellent football game.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, there's lots of money involved in this, but, of course, at the Fiesta Bowl you could hardly tell who was sponsoring it, right? We got some videotape here to indicate how evident the sponsorship was. The Tostito - you can just read it there - tell us what you think about that, or tell us what are the pros and cons of this.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, corporate America has figured out long ago that sports was a great way to get its name out before the public, and it's a dominant part of all sports now, and the colleges have sold out to corporate America, like everybody else has. So even though the name of the bowl game is supposed to be Fiesta Bowl, if you looked at mid field last night, the Tostitos sign was three times the size of the Fiesta Bowl sign, and everywhere you looked was a logo with the corporate name, and that was true of the other three bowls that are part of this coalition, and all the bowls, half of them are named after computers now, for crying out loud. But the point is corporate America says we're going to spend a lot of money, which goes into the college's coffers, and in return we want our name out there front and center. And the colleges, like everybody else in athletics, have bought into this because they need and want money.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How much money are we talking about?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: We're talking about in the case of this particular bowl championship series, as it's called, each of the college - of the eight schools that participated in those four bowls will get a payout of about $11 million.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the Rose Bowl has still managed to avoid this to a certain extent. Explain that.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Sort of. The other bowls have what are called title sponsors. It's the Tostitos Fiesta Bow. It's the Nokia Sugar Bowl. It's the Fed Ex Orange Bowl. The Rose Bowl is holding out a little - they're only a little bit pregnant. They are the Rose Bowl presented by AT&T. They won't let AT&T come before their name. So they're just holding out a little tiny bit.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. John, what would be the option to prevent the kind of controversy about whether this team is really first and whether the top two teams are playing in the championship?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, the option would be, Elizabeth, to go to a 16-team tournament, because if you had 16 teams, that would include just about anybody who had any claim on playing and competing for the national championship. Tulane, for example, would have to be included. Now, the college presidents have said we're concerned about putting too much pressure on the athletes; they'll miss too much class time. Well, in the basketball tournament they missed three weeks of class time in March, which is late in the semester. If you held a 16-team tournament, or even an 18-team tournament in early January, started it after the first semester was over and began it before second semester began, very few players would miss very little class time, and the pressure would be no different than the pressure on the basketball players, so there's no reason not to do it. And that way when you have your national championship champion, there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And finally and briefly, ABC sports caster Keith Jackson called his last game last night. Was that the end of an era?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Very much so. Keith Jackson was "the" voice of college football for 29 years on ABC. When you think of college football, you think of him and all of his little sayings like calling offensive linemen "big uglies" and things like that, and football won't sound the same on television without Keith Jackson.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you very much. Happy New Year.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Thanks, Elizabeth. Same to you.