January 4, 1998 in Sports

So Why Did They Switch?

George Vecsey New York Times

The coaches broke the rule, or whatever it was. Admittedly, it was an unwritten guideline, but those radicals, those free-thinkers, those bomb throwers, those long-haired anti-establishment types, those anarchists, collectively busted it.

The rule said that no team loses its lead for college football’s national championship if it wins a major bowl game, but the coaches who vote in the USA Today/ESPN poll defied a half a century of history, if not codified law.

After observing the two relevant bowl games, enough coaches switched their votes to make Nebraska their champion, not Michigan, which won The Associated Press poll of sportswriters. I have a problem with their logic, but not their intentions.

There must be outrage, particularly in Michigan. I can see the Michigan fans’ point. Michigan was penalized for struggling in the Rose Bowl to overcome Washington State’s Ryan Leaf, a strapping brute who currently is the best college quarterback in the land. Nebraska, on the other hand, was rewarded for its Orange Bowl romp over Tennessee’s Peyton Manning, an injured quarterback whose final college season fell short of expectations.

Before we round up those dangerous coaches for some re-education, however, it must be noted that a comparable swarm of sportswriters also switched their votes to Nebraska shortly after the Cornhuskers’ 42-17 victory over Tennessee on Friday night. I say, whenever you have college football coaches and sportswriters moving in the same direction, you can’t smear the coaches as acting out of personal favoritism. But, you ask, what about the tradition, 50 years in the making? Michigan went into the Rose Bowl leading both polls. It outlasted Washington State, 21-16, as Leaf could not get off one final, desperation heave.

Many people treated those lapsed 2 seconds as some kind of huge controversy that would somehow cheapen Michigan’s victory. My theory was, Washington State ran out of time. Tough. Michigan finished at 12-0, and its quarterback, Brian Griese, asked, “Is there anything else you want us to do?”

Then Michigan went home and saw Nebraska finish 13-0, after which Scott Frost, the Nebraska quarterback, looked into the television cameras and spoke directly to the football coaches of America, and asked, “If your job depended on playing either Michigan or Nebraska, who would you rather play?”

Enough coaches responded that Nebraska would be a tougher opponent, and we now have two champions for the 1997 season. Is this such a bad thing? Remember, this championship is basically all smoke and mirrors and opinion and emotion and glittering hardware and bragging rights and paranoia, but no science and no pro-style playoffs. I like it that way. Part of its charm. Makes us feel as if we’re living in the 1920s or something, simpler times, when college football was young and innocent. Right.

There will be complaints that 23-1/2 coaching votes were switched out of sentiment to good old Tom Osborne of Nebraska, who is retiring. That means, by extension, that the coaches who switched disrespected Lloyd Carr, the Michigan coach.

I don’t buy the gold-watch-retirement-present theory for Doctor Tom, as he is known in Nebraska. I think the coaches do display their fraternal side at times, most notably when they voted Washington and good old Don James their champion for the 1991 season, splitting the title with Miami, which was AP’s champion. And I think the coaches had been eager to give good old Bobby Bowden his first, and good old Doctor Tom his first. But a third title for Doctor Tom? I’m giving the coaches credit for having integrity. I question their judgment, by the way, but not their intentions. After all, Michigan had been leading, 69-1, in the sportswriters’ poll before Thursday’s Rose Bowl, and Michigan remained ahead, 51-1/2 - 18-1/2, after Friday’s final poll.

However, in the coaches’ poll, Michigan had been leading, 53-1/2 - 8-1/2, until the bowls, and then Nebraska squeaked ahead, 32-30, in first-place votes. Poll officials had to find Osborne in his hotel and remind him to vote, 3 minutes before the deadline. Osborne was happy to share another title and Carr said he was disappointed with the split, but added, “We’re still thrilled to be honored” in the writers’ poll. Michigan had been No. 1 since Nov. 9, after beating Penn State, 34-8, while Nebraska barely beat unranked Missouri, 45-38, after sending the game into overtime on a bizarre TD.

This gave Michigan a lead, and it never lost a game. The precedent was set only three years ago, when Penn State made the mistake of having one weak victory over Indiana in midseason, lost its lead and never could catch similarly undefeated Nebraska. The rule was always, the leader holds onto the championship. The rule doesn’t exist anymore. The radicals, those crazy kids, those coaches, have spoken.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email