Consider this my contribution to your weekend. It's a consolidated history of the postseasons of the major American professional sports followed by an in-depth look at how college football's postseason formed.
With the BCS going in front of Congress, I think it's worth a look to see how postseasons evolved in American sports in order to figure out college football's place in the pantheon.
Even though I originally researched and wrote this in December of 2007, it's still relevant today because nothing major has happened since then to the structure of any sport's postseason systems. I put the whole thing after the jump because, despite the name, it is kind of long. In the interest of disclosure, I am in favor of some sort of tournament in college football, but it's still plenty informative even if you don't agree.
The longest running postseason event in major American professional sports is baseball’s World Series. The first one was in 1903, when the National League and American League, then two completely separate entities, organized under the mantle of Major League Baseball.
Each league’s champion played a best-of-nine series to determine the overall champion. The necessity for this playoff came from the fact that AL and NL teams didn’t play each other during the regular season. After a dispute canceled the series in 1904, it returned in 1905 and would be played every year since except the strike-shortened 1994 season.
The next oldest professional postseason event is the NHL Playoffs, as the league has had some sort of playoff determining a champion every year since its inception in 1917. The lone except was in 1920, when the Ottawa Senators won both halves of the regular season and the league decided a playoff would be unnecessary. The league’s regular season system was strange up until that point; read the Wikipedia page linked to above for details.
After that, you have the NFL playoffs. The NFL was founded in 1920, but from its founding until 1932, no playoffs were held. From 1920 to 1923, the champion was selected by the owners voting at the annual owners meeting. From 1924 to 1932, the team with the highest winning percentage won the championship as the teams all played different numbers of games. In 1932, the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans tied for the lead in winning percentage, so a one game playoff was thrown together hastily to determine a champion.
Responding to fan interest in the game, the NFL split itself into two divisions (East and West) in 1933. From then on, playoff games were held if necessary as tiebreakers and then the east and west division winners played in a championship game.
A consistent tournament to determine who got to play in the NFL title game was not held until 1967 when the league expanded to 16 teams. The first Super Bowl was played in 1967 as a championship game between the NFL and AFL winners, and it became the NFL championship game after the AFL/NFL merger in 1970.
The NBA playoffs have occurred every year since the precursor BAA league was founded in 1947. The league had east and west divisions from the start, and at least the top three teams from each division have appeared in the playoffs every year. Perhaps the relatively late founding of the NBA allowed it to observe the popularity of other leagues' playoffs, causing it set up a tournament from the start.
The precursor to what we know as the NCAA was the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS). It was founded by Teddy Roosevelt after his son broke his collarbone playing football at Harvard while running the offense known as the flying wedge. The idea was to have a governing body setting rules for collegiate sports to cut back on the injuries and yes, deaths, being experienced by college athletes. The organization took the name NCAA in 1910.
The NCAA was a a discussion group and rule-setting club until 1921, when the first NCAA championship was officially recognized: the National Collegiate Track and Field Championships won by Illinios. In the years since, it has come to sponsor 44 women’s, 41 men’s, and 3 coed championships.
The only sanctioned sport without a recognized champion is Division I-A football, a.k.a. the Football Bowl Subdivision. Only in the sport of football is a relevant distinction made between multiple parts of Division I.
As we all know, I-A football uses a system of bowl games as its postseason fare. They were originally a method of attracting tourists for the areas in which they were played, and they were scheduled around the new year to give fans time to plan trips and travel to the site.
The first bowl game was the "Rose Bowl" of 1902. I put it in quotes because while it was put on by the Tournament of Roses, it was called the "Tournament East-West Football Game." It featured a dominant Michigan team versus a decent Stanford team, and it ended in the third quarter when Stanford quit while trailing 49-0.
The Tournament of Roses was so scarred by the blowout, it wouldn’t sponsor a football game again until 1916. The game wouldn’t take on the name "Rose Bowl" until 1923 when the stadium known as the Rose Bowl was completed and hosted the game. Fun fact: the structure wasn’t actually a bowl at the time, but a horseshoe stadium.
The Rose Bowl pitted a team from the Pacific Coast Conference (the predecessor to the Pac 10) and an eastern US team up until 1947. At that point, the champions of what are now the Pac 10 and Big Ten became the annual contestants. It was the only major bowl until 1930, and the oldest surviving bowl games besides the Rose are the Sugar, Orange, and Sun Bowls, all founded in 1935. Besides those, the Cotton (1937), Gator (1946), and Florida Citrus/Capital One (1947) are the only bowls that have been held consistently for more than 50 years. The first major bowl with a title sponsor was the (in)famous Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl, operating under that name from 1990-1996.
Up until 1973, the NCAA had two divisions - the University Division, roughly football’s Division I, and the College Division, roughly football’s Divisions II and III. In 1973, the I-II-III system was set up, and Divisions II and III immediately began holding playoff tournaments for football. Division I did not set up a playoff tournament however thanks to the tradition of the bowls and polls.
In 1978, the NCAA partitioned Division I into three levels: I-A for the principal football schools, I-AA for the lesser football schools, and I-AAA for the Division I schools that did not play football. Division I-AA from its inception has had some sort of playoff tournament, probably because none of its participating schools would be bowl material.
This fact confirms that the real reason I-A has no playoffs is due to the bowls. Every other excuse given (demands on players, the sanctity of the regular season, etc.) is secondary to the bowl games. The NCAA must have realized in the late ’70s that teams with no hope of making a bowl were playing meaningless seasons, so a separate division with a playoff was created for them. No other reason for the existence of Division I subdivisions makes sense.
The absence of an officially recognized champion of major college football naturally created a power vacuum of sorts that many organizations have been eager to fill in. The NCAA on its website keeps a record of every major poll service’s pick for national champion dating back to 1869. No polls existed at that time, but poll services such as Richard Billingsley, the National Championship Foundation, and Parke Davis have gone back and somehow come up with champions for all those years.
The two oldest surviving polls are the AP Poll and the Coaches’ Poll, the latter initially being published by UPI before being taken over by the USA Today in 1991. The AP Poll began in 1936, but it didn’t release a poll after bowl season until 1965, and it wouldn’t do so on a consistent basis until 1968. The Coaches’ Poll, for its part, began in 1950 and didn’t release polls after bowl season until 1974.
Over time, mathematicians began taking cracks at making polls since human-based opinion polls can be influenced by bias, ignorance, and misinformation. The BCS has used a variety of them over its decade of existence, but the ones used today are done by Jeff Sagarin (his ELO-CHESS specifically), Richard Billingsley, Anderson and Hester, Kenneth Massey, Peter Wolfe, and Wes Colley. These people were chosen because they all do not rely on margin of victory.
One final human poll has come to prominence: the Harris Poll. It was created by Harris Interactive, a market research firm that specializes in opinion polls, after the AP pulled out of the BCS formula in 2005. The Harris Poll is made up of former players, coaches, administrators, and current and former media members selected at random from a pool of candidates nominated by the I-A schools.
A National Title Game
For the most part, national champions for Division I/I-A football since 1950 are recognized to be the final #1 in the AP and Coaches’ Polls. That’s fine when they agree with each other, but what if they disagreed? You’d get two teams with equally legitimate claims at a title. How could one convince both to vote for the same champion? Why, by having a national title game, of course.
The first attempt at creating a national title game was the Bowl Coalition. It consisted of the SEC, Big 8, SWC, ACC, and Big East partnering with the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta, and Cotton Bowls. The idea was that the site of the national title game would rotate among the four bowls, and it’d take the #1 and #2-ranked teams from the AP and play them against each other. This setup might require the breaking of tie-ins of conference champions to their traditional bowls, but the Coalition agreement made that possible. It lasted from 1992-94.
You may notice the absence of the Pac 10, Big Ten, and Rose Bowl. They did not participate in the Coalition, and they kept their traditional arrangements with each other. This resulted in 1994 of #1 Nebraska playing #3 Miami in the "national title game" while #2 Penn State played in the Rose Bowl.
Following the formation of the Big 12, the Bowl Coalition was replaced by the Bowl Alliance. It consisted of the SEC, Big 12, ACC, and Big East along with the Orange, Sugar, and Fiesta Bowls. The purpose and goal was the same as the Coalition’s, but the absence of the Pac 10, Big Ten, and Rose Bowl created the same problem. Twice a #1 vs. #3 game was forced to occur in the so-called national title game. It lasted from 1995-97.
In 1998, the three stubborn laggards finally came aboard to form the Bowl Championship Series. The goal was the same - have #1 and #2 play each other - only this time it would use the AP poll, Coaches’ Poll, and an index of computer polls to determine #1 and #2. Initially, strength of schedule and losses were their own categories, and in 2002 a quality win category was included as well.
By 2002, the BCS purged all computer models that included margin of victory to discourage teams from running up the score. However, it’s impossible to keep the human element from considering it, and margin of victory definitely plays a part in the human-generated polls.
In 2004, it was streamlined to include just the human and computer polls with no other categories. In 2005, the Harris Poll replaced the AP poll. In 2006, the system was tweaked to deemphasize the computers, and the result was that the human polls control the BCS formula almost completely. Only a huge anomaly in the computer element could override a unanimous human selection. That situation creates a Catch-22, since such an anomaly would likely cause an outrage, probably leading to further de-emphasizing of the computers.
Also in 2006, a fifth bowl game was added to the BCS in order to expand the pool of participating teams to ten. This move was a direct response to legal pressure from the non-automatic qualifier conferences and Congress itself. What will happen to the BCS after this year's brush with Congress is anyone's guess.
A Brief Timeline of the Postseason in America
1902: The Tournament East-West Football Game
1903: The first World Series
1905: First annual World Series
1916: First annual Rose Bowl game
1917: NHL formed; first NHL playoffs
1921: First officially recognized NCAA championship
1932: First NFL Championship Game
1935: First annual Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and Sun Bowl
1936: First AP Football Poll
1937: First annual Cotton Bowl
1939: First NCAA men’s basketball tournament, consisted of 8 teams
1946: First annual Gator Bowl
1947: First annual Florida Citrus Bowl
1947: Advent of NBA precursor; first annual pro basketball playoffs
1950: First college football Coaches’ Poll
1965: First post-bowl season AP Poll
1967: First Super Bowl
1968: First annual post-bowl season AP Poll
1971: First annual Fiesta Bowl
1973: NCAA creates Divisions I, II, III; first annual D-II and D-III football playoffs
1974: First annual post-bowl season Coaches’ Poll
1978: NCAA creates Div. I-AA; first annual I-AA football playoffs
1984: NBA playoffs expands to current 16-team format
1985: NCAA men’s basketball tournament expands to 64 teams
1990: NFL playoffs expands to current amount of 12 teams
1992: Bowl Coalition formed
1992: SEC expands to 12 teams, plays first ever football conference championship game
1993: NHL playoffs expand to current format
1994: MLB institutes the wild card; World Series canceled due to strike
1995: Bowl Alliance formed
1996: Big 12 formed; first Big 12 Championship Game
1998: BCS formed
2001: NCAA men’s basketball tournament adds 65th team, play-in game
2002: NFL reorganizes to 8 divisions, drops one wild card per conference to keep playoffs at 12
2003: Split national title between LSU and USC; BCS formula completely rewritten
2004: NASCAR implements its "Chase for the Cup" quasi-playoff system
2005: ACC expands to 12 teams; first ACC Championship Game
2005: AP Poll drops out of BCS formula, Harris Poll is formed to replace it
2006: BCS adds a fifth game