The concept of a conference championship game in college football was first introduced by the SEC in 1992. As the years went by and more teams started to play a title game, it seemed like an idea that had tremendous promise. The first Saturday of December was going to be known as “College Conference Championship Saturday”, the perfect prelude to New Year’s Day in the cycle of the sport. Right at the moment when Championship Saturday should be in its glory, it’s instead imploding—and at college football’s own hand.
I could go off about the winner of the Big Ten Championship Game being left aside for the second straight year in favor of a team that hadn’t won its own division, but I’m going to save that for further down. I want to start by focusing on something far more damaging to the integrity of championship games and that’s what happened with Central Florida and outgoing head coach Scott Frost.
Central Florida was playing Memphis for the title in the American Athletic Conference. UCF was undefeated, and it was essentially understood that the winner of this game would get the major bowl bid that’s reserved for the smaller conferences—or that the winner would represent the Little Five in the New Year’s Six, if I can throw a lot of numbers at you. This game was everything Championship Saturday was supposed to be about.
And it was an extraordinary football game, especially if you like offense. Central Florida survived a strong upset bid, won 62-55 and was rewarded with a Peach Bowl invite to play Auburn and show what they can do against the big boys.
So what’s the problem? The problem is that UCF’s head coach, Scott Frost, accepted the head coaching job at Nebraska, during the game.
Football coaches, more than any professional class I know, solemnly pontificate about “focus”, “eliminating distractions” and “putting the team first.” All of these are fine attributes. They all went out the window when a head coach playing for a championship couldn’t be bothered to keep the focus on the game at hand.
This incident has been glossed over by media members. When it was reported during the MAC Championship Game that was running concurrently with UCF-Memphis, analyst Rod Gilmore said simply that everyone knew Frost was going to Nebraska (where he was quarterback on the school’s last national championship team in 1997). And further, Gilmore said, all Frost had to do was send a text message to his agent just saying “Yes” and confirming the offer.
I’m wondering how a coach would react if one his players finalized some plans of their own during the game. It doesn’t have to be a multi-million dollar contract offer. It could be something as basic as the girlfriend making plans for the evening with friends and wanting him to confirm it. Hey, all he has to do is text “Yes”. Let’s see how far any player gets with that.
Contrary to what you may think from this, I don’t dislike Scott Frost. I actually sympathize with him. He, like coaches around the country, are put in these ridiculous positions because of a recruiting calendar that devalues the very championship games and bowl games that kids spend all year fighting to reach.
High school recruits can begin signing with their schools on December 20, right as bowl games are beginning. Schools making a coaching change are in a complete panic—understandably so, to make sure their head coach is in place, along with as much of the staff as possible. Hence, the coaching carousel begins right after Thanksgiving dinner.
Scott Frost is certainly not the first to be put in this position. Every year we see coaches who’ve had successful years be forced to abandon their teams at bowl time. Or coaches that are getting fired aren’t even allowed to coach the bowl game, such is the imperative to get the new regime in place in time for recruiting. So much for the virtue of “finish the season” that parents tell kids when they go out for sports in school.
The situation is so ludicrous that UCF athletic director Danny White actually had to say that he expected Frost to coach his team in the Peach Bowl rather than immediately leaving. To his credit, Frost will and Nebraska is okay with it. But it’s not the norm—in 2009, after coaching Cincinnati to an undefeated season and Sugar Bowl bid, then-head coach Brian Kelly left the Bearcats behind to get a head start on coaching Notre Dame.
It’s long past time to make the structural changes necessary to protect the integrity of conference championship games and the ensuing bowl games. Do what the NFL does and ban any coaching hires until a team has completed its season. Make it easier on the schools by eliminating the early signing period for recruits. There’s a National Signing Day in early February that ends the recruiting year. Make that the day kids can sign. That leaves enough time for bowl season to end and coaches in Frost’s situation will still have enough time to recruit for their new employer.
I’ve singled out Frost here only because the text message during the game was my breaking point on a problem that annoys me every December. I want to point out that Frost himself expressed sentiments agreeing with me, in the aftermath of his team’s victory over Memphis. Here’s how The Orlando Sentinel reported the coach’s comments in the press conference.
He wanted his players to enjoy their moment in the championship spotlight and waited until 30 minutes after his postgame press conference to tell the Knights he accepted the Nebraska job.
He fought back tears during the postgame press conference as they described what he meant to them.“They should give you time off after the season to make a decision, but they don’t (emphasis added)” Frost said when asked about the reports he had accepted the job.
Frost later added, “I’m going to talk to the team first. They’re hard decisions and they don’t give you enough time to make them.” (emphasis added)
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF CONTROVERSY
The cause of making Championship Saturday a showcase day for college football took another hit when the College Football Playoff Selection Committee opted for Alabama over Ohio State for the final Playoff spot. The Tide were 11-1 and finished second to Auburn in the West. Ohio State finished 11-2 and won the Big Ten.
Look, I believe the Playoff should be restricted to conference champions. If you disagree, I understand. Is it politically incorrect to say that “some of my best friends believe in using W-L record”? That’s a separate debate.
I do hope though, the advocates for Alabama over Ohio State this year, and Ohio State over Penn State last year in the same circumstance, realize what they’re doing—they’re essentially saying that the safest place to be on Championship Saturday is 11-1 and sitting at home.
Coming into Saturday, Alabama was ranked behind two teams that had to play, Wisconsin and Auburn. The Badgers and Tigers both lost. Under the logic applied by the Selection Committee, both would have been better off not playing. If the criteria is going to boil down to “fewest losses”, then there’s an obvious advantage to not playing a game at all.
There you have it. Instead of being a showcase day for the best of college football, Championship Saturday is a day when coaches have to accept new jobs in the middle of games and Playoff hopefuls are safer being at home. Next year, when I make my TV viewing decisions on the first Saturday of December, I’ll remember that.