PASADENA, Calif. - When Bill Hancock says "there won't be any tears," he doesn't mean what you probably think. While critics celebrate the end of the Bowl Championship Series, its executive director is wistful.
"I'll be emotional," Hancock says. "Sixteen years is a long time, a generation."
Yeah, he seemed serious. For too many, 16 years was far too long before moving to a four-team playoff, which will finally happen next season. But first, as Florida State and Auburn play in the final BCS National Championship Game tonight, the controversial system gets its chance to make a last impression.
If tonight's game comes close to matching the results of the other BCS bowls in the last few days, it'll leave a nice afterglow. But the legacy of a flawed postseason system is a lot more complicated, and will probably always be controversial.
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How will we remember the BCS? Who knows? But as its time expires and the clock starts counting down to the College Football Playoff, even some of the system's harshest critics have mellowed.
A decade ago, after his team was edged out in the final standings and denied a shot at the national championship, then-Oregon coach Mike Bellotti called the BCS "a cancer." Now retired from coaching and working for ESPN, this week he spent time on TV analyzing the matchup between Florida State and Auburn. And given his history, he answered questions about the BCS and its legacy.
"I won't miss it," Bellotti says. "But I do think they tweaked it to get it right. It was a flawed system to begin with, and it's not a perfect system now - but I think it's probably hit the mark much more than people think. The majority of the time they got it right for the ability for us to see (No.) 1 vs. 2."
That, of course, was the goal when the BCS was created in 1998. And it's important to remember that from the time The Associated Press began ranking teams in 1936, the top-ranked teams in the poll met in postseason bowl games only eight times in 56 years. Tonight marks the 13th time in 16 seasons the BCS matched the AP's top two.
Hancock will fill the same role in the College Football Playoff - which, by the way, begins Tuesday with new logos, new assignments and no looking back. "Full-bore into playoff mode," he described it. As the BCS' chief spokesman for approximately one-half of its existence, he's always been a vocal proponent. More than occasionally, the propaganda has been correct.
"You can't deny the growth of the game that started when the BCS came along," Hancock says. "We can't take all the credit, but we deserve some of it."
They deserve much of the credit for the exponential growth, financially and otherwise, in college football. It has morphed the past two decades into the nation's No. 2 sport, behind the NFL. Regional became national as SEC fans, for example, found themselves paying attention to games in Eugene, Ore., that impacted the BCS standings.
It was more than 1 vs. 2, too. Because of the BCS, we got introduced to BCS-busters - Utah, Boise State, TCU and more - which provided the little guys a stage to compete with the big boys. And when people realized that with the right circumstances, one of those mid-majors might find their way into the BCS championship, it set off a whole nother round of debate. (It never happened, and with the shift to a selection committee rather than a mash-up of polls and computers formulas, it appears unlikely to happen in the playoff era.)
But the most positive impact of the BCS - and one even its detractors have to like - is this: Without the BCS, there wouldn't be a playoff. The system was a bridge from the old bowl system, with national champions determined by voters, to the playoff, in which teams will be chosen by a committee but the championship will be determined on the field.
Continued controversy is probably inevitable, which shouldn't bother anyone: All of the controversy fueled the growth in interest. It's why even though Hancock and the commissioners who run the BCS are glad there was no real dispute about the final BCS national championship matchup, they didn't mind the way the regular season played out.
With only a few weeks remaining, several undefeated teams jockeyed for position. Heading into the conference championship games, the argument raged over whether an unbeaten Big Ten champion should trump a once-beaten SEC champion.
As in most other years, it all worked itself out. "BCS-mageddon," as Hancock calls it, did not unfold. Florida State vs. Auburn turns out to be the right game. And then, as a bonus, the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange Bowls - which in the BCS era, essentially became consolation prizes, and quite often have been duds - were wildly entertaining.
"It's almost like the games themselves are saying, 'We're gonna go out, we're gonna show 'em, we're going out on a high note,' " Hancock says, "which is too mystical to even think about."
He can only hope tonight's performance comes close. But whatever happens tonight, there won't be a dispute over the final BCS national champion - and whatever happens in the new playoff era, controversy is a given. Come next December, when the selection committee unveils its four picks, some might actually pine for the days when a mash-up of human polls and computer formulas chose the teams. People hated the creaky system, but at least they knew how and why their teams were in or out.
Fair warning: With four teams instead of two - and even if, as seems inevitable, the playoff one day expands to eight teams - it will still generate controversy. We'll hear more comments from frustrated coaches who believe their team got robbed.
Back in the 2001 season, a few days after his Ducks were left out of the BCS National Championship Game, Bellotti clarified his comments, saying he'd recently lost his father and an aunt to cancer and that he understood college football's postseason formula was not inherently evil or a matter of life and death. Yet even as he says the BCS, which was tweaked several times afterward, got it right more often than not, he says he still holds a grudge.
"I never retracted," he says. "I never, ever retracted."
Not many will mourn the death of the BCS. But as it fades into history, its legacy might be simply this: If it wasn't a cancer, it wasn't quite a cure.