With college football season fast approaching, it’ll soon be time to cuss and discuss your team’s chances of making the College Football Playoff.
First, though, I’d like to salute a trio of playoff visionaries – Bud Wilkinson, Duffy Daugherty and Walter Byers – who were way ahead of their time.
In fact, their vision dates all the way back to 1966.
While playoffs at college football’s highest level have existed only five years, the debate has gone on for as long as I’ve followed the game. But until doing some research, I didn’t realize there was a real push for it in the mid-1960s.
Wilkinson, the legendary Oklahoma coach who guided the Sooners from 1947-63 – wrote a syndicated column that appeared in newspapers across the country on Oct. 19, 1966.
Even though OU teams had claimed three “mythical” national championships under his guidance, he longed for a system where it was determined on the field.
“No single football playoff plan is being advocated now, but it would probably follow the pattern of the basketball championships,” Wilkinson wrote. “Some conference champions would qualify automatically for the playoffs. Other teams would be chosen by a selection committee.”
Wilkinson also quoted Byers – then the executive director of the NCAA – in his column.
“Organizing a national collegiate football championship, under NCAA supervision, would have to follow the principles which govern the conduct of other NCAA championships, and result in no appreciable dislocation of the current bowl games which are a colorful part of our American tradition” Byers said. “I believe both of these necessary prerequisites could be guaranteed.”
Wilkinson said the playoffs would “probably involve fewer than 16 teams,” and suggested the semifinals and title game be rotated among bowls.
In the mid-1960s the Rose, Orange, Sugar and Cotton were the traditional New Year’s Day bowl games, while secondary postseason contests for major colleges consisted of the Bluebonnet, Gator, Liberty, and Sun bowls.
A couple of weeks after Wilkinson’s piece – on Halloween – Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty proposed an eight-team playoff that included the champions of the Big Ten, Big Eight, SEC, Southwest, Pacific Coast and Atlantic Coast conferences, plus two leading independents (there were 20 in 1966).
“The television revenue from an NCAA playoff would be tremendous,” Daugherty told the Associated Press. “I would cut in all 120 NCAA member schools on the television receipts and let each school do with the money what it wants.
“It’s the only way to determine a national champion.”
Texas coach Darrell Royal and Arkansas boss Frank Broyles were among the coaches who went on record in support of the idea.
What’s really interesting about Daugherty’s take is the timing of it. When he unveiled his plan, his Spartans were ranked No. 2 behind No. 1 Notre Dame, and three weeks removed from playing the Fighting Irish to a 10-10 tie in what was deemed the “Game of the Century.”
That was also the season Alabama finished undefeated but ranked third in the final poll, denying the Crimson Tide a third consecutive national crown.
In the pre-bowl Associated Press poll – which determined the unofficial national champ – Notre Dame was No. 1, followed by Michigan State, Alabama, Georgia, UCLA, Nebraska, Purdue and Georgia Tech.
Notre Dame Coach Ara Parseghian later defended the final ranking by pointing out that the Irish had played five Top 10 teams (finishing 4-0-1 against them) while the Tide’s only Top 10 foe was Nebraska, Alabama’s Sugar Bowl victim.
Had the “Daugherty Plan” been in effect, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech would’ve made the playoff as the top independents while Michigan State (Big Ten), Alabama (SEC), UCLA (Pacific Coast), and Nebraska (Big Eight) would’ve qualified for winning their conference titles.
Clemson won the ACC with a 6-4 record while 8-3 SMU was champion of the Southwest, so the Tigers and Mustangs would’ve snatched away berths from higher ranked Georgia and Purdue, thus completing the field.
Some coaches and university officials expressed their skepticism, but Byers remained bullish.
“We’re now playing postseason football from the first week in December through the first week of January,” he told the Associated Press. “I can’t see that a playoff would add greatly to extending the season if it could be worked into the bowl games.”
The NCAA initiated a feasibility study of an eight-team playoff in 1967 and it drug on for two years. Finally, NCAA President Harry Cross said the governing body had “discharged” the special committee studying the proposal.
“Which means the possibility of playoffs being presently developed is ended,” Cross told the Associated Press in 1969. “My guess would be there was some concern from the bowl game persons. I think any of us could expect there would be.
“I don’t know of any person or group that intends to recommend it again.”
After that postseason playoff plans ran hot and cold through the years, from “maybe” to “absolutely not,” until the CFP was implemented in 2014.
So in just a few weeks, 64 members of the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC) plus Notre Dame will begin a new football season they hope culminates in a playoff berth.
The 65 programs comprising the Group of Five conferences (American Athletic, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt) have no chance to make the playoffs under the current format, and must hope for a New Year’s Six bowl as a consolation prize. (Technically all 130 schools are eligible for the playoffs, but you might want to ask Central Florida how realistic it is).
Yet as lucrative as the CFP has become, the logical next step is to take a cue from ol’ Duffy and expand the field to eight teams (the current four-team contract runs through 2026).
Once that’s done, all Power Five conference champions will get in, plus three wildcards. And in the CFP executive committee’s benevolence, every now and again they might even let the highest ranked Group of Five team join the party.
I personally prefer an inclusive 16-team playoff (all 10 conference champions and six wildcards), but that’s a big ask and nobody asked me. The next best thing is doubling the current field, and that would be a major step forward.
And should it happen, that step can be traced back to 1966.