A College Football World Series?

Ecstatic about the new College Football Playoff set to begin in 2014? You’re not alone, and some fans are thrilled simply because the hot-button debate is ending. But what about the beginning? It turns out that the concept of a college football playoff has been around since at least 1960 when Northwestern University athletic director Stu Holcomb proposed a “College Football World Series.”

On March 4, 1960, the Big Ten made a series of major decisions beginning with the cancellation of the conference’s Rose Bowl contract and culminating in a ban on all postseason play. The Big Ten faculty representatives voted 5-5 to end the conference’s $300,000 annual contract with the Rose Bowl. A majority vote would have been required to extend it. This vote led to the question of whether or not an individual school from the conference could participate in the Rose Bowl if invited. The schools settled this issue by voting ‘no’ by a 6-4 margin with Indiana casting the decisive vote. In a political maneuver designed to force the faculty representatives to rethink their Rose Bowl vote, the Big Ten athletic directors voted for a poison pill: a ban on all postseason play in every sport, meaning Big Ten athletes would not participate in NCAA championships or Amateur Athletic Union events (only Olympic trials were exempted). The ban was startling but non-binding because the schools had 60 days to consider how to vote on an institutional level. The Rose Bowl contract, however, was dead.

Following the postseason ban vote, Northwestern athletic director Stu Holcomb proposed a College Football World Series. Modeled after the NCAA basketball and baseball tournaments, the Holcomb playoff would have awarded berths to the champions of the six major conferences (Big Ten, Athletic Association of Western Universities, Big Eight, Southwest, Atlantic Coast, and Southeastern) and given at-large berths for two other schools from the independent ranks (i.e., Notre Dame, Navy, Army, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and other schools that were not members of the six conferences). Addressing a common complaint about the 5-week lag between the regular season and the bowl season, Holcomb’s bracket would have scheduled four games on the first Saturday after the regular season, two games the following week, and the championship game a week later during the second weekend of December. Games would have been played at college stadiums, overseen by collegiate personnel rather than bowl committees. Publicized by major newspapers, Holcomb’s ‘World Series’ concept received little support among insiders. Although NCAA executive secretary Walter Byers said the proposal was “novel and interesting,” opponents complained about weather concerns (Big Eight), prolonging the season (Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference), ruining the traditional bowl system (Southwest), and hurting the Rose Bowl (AAWU).

By April, Holcomb’s proposal seemed to be an afterthought as the Big Ten turned its attention toward the May meeting and an ultimate decision on the postseason ban. By mid-April, news outlets reported that Illinois, Northwestern, and Ohio State—three of the schools that voted to nix the Rose Bowl contract—were changing their tune and now favored postseason play. Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue wanted to take it a step further by resurrecting the Rose Bowl contract, but they lacked the requisite sixth vote. When the schools met in May, they voted unanimously to nix the ban on postseason play. Recall that the ban was a political measure by athletic directors in the first place. The schools also tackled the question of whether or not one of them could accept an invitation to the Rose Bowl. By a 5-5 vote, the conference allowed an individual school to participate in the Rose Bowl (a majority vote would have banned any conference school from participating).

Holcomb’s College Football World Series proposal is long forgotten, but in the decades since, proponents of a playoff system embraced some of the proposal’s elements. As for Holcomb, he spent another six years as AD at Northwestern before leaving for a pro soccer team. In the 1970s, he served as public relations director and later general manager of the Chicago White Sox.

Photo courtesy of Northwestern University Athletics