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CFP expansion talks stall and frustration boils over for one conference commissioner

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INDIANAPOLIS – Bob Bowlsby, the longtime Big 12 commissioner, turned 70 on Monday. He has been involved in college athletics in some way since wrestling at Minnesota State in the mid-70s. With time served in six different decades of college athletics, the twilight of Bowlsby’s career has come with a refreshing bluntness.

In a business where talking doesn’t always equate with saying anything, Bowlsby has entered the Jim Boeheim phase of his front-facing career — he’s not afraid to say exactly what’s on his mind.

On Sunday, sources told Yahoo Sports that Bowlsby was so frustrated with the proceedings and lack of progress in the meeting to discuss expanding the College Football Playoff that he abruptly packed up his bag and left the meetings.

Nothing changed the following day, and the aftermath of Monday’s CFP meetings here produced another stalemate — 15 hours of treading water over three days. Little was accomplished, and the whole thing was cast as basically a waste of time.

On Monday, Bowlsby laid out in sparse terms the gridlock that has accompanied the conversation to push the CFP to a 12-team model. “Have you seen the movie 'Groundhog Day'?” he asked.

Players stretch before the College Football Playoff championship football game between Alabama and Georgia Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Players stretch before the College Football Playoff championship football game between Alabama and Georgia on Monday in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Bowlsby’s comment began a chain reaction of frustration about the lack of momentum among the group to expand the CFP to 12 schools. It drowned out the optimism from Mississippi State president Mark Keenum and executive director Bill Hancock.

The College Football Playoff is essentially a television contract with ESPN, and it has four years remaining. The chances are dimming for the deal to be re-done in time for a 12-team CFP over the final two years of that contract, which would go to market and will likely have multiple networks in play.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey called together the national media after the meeting and issued equally blunt comments that basically said the SEC is happy to keep kicking everyone else’s tail in a four-team playoff. He stressed that the SEC was initially resistant to expansion in 2018 and sacrificed to get to this point, and that other leagues — he referenced the Pac-12 making two of eight playoffs — aren’t making concessions.

“If we can’t do it, we can’t do it,” Sankey said, hours before two SEC teams played in the CFP title game. “I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but we’re doing very well in the current system.”

The frustration rippled from there, as Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick expressed similar exasperation. “I’m disappointed that after three years of effort we find ourselves challenged by issues that in the grand scheme of things don’t feel like they should be sufficient to run the entire process aground.”

The plan first introduced in June was long thought to have been formalized by now — 12 teams, six automatic qualifiers from the six highest ranked leagues and six at-large schools. Instead, there’s a standoff with many CFP officials pointing to the self-proclaimed Alliance of the ACC, Pac-12 and Big Ten getting in the way. (The Pac-12 released a statement Monday that basically said it was in favor of the “six most-discussed models,” but neglected to address the issues the league has been angling for behind the scenes.)

The Big Ten’s Kevin Warren has been a staunch supporter of automatic qualifiers for the power leagues. This has created tension in the room because it would occur so rarely that a Power Five league champion would be left out. Yet he has been stuck on it.

The Pac-12’s George Kliavkoff has been vocal about revenue distribution, a difficult subject to tackle when the revenue numbers haven’t been set. He has also been vocal about the Rose Bowl, trying to position the game to double-host on years when the venue is a semifinal — meaning that there’d be a traditional Pac-12/Big Ten Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day and a playoff game in the stadium the next week. This would feature a watered-down matchup and hijack the day’s television windows by leaving the traditional Rose Bowl time slot, a generations long obstacle in these talks.

There’s mystery to what ACC commissioner Jim Phillips is angling for. He has brought up the timing, considering all the tumult with name, image and likeness, and the NCAA constitution being overhauled. He has also brought up health and safety issues. He often states that nearly everyone in the ACC — coaches, presidents and athletic directors — is aligned with his concerns.

That’s basically why Sankey warned leagues like the ACC and Pac-12 — without calling them by name — that would seemingly want more access to the CFP to be careful. “Don’t assume if we’re at a tipping point, that we’ll re-engage,” he said.

The underlying frustration in the room comes from the overall inexperience of these three commissioners, none of whom were in office when the four committee members — Swarbrick, Bowlsby, Sankey and the Mountain West’s Craig Thompson started researching and coming up with this 12-team plan in 2019.

There has been so many parochial demands that Sankey said half-joking he should have asked for two automatic qualifying bids for the playoff because of all the SEC’s success. It wasn’t lost that Alabama and Georgia were playing for the national title a few hours later. “If everyone has to have every item on their Christmas list, it will not be a Merry Christmas,” Sankey said.

While Sankey met with about 12 media members and showed the calculation and preparedness of a former compliance director, Bowlsby’s comments were more emotional and off the cuff.

Bowlsby offered a candid view of a billion-dollar business that chases its tail in search of progress. He didn’t completely shut the door on expansion before the end of this current deal, which has four years left. But he acknowledged there's a “smaller and smaller possibility” with each passing day.

“Didn’t even get close,” he said when asked about reaching the unanimity required to pass a new format.

A few more Bowlsby additions:

“I am disappointed.”

“We have entrenched issues, and they’re not closer to being resolved.”

“There’s more parochiality than there needs to be.”

“Some don’t like it now.”

“Everyone is more concerned about their own silo than someone else’s.”

These are familiar themes repeating themselves in college sports. And part of the tension between the eight CFP management committee members on board with a 12-team playoff featuring the six highest ranked conference champions and the three Alliance members is an old story in college sports. And that’s why frustrations are boiling over.

There’s also a level of irritation at the presidential level that the commissioners haven’t been able to find compromise. The board of managers, made up of 11 presidents, left the group with instructions to solve the issues in the next month or so. If not, the presidents will solve the issues for them. “We have no choice but to get it done,” said a high-ranking official.

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