Chris Fowler has long been one of ESPN’s most venerated on-air personalities, largely because he serves as the avuncular host of College GameDay, the Saturday morning college-football bacchanal that originates from a different big-game location each week and has managed, for the past quarter-century, to reflect both the passion and inherent absurdity of a sport steeped in Americana.
But lately, Fowler has bared his teeth: A few weeks ago, he responded to criticism of ESPN’s perceived favoritism toward the Southeastern Conference – largely due to ESPN’s affiliation with the SEC Network, which corresponded with three SEC teams potentially being ranked in the top four of the inaugural College Football Playoff at that point in the season – by unleashing a brief and sharply worded on-air editorial. “I’m a little defensive,” he told viewers, “but I get defensive when stupid, uninformed stuff gets repeated again and again, and somehow people all over the world think we have a stake in having three teams from this league [the SEC] get in.”
In the wake of a widely circulated Rolling Stone piece that made the case for ESPN’s SEC favoritism, I spoke to Fowler about that issue and several others impacting both GameDay and college football at-large as it moves into a new era. (Full disclosure: I’ve been a contributor to ESPN affiliated sites for several years, and I’ve expressed my own skepticism about SEC-related conspiracy theories here.)
What are your general thoughts on the claims that ESPN – and specifically GameDay – might be advocating for the strength of SEC teams?
In 28 years, no one’s ever directed me to say something about a team or a league because it’s in the best interest of the company. They think that we operate like the military, and we go up the ladder to get our directives, but it just doesn’t happen that way. But once it’s out there, the idea that we’re just mouthpieces is very hard to shake.
Over the years, there’s been plenty of claims that this team is given preference over that one. And we have been biased on GameDay for the past 25 years for whatever teams are at the top of the rankings. I think sometimes we’re a little too tilted toward the top teams, and maybe we should be a little bit broader. The fact that one league had four of the top five teams at one point – that freak-of-nature snapshot is being grabbed and recycled again and again, and it’s so impossible to counter. But it isn’t in our interest to tilt toward a particular conference. We couldn’t do it.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini recently said that the relationship between ESPN and the SEC Network isn’t “good for college football.” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher attributed the focus on his team’s off-field transgressions, as well as the lack of respect for this year’s team, in part, to ESPN’s relationship with the SEC Network. What was your reaction to those statements?
I’m disappointed when coaches make an accusation that has no foundation. They have jobs to do, and understanding the business of television isn’t one of them. But a lot of these coaches are speaking to their constituencies. Same with Florida State fans. I’m not sure how a team that’s won 25 in a row and is ranked second in the country can say they don’t get any respect. But I don’t think that it really matters much.
What about the accusations that ESPN is pumping up the SEC at the expense of the Big Ten?
The Big Ten has a very broad and deep relationship with ESPN, and one of the best things for ESPN would be if the Big Ten were a dominant conference.
So does the Big Ten have a perception problem, or a competitive problem?
They have a competitive problem at the bottom of the league. The second half of the league doesn’t hold up its weight. It’s easy to point the finger at the messenger. It’s not as easy to point at the field and say, “We have some serious issues here.” I’m not an authority on this, but I sense the same commitment from the first team to the 14th team isn’t being made. The programs there do face some challenges. It isn’t as easy to find players in Iowa and Indiana and Wisconsin and Minnesota as it is in Texas, Georgia and Florida. That’s just a fact. You have to recruit smartly, and you have to recruit nationally. Every Big Ten administrator and Jim Delany, they have to look and see where they are. You have to determine if it’s a cycle or a steady trend that needs to be reversed.
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State’s quarterback, is from Texas. One of their running backs is from Brooklyn and one is from St. Louis. They’re a national recruiting power. That’s the blueprint that’s going to work. You don’t have to do that at Ole Miss or Florida or Texas, and that’s the problem you have at any school that doesn’t come from a traditional recruiting area.
Do you think a playoff committee can sort through the politics of college football and rank the top teams with any more efficiency than the poll system or the BCS system did?
I think it’s a better way to go. The people making the decisions are going to be better informed than any pollster ever was. I think you have a better chance to get the right four teams. You know that they at least watched the games, and studied the stats, and talked about it with people who were in the same position. I voted in the AP poll, and no way was I as informed as the people on that committee are. But then, when you have a broad mandate to pick the best four teams, the criteria might not be the same for Pat Haden as it would be for Barry Alvarez.
Do you think the committee will be able to overcome accusations of favoritism and bias?
It really only matters what it looks like at the end. It’ll always be mostly opinion-driven, because there are so many perspectives. The coaches were questioned in an ESPN survey about the playoff committee, and 15 percent said they were concerned about bias. That’s a much lower percentage than what you’d get if you polled the fans. But I believe in the power of the collective. You don’t want to be seen as pushing teams you’ve had a past association with. I just think this group will operate with integrity, and I really don’t think past affiliations or biases will carry the day.
What are your thoughts on the committee ranking teams throughout the latter half of the season? A couple of weeks ago, chair Jeff Long essentially admitted that the committee had Alabama ranked on the cusp of the top-four because they passed the “eye test.”
Although it’s good for the media, I don’t see a great deal of value in having rankings every week. In my opinion, you don’t need to do it. Comments like Alabama being in there because of the eye test – you don’t really need to say they passed the eye test now. Either they beat Mississippi State and Auburn and they’re in, or they don’t. The argument would go on anyway. Does it actually serve the committee to put out weekly rankings? I don’t see that it does.
Where do you think an undefeated team like Marshall, from Conference USA, fits into the process?
You’ve gotta look at it team by team, year by year. If the committee looked at Marshall as one of the four best teams, they’d be ranked that way. The Group of Five [smaller] conferences [Mid-American, Mountain West, C-USA, American Athletic, Sun Belt] will be represented in a major bowl, but I think it’s very, very unlikely that they’d be chosen as one of the four teams. Having said that, I think it’s a case-by-case thing. I’m not saying it would be impossible for, say, a Mountain West team to get in the bracket, but it’s unlikely.
So what’s the future for the Group of Five conferences? Will they eventually be squeezed out of big-time football?
I believe we’ve been moving toward a de facto breakaway of the big five conferences [Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, ACC, Big 12] for a while. Everybody’s been eyeing the Big 12, because they’ve got a smaller number of teams. But if you were to ask me what the perfect system would be, I’d have 10-team conferences, with each team playing nine conference games and three games against “respected” teams. Basically, no FCS opponents. And then I’d have an eight-team playoff. There is an opportunity in an eight-team playoff to get a team like Marshall in there.
Will that ever happen?
There’s never been a postseason format in any sport that hasn’t grown over the years. I think it’s inevitable. I really do. Politically, you’re going to have problems when the five conference champions plus another worthy team or two don’t fit in to the four.
How do you guys, as a program that’s obviously “entertainment-heavy,” balance that out with the copious issues confronting college football?
Different platforms of the company can deal with the off-field issues in different ways. I don’t know that GameDay can be the show of record. The show has sustained itself for 25 years by serving its customers well.
ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte referred to you and GameDay co-host Kirk Herbstreit as “members of the jock fraternity” in criticizing what he perceived as soft coverage of Jameis Winston’s ongoing issues. Did you have any reaction to that, or to perception of the Winston story in general?
I didn’t read Bob’s column. But when news starts to encroach, and when players get in trouble with the law, you report it because it’s important to do it. We’re not really built to be the best place to break news. But when the off-field stuff impacts the most famous names in the sport, of course.
We were on the scene when Winston got suspended for the half, and then for the entire game. That story pretty much checks every box. I think it’s rather unfair to look at a snapshot and say we didn’t report the story vigorously.
When you cover this sport, you always have to live in a bit of denial. You check some things at the door. It’s entertainment, it’s a diversion, it’s a distraction from the real world. I think in 2014, anybody that still looks at athletes as anyone to pattern yourself after is really missing the point.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb