On the eve of the College Football Playoff's national title game, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby were sitting next to each other during yet another lengthy meeting about playoff expansion, aligned in their support for the 12-team proposal that they had spent almost two years working to create. Then, before the meeting ended, Bowlsby abruptly left the room.
"I knew it wasn't a bathroom break when he took his briefcase with him," Swarbrick quipped.
Bowlsby and Swarbrick -- along with Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey -- developed the 12-team model that has been picked apart, turned upside down and pieced back together since it was made public on June 10.
"Have you seen the movie 'Groundhog's Day'?" Bowlsby asked dryly following the third straight day of meetings in Indy that totaled about 15 hours and amounted to no change to the current four-team field.
Seven months and nine in-person meetings after revealing the proposal that was initially applauded by fans, coaches, media and others who follow the sport and have long clamored for a more expansive CFP system, those who created the plan and publicized it have been unable to implement it. The entire process of expanding the playoff has been called into question, and feelings of frustration and anger have boiled over as commissioners refuse to budge on various points. They all agree the playoff should be expanded -- they just can't unanimously agree what it should look like or when it should begin.
"When everybody in the room favors expansion," Swarbrick said, "we have to be able to find a way -- at least by the next term -- to have an expansion model we can get agreement around."
How it evolved from celebration to stalemate can be traced back to arguably the most tumultuous summer in the history of college athletics. Why the bickering and second-guessing have continued for months, though, has many puzzled. Some longtime athletic administrators have said privately they've never seen anything like the pervasive amount of mistrust, or the inability to come to a consensus.
The question now is, what comes next?
If the format is going to change before the current 12-year deal expires following the 2025 season, those involved must unanimously agree to it. The ACC might have delivered the knockout blow to that early timeline on Friday, when commissioner Jim Phillips stated publicly for the first time that "now is not the right time to expand the College Football Playoff." The reality is no single person or conference has derailed expansion, though the spotlight is now on the Big Ten and ACC commissioners, who have both publicly dug their heels in on their leagues' respective playoff positions. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren remains steadfast in his belief that the Power 5 conference champions deserve a guaranteed spot in an expanded playoff -- a view vehemently opposed by many others in the room.
Some involved still haven't given up on the power of persuasion to get it done as early as the 2024 or 2025 season, though the prospects of that happening are continuously shrinking. The CFP's management committee, which is composed of the 10 FBS commissioners and Swarbrick, has met in Dallas, Chicago and Indianapolis -- and will bring it full circle again to Dallas in four to six weeks to continue the discussions.
The commissioners know time is running out.
"I think we're in a nine-overtime contest," Sankey said. "And none of us can accomplish a 2-point conversion right now. Eventually, even that game ended. So there's an opportunity here, but I think we all -- including me, including us -- will have to look circumspectly at our positions."
ESPN spoke with a majority of management committee members and CFP executive director Bill Hancock to explain how a once-celebrated plan unraveled but still remains a goal, and how it might be salvaged.
How we got here
Every season, on the morning of the CFP national championship game, the 11 presidents and chancellors who have ultimate authority over the playoff meet with the 10 commissioners and Swarbrick. It's typically a mundane business meeting reviewing the season, budgets, host cities, the ESPN contract and, of course, the playoff -- which to that point had been perceived by those in the room as working just fine.
January 2019 in Santa Clara, California, was different.
While publicly downplaying rumblings of expansion, the presidents discreetly directed the commissioners and Swarbrick to study the possibility and report back in a year. It was the midpoint of the 12-year deal, and while there wasn't any glaring issue with the current format, the presidents had agreed it was a good time to evaluate if it could be any better. That June, the CFP organized the working group of Bowlsby, Sankey, Swarbrick and Thompson.
At the behest of the presidents, they began digging into "some 63 possibilities for change," including models with six, eight, 10, 12 and 16 teams -- each with a variety of scenarios. To settle on the 12-team plan they would ultimately unveil, concessions had to be made. Swarbrick agreed to a system in which Notre Dame as an independent would never get a first-round bye that was awarded only to conference champions. And yet, he said the relationships among the four of them "was as positive as any committee I'd ever served on."
"It was very rewarding," Swarbrick said, "because we had very different views, and everybody along the way had to modify the position they started with. It wasn't easy for me to surrender the possibility of a first-round bye. It had a lot of personal consequence for me in my day job, but I thought that was the sort of thing that needed to happen to advance the model, and everybody in the room had a version of that."
Two years after the working group formed, it presented a 12-team model that would include the six highest-ranked conference champions and the next six highest-ranked teams. When they explained it to the other seven commissioners for the first time, Thompson said, "There was great acceptance."
"There was near-universal support because it increased access and kept more teams in the playoff hunt longer," he said. "... The only thing that was kind of bubbling was, 'Why would you play those first-round games on campus versus in the bowl structure?' That was the biggest deal."
At that moment.
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, who began his role July 1, 2021, hadn't technically started yet, though he shadowed former commissioner Larry Scott at the first meeting in Dallas. Phillips had been on the job for a mere five months. The plan was to use the summer to solicit feedback in each conference from university presidents, athletic directors, coaches and athletes. There was a sense that when they met again in September, there was a good chance the presidents would give the commissioners the green light to figure out how and when to actually implement a new system. At the very least, there was positive momentum.
Instead, it never got to a vote.
When the proposal was initially announced, there was no guarantee it would be rubber-stamped -- rather those involved cautioned repeatedly it was "the first step in a long process" -- but the release was interpreted by many as an encouraging sign that a 12-team playoff would happen eventually.
For Kliavkoff, that was part of the problem. He told ESPN he has "absolutely no issues with the process or the work that the subcommittee did," but that the public reveal might have impacted its chances.
"My issue with what happened was, never in the history of college athletics has there been an announcement of a model that everyone that needed to agree to that model on had not yet agreed to," he said. "When you announce the model before everyone who needs to agree to it agrees to it, you create an assumption that it's a done deal and just needs a rubber stamp. ...
"I wish we would have not shared that with the public until everyone that had to agree to it had had the opportunity to work through the few issues we had. I think we would've been done already."
Hancock told ESPN the CFP has always operated with subcommittees who present their work to a larger group, and has repeatedly said the organization has no regrets about publicizing the 12-team format before it was approved. Multiple commissioners have said there was concern about misinformation being leaked.
"The fact is, the intent was the proposal be presented to people on campus -- dozens of people on campus -- and we thought it would be best to announce it so everybody had the same information," Hancock said.
The decision to form that subcommittee, develop a model and publicize it without the input of the full group was publicly and privately questioned by some who weren't involved in the process from the onset.