The NCAA champion in Division 1 Football will be crowned this weekend and don’t expect it to be Alabama. For that matter, it won’t be Clemson either. While those two will battle it out for the College Football Playoff (CFP) National Championship, they will have the right to call themselves the NCAA champions.
The CFP is actually a completely separate organization from the NCAA altogether. So, while member schools who sponsor Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) football teams are still subject to NCAA oversight and much abide by NCAA rules on eligibility, operations, etc., the playoff is not something under the control of the NCAA – in fact, other than providing sanctioning of them, none of the bowls are actually under the NCAA auspices. The reason behind it, like most issues in college football, comes down to money.
Back in the 1940s and 1950s, when college football was just starting to be commercially televised, the NCAA performed a study that, among other findings, found that schools that did not have a televised game suffered live attendance drops when playing at the same time as televised games. So, beginning in 1953, the NCAA – through its Football Television Committee. The Committee initially determined that there would be only one televised game every Saturday and that no team would appear in a televised game more than once per season. In addition, it was determined that the generated revenue would be shared by the teams playing the televised game and the NCAA.
This system basically stayed in place from 1953 to 1977. The NCAA would allow the broadcast of one game per week. The NCAA would submit a plan for the season to the member schools who would vote on it by mailing in a ballot. The agreed to plan would be shopped to the networks for bidding and the rights were negotiated with one of the networks per year (or in multiyear contracts).
Obviously, as the prominence and money grew, major football playing schools started to dissent from the NCAA plan and in 1979, formed the College Football Association to negotiate its own TV deal with NBC – while the NCAA was in negotiations with ABC and CBS to award its package. The NCAA then used its sanctioning muscle to issue a warning to schools that they faced penalties if they participated in the CFA contract. In 1981, the CFA finalized a deal with NBC, and the Universities of Oklahoma and Georgia both sued the NCAA under federal antitrust laws.
Around the same time, the NCAA was going through a process to separate out its members based on competitive and other measures which culminated in the establishment of the current Division 1,2 and 3 structure it has today. The NCAA – at the urging of the biggest schools - decided to split up Division 1 football into two subdivisions – Division-1A and Division-1AA. Classification was determined based on size, attendance, and scholarship allowances. Division-1A required schools to average at least 15,000 in attendance on a biennial basis and could offer up to 85 scholarships. Division-1AA teams were below this threshold typically and could only award up to 65 equivalent scholarships. Since the “bowl game” structure was already popularly in use in Division-1A, that bowl games would continue to be the method of determining the champion in that division. Division-1AA, on the other hand, would run an NCAA-administered national championship tournament.
The first NCAA Division-1AA championship took place in 1978 and included only 4 teams. (That game was won by Florida A&M over the University of Massachusetts.) These four semifinalists actually won regional championships. Over time, the field grew to eight teams in 1981, 12 teams in 1982, 16 in 1986, 20 in 2010, and up to 24 teams in 2013 – where it currently stands.
Over time, some top FCS programs eventually jumped up to the FBS – including former champions Georgia Southern and Appalachian State (NC), and Massachusetts. Others, such as Youngstown State, Villanova and North Dakota State have chosen to stay at the FCS level.
So, when we look back on this weekend and ask who won the NCAA Football Championship this season? The answer will be either Youngstown State or James Madison - not Alabama or Clemson.