In those Dr. Pepper commercials that have dominated the TV timeouts of the first year of the College Football Playoff, Larry the Concessions Guy tells a fan that "this whole idea of a playoff is pretty much my idea."
John Heisman would beg to differ.
The playoffs beginning this season were born of the need to curb the controversy-causing design of the former Bowl Championship Series, which since its inception in 1998 occasionally left undefeated teams, such as the 2004 SEC Champion Auburn Tigers, out of the national championship game. But the legendary coach was the first to advocate a four-team college football playoff all the way back in 1928, and for the same reasons: to finally determine a consensus national champion. Professional baseball did it. Texas high school football teams did it. Why, Heisman asked, couldn't college football?
It’s one of the football pioneer’s forgotten gridiron innovations—likely because unlike the forward pass, it was never adopted—but Heisman's plan was remarkably similar to the current College Football Playoff setup. It called for teams to be divided into four regions (Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Far West) and for "special committees" (sound familiar?) of sports scribes from each to decide that region's champion (which is pretty much the way it already worked in the South). Pair the champs off, have the victors duke it out in Chicago or New York, and the winner would get all the marbles, period.
No more eastern snobbery. No more southern inferiority complex. No more endless debates.
"If we but had the plan working now what reams and reams of newspaper battling would be saved the public in the settling of the question of national supremacy," Heisman wrote near the end of the 1929 season in response to critics, who a year earlier had called his plan impossible because some schools might not want to participate. He even came up with a mock playoff scenario for the 1929 season: Pitt vs. Tennessee, Cal vs. Notre Dame.
Sure, everyone would probably have to give up their bowl games, or at least not have them really count for anything, Heisman thought, lest in hindsight their results challenge the validity of the championship. But he deemed all the handwringing about a playoff extending the football season to the end of the year—at the time most teams had hung up their pads by the first of December—rather absurd. It was only four teams each year. Even if it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas, surely university presidents would sign off on an extra game or two if it was beginning to look a lot like a national championship.
Lo and behold, a few weeks (and several reams of newspaper) after Heisman's column, sports editors were still debating who should wear the 1929 crown: Pitt or Notre Dame, the two teams that likely would have locked horns in a Heisman-hatched final.
The UPI headline: "GRIDIRONS FAIL TO PRODUCE CHAMPS: Too Many Good Teams in Country Compete."
Heisman would probably be as thrilled as Larry the Concessions Guy to know that this season, finally, that won’t be the case.