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The NCAA Tournament, College Football, And Bad Action Movies: You're Getting More

The annual comparisons of March Madness to the college football bowl system are easy. Realizing you get the playoff you deserve, though, is not.

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Bruce Willis' Striking Distance is a terrible, terrible movie, but it is the only movie I know of that focuses on boat cops. This was the real pitch: "It's a cop drama but with boats, guys! In Pittsburgh!" Someone wrote a very large check for this. Never doubt your dreams, because someone paid for "Boats and Oedipal Drama On The Allegheny." The actual tagline of Striking Distance should be on someone's headstone as both a warning and a spectacular signoff to life in general.

They shouldn't have put him in the water...if they didn't want him to make waves.

Bonus! The guy who played wacky painter Eldin on Murphy Brown is the villain. Nothing about this movie is smart or good.

The ending is worth a quick visit, though. It's representative of a lot of 1980s/90s action movie endings. Bruce Willis pursues the villain through a children's book of transportation options and settings: in car, on foot, then on a train trestle where both are nearly killed by an onrushing diesel engine. The Aquaman effect is here, too: the clumsily inserted water chase sequence, something that has never been interesting in the history of anything ever because boats move slowly and require shark attacks to liven them up.

(There is one exception to this rule, and it is "any movie involving an airboat.")

The ending drags, and drags, and then drags out some more. Like every villain in the great Joel Silver action movie era, the killer is indestructible, taking several bullets, killing blows to the head, and is nearly killed by a train before finally taking a long, possibly deadly fall off a bridge. The obligatory water theme continues to dampen the action (wordplay!) since Bruce Willis has to finally end the struggle by choking out the villain, who then has one last revival before being tased to death underwater. This is not recommended use of a voltage weapon, or of two hours spent in front of a television.

They both happened, though, so lessons should be learned. Endings are hard. When they involve more than one author the answer is rarely "smarter" but "more, and louder." Finally, Bruce Willis could fart into a microcassette recorder in 1993 and receive a seven figure check for doing so. He probably did this very thing. It was probably in Japan.

In the end you get the finale you deserve, however. College basketball, the diffuse, gigantic constellation of over 300 teams you would call "Division I College Basketball," sustains itself by harvesting that swarm of activity into a single frenetic month. Major League Baseball, once the original purveyors of American simplicity, now tweak the format like the appetizer menu at a Carrabba's because...well, because they can. The NFL all but openly siphons interest into a one gigantic ad buy at the end of the content funnel; the NHL runs a death march to finish their season noted mostly for the growing of beards. NASCAR has a playoff, though why is a question even NASCAR fans have difficulty answering.

The easy argument at this time of year is to point to college basketball's intense sprint to the finish and emote, that's what we're missing. Finality, passion, some sense of mathematically imposed conclusion, the games loaded like shells in the barrel ready to pop off one after the other after the other -- those are the things you will never get from the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl and the Beef O'Brady's Bowl. All true.

Endings are the byproduct of structure, however. One author typically makes for a better ending than five, 10, or in college football's case, the 50 or so parties who control the bulk of the sport's major entities.

NFL and NBA can work its singular magic because the owners are in charge via the Commissioner. The central control model also applies to college basketball. The individual conferences succumbed to the NCAA's charms long ago, ceding control of the national scale product and leaving conferences with generous checks and the sideshows of conference championships. The committee running college basketball, like many important committees, are a shadowy cabal of mountain dwarves who never do interviews. They declined interviews for this piece by claiming not to exist.

The people in charge of college football are not actually secret mountain dwarves. Correction: Mike Slive may be one. He's tiny, mysterious, friendly, and more often than not prefers to do his interviews in subterranean offices well past the reach of the sun's rays. He is a really, really nice mountain dwarf.

The rest of them, though, are easy enough to find. They are the Presidents of BCS universities, and the conference commissioners who work with television networks to construct something of value. Those television networks, by virtue of having large amounts of cash, matter in this power structure, especially when they can deal with conferences and those commissioners both in the aggregate -- at the BCS level, or whatever it will be come 2016 -- and at the particulate level. Conferences can cash checks twice, and sometimes three or four times over in this system. They would certainly prefer to keep doing just that.

The issue of an ending is particularly problematic for college football, and here's where the great fork between college basketball and college football arrives with serious speed. The revenue for football exceeds that of basketball, save for a few huge programs who are outliers in the pattern. It would be football writer-stupid to savage college basketball for "needing" the tournament, but the sport is so diffuse it would be pointless to argue its importance to college basketball, either. The regular season is not worthless; the regular season is certainly not the tourney. College basketball is wonderful, and please send all complaints about perceived slights to college basketball to this email address.

A lot of the sport's national strength comes from the finality of the tourney. College basketball lost authority by working in the middle man of the NCAA, but they created something resembling satisfaction with the general plot by outsourcing it, and collecting a chunk of the television contract.

College football, however, ends its season like this. You watch 10, maybe 20 television shows at once for four months. Then, at the end, the characters are all transferred to different shows based on performance. These characters then perform one pilot episode of each show. One of the highest Nielsen-ranked teams faces another in a prime time slot, and then we decide based on a vote of TV critics and dozing elderly dialysis patients* who No. 1 is.

*This is the Harris Poll, which has among its voters "Old Wispy," the oldest living Tulip Poplar in the state of North Carolina. "Old Wispy" is still better informed than many Harris Poll voters, and is unable to talk or fill out a Harris Poll ballot.

This year's variation involved Nick Saban, known action hero and Jack Bauer clone, facing off against Mexican variety show star/bandleader Les Miles. If this sounded awkward in theory, it got worse as it happened, and was the worst improv theater show imaginable. (Cast member Jordan Jefferson's repeated falls into the orchestra pit did ultimately get laughs, but for all the wrong reasons.)

This comparison makes no sense, and neither does college football's way of determining a national champion without a central authority. That is the tradeoff. You trade power for a sense of process, of logic, of method leading to something like a champion. Either do that, or strip the bowls of their power completely and beauty contest the whole thing post-conference championships. We used to do that. In theory, we could do it again.

That is a terrible way to end a season, as any fan of any team ever railroaded by poll voters will tell you. But as an exercise, it reminds you that all endings are artificial at best, and are the products of their environments at worst. The 50 people in charge of college football are doing quite well, and would like as little change as possible, irrationality be damned. The Plus-One being the simplest solution to the issue points to it being the most likely to pass inspection in a group with that many interested beneficiaries.

It's not necessarily smarter, but like most large action films of the Joel Silver era and their endings, it will definitely be more. Just add another explosion at the end there, and extend that car chase, and yes, we've definitely got more. The verdict will be out on "better," but when you're looking at the financials college football burghers are seeing, quantitative takes qualitative and stuffs it in a footlocker without breathing holes until it quiets down a bit, or possibly for good.

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