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How MSU President Mark Keenum led college football playoff expansion

Mississippi State president Mark Keenum, left, who also serves as chair of the College Football Playoff (CFP) Board of Managers, and CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock, right, addressed the media following the annual meeting of the board. (MSU File photo, Jan. 7, 2019)

College football’s playoffs will expand to 12 teams. It could happen as soon as 2024 – and will happen no later than 2026.

If you follow college football at all, you probably already knew that. It was big news last week.

Rick Cleveland

What you might not have known is that a former Northeast Mississippi Community College football center Mark Keenum led the way. Keenum – born in Starkville, raised in Corinth, and now his 13th year as president at Mississippi State – was integral in the process. His leadership was crucial. Indeed, many closely involved in the process say he made it happen.

Keenum serves as chairman of the 11-person College Football Playoff Board of Managers, the group of university CEOs who voted on the 12-team format. We are talking about presidents at colleges ranging geographically from Buffalo, N.Y., to Pullman, Wash., and in size from Ohio State to Troy. As you might suspect, finding common ground was not always easy.

In fact, there were many times, even last Friday before the final vote, when there were holdouts, presidents who thought the board was moving too fast and needed more time to consideration such a radical expansion.

“My message was simply, ‘It’s time,’” Keenum said in a phone conversation Tuesday. “I said, ‘It’s time for us to send a message to all the fans of college football. They want this. The country wants this. College football players and coaches want this. Let’s move. Let’s get this done.’”

The vote, when finally taken last Friday, was unanimous. We will have a 12-team playoff, up from four.

Said Keenum, “This a historic and exciting day for college football – more teams, more participation and more excitement are good for our fans, alumni and student-athletes.”

He is exactly right. And it should have happened sooner.

SMU president Gerald Turner, former chancellor at Ole Miss, and Troy chancellor Jack Hawkins both say it might not have happened at all – and certainly not last week – had it not been for Keenum. Both serve on the CFP Board of Managers.

“Mark’s skillful leadership was the key ingredient,” Hawkins said. “He moved us through any number of obstacles. He had just the right touch. He has a collaborative approach. He’s very diplomatic, but very determined as well. In this case, he was motivated by the right factors.”

Turner, who was chancellor at Ole Miss from 1984 until 1995, called Keenum’s stewardship “masterful.”

Gerald Turner

“Mark deserves much of credit,” Turner said. “I would describe his leadership style as smooth and effective. Certainly, there were other presidents who spoke up and were also influential, but Mark, more than anyone, got it done.”

When told what others, including several national football writers, had said about his leadership, Keenum said, “I’ll just say we got it done, and it was unanimous and I am proud of that.”

Pressed on his role, Keenum offered this: “Sen. Trent Lott once wrote a book about his life in politics and called it ‘Herding Cats.’ That’s a pretty good description of this playoffs expansion process. There were a lot of moving parts, a lot of different issues. Sometimes it seemed like you’d get one kitten back in the basket and another would fall out. In the end, we got it done.”

A cynic might say, “Yeah, but what does it matter, really? You can have a four-team playoff, a 12-team playoff or a 64-team playoff and you’re still going to have Georgia and Alabama playing for the national championship.”

And that might be true this season. It was true last season. It will not be the case forever. After all, Nick Saban is 70.

Said Keenum, “I just think back to 2014, which is the first year of the four-team format. That’s when Dak Prescott was our quarterback at Mississippi State and we were No. 1 in the country for longer than any other team that season. Now, obviously, we didn’t make the four-team playoffs in the end. But we would have been very much a part of this 12-team format. In fact, we would have hosted a first-round game in Starkville. Can you imagine what that would have been like?”

What’s more, Ole Miss, too, would have been part of a 12-team tournament that same 2014 season. In fact, Ole Miss would have been part of a 12-team playoffs system as recently as last season.

“For the Mississippi schools, this is very attainable,” Keenum said. “And once you get in the tournament, anything can happen.”

Southern Miss? The 2011 Golden Eagles, 12-2 and champions of Conference USA, might well have qualified for a 12-team playoff tournament and certainly would have if not for a narrow, upset loss to UAB  that November. 

The point being, with a 12-team format, it could happen. It is entirely possible. More playoffs berths means more playoffs access. It just makes sense, and it will make millions and millions more dollars.

If you are a college football fan, you should thank Mark Keenum next time you see him.

The post How MSU President Mark Keenum led college football playoff expansion appeared first on Mississippi Today.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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