Martinsburg native will be the only former journalist on committee
When college football fans debate which teams should play for the national championship, their arguments are purely hypothetical. But one Martinsburg native will soon have the unique opportunity to actually vote for which teams will participate in a new playoff format.
Steve Wieberg, 59, was named to the College Football Playoff Selection Committee earlier this year. A well-known college football and basketball reporter for 30 years at USA Today, Wieberg will be the only former journalist to serve on the 13-member committee, which includes a Who's Who of current and/or former college football coaches, players and administrators. He said he realizes the importance of representing an entire profession on a committee that will receive enormous public scrutiny.
"The media has always wanted a place on the selection committee…so we have a seat at the table now -- not just looking on, but we're a part of the process," he said. "There's a tremendous feeling that I've got to do it right."
One year from now, Wieberg's committee will select four teams to play in a national semifinal. The winners of those two games will meet for the national championship. This new format replaces the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Since 1998, the BCS has used a combination of polls and computer formulas to rank college football teams, and only the top two teams play for the national championship. This selection process has been controversial, and many observers feel that teams capable of winning a championship are excluded from the process. The distaste for the BCS, Wieberg says, makes it imperative that the selection committee takes its responsibilities seriously.
"This is a big, big step for college football. It took a long time to get to the point of jumping into a modest four-team playoff," he said. "The BCS has been incredibly unpopular. The last thing they want is to create something that's also unpopular."
The football selection committee will be similar to the committee that chooses teams for the NCAA men's basketball championship tournament. The main difference, however, is that while 68 teams are selected for the basketball tournament, only four football teams will be in the playoff.
"Invariably, there is going to be controversy because someone's going to be left out…and they are going to be good teams," Wieberg said. "Our job is at least to try and mitigate the controversy, and if we're making reasoned, rational, defensible decisions, then I think we can do that."
Sports and journalism were important parts of Wieberg's life as he grew up in Martinsburg. The son of Carl and Margie Wieberg, Steve attended Community R-6 High School. Like many R-6 students, he wrote for the school paper, and he also played second base for the Trojans baseball team. But more uniquely, he wrote about the exploits of his team and his own abilities for the nearest daily newspaper, The Mexico Ledger.
"Even early on I started writing about our games for the Ledger. So people probably had the impression that I was a much better player than I actually was," he joked.
After graduating from R-6 in 1972, Wieberg went to the University of Missouri and majored in journalism. But even while at college, he continued to write for the Ledger.
"I would drive back on Friday nights to help with high school football," he said. "Friends of mine at MU thought I was nuts because I wasn't getting paid. But it was the smartest thing I could have done. I was getting experience."
While a student, Wieberg also worked for the Columbia Missourian, a university-sponsored daily newspaper. Even though his time in college included Mizzou's monumental upsets of powerhouse football teams like Alabama and Notre Dame, Wieberg said his most memorable sports moment as a student was covering the old St. Louis Cardinals football team and watching stars such as Jim Hart, Terry Metcalf and Roger Wehrli.
Wieberg came back to the Ledger in 1976 after graduating from the university, and he stayed until 1981. He says his time at the Ledger was significant for two reasons. The first was that he met his wife, Paula, who was the Ledger's assistant classified ad manager. The second reason, he says, was the experience he gained reporting not just on athletics, but on non-sports stories such as City Council meetings and the murder of an Auxvasse doctor.
"That ended up being invaluable because writing sports, as I soon found out, is a lot more than just writing sports," he said.
After a short time at the News-Leader in Springfield, Mo., he accepted a position with USA Today in 1982. Steve and Paula were initially reluctant for him to accept the job because of the uncertain prospects that surrounded the revolutionary new national newspaper, but also because it involved a move to the Washington, DC area.
"We thought long and hard about it again, and ultimately thought, well, we can do it for a couple of years," he said. "So we moved to Washington, and two years became 30."
Years of covering college sports for a national publication provided Wieberg not just knowledge about athletics, but he also got to know many of the nation's top college coaches and administrators. It was the respect from these officials and support from his colleagues in the Football Writers Association of America that led to his invitation to be on the selection committee.
Perhaps the most surprising person on the committee is Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Besides being known more for her work with national security issues and diplomacy, she is also the only woman on the committee. Her selection brought criticism in some quarters, most notably from former Auburn football coach, Pat Dye. In a radio interview, Dye said that, "to understand football, you've got to play with your hand in the dirt."
Wieberg disagrees. He notes that Rice oversaw athletics when she was provost at Stanford University, her father was a football coach and she is an ardent follower of college football.
"She is not just a casual fan," Wieberg said. "And then let's get to the point that she's going to be the smartest person in the room. She's going to be able to deal with the pressure…Now you don't want 13 Condoleezza Rices, but you don't want 13 (former Nebraska coach) Tom Osbornes (either)."
Wieberg noted that the criticism of Rice could also apply to him. It was impossible for him to play high school football since it was not offered at R-6 at that time.
Wieberg says the committee needs a variety of people to be successful; some directly experienced with football and others who can impartially review large amounts of information.
While working for USA Today, Wieberg moved back to Missouri in 1989. He and his family settled in Lawson, Mo., which is north of Kansas City. Although he said he enjoyed his time at USA Today, he wanted a job with more regular hours and less stress. Besides covering sports for the newspaper, he also reported on momentous news events such as the 2011 Joplin tornado and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
He is currently a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library. Besides writing, he also helps organize evening library programs that have involved luminaries such as former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.