About this blog

This isn't designed to be a blog per se, but just a place to store things I've written for easy reference. Most of it will be book reviews, with a few random essays about the stuff that interests me outside work (i.e. nothing on politics and government).

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why I Don't Follow College Football (any longer)

Until the late 1950s collge football was much bigger than pro football

Dating my lack of interest in college football is difficult.  Growing up in Michigan, a state with not one but two NCAA Division One FBS football programs, I loved following the Big 10 (historical side note: there really were only 10 teams in the Big 10 once upon a time).  With its passionate student fan bases, marching bands, fight songs and a more exciting style of play than the National Football League, it was always much more fun to watch the Wolverines and Spartans than the Detroit Lions (ok, just about anything was).  Despite the debacle that was his brief presidency of the Detroit Tigers, longtime Michigan head coach Bo Schembechler remains one of my heroes (as does, for some reason not fully understood by me, Alabama coach Bear Bryant).  Yet today I rarely do anything more than check the scores every now and again.  When I do read something about college football in depth it’s usually because of some scandal with deeper societal impact, such as Penn State’s implosion.

Bo Schembechler: he turned down a truckload of
 money to stay at Michigan and became an even bigger legend:
 where are today's Schembehlers?

I think there are a number of culprits, originally having to do with the overregulation of the game and the way it deals with violations.  For the sin of “excessive celebration” for a late go-ahead touchdown, the opposing team will likely get the ball with good enough field position to kick a long game winning field goal, nullifying the heroic long run or 80 yard “bomb.”  A late night out with the teammates that leads to some cheap tattoos?  Goodbye national championship.  With a mindset that would have made perfect sense to Joseph Stalin and at which George Orwell would have salivated to parody, the NCAA has taken to declaring players retroactively ineligible and any games played with them forfeit no matter what the score on the field was or how long ago the final whistle blew.  In short, there’s no guarantee that the outcome of the game you just spent three hours watching won’t be altered by lawyers years later and the $75 Rose Bowl sweatshirt you bought your son to commemorate your alma mater’s gridiron glory rendered an embarrassing reminder best left at the bottom of the drawer.

When there were still ties in college football:
 the 1966 10-10 game between MSU and Notre Dame
 (both undefeated) is one of the true classics
The recent story regarding how Texas Tech head coach Tommy Tuberville walked out of a recruiting dinner and, having just accepted his new position at the University of Cincinnati, simply never returned started me down a new, separate line of reasoning why I’m just no longer interested in college football.  Too many of the game’s most important personas simply lack commitment to their schools.  This wasn’t even the first time Tommy Tuberville let down the program he coached.  Nor is he the first coach to leave his program in the lurch, swearing lifelong fealty to whichever school just hired him only to have already compiled a short list of what constitutes the next rung on their career ladder.  This is certainly not behavior restricted to college football.  Perhaps we have even come to expect this from the head coaches of the college football world, a small band more closely aligned with Machiavelli’s Condottiere than their more immediate predecessors by such behavior.  But that behavior can only exist in the long run because it is countenanced by the college administrators who hire them despite their track records.  In short, there’s simply no longer any “adults in the room” when it comes to college football. 

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that the world we knew when we were young was a better one, but I’m convinced that the college football one that I knew from the 1970s and 1980s was such a world.  The sport I follow most closely, baseball, certainly had its share of troubles with steroids and imbalance of play, causing me and many others to lose interest in the 1990s.  Somehow, though, baseball came back and by virtually every metric is in great shape.  With all of the recent health issues surfacing about former NFL players and the epidemic of violence becoming associated with pro football both on and off the field, baseball has even arguably reclaimed its place atop the US sports world.

College football has faced an existential crisis in its history that was even more serious than what it faces today.  In the early 20th century the game had become so rough that there were several fatalities each year and a movement to put an end to it.  It was able to clean up its act only after a Presidential intervention by Theodore Roosevelt, whose son played for the Harvard varsity squad.  The NCAA, whose governing status was one of the Roosevelt era reform, seems to have lost its way. 

Perhaps it is time for another outside intervention?

Teddy Roosevelt helped fix college football before: Is there another TR out there?




  1. Good read, Alec. I share with you the love of sports and well as growing up (well, for 8 years) in the wolverine state. The storied history of Michigan is a great one and I always looked forward to new year's day as a kid to yell "GO BLUE" from our family room couch in Southfield, MI. While I lived in MI and IL in the 70s and 80s Big TEN football was filled with great rivalries and players and would never disappoint the mid-west fans. New Year's Day always had the top 3-4 games in the nation...those game were the background to every January 1st through most of my life...great memories.

    I moved to SEC country in HS and stayed for college. The culture towards SEC football and NFL is starkly different from the mid-west. In the southern bible belt, fans are as serious about their college football team affiliation as they are their religion and church. The NFL is still a distant second to SEC football in these parts...unlike many places in the midwest. So loyalty to your school's team is a big deal...and everyone in the south participates in wearing their game colors on Saturdays in the fall.Everyone in our neighborhood and area flies a flag to represent their alma mater in the fall.

    Still, with all this added rivalry and excitement in the south...well, Thanksgiving weekend marks the end of my interest in college football each year. It's not because my team (UGA) is historically a 2nd tier team, finishing between 3rd and 20th every year. (1) After Thanksgiving games are rarely played on Saturdays. Who has time for this? (2) Teams that finish from 3-8 and 9-20 could easily be swapped for a higher or lower place depending on the algorithm or matrix used. Rankings are meaningless at the end of the season...unless you are #1 or #2. (3) Although a play-off system is not the perfect replacement for the BCS, it supplies more drama and weekly interest compared to 2-5 weeks off before your bowl game is played. (4) The rate at which players are leaving for pro sports has taken away from the excitement. I'm not against players leaving, but it takes away from the game nonetheless.

    I enjoy the regular season of SEC football like most rabid and crazed SEC fans...but it ends on Thanksgiving weekend. Then I'm ready for NFL or NBA. Yes, I love NCAA basketball, but again, it's hard to keep up with the best teams when they lose the leagues best players after 1-2 years to the draft.

  2. Thanks for sharing that Brad. I know how sacred SEC football is - there's really nothing quite like it in the world of college sports. I always loved watching Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide play, especially when Keith Jackson was still regularly broadcasting games. I think the points you make about the dispersion of the schedule are very good ones; college football is meant to be played on SATURDAYS and I do miss the New Year's slew of games. You could just take New Year's "off" and watch a ton of the best games of the year. Now you have to devote an entire week's worth of evenings, which doesn't work once you have small kids.

  3. Terrific piece, Alec (and nicely done, visually!). I hadn't stopped to think about why my interest in college football waned, but you nailed it. I especially agree that the NCAA has lost its way and its mission, which now seems to be revenue generation. Sigh.

  4. Thanks Karen - I think you're right. Sometimes when you see something every day the change becomes imperceptible. Little things slip day by day, and the next thing you know you wake up and wonder how things got so messed up.

  5. I miss the old times wherein the headline for college sports are about how great the game is and not about the scandals or wrong doings of the players and so on.