Originally Published in the National Post: Thursday, January 11, 2007
PHOENIX, Arizona â€“ It may be true that baseball is America’s pastime, but football is the national game.
And of the two competing versions, professional and college, it is the latter that still seems â€“ despite the threat of growing commercialization â€“ to capture the heart, not just the wallet, of the average fan.
The national championship of college football was played here Monday night in Phoenix’s spanking new stadium. Apparently it is supposed to look like a barrel cactus, but one local commentator opined that it looks more like an inflatable mattress. (As B.C. Place demonstrated, the problem with inflatable mattresses is spontaneous deflation.) Next year, Phoenix will host the Super Bowl. My guess is that the college football championship will be remembered here as the more spirited affair.
There is something about college football that gets the blood pumping.
Perhaps it’s the legions of face painted fans, somewhat delirious from cross-country bus trips and, one suspects, feeling the effects of violating the 21-year-old drinking age in several states en route. Perhaps it’s the marching bands, some of which are good enough to have their own practice fields and their own scholarships. Perhaps it’s the cheerleaders who, lacking nothing in pulchritude, have not been reduced to the tarted up tackiness of their NFL colleagues. Perhaps it’s the fact that small cities with huge stadiums take centre stage on Saturday afternoons â€“ places like South Bend and College Station and Tuscaloosa. Perhaps it’s the stirring fight songs, the emotional singing of the alma mater, the fact that there remains a certain innocence among players who are, after all, just out of their teenage years.
Or it might just be the game itself. There are over 100 Division 1A football schools, and with that number of still-inexperienced players, mistakes are more common. Mistakes make football more exciting, even if the overall calibre of the game remains high.
Whatever it is, college football has a national following that allows it, every January, to have five premier bowl games, all on prime time television, all of which generate enough revenue to pay each participating school US$17 million. The loyalty of fans far outstrips the typical NFL team which, after a few mediocre seasons, will see its fan following waver. In college, the fans stick through thick and thin. The University of Michigan has sold out its 100,000-seat stadium every game since 1975. Four colleges have 100,000+ stadiums, and many others seat 80,000 or 90,000. There is rarely a ticket to be had.
“This state and our team are one,” said Les Miles, coach of the Louisiana State University Tigers, prior to soundly defeating Notre Dame in this year’s Sugar Bowl in the New Orleans’ Superdome. It would be absurd if it didn’t have the ring of truth. LSU football is more important to Louisiana than the NFL’s New Orleans Saints.
This year’s bowl season was interrupted by the news that the University of Alabama just hired a new head football coach, Nick Saban, for US$32-million over eight years. If you think it odd that Alabama’s highest paid state employee would be the football coach, you would be wrong. It is true in many states, excepting those where the highest paid public employee is the basketball coach.
If there is a danger on the horizon for college football, it is the new trend toward mercenary coaches. Other perennial problems have largely been contained, as greater vigilance over recruiting has led to fewer scandals, and paradoxically, the move toward year-round football training has meant higher graduation rates, as players now get a few extra summer semesters to pass their courses.
Yet the mainstay of college football is the coach. In an environment in which the players turn over every four years, the coach is the symbol of the program. College football has produced legendary coaches who remained decades in one place â€“ Joe Paterno at Penn State, Bobby Bowden at Florida State, Woody Hayes at Ohio State, and the greatest legend of them all, Bear Bryant at Alabama. The descent from Bear Bryant to Nick Saban, the latter of which abandoned LSU two years ago for the NFL, only to abandon the Miami Dolphins for Alabama after another two years, tarnishes the lustre of the college game. Loyalty to the old school colours is more difficult if both the school and the coach are chasing the colour of money.
Yet despite all the commercialism, small time corruption and big time hypocrisy of the college game, it remains more popular than ever, for even amid the spectacle on Monday night here in Phoenix, it does the heart good to cheer for a school, rather than a corporation.
Â© National Post 2006