Before We Tamed College Football: A Tribute

To admit that there should be an unambiguous no. 1 would be to admit that the concept of who’s no. 1 matters in the first place, which would defy the rickety foundation upon which the sport was built.

-Michael Weinreb, on “The Argument” of NCAA Football

What a wild, tumultuous weekend in the college football world: Oregon, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and UCLA fall in riveting upset victories for schools which officially resurrect the legacy of one coach (Rich Rodriguez), highlight one of the great pregame cultures in football (Ole Miss), showed the incredible year-to-year player development under new coaching (Trevone Boykin), the fan favorite (Dak Prescott) and innumerable other storylines. Yet somehow all the glory of a cool fall Saturday was spoiled by the relentless march of College Football Playoff coverage: ESPN headlines debating “who’s in.”

Since when did inclusion in a championship structure become the yardstick for enjoying college football? The sport I fell in love with from my youngest years and which remains my deepest sports passion has become commercial fodder for longer regular seasons, more postseason games and increased stratification between the haves and the have-nots in the different conferences. What happened to the freewheeling, truly democratic dogfight of decades past to determine a champion? What happened to the days that President Nixon was used as leverage to declare a champion? In what other sport would a coach – Joe Paterno – dare to go toe-to-toe with the leader of the Cold War free world?

While individual fan bases have their years of being miffed from the national title conversation, my TCU Horned Frogs in 2010-2011 being one of them, a fan starts to realize two to three years later that so much savor comes from the (1) beauty and unique outcome of each game such as the 2011 Rose Bowl against Wisconsin and (2) the never-ending debate on the merits of each team in the rankings. The Alabama SID who invented the 12 Crimson Tide championships claim wishes there were a never a playoff for this very reason. The championship question is, by design, unanswerable.

Why try to contain the relentless energy of football fan bases across the country in the name of an “undisputed” champion every year? Don’t sell college football’s soul. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama described the organizing principle of American culture and tradition as thymos, the heroic, irrational desire for recognition on the field. Despite college football’s many contradictions, writer and leftist social critic Charles Pierce can still pen this about the spirit of a game which so many times has been compared to the art of battle:

It is deeper than provincialism. It is a question of hard-won identity and, if that hard-won identity is occasionally employed by small men to their own profit and advantage, that doesn’t make it any less real, or its origins any less noble.

College football is wrapped up in the identity of America, still a regionalized sport where fans drive hours to tailgate every week and students are encouraged to rush the field even if the regulatory machines which are slowly professionalizing the sport try to fine them for it. Yes, amateurism has become a small prop for the big budgets of athletic departments, the media, conferences and administrations which profit from unpaid labor on a scale never before seen in the sport. And universities would rather kick out football players who commit criminal acts than solve the culture we have collectively created: our Machiavellian need to see our team succeed no matter the cost to integrity.

The prevailing question in coverage of college football today is:  how should we determine a champion with a consensus rubric: the BCS or a selection committee? How many teams and from what conferences should the teams in the playoff draw from? My irrational internal college football fan, who grew up a Texas Longhorns fan dreaming about Ricky Williams UT jerseys on Christmas, who grew up scheming elaborate rosters, box scores and commentaries wants to stand up and scream, “None of the above! Give me the way it was! Give me the Nebraska of Tom Osborne! Give me Frank Beamer! Give me The Argument!”

The hardest part is, it may never be That Way again. A playoff sends The Argument the way amateurism went when the game became big money. Come the first playoff game in January 2015, the untamed spirit of college football will once and for all be bridled.

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