Everyone, I guess, assumes that the way things were when they were growing up is the norm, the way things ought to be. I'm that way, too, at least about college football. To many of my friends in the Northeast, college football means the Yale-Harvard game or PrincetonCornell, or the game they turn on before dinner is ready on Thanksgiving. For people in the West, it's Cal-Stanford or USC-UCLA, or again, whatever precedes the turkey. If they watch the college championship on or near Jan. 2, it isn't because they have followed the teams all season or even know who is playing; they simply regard it as the less professional version of the Super Bowl.
In the world they grew up in, college football is a mere appendage to the pro game, one that has a bit of snob appeal because it's played on college campuses (though this has lessened over the last couple of decades as some kind of college education has become accessible to nearly everyone). Those of us who have lived in other parts of the country know different. In the South, for instance, it wasn't necessary to have gone to a college in order to root for one school (say, Alabama) and hate another (say, Auburn). It wasn't even necessary to have gone to college at all. The grassroots appeal of college football is more like something you'd experience if you lived in Brooklyn in the '50s and rooted for the Dodgers.
Unlike the National Football League, college football had genuine local appeal and a deep history of lore to draw on. Until about the late '60s - I'm just guessing here, but I'm basing this guess on the many people I've discussed this with -- college football was still regarded as the real game to which pro football was only a sideshow. As the greatest of college football writers, Dan Jenkins, once pointed out, until the early '70s the most famous football player at any given time -- Red Grange, Bronco Nagurski, Frank Gifford, Paul Hornung, Joe Namath, O.J. Simpson, Roger Staubach, whoever -- was either a college player or a pro star who was already a household name on graduation day.
Today, if I asked a real football fan who the last five Heisman trophy winners were, do you think he'd be able to name them? Do you follow football, and can you name them? Can you name the last three? I can't.
I'm not sure exactly when college football started to lose its distinctive flavor and succumbed to being the NFL's minor league; it probably happened so slowly that most of us didn't see it. But the process is certainly complete by now. For decades I have been hearing people (mostly my friends in the Northeast) complain about how college football needed a playoff system like the pros rather than "popularity polls" to determine a national champion. College football still doesn't have anything like a playoff system, but it has moved slightly closer to one -- and now I'm hearing people yearn for the good old days of polls and bowls.
I'm not going to say the football was better in the '60s, but fans certainly talked about it more. In fact, they argued all season long about who should be and should have been No. 1 and then they argued the same points right into the next season and sometimes for many years after. A case in point would be the famous Notre Dame-Michigan State 10-10 tie in 1966. Fighting Irish coach Ara Parseghian, whose team was ranked No. 1, chose to run out the clock on No. 2 MSU and let the polls decide who would be ranked No. 1 at the end of the season. Back then, Notre Dame didn't even go to bowl games. The Big 10 Conference wouldn't let its champ go to the Rose Bowl two years in a row, and the wire service pollsters, the AP and UPI, wouldn't wait till after the bowl games to vote, so Notre Dame finished the regular season No. 1 and won the mythical championship of college football. I'm not saying that that was a satisfying way for the champion to be chosen, but I am saying that 35 years later people talk and argue and debate that game -- especially in Alabama, where Bear Bryant's defending national champ Crimson Tide went 11-0 and still finished No. 3 in the final vote -- more than they ever will about the championship game that ends this season. And I'll bet good money that fans from every major college team, from Florida to Pennsylvania to Nebraska to Texas to California to Washington, all have similar stories centered around some legendary game.
What have we really gained from the elaborate series of bowls, conference championships, and the combination of coaches' votes and computer rankings that now purport to settle the national championship issue? For one thing, the ultimate game is now played closer to the pro playoffs, which diminishes its college appeal; for another, it makes the other bowls, most played on New Year's Day, seem anticlimactic even before the climax (part of the fun used to be going back to work on Jan. 2 or so and listening to everyone sort through what happened, waiting for the final vote or discussing and arguing about the final vote). And just how, exactly, does the modern system offer a fairer possibility for national champions than the old? Last week I saw the Colorado Buffaloes pull off one of the most spectacular upsets in recent college football by beating Nebraska, 62-36. (For the record, I recall a lot of No. 1 teams losing this late in the year, but I sure can't recall one giving up 62 points.) What did that game do to the national title picture? Let's review.
First, previously No. 1 Nebraska gets knocked out. Well, OK, they lost, they don't deserve to be No. 1 anymore (Miami, with a 10-0 record, moved up). But the team with the best record (11-1), the team that was voted No. 1 through most of the season, doesn't even get to play in its conference championship game. That one is reserved for Texas (10-1) and Colorado (9-2). These are both very good teams, but no one thinks they have really proved over the course of season that they were better or more deserving than Nebraska, but that's the way it goes with conference championships. If you lose a game, just make sure it isn't close to the end of the season.
What do these conference championships even bring to the party so far as choosing a No. 1 team is concerned? You have one team that is, say, 10-1 or 11-0 and at the end of the regular season all that team has won is a chance to play a team from the other half of its conference (the eastern or western "champ"), a team that might have finished, say 9-2 or maybe 8-3, for the whole bundle. Mind, it doesn't matter if you've already beaten that team during the season; this is the playoffs, so you have to do it again.
What this does, of course, is devalue the regular season, which is what all playoffs do but which is particularly upsetting when the season consists of 11 or 12 games, and the only logical result of this is to give an inferior team a chance -- and often a second chance -- to win something that its regular season performance manifestly did not earn it. Unfortunately, it also gives the conferences and the TV networks a chance at another huge payday. I am mystified that anyone sees this system as inherently fairer than the one it replaced, but it's probably here to stay in a sport that once ruled but which is content to be a huge college dog wagged by a tiny pro tail.