Seen any football lately?
The best game I saw over the holidays was the Rose Bowl, a thriller in which Texas beat Michigan 38-37 on a field goal as time ran out. Texas quarterback Vince Young was dazzling, running for 192 yards and four touchdowns and adding 180 yards and a TD passing.
But he was only the best player in a game that featured a bunch of terrific performances, offensive fireworks, the lead changing hands and a huge crowd going nuts from start to finish. It was the best game I've seen in years, even though it was decided on a placekick. It was everything college football is supposed to be and sometimes is.
I also really enjoyed that Iowa-LSU game in the Whatever Sponsor Bowl from lovely There's a Palm Tree in the Logo So This Must Be Fla. I don't have anything to say about it other than: Wow! What a finish! But I just wanted to mention it.
I was prepared to hate the Rose Bowl for a couple of reasons. First, I'd been bitter about my alma mater, California, getting screwed out of the Rose Bowl bid by the ridiculous political machinations of the Bowl Championship Series voting. I'd earned that bitterness, by the way, by having been on record as calling those machinations ridiculous long before the Golden Bears were good enough to even dream about the BCS, and I would have continued to think of them as ridiculous if they had sent Cal to Pasadena.
But it was a little hard to keep my dander up after Cal got annihilated in the Holiday Bowl by Texas Tech on Thursday.
Then ABC got me back in a grumbling mood during the Rose Bowl pregame show by airing an interview between announcer Keith Jackson and two legendary former coaches of the teams involved, Bo Schembechler of Michigan and Darrell Royal of Texas. Schembechler coached the Wolverines from 1969 to 1989; Royal coached the Longhorns from 1957 to 1976.
Jackson asked, "How come you guys never played each other?"
Schembechler said, "Jeez, I don't know, I ..." and both men laughed heartily. "Let's put it this way," he continued, "I had enough problems. I'm not going down there to hunt up Darrell."
"Keith," Royal said, "toughs don't look up toughs. You know, if you're going to get in a scrap, don't get in a scrap with a tough guy."
Michigan and Texas are two of the towering powers in college football history, and before Saturday they had never played each other. Michigan started playing football in 1879, Texas in 1893. Never met. Of course conference affiliations had kept them from a bowl matchup for most of the last half century or so, but with three or four non-conference games a year, adding up to hundreds of opportunities, they'd never gotten around to scheduling each other.
Why go play Michigan when you can beat up on North Texas 65-0?
And the crazy thing is, it's getting worse, not better. Go look at the schedules of Michigan and Texas during the years Schembechler and Royal were both there, 1969-76. They both tended to play teams from big conferences, though never the dominant team from that conference, except for Texas' rivalry game against Oklahoma, which at the time was a non-conference matchup.
So neither would schedule USC but they might line up against UCLA or Stanford. Not Nebraska but maybe Colorado. Not Alabama but perhaps Vanderbilt. Now they seem much more interested in intrastate rivalries with directional schools. Texas has outscored North Texas 92-0 over the last three years. Michigan has spent one weekend a year lately swatting either Western Michigan or Central Michigan. Rice is a popular opponent. So's Houston.
This is all aside from the steady diet of conference patsies that makes up about a third of the schedule each year.
This is why college football, despite having moments -- like this year's Rose Bowl -- that transcend most everything else in sports, is so frustrating and unrewarding to follow as a sport. Can you imagine if the NFL had never found a way for, say, the Oakland Raiders and Green Bay Packers to have played each other? Or if the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics had never bothered to meet?
What sport other than college football so assiduously avoids the best matches? (The answer is boxing, which is just as difficult to be a fan of for this reason, and then adds a host of other reasons too.)
Texas and Michigan don't have to play each other every year, but a little more often than once every other century might be interesting, don't you think? If they're not playing each other, they should be playing teams like each other. If not each other then Georgia or Miami -- the one in Florida, not Ohio -- or USC.
Instead we get annual ritual clubbings of Indiana, Northwestern, Baylor and Kansas, with an upset every decade or two, like the one Kansas almost pulled off against the Longhorns this year. Texas did play Miami a couple of times in the early '70s, by the way, but that was before Miami was a power.
Schembechler and Royal are a couple of old giants, and they enjoyed a good laugh together over the way they didn't want to put good teams on their schedules. Oh ho! Schembechler's record at Michigan was 194-48-5. Royal's at Texas was 167-47-5. I wonder what those records would have looked like if they'd had to line up against real competition every week. I wonder what Texas' 11-1 record or Michigan's 9-3 might look like this year if they'd had to line up against real competition every week.
Jackson asked another good question at the end of the interview, calling on each man to name his biggest win. Schembechler, without hesitation, named Michigan's win over coach Woody Hayes and arch-rival Ohio State in 1969. "It was Woody's best team, he had just gone through two years undefeated coming into the last game, and we got him in Ann Arbor and beat him," Schembechler said.
"The biggest game of my career is when Bo beat Ohio State!" Royal said. Another good laugh. "That vaulted us into No. 1. I've always said that we didn't win the national championship. Michigan did when they beat Ohio State."
In those days, kids, you could sort of back into the national championship like that. Texas earned its crown by beating Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. The Irish came in 8-1-1 and were not a contender for the title. Fortunately, nowadays, there's a much more logical system in place to name a national champion.
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