Sunday is conference championship day in the NFL. It's the best football day of the year and one of my favorite days on the sports calendar.
Super Bowl Sunday is 85 percent hype, 10 percent Aunt Sally's secret-recipe bean dip and 5 percent football. Conference championship day is 85 or 95 percent football, 5 percent bean dip and -- in the best years -- 10 percent horrendous weather. One of my hopeless causes is to have the Super Bowl played at the home stadium of one of the conference champions, meaning the NFL championship could be decided in just such deliciously bad conditions.
This year, with outdoor games in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, is looking like a very good one. The Eagles host the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC title game and then the New England Patriots visit the Steelers for the AFC crown. We'll talk about those games Friday, but you already know I'm picking the Patriots from now until someone beats them.
Excitement over the coming big day got me thinking about my other favorite sports days each year, so I've made a list. It's just my own list. There's nothing soccer-related on it, for example, because I'm not much of a soccer fan. Your list, or the consensus American list, or whatever, might look completely different. This is just me.
In roughly chronological order:
Super Bowl Sunday: There's nothing wrong with insane amounts of hype and Aunt Sally's bean dip one day out of the year. And once in a while, there's even a decent game.
NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Opening Weekend: This is actually four days. You can take any one of them, the Thursday or Friday of Round 1, when 16 games are played on each day, or the Saturday or Sunday of Round 2, each the date of eight more.
My friend and fellow Salonista Andrew Leonard thinks the first two weekdays of the Tournament should be declared national holidays: "It's an insult to working men and women to have one of the most exciting 48-hour stretches of sports off-limits to us poor sods who have to pay fealty to evil capitalist overlords," he wrote in these pages four years ago. And kept his job!
If you're a real college basketball fan, you probably think of that four-day weekend as one long day. With more than 100 hours of upset-crazy, to-the-death basketball being played between midday Thursday and Sunday evening, who has time to sleep?
I think this is my favorite time on the sporting calendar. Added bonus this year: That first Thursday is March 17, St. Patrick's Day. The first four days of the women's Tournament should be on this list, but it gets overshadowed to a ridiculous and unnecessary degree because it overlaps with the colossus that is the men's event.
First Spring Training Game: This doesn't have to be the first spring training game played, just the first one you watch. You probably won't even watch the whole thing, but if you're a baseball fan there's something wonderful about that first time you tune in and see that impossibly bright sunshine and those white white white uniforms -- one more reason why those colored batting-practice jerseys teams insist on wearing in exhibition games should be washed, then burned.
Add in the crack of the bat, the pop of the catcher's mitt and the unmistakable golf clap of a spring-training crowd and it's heaven.
This one also counts if you actually attend the game in Arizona or Florida, though somehow I think it's more of a treat to watch it on TV. That way you're peering in to that otherworld from the same seat you've only recently been sitting in and watching winter sports. Being there is fun too, but it's not quite the same sudden jolt.
Yet another version of this day: The first college baseball game you attend if you live in a part of the country that has good college baseball, even if you have to bundle up against the January cold as you sit in the stands.
Baseball Opening Day: More words have been spilled about this rite of spring than any of the others we're talking about here, so I won't waste your time spilling more. You either get it or you don't.
Baseball has been doing its boneheaded best over the last decade to ruin the magic of Opening Day by moving it from its traditional Monday afternoon in Cincinnati home to Sunday night wherever there might be TV ratings, or to the middle of the North American night in Tokyo. It's probably succeeding in the long run, but hasn't reached the tipping point yet in my mind.
Any Day That Has an NHL Game 7: A seventh game in any sport is exciting, but there's nothing quite like a Game 7 in hockey, as we've discussed.
There can be as many as 15 seventh games in any playoff year -- assuming the year has playoffs, which it looks like this one won't -- though the average over the last 10 seasons has been 3.6 per year. But each of the last three years has seen at least five Game 7s, and two years ago there were six. Great stuff.
NFL Week 1 Sunday: This one barely makes the list. The NFL's actual opening day is now the prior Thursday night, when a single game is preceded by an hour or so of mediocre entertainment. The league is hoping to turn that opening night into another quasi-holiday on the order of Super Bowl Sunday, but on a smaller scale.
I don't think that'll happen. The Thursday night opener is fine, and it's probably a smart marketing idea, but a single regular-season game, even if it's the very first one, just isn't enough to get excited about, especially in today's NFL, where teams' fortunes change so much from year to year that it's hard to know if the two teams playing that first game are even going to wind up being worthy of attention.
This year's opener was a rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game between the Colts and Patriots, which was a good idea and should be repeated whenever two teams from one of the previous year's title games are scheduled to play each other. But last year's teams were the Jets and Redskins, who had gone 9-7 and 7-9 in 2002, and who then stumbled to 6-10 and 5-11 in '03.
Sunday is the big day, when the schedule kicks into gear and everybody's in action. It would have a lot of baseball's Opening Day thrill, but that excitement is sort of siphoned off by the Thursday night show.
Some days that didn't make my list
New Year's Day: This would have been on my list of favorite days if I'd made it 10 or 20 years ago, even though I was much more likely back then to have a really big headache on New Year's Day.
Jan. 1 used to be the day of the four big bowls, the Rose, Orange, Sugar and Cotton. The Orange or Sugar -- but not both -- might be played on New Year's Eve, or all of them would be held Jan. 2 if the first fell on a Sunday, but basically, Jan. 1 meant the Big Four. The Fiesta Bowl replaced the Cotton Bowl in prestige when the Southwest Conference collapsed in the '90s, but the Bowl Championship Series is really what ruined New Year's as a great sports day.
One of the Big Four is the National Championship Game, so it's moved back to its own day, usually Jan. 4 or so. Another of the four is moved to the day before that. That leaves just two of the big ones on New Year's Day.
And this is all aside from the fact that the traditional conference ties that gave the big bowls so much of their character have been weakened by the BCS. Michigan-Texas was a humdinger of a Rose Bowl game this year, but a big part of the Rose Bowl's charm over the last half century or so has been the continuity of the Pac-10 vs. Big Ten rivalry.
This Jan. 1 we got the Rose and Fiesta bowls -- the latter featuring a remarkably unattractive Pittsburgh-Utah mismatch -- but we also got the Outback Bowl, the now-second-tier Cotton Bowl, the Gator Bowl and the Capital One Bowl. Such pedestrian teams as Wisconsin, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Florida State and West Virginia were all playing on the day that was once reserved for powerhouses. There was a lot of football, all right, but it didn't look unlike a typical Saturday in October.
NFL and NBA Draft Days: A lot of football fans think of the NFL draft weekend the way baseball fans think of the opening of spring training. It's the swallows returning to Capistrano, the first sign of the coming season. I understand, but I find the draft itself a bore. It's a series of uninteresting transactions punctuated by committee meetings. The NBA draft is a little better because it's much shorter, it moves right along, and some years you get Charles Barkley making wisecracks. But it's still not that exciting.
NBA and NHL Opening Days: They just don't offer the same "and they're off!" feeling that the start of the baseball or football season does. This may be because the regular season is so meaningless in these leagues. The first day of either league's playoff season would be a better candidate, but I don't think those days quite make it either.
Thanksgiving Day: I love Thanksgiving, and there's a lot of pro and college football on the tube. But I'm usually more interested in whatever family- and food-related activities are going on. My next deadline is four days away, so in my racket, Thanksgiving is a holiday from sports.
So now that I think of it, it's one of my favorite sports days too.
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