It seems inevitable that college football will adopt a playoff system to determine a national champion. When that day arrives my interest in college football will officially end. Football fans, particularly the crazed NFL fan hooting in sports bars while his belly tests the endurance of a replica jersey, are demanding a “professionalization” of college football that will end the peculiar glory of the NCAA teams and conferences.
College football is about pomp and tradition. Rivalry and fight songs, the enthusiasm of the undergrads and the loyalty of the alumni, all contribute to the fun and flavor of college football. For years I contended that if I could watch only one game a year – college or pro – it would not be the super bowl, or the alleged “national championship” game, but Michigan vs. Ohio State. How sweet those games were when they determined the Big Ten champion. Now, winning the Big Ten hardly matters.
For years upon years, college football mattered in a million small ways, in a million small places. From Charlottesville to Boise, State College to College Station, college football has had so many things that the NFL could never achieve. Outside the big urban areas, college football has been a large part of the common heritage. If you think for a second that the history and ceremonies of college football are unimportant, ask yourself why the Army-Navy game is still televised, well-attended, and followed.
In college football the teams matter more than the players. In college football the place is an anchor holding generations of fans to the same allegiances. College football has songs, mascots, and old-fashioned oddities. Dotting the “i,” the twelfth man, running Ralphie, the Sooner schooner, the war eagle – even Yale’s handsome Dan or the pink visiting locker room of Iowa – offer something that a rabid member of Cleveland’s dog pound (at least in the years that the team stayed in Cleveland) could not add.
Regardless of the teams, I loved the Rose Bowl. So too the rivalry games. Whether it is the Stanford Axe (Stanford-California) or Paul Bunyan’s Ax (Minnesota-Wisconsin), I cared who won. But all that is changing. People want a national champion. They want a playoff. They want the kind of finality professional football offers. Leading this charge tends to be the football fan who is primarily an NFL fan.
And there is money at stake, big money. In time the trustees and other protectors of the colleges will succumb. We already have a Bowl Championship Series – though it is universally loathed. Most hate it because it is a tease, driven by a computer formula. I hate it because it is killing the things I most enjoyed.
The Rose Bowl, the “Granddaddy of them all,” the game that started the tradition of New Years Day games, the game they have played since 1902, is now diminished. No longer a game between the champion of the Big Ten versus the champion of the PAC-10, the Rose Bowl has in recent years featured Texas, twice.
I know I am in the minority. But I miss the old ways. Who really cares which team is the ultimate “national champion?” Sports are about more than that. Debate, argument, hope, and frustration are sports. To this day I am prepared to debate why Michigan, not Nebraska, was the best team of 1997. Soon enough, there will be no debates to be had, and all those games that mattered will become unimportant as the sport bows down to adopt an NFL-esque playoff format.