As the immense popularity of football in America steadily grows, college football in particular continues to expand from its passionate frenzy of tens of millions of fans to new meteoric heights. As the stadiums expand (3 of the world’s 5 largest stadia are home to college football teams), the television coverage widens, and the intensity builds, more and more attention is paid to this addicting sport and its peculiar fans. I, for one, couldn’t be happier. No other sport enthralls, enrages, and captivates like college football. With its quirky traditions, obsessive fans, transcendent game day atmosphere, and wholly unique (or absurd?) way of choosing a champion, there is nothing quite like college football. Here’s why I love it:
1. Every play in every game is crucial. In football at all levels, every game is important because there are so few of them. Baseball plays 10 times as many games in a single season, while soccer, basketball, and hockey play 3-5
times as many games as football. Such a small number of games makes each one vitally important to a team’s success. While this is true of football at all levels, it is particularly true of college football, which lacks a playoff system. A single loss in a 12-game season severely impairs a college football team’s chances of winning the championship – 2 losses and there is almost no chance. There is no point system, no ties, no strategy other than winning – wins and losses are all that count. Thus there is great importance in every single game, and therefore great importance in every single play. A single bad play can ruin an entire season.
As a result, the intensity of college football is sky high. The margin of error is razor thin, meaning the players, fans, and coaches are highly engaged in every minute of the game. Unlike baseball where fans go to enjoy a sunny day at the park with hot dogs and beer and hope their team wins the game, football fans invest themselves in the action from the opening kickoff. Coaches don’t casually observe from the sidelines, they are immersed in every detail of their team’s performance. And players train harder and longer than any other sport in the off season, dedicating hundreds of hours on the hot field and musty weight room to prepare for those crucial moments during the season. Football is a sport, but there is very little relaxation in the experience – I’m often on the edge of my seat (when I’m not standing) the entire game.
2. College football fans are the most passionate. Sometimes it borders on unhealthy obsession, but college football fans are true fanatics when it comes to their team. College football is only played for 4 months of the year, but for fans it is a year-round past time. Off-season discussion only enhances the intensity of the actual season, as fans of opposing teams debate and banter for 8 months in preparation for that single game in the Fall. Fans of the same team discuss their prospects, recruiting efforts, and coaching changes ad nauseum. College football may be out of sight for most of the year, but it is never far from the minds of its fans.
Fueled in large part by the natural intensity of the sport, college football fans are among the loudest and wildest fans in the world. Fans of the big programs yell throughout the game – 3 straight hours of standing, clapping, stomping and screaming in an exhausting display of passion and loyalty. Stadiums are packed across the country on Fall Saturdays, totaling millions of spectators at live games each week, not to mention the tens of millions watching on television. Tens of thousands of college football fans drive hours and spends small fortunes to see their favorite team play on the road in a routine regular season game. Fans decorate their houses, their cars, their clothes, the kids, and even their coffins in their team’s colors; life savings are spent in devotion to their team. Few other sports engender such wide-spread enthusiasm to the same degree.
3. The tradition and pageantry are unrivaled by any sport. Many people don’t realize it, but college football is one of the oldest organized team sports in the world. The first game that resembles the modern sport was played in 1875 between Harvard and Yale. By way of comparison, the world’s first organized soccer league, the Football Association (of Britain), was founded in
1863. (The history of college football is a fascinating one, especially as it parallels the rise of soccer in England. Originally a hybrid of soccer and rugby, it diverged from the Canadian/British sport about the same time soccer rules were being formalized in England. So with similar origins, England and the rest of the world adopted modern soccer while America adopted modern college football.) The oldest rivalries in all of sport, especially in the United States, are college football rivalries well over a hundred years old and still played on an annual basis, such as Harvard-Yale, Michigan-Notre Dame, Auburn-Georgia, and Army-Navy. The intensity of college rivalries reaches high levels not only because of the history, but because they are played just once a year – a loss in that one game means an entire year of living with defeat without reprisal.
Such rivalries are tied to some of the most unusual traditions in all of sport, namely the trophies associated with each rivalry and the titles of the games themselves. Pittsburgh and West Virginia fight it out in the Backyard Brawl, Texas and Oklahoma play the Red River Rivalry, Auburn and Alabama hammer each other in the Iron Bowl, Ohio State and Michigan meet in The Game, and Florida plays Georgia at the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party in Jacksonville, Florida. Unique trophies are up for grabs as well: Stanford plays Cal for the Stanford Axe, USC plays UCLA for the Victory Bell, Wisconsin plays Minnesota for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, Indiana and Purdue battle for the Old Oaken Bucket, Washington and Washington State play for the Apple Cup, the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy goes to the winner of the Air Force-Army-Navy roundelay, and my personal favorite is Floyd of Rosedale, the prize that goes to the winner of Iowa-Minnesota.
Game day features the most dramatic atmosphere and pageantry of any sport in the world. Marching bands hundreds of members strong play throughout the game and march on the field at halftime and often before the game. Cheerleaders leap and tumble and lead traditional cheers that are a century old. Dance teams take the field between quarters. A wide array of mascots entertain the crowd, including live animals: tigers, eagles, falcons, horses, bison, steers, buffalo, goats, bulldogs, all perform live on the game field. Covered wagons and ox carts circle the field,
Trojan swords and flaming Seminole spears are planted in midfield, Hawaiians gyrate in their native style, cannons are fired, fighter jets literally shake the foundations of the stadium. Smoke wafts over the stands from the numerous grills at the nearby tailgates, long shadows are cast on the stadium in the cool Autumn air, and a brilliant spectrum of leaves shimmers in the surrounding trees. Nothing beats college football Saturdays.
4. College football is a physically demanding, emotionally charged sport. While it is the ultimate team sport by design, success on the field depends on extensive work in the weight room and the development of physical prowess. Being strong, faster, and more agile than the opposing player is the name of the game. Every play depends not only on technique, but also on individually beating the man on the opposite side of the field; strong men weighing 300 pounds each collide at full speed play after play after play. Thus football requires a high degree of emotional intensity to garner the kind of energy to succeed physically on each and every play. The long hours preparing in the off-season can only be worthwhile if each play is physically well executed.
5. College football taps into a classic, romantic ethos. At its core, college football resembles the classic idea of brave warriors battling the enemy on a battlefield with beautiful ladies cheering them on to victory. More than a mere sport, football players represent the school in the ultimate clash with other universities. Academic superiority is a debatable subject and other sports teams play multiple times every year. But the football game represents the once-a-year, man-on-man battle for bragging rights for 365 days. One hour worth of play is the core of inter-school battles.
The reason football seems to matter more than other sports is because it entails a battle of wits and strength. Many hours are spent pouring over game film and devising strategy to defeat the opponent. The team that develops the best strategy and executes it will win the game. Thus football is the ultimate combination of brains and brawn. Football players must be physically strong and fast, but mere strength and athleticism isn’t enough. Real success requires physical ability, but it must be accompanied by intelligent strategy in a highly complex and sophisticated sport. So winning a a football game is the ultimate contest: the winner is considered to be stronger and smarter than the opponent. This makes football rivalries personal, and fuels their intensity.
So this Labor Day weekend, what I consider to be the world’s greatest sport kicks off another season. It is always exciting, unpredictable, and utterly engrossing. Let the fun begin…