Hey there, America, we need to throw college football a yearlong tailgate, so invite everyone you know. For the next 12 months, hang time refers to bunting, not punting. Tell the helmet makers that all we need are party hats.
The word is sesquicentennial, as difficult to pronounce as Tagovailoa, and this year just as newsworthy. College football celebrates its sesquicentennial — its 150th anniversary — in 2019. Though forms of the sport existed well before Nov. 6, 1869, that is the day of the first modern game, held between Rutgers and Princeton. Rutgers won 6-4, and Princeton won the rematch a week later 8-0.
It may not be God creating the Earth in seven days, but it’s pretty impressive that college football needed only one week to create the home-field advantage.
For the next 12 months, leading up to the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship in New Orleans, on every platform that ESPN has — television, radio, and digital — we will celebrate college football in all its glory, humanity, pathos and scandal.
If it seems as if college football is larger than life, that we assign greater meaning to the sport than it is equipped to handle, that we impart skills and powers to its leaders that are greater than they deserve, well, duh. We always have.
College football is referred to nicely as the front porch of the university, and not so nicely as the tail that wags the university dog. Groucho Marx said it in “Horsefeathers,” the 1932 movie in which he played a college president: “And I say to you gentlemen that this college is a failure. The trouble is we’re neglecting football for education.”
Movies are not real life, although they might have been in February 1951. University of Oklahoma president George Lynn Cross, frustrated that state senators didn’t understand his plea for more money for the university, told state legislators, “I would like to build a university of which the football team could be proud.” The sarcasm didn’t translate to the page, and Cross’s remark went the midcentury equivalent of viral. Several months later, Cross received a $10 check in the mail from Reader’s Digest, which, presumably with mouth agape, republished the quip as if Cross had been serious.
So we gather as the arranged marriage of college and football celebrates its golden anniversary for the third time. Yo, Daniel Post Senning, grandson of etiquette expert Emily Post: What is the proper gift for the 150th anniversary?
“Oh, boy,” Senning said with a laugh. “There is unfortunately no etiquette guideline for the 150. Those are typically wedding anniversaries, and we haven’t had a wedding anniversary reach 150 in a long time.”
Since Methuselah, presumably.
“Anniversaries are a great time to reflect and honor relationships,” Senning said, “and I think they deserve to be marked and remembered.”
Yes, relationships, the essence of college football. Over 150 years, try to imagine Oklahoma without Texas, Woody without Bo, Auburn without Bo Over the Top, the Rose Bowl without the San Gabriel Mountains. Who needs an anniversary gift when we have an Old Oaken Bucket?
Football is the biggest, grandest collegiate sport, a multibillion-dollar industry that rests on the shoulders, and the whims, of 17-year-old boys. They arrive on campus as strapping, well-coordinated teenagers, and they leave as heroes, sometimes even iconic figures, to generations of Americans. Some of them — Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, Doak Walker, Archie Griffin, Barry Sanders — transcended generations. Others barely transcended state borders.
Tommy McDonald became the biggest offensive threat on Oklahoma’s consecutive national championship teams in 1955-56. McDonald made All-America both seasons, and went on to an NFL career worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. By the time McDonald died last September at the age of 84, his status had waned, just not in every household. For a boy growing up in Oklahoma in the ’50s, McDonald remained on a pedestal.
“Back when we had real heroes,” tweeted Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff, “Tommy McDonald was mine.”
McDonald is a prime example of how college football spent most of its life as a regional sport, with regional heroes. That’s what made so appealing the word and concept created by Walter Camp: “All-American.” Those players are the best of all America, and they represent the sport to all America.
There’s another story within those annual lists of All-Americans. The players who earned that honor reflect the widening of American culture into the polyglot society of today. The All-Americans at the turn of the 20th century included names straight out of the Social Register: T. Truxtun Hare, Crawford Blagden, Hamilton Fish.
Fast-forward to the middle of the century, when the descendants of the European immigrant wave used their athletic prowess as a ticket to higher education: Frank Carideo, Alex Wojciechowicz, Marshall Goldberg, Johnny Lujack.
The late sportswriter Pat Harmon loved to tell the story of how, when first-generation American Vic Janowicz of Ohio State won the 1950 Heisman Trophy, his Polish immigrant father, Felix, accompanied him to the Downtown Athletic Club in New York. From a window many floors high, Felix saw the Statue of Liberty, which he had last laid eyes on in 1913. Felix grabbed his son’s arm.
“When I came to this country 37 years ago, I made a prayer right there,” Felix said. “I prayed that something good would happen to me in America. And here I am today, with my son, who is being honored as the best college football player in America.”
In 1961, Sandy Stephens led Minnesota to a second consecutive Rose Bowl and became the first black All-America quarterback. It would take pretty much the rest of the century before we stopped counting black quarterbacks. Here it is, 40 years after Willie Jeffries broke the coaching color line when he took over Wichita State, and we still count black head coaches. The integration of the football field mirrored the integration of America, done, as that unfortunate Supreme Court phrase described, with “all deliberate speed.”
Certainly over the past six decades, All-America teams have reflected not only the predominance of African-Americans on college football rosters, but players of African and Asian-Pacific Islander descent, including Mohammed Elewonibi, Ndamukong Suh and, of course, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Who better an All-American than a guy born and raised in Hawaii and playing at Alabama? By himself, Tua covers all of America.
College football gave us the phrase All-American, and other words and expressions that have enriched the American lexicon — quarterback, fight song, sideline, cheerleader, tailgate, redshirt, Hail Mary (the play, not the prayer) — on the field and off.
Players, young and talented and fresh and unsullied by wealth or fame, quickly capture our hearts and just as quickly move on. They come and go within five years, the best of them in as few as three. The same goes for coaches, too, except in reverse. Coaches used to get five years to build their programs. Now they are lucky to get three.
The iconic coaches stay much longer, their images in our mind’s eye long after they are gone: Bear Bryant leaning against a goalpost, Eddie Robinson in coat and tie, Knute Rockne — or Pat O’Brien playing him — exhorting Notre Dame to one more victory.
Memory has a way of smoothing out the rough edges, and usually leaves us with the vision of coaches in their prime. They are the sport’s sinew, the connective tissue that binds one generation to the next. Bill Snyder, 79, the Hall of Fame coach from Kansas State who retired last month, is only six degrees of separation from Teddy Roosevelt.
Snyder served as a graduate assistant in 1966 at USC under John McKay, who played for Oregon in the 1949 Rose Bowl against SMU. The Mustangs were coached by:
Matty Bell, who played at Centre College in 1920 with:
Bo McMillin, who the following year led the Praying Colonels to their mythic 6-0 upset of Harvard, which was coached by:
Bob Fisher, who played for the Crimson in 1909 for:
Percy Haughton, hailed as the father of modern organized coaching, perhaps because he once enlisted:
President Theodore Roosevelt to hire a line coach for him.
Teddy Roosevelt loved college football. He is credited with saving the game by summoning the presidents of Princeton, Yale, and his alma mater, Harvard, to the White House in 1905 to tell them to clean up the violence in the game or else Washington would have to intervene. That led to the creation of the NCAA.
Three years later, Haughton took over at Harvard, and he wanted to hire Ernest “Pot” Graves, then a lieutenant at West Point, to coach the Crimson linemen. Haughton petitioned the president for help. Roosevelt sent a note to his secretary of war and close friend, Yale graduate William Howard Taft, which said, “I was a Harvard man before I was a politician. Please do what these gentlemen want.”
Taft, evidently a politician before he was a Yalie, sent Graves to Harvard. The Crimson defeated the Bulldogs 4-0 on Nov. 21, 18 days after Taft, Roosevelt’s handpicked successor as the Republican candidate, won the presidency and got some revenge of sorts. After the season, Lt. Graves was dispatched by the Army to the Philippines. In 1909, under the Taft administration, undefeated Yale beat undefeated Harvard 8-0.
Former presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford both played and coached college football. Eisenhower coached teams on Army bases, and he gave it up only because he feared that if he continued, he might not be taken seriously as an officer. But he never gave up his love of the game. On the day that Eisenhower became president of Columbia University in 1947, he rushed to meet with Lions head coach Lou Little and convince him not to leave the Lions for Yale. Little stayed.
Presidents these days limit their involvement to occasionally attending a game (President Donald Trump came to the Alabama-Georgia game last January) and annually serving as host at the White House for the national champion. Then-president George W. Bush famously hosted both LSU and USC after they shared the 2003 national championship.
Remember the days when the sport had more than one national champion? Of course you do: They spread across the first 128 years of the sport’s existence. Some of us still maintain the occasional controversies did nothing but good for the sport.
The reason that presidents honor college football teams is not merely because fans vote. Presidents honor college football teams to connect themselves to the passion that voters invest in the game. That passion is the only return on a fan’s investment.
Think about the two most famous kick returns in the history of the game: The Play by Cal against Stanford in 1982, and the Kick Six by Auburn against Alabama in 2013.
Both returns abandoned the accepted choreography of the play as designed;
Both employed surprise that heightened their effectiveness on the field and their appeal off it;
Both resulted in touchdowns that, like a call from the governor to death row, overturned the accepted verdict as the clock ran out.
And all of that pales before their most important characteristic: One archrival inflicted that upset — that surprise, that pain that will last a lifetime — on another. There have been other unlikely finishes as time expired: the Hail Marys of Doug Flutie and Kordell Stewart, UNLV’s 99-yard fumble return against Baylor, Miami’s rugby-esque laterals against Duke. But those don’t matter the way that a rivalry game matters.
Rivalry is the fuel that keeps the college football engine humming. It is an infinite natural resource. It is why USC wraps the campus statue of Tommy Trojan in protective casing the week of the UCLA game. It is why fans of Texas and Texas A&M continue to snipe at one another, even as they begin Year 8 of their realignment-induced divorce. It is why college football has a cake with 150 candles aflame.
Passion fuels our fandom. Always has. Coaches coach to satisfy a competitive desire that their bodies can no longer satisfy, to change lives, and to make a boatload of money (not always in that order). Players play for the love of competition, for the love of teammates, maybe even for the love of education.
But few of them coach or play for the reason that we will wear party hats for the next 12 months. For many of them, the sport is a business deal, a trade of services for money or scholarship. The rest of us invest our hearts and souls into our colors, our fight song and our tailgate buddies. We invest in that place, somewhere between family and obsession, that occupies our autumn Saturdays and, let’s be honest, every other day.
Former Delaware head coach Dave Nelson served as secretary-editor of the NCAA college football rules committee, the public face of the rulebook, from 1962 until his death in 1991. Nelson played at Michigan with Tom Harmon, the 1940 Heisman winner. Nelson created the wing-T offense. He spent his entire life in college football translating the complicated into the simple.
College football, Nelson wrote, “is a ritual that transcends politics and entertainment, an emotional experience that will live for many ages because it is of the spirit. When all things pass, the spirit remains.”
It is that spirit that we plan to celebrate for the next 12 months. It is that spirit that Georgia fans celebrate when they see the freshman Herschel Walker run over Tennessee safety Bill Bates, that Arizona fans revere when they hear “Bear Down!”, that Texas fans feel when they see Vince Young, ball like a loaf of bread in his right hand, sprint to the pylon at the Rose Bowl.
It is that spirit, borne of youth, which imbues the stadium rituals that become sacrosanct. Some are solemn, like the pride a Buckeye feels as he watches Script Ohio. Some are fanciful, like the excitement a Buff feels as Ralphie thunders down the field. Some are simply goofy. Nowhere else in sport do so many fans sing in unison. English Premier League fans sing their songs and cheers, but it is part of the game, done to spur their lads to victory.
When Penn State fans stop everything to sing “Livin’ on a Prayer,” or Alabama fans do so to sing “Dixieland Delight,” it has nothing to do with the game. It’s just for the sheer joy of singing with 100,000 or so of your closest friends.
That is college football. We invest in our rituals because they represent what is important to us. That spirit is the common ground on which we gather to celebrate the sport. Let’s get this party started.