There’s nothing like it. When it comes to a sport’s impact on the fabric of American pop culture, none can rival college football. The NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball may have a more visible global presence but, judging by sheer numbers alone, collegiate football truly is the all-American game. While major professional sports leagues field an average of roughly 30 teams, the NCAA’s grouping for Division-I football alone includes 119 squads, spread across the country in every state. The most popular of those teams play in stadiums that hold over 100,000 fans, while NFL stadiums hold no more than 80,000. This discrepancy is in part because major college teams draw from all over their state, as opposed to just one metropolitan region. The type of player who performs for those packed stadiums differs too.
In college football, the players simply care more. NFL teams are generally comprised of what amounts to mercenaries, playing for the highest bidder. In college football, it’s different. Despite the rise of national recruiting, most teams generally field players who grew up in the same region as the school they are attending. And since only a handful of players on the best teams will go on to the NFL, most college players are fighting for team pride and tradition, rather than a signing bonus or contract. In the words of Lou Holtz, the legendary, former coach of Notre Dame and South Carolina, “They don’t get any salary, they just wanna win.”
This kind of investment means that game day atmospheres at NFL games can rarely match the emotion of college game days. To begin with, college games attract a crowd of alumni, fans who have invested more than just the price of a game ticket; they’ve spent what many consider the best four (or more) years of their lives at the school. Add to that mix the students themselves, usually packed into designated student sections where undergrads employ ever-increasingly creative ways to fly their colors and show support for their team. In the past, this has included things like making up humorously obscene lyrics to their rival’s fight song. The Wisconsin band, for example, has recently been disciplined for its uncouth behavior toward rival teams. Such behavior may simply be kids being kids, but since college players are less experienced than pros, they’re more susceptible to being affected by the raucous atmosphere at road games. As such, college fans stand a better chance to actually affect the game they attend by providing their school with a real home team’s advantage.
Ohio State’s 2005 visit to Penn State was a prime example of this phenomenon. Penn State was on an early roll and out to reassert their program after a couple of losing seasons. Their team and fans saw a primetime battle with Ohio State as a chance to announce that they were back. The student section instigated a “White Out”; most at the stadium arrived clad in white. With a capacity of 107,000, Beaver Stadium was flooded with a sea of white shirts, which stood out even more under the primetime lights. Amid the truly electrifying atmosphere that night, the Nittany Lions were propelled to a 17-10 upset victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes.
As the teams prepared for a rematch in Columbus on September 23 of this year, several Ohio State players admitted that the Penn State crowd had indeed thrown them off their game a bit last year. By way of revenge, a group of OSU students took it upon themselves to organize a “Sea of Scarlet”. Their plan worked, as the Buckeyes’ 105,000 capacity stadium (known as “The Shoe”) was filled with a uniformly scarlet crowd that, in the fourth quarter, built to a near deafening roar on a fourth down goal line play that caused one of Penn State’s linemen to move early, resulting in a five-yard false start penalty. As a result, Penn State was forced to kick a field goal instead of going for the touchdown. The Buckeyes went on to win and retain their number one ranking. A key turning point in the contest was undoubtedly that moment where the home crowd rattled the visitors into that crucial error.
This kind of intensity is commonplace in college football, as the fans in attendance are watching games that are more meaningful than the regular season contests in the NFL. With no playoff system, a college team generally has to go undefeated to make it to the championship. In fact, no team with two losses has made it to the championship game since the current Bowl Championship Series format (which pits the #1 and #2 ranked teams against each other at the end of the season) was adopted in 1998. For the serious contenders, this makes every game a do-or-die playoff. Regular season NFL games can only pale in their individual magnitude.
Such pressure helps to explain a situation such as was seen in the aftermath of this September’s controversial game between the Oregon Ducks and Oklahoma Sooners. During an onside kick late in the game, Oregon was the beneficiary of a bad call that gave them possession of the ball. The Ducks then went on to score a touchdown and steal a 34-33 win, handing the Sooners their first loss of the season. Even though Oklahoma missed a subsequent field goal that could have won the game, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops—and Sooner fans everywhere—were incensed after the game. Even OU’s President, David Boren, called for the game to be stricken from the record, attracting the attention of many for his comments. This would be the equivalent of a big city mayor taking time away from metropolitan business to protest a bad call in an NFL game—it just doesn’t happen. Boren embarrassed himself and his school by not recognizing that bad calls are part of the adversity that great teams overcome. But his comments clearly demonstrate the magnitude that college football holds in the lives of many Americans.
They also point to what might become an intense rivalry between these two schools, and nothing sums up the meaning of college football better than a rivalry game. Unlike the NFL, whose inner-division rivalries occur twice every season, arch-rival games in college football are held once a year, traditionally scheduled as the last game of the season. Match ups like Ohio State vs. Michigan, Florida vs. Florida State, Cal vs. Stanford, USC vs. UCLA, Auburn vs. Alabama, Harvard vs. Yale, and many others can often color the rest of the year for both victor and loser alike. Just ask Auburn coach Terry Bowden who, after a tough loss to rival Alabama one year, lamented, “We’re going to have to live with that for the next 364 days.”
In fact, nothing short of a sex scandal can put a college football coach on the hot seat quicker than repeated failure against his arch-rival. Despite a strong overall record, former Ohio State coach John Cooper was canned after the 2000 season, mainly due to his 2-10-1 record against the hated Michigan Wolverines. Cooper was a great recruiter who sent a boatload of star players to the NFL, but he could never grasp the significance of “The Game.” Some Buckeye fans are known to say that 1-10 would be a good season if the one win came against Michigan. Cooper’s successor, Jim Tressel, however, has achieved near saintly status in Ohio due to his team’s 4-1 record in “The Game”. It’s now Michigan coach Lloyd Carr who finds himself feeling the heat of a fanbase unhappy about this turn of the tide in the rivalry. With both teams (as of this writing) undefeated heading into their game this season, an epic clash of unprecedented proportions may await on November 18 in Columbus.
Of course, NFL fans can get pretty riled up too, as the league has its share of compelling rivalries. But most of the owners are akin to modern robber barons who are more interested in making a buck than fielding a winner; they’ll move their team to another city in a heartbeat if they think they can get a better financial deal (just ask fans in Baltimore, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Cleveland—all of whom have lost home teams as owners sought greener financial pastures). No one “owns” a college team, so a franchise can never be moved. Alumni feel like the team is really their team, whereas the same is a mere illusion in pro sports. For this reason, games like Ohio State-Michigan or Auburn-Alabama are what college football fans live for. It’s why you will see the home team’s fans either storming the field afterward in jubilation or sitting in their seats staring into space in stunned disbelief. It’s agony or ecstasy, there is no middle ground. This passion, more than anything, makes college football America’s most compelling, most important sport.