When Jerry Jones purchased the Dallas Cowboys in 1989, his investment bankers told him he was making a big mistake. Luxury boxes at Texas Stadium were empty in many instances, so were seats. Jones was taking a big risk simply because the NFL of 1989 was a far cry from the NFL of 2022.
The Jones anecdote is necessary as a way of reminding readers that nothing is forever in the marketplace. What’s popular can and often does lose its luster (remember the Blackberry, or before that the Nokia mobile?), while what’s down can often rise. At present the NFL’s dominance is unquestioned, but the latter was once true about baseball. And the NBA was once seen as less watchable than the largely unwatchable television produced by the Big Three networks in the 1970s and 80s.
It’s a way of speculating on the future of college football. The bet here is that the height of its popularity is now a past-tense concept. Time will tell, but the guess is that fan interest is on the verge of a slow decline that will soon be fast. And that’s really sad.
Somewhere along the way, the big players in the sport forgot that tradition is the lifeblood of college football. The local rivalries forged within regional conferences created their own traditions, including bowl traditions. For the longest time the Pac-8 (and eventually Pac-10) champion played the Big-10 champion on New Year’s Day at the Rose Bowl. It was always on New Year’s Day unless the latter fell on Sunday. If so, it was played on January 2nd. Legend has it that Rose Bowl bigwigs promised the man up above that the game would never be played on a Sunday so long as it would never rain during the game. Memory of decades worth of Rose Bowls says the man up above has fulfilled his end of the bargain. A tradition in its own right…
Crucial about the Pac-10, Big-10 and the Rose Bowl was that the Jan. 1 “Grandaddy of Them All” was the top goal for the teams in each conference. The Sugar Bowl was the reward for the top SEC team, the Orange for the Big-8, and Cotton for the Southwest Conference. It was brilliant precisely because the true #1 wasn’t always “settled on the field.” Indeed, if we ignore that “settled on the field” is the most overrated notion in sports as is (does anyone seriously think Ohio State was the better team than Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl?), the post-season arguments about the best team lasted throughout the post-season, and last to this day. The post-season debate was the tradition, as were the rankings that came out each week of the season.
Of course, the happy truth about playing for a bowl game over a mythical national championship game enhanced the odds of interesting intersectional matchups ahead of conference play. Since conference games settled the bowl teams, there was more of an incentive to please fans with pre-conference matchups against prominent opponents well outside one’s region. Better yet, with it being a weekly play for quirky but endlessly fun ranking, a quality win against an out-of-conference opponent improved a team's near and long-term argument as #1. For fans on the west coast, USC vs. Notre Dame was (and for now, remains) an annual tradition. In the early 1970s, legendary coaches John McKay and Bear Bryant got together to schedule a home-and-home between USC and Alabama. It’s said to this day that USC’s win at Birmingham’s Legion Field did more to integrate the south than did Martin Luther King.
Nowadays the goal is making the playoffs. Again, this trite notion of “settling it on the field.” College football is taking on a professional sports quality. The "single elimination" genius of a regular season defined by rankings and a variety of colorful bowls on New Year’s Day (again, tradition) will be sacrificed in favor of a fight for slots in a playoff. The bowls, debates, rankings, and edge-of-one’s seat regular seasons that made college football singular as a tradition will be pushed aside. The uniqueness of a regular season that formerly demanded perfection (or close to it) all season will be debased as the teams in two conferences vie for a tournament slot instead of a bowl game. Translated, the all-important regular season will be devalued in concert with the bowls. Snooze. What propelled college football to remarkable popularity will be mothballed. And for obvious reasons.
Since the sport is morphing into a two conference system (SEC vs. Big-10) with the bowls an afterthought, it’s inevitable that a sixteen team playoff will replace a glamorous past in order to give teams something to play for with the bowls in the rear-view mirror. But so many wanted the champion “settled on the field,” you say. True, but wishes granted are often the stuff of nightmares. There’s a tradition-suffocating trade-off to the playoff system, and never forget that tradition gave college football life.
Which means we’ll soon have a collegiate version of AFC vs. the NFC in the college game. The Pac-12 is over with given the departure of USC and UCLA, Texas and Oklahoma signed the Big-12’s death warrant with their departure to the SEC, plus more defections are surely to come. Money is a good thing, and a worthy reason for change. The guess here, however, is that the rush for near-term money speeds up the college game’s decline; one that began with the BCS, playoffs, and NILs.
In short, you’re lucky if you remember what college football used to be. The one defined by tradition. In time, that’s the college football we’ll happily remember given the plastic bore that the modern one is becoming.