It’s Saturday afternoon, and I’m watching the Michigan-Notre Dame game on ABC. Meghan’s grandparents came down with their truck to help us move from Danny’s place into our place, and after lugging all of the boxes upstairs, we went back to Danny’s for the couch and the couch and the bed. I wanted a work break, though, so I popped on the football. When I turned it on, Notre Dame was up 17-3 at the Big House, but the first play I saw was a touchdown from Chad Henne to some freshman I’ve never heard of. The Michigan crowd went wild—100,000 screaming, educated fans—and while the classic matchup piqued my interest, the game reminded me just how much I’ve grown to dislike college football.
It’s not that I won’t watch college football. I still love Northwestern, and I still enjoy a good matchup, because good football is good football. But I’ve begun to notice a certain amount of uneasiness that taints my enjoyment of the game, an uneasiness that rests in my disdain for hypocrisy. Sports are a business; I’ve come to accept that. They mean big money to a lot of people, and many vital decisions are made based on the bottom line…cash, not athletics. And while I have always understood the inherent hypocrisies in big time college sports, they’ve never really bothered me too much until this season, though I think that it’s been growing for some time.
I’m still cool with college hoops—in fact, I really enjoy it—but I’ve grown quite apathetic towards college football, an apathy that has been brought to light by the NCAA’s unwillingness to develop a playoff system that will determine one true national champion.
When I was growing up, the bowl system was fine. It had its flaws, including the same mondo flaw that it has now—If three teams end the season tied for the best record in the country, how do you decide which two go into the national title game and which one gets the shaft?—but for the most part, the system worked. The biggest difference, as I see it, was that the power schools in the power conferences had all of the money and all of the appeal, and thus got all of the players, which meant that in a given season the best two teams were way better than everybody else. The co-champions in 1990, 1991, and 1997 were due to the split voting between the AP Poll and the Coaches Poll at the end of the season. That problem was then “fixed” by the BCS, a system that was created with the sole purpose of producing a national title game between the two best teams in the country. “Let them settle it on the field,” they said. But now there was another problem: parity, created by the reduction of the maximum number of scholarships that a school can offer, as well as higher visibility for smaller, less-“football” schools from television. Now the traditional power programs—Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Tennessee, USC, and the big three Florida schools have won every national title since 1993—are routinely challenged by the smaller, newer powers, such as Utah, Louisville, and Bowling Green. The point is, picking two teams to “settle it on the field” isn’t actually settling it on the field, and the last few years have shown us that, with the BCS producing a national title game between one obviously deserving team—Miami in 2001, LSU in 2003, and USC in 2004—and one maybe/maybe not team—Nebraska in 2001, Oklahoma in 2003 and 2004. How sweet would it be if these teams could battle it out in a playoff format? That we don’t get to see the best teams playing each other at the end of the season in matchups that are formulated on the field rather than on a computer just sucks the joy right out of the game. It’s like an assembly line football season, right down to the last decimal point.
So the lack of a clear national champ is part of my growing disdain. The rest is in the amount of money made on college football, of which the players don’t see any. And yes, I see the hypocrisy in me calling out college football for being a business and yet not calling out college hoops. Well, the difference, as I see it, is that football is so much more money-dominated, since a college basketball team holds about fifteen players, while a football team holds over seventy, which means over seventy sets of uniforms and equipment—both of which cost much more than a pair of basketball shorts, sneakers, and shirts. Also, there tends to be more of a relaxed nature around college hoops, as reflected in the long tenures of many college coaches. Coach K at Duke, Lute Olson at Arizona, Eddie Sutton Oklahoma State, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Jim Calhoun Connecticut, John Chaney at Temple, Gary Williams and Maryland, and Bob Huggins at Cincinnati (until this year) are all coaches who have been with their schools for more than fifteen years. Throw in Bobby Knight with Indiana, Dean Smith with North Carolina, Roy Williams with Kansas, and that’s eleven coaches who have established an iconic and status at a school. Which current college coaches can you say that for? Obviously Joe Paterno at Penn State, though he’s well past his prime and many are calling for his retirement. Bobby Bowden has been at Florida State forever…but after that? Lloyd Carr has been at Michigan for less than a decade, as has Larry Coker at Miami, Jim Tressel at Ohio State, and Pete Carroll at USC. College football coaches have a much shorter shelf life than basketball coaches, mainly because the demands on them to produce national championships are extraordinarily unrealistic.
So the football coaches are hired and fired with more regularity, and then when you throw in the amounts of money that are involved, and most obnoxiously for me, the lack of a true national champion, (the arcane bowl system is still in place simply for financial purposes, because it provides more schools with postseason opportunities, even though the majority of bowl games lose money), all of this adds up to my growing dislike for college football, and as I am in quite a huff right now, I will end my college football rant…
…and just in time, because Notre Dame has just finished up their upset win over Michigan, leaving me free to watch the U.S. Open semi-final match between Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt. Watching Federer, it is clear that he is one of the great competitors in any sport. This is a guy who is not only the most talented tennis player in the world, but also the one who seems to be the most fiercely determined to prove himself with every point. Like the New England Patriots, he is efficient, wasting no energy and doing exactly what it takes to win, without ever appearing as if he is over exerting himself. Like the San Antonio Spurs, he is professional; knowing that you are the best is only a part of what it takes to actually be the best.
But the Spurs are not a very passionate team; they seem to take it for granted that they are the best and that they play the hardest. Federer is not that way at all. Soft spoken and polite, he lets out exuberant roars after winning difficult points, and in this way he displays the best qualities of New England. Like the St. Louis Cardinals, he is dominant in every facet of the game. He has a commanding first serve and a precise second serve, a stroke that is both powerful and graceful, quick feet to get to the ball no matter where it is, the strength to blast a shot cross court as his opponent tries desperately to recover, and the touch to drop it right over the net in a way that is as crushing as his 100 mph serve. To see the difference between Federer and Hewitt, you need only watch one of them at a time. Watch Hewitt on his own, and you see a great tennis player who, nevertheless, is forced to react to what Federer is doing. Hewitt looks like a guy who thinks that if he can just hit the ball harder than the other guy, surely that will be enough for a victory.
Federer, on the other hand, looks calm and in control, another mark of a champion. He doesn’t react to Hewitt’s shots so much as he anticipates them, and because of this he is rarely in a position where he has to run back and forth across the court. He is always in control, and in this way he has the truest sign of any champion in any sport: if Federer is playing his best, he is rarely beaten. It is only when he makes mistakes, thus allowing his opponent an opportunity to gain the upper hand, that he can be beaten. His high level of talent, smarts, composure, hard work, desire to win, and consistency in all of those areas make him nearly unbeatable. That he is also, by all accounts, an incredibly nice guy and gracious victor, a man who destroys his opponents only to then earn their praise and adulation…well, what more would you want from a champion?
As Federer finishes off Hewitt to advance to the final, my phone rings. It’s Mom. And no surprise: she’s been watching.
“So, Federer and Agassi in the final.”
“That’s the word.”
“Did you see the match last night between Agassi and James Blake?”
“No. I heard about it though.”
“Oh! We watched till the end, which was just after midnight. Jack, it was incredible. Agassi was down two sets to none, and came back to win the match. It was just beautiful tennis, back and forth, and Agassi never gave up and just played his hardest the whole way. At the end, they went to the net and just hugged each other.”
“Yeah. It was really cool. Blake played really well. He’s a real good player, but he’s young. He’ll have another shot. I’m glad they let Agassi win.” Apparently, my mom is referring to the tennis gods here.
“They did, huh?”
“You know what I mean. I’m glad that Agassi got to win.”
“So what you’re saying is that older people should be allowed to win because they’re old, and so they might not have another chance?”
“Good to hear.”
“Well, that’s about all for now.”
“OK. Good talking to you.”
“You too. Are you going to watch the championship tomorrow?”
“I’m gonna try. We don’t have our cable hooked up yet so we’re going to a bar or somewhere to watch the Bears.”
“Oh good. Well then, I’ll talk to you later tonight or tomorrow.”
“OK Mom. Have a great day.”
“You too. Go Bears.”