Following Edmund Burke’s adage (which was actually first said by Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland, in a speech in the House of Commons on 1641, but it is thoroughly Burkean) that “If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change,” we can draw a straight line from this week’s ridiculous decision for USC and UCLA to join the Big Ten to the ruinous decision to institute the college football Bowl Championship Series back in 1998. College football has gone downhill ever since.
At a stroke the geniuses at the NCAA ruined the traditional New Year’s Day regional matchups, and reduced the charm of college football to a handful of elite college programs chiefly in the SEC. Who even cares about the Rose Bowl any more?
Now, I can understand that west coast football programs are frustrated that their stars often do not get sufficient attention for the big player awards like the Heisman or Outland trophies because their games do not receive much attention from eastern sportwriters and viewers because the games are on too late. But there’s something facially absurd about USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten (which is already more than 10 anyway).
Which is why I heartily endorse my pal John Tamny’s takedown of this wretched move, in “The Slow-Motion Suicide 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. 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 for what will eventually be a sixteen-team playoff format. What propelled college football to remarkable popularity will be mothballed. And for obvious reasons.
There’s more, all of it excellent. John (who grew up near where I did), next time we’re in Pasadena at the same time, let’s hit Tony’s Pizza and celebrate the good old days, and start an agitation to install Burke as head of the NCAA. He wouldn’t have done something as stupid as this.
Meanwhile, here’s one of the latest offerings from Power Line’s sports desk, Savage Brick Sports, on worst weather sports moments: