Monday, November 19, 2012

On college football...

Some thoughts after last Saturday's wild day of college football, and the accompanying insanity that clings to the sport like a disease.

1. I hurt for Bill Snyder and Kansas State. The soft-spoken, brilliant old coach had his squad from the charming Flint Hills three wins from a national title. They were favored against Baylor, and likely would have been favored at home vs. Texas and against Notre Dame in the national title game. Three wins as a favorite away from a national title from the school dubbed "Futility U" by Sports Illustrated before Snyder arrived in the late 80s.

Back then, K-State was the worst college football program in the nation by far. Snyder impossibly lifted the Wildcats to greatness, remaking the logo, the attitude, the team, the town. When he arrived, Manhattan, Kan., was only accessible by two-lane road. Now the four-lane road from I-70 into town bears Snyder's name, as does the stadium where the Wildcats play. Snyder retired once, then came back and restored the program he'd built after it slipped under Ron Prince. Snyder has 168 wins at KSU. The coach with the second most had 39.

Snyder and the Wildcats were once my nemesis, if you can believe that. They struck at Nebraska's stranglehold on the Big 12 North; they beat Mizzou to win the North with myself in attendance in 2003. But somewhere along the way they won my respect. I love how they play; players underrated by the know-it-all recruiting evaluators, hardworking, minimize mistakes, take pride in your school and your performance. They play like a humble, hardworking Midwestern team. Snyder is a humble, understated, hardworking Midwestern guy. They don't trade on the past reputation of their school; they can't. They have to and do earn every accolade. They stand up to the blue bloods, hit them hard, and often win (see: KSU vs. Texas).

I thought just maybe Snyder would get that brass ring this year, a national title. He was a win away from playing for it in 1998, but a late fumble and blown lead in the Big 12 title game led to an overtime loss that Snyder later compared to the death of his mother. This one stings maybe just as bad. But still, an outstanding season for a team picked to finish in the middle of the Big 12. With a win against Texas, the Wildcats will clinch their second Big 12 title under Snyder. Their last conference title before Snyder saved the program, and possibly the town? 1934.

2. It's kind of exhausting talking college football with SEC zealots. There are perks to Missouri's new membership in the SEC, for sure, but enlightened, fact-based discussion of college football isn't necessarily one of them. Trouble is, every SEC zealot conversation must have the default assumption that every SEC team is superior, even the best teams in other conference aren't that good, and an SEC player must win the Heisman Trophy. Winners from other leagues are the product of systems or inferior competition. Well, I don't care much for default assumptions in such discussions. SEC zealots call Notre Dame a fraud because they have only faced one top-50 offense. Never mind that exalted Alabama has only faced two, losing to one of them.

SEC zealots insist Georgia is good even though the Bulldogs have beaten Florida and... Vandy at home? They insist SEC schedules are brutal, and many are, but they ignore the wide variation in schedules, and that with a 14-team league and an eight-game schedule, teams can duck many of the best teams. They ignore that impartial computer rankings say the Big 12 is the best league this year, and that teams in that league must play all nine of the others. Look, the SEC is a very strong conference, the best in most recent years. But would it kill them to acknowledge there are other good teams and players, and that there are some dog teams in the SEC? I love the league's personalities and atmospheres and am impressed by its talent; I just need some objectivity in my sports discussions.

3. Conference realignment has jumped the shark with the Big Ten adding Maryland and Rutgers. It's a blatant, naked attempt to get the Big Ten Network on cable packages in New York and other East Coast markets. Never mind that New Yorkers are none too fanatical about college football, certainly Rutgers college football. Rutgers is 9-1 and the New York Times doesn't have a Rutgers beat writer. They run AP stories on the Scarlet Knights. The Big Ten needs growth markets with the Great Lakes states declining in population or growing only slowly? So long as Michigan and Ohio State have enrollments of 50,000 or more and keep pumping out graduates/customers, the conference's future is fine already.

Conference realignment has always been all about money, but this is the latest, most extreme example. Maryland and Rutgers bring NOTHING in terms of tradition, football prestige or fit. In a Washington Post poll, 70 percent of Maryland fans didn't want the move. It's tough to imagine Big Ten fans supporting it. Sorry, Northwestern, you get fewer trips to the Horseshoe and Camp Randall, but enjoy New Jersey! And for what? The Big Ten is already quite lucrative and all over ABC. Not ESPN, ABC. Broadcast. Big time, big money. What will schools do with this additional cash? More TVs in the weight room? Build more luxury boxes? Pay higher travel bills? Was Ohio State, one of the nation's biggest athletic department budgets, hurting for cash?

What are we doing here? Nebraska and Missouri will now travel to Atlantic coast states to play games, but they won't play each other. They won't play neighboring Iowa State or Kansas/Kansas State. Years from now, people will look back on the last three years and condemn the leaders of college athletics for their poor stewardship of the game. The game, always corrupt and hypocritical and greedy, has reached new levels. The NFL seems more pure and less commercialized now. It harbors no illusions about what it is, a business. Wow, college football.

4. But after plenty of old-man-yells-at-cloud ranting, let's end a bit better note. This weekend does have the usual incredible slate of Thanksgiving weekend games. (Albeit missing some great rivalries due to the abomination of unyielding conference realignment. No kidding, Iowa State-West Virginia occupies the Friday afternoon ABC slot that Texas-Texas A&M filled for several years. Cancel my appointments.) Notre Dame tries to clinch an improbable spot in the national title game against USC. Oregon and Georgia try to avoid stumbles against their rivals, trying to hang in the national title race. For my purposes, Nebraska tries to clinch the Legends (?) Division title against Iowa and Missouri makes a last, desperate push for bowl eligibility against Texas A&M.

So yeah, college football has its flaws, and people in charge have been harming the game. But there is a reason we keep coming back. Enjoy the weekend.

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