Friday, October 28, 2011

Those Were The Days


“Yes, it used to be beautiful, what with
the rackets, whoring, guns…”
-- Lou Pascal, “Atlantic City”

If you are a fan of college football, you have a little bit of Lou Pascal in you these days. Pascal, a small-time gangster played by Burt Lancaster in the sublime period piece, “Atlantic City,” remembers the city – and his life – through romanticized lenses. To him, AC was great when the gambling was illegal and corporations didn’t do the thieving. It was somehow more noble back then.

So it is with the world’s greatest sport. As ruthless businessmen and TV executives bulldoze tradition and history, those of us who remember the Old Days do so wistfully. Like Lou, we realize that the world we recall was hardly perfect, but it was certainly better and had far more character than what we see today. It was somehow more desirable for back-room deals cut by men in sherbet-colored blazers to determine our favorite schools’ futures than to have computers do it. Rivalries were born of hate and anger, not advertising. And a couple bucks slipped to a star player by a booster was a fine reward for a full day’s work.

This week’s latest conference shakeup is merely the latest bit of evidence that college football’s greatness is evaporating. If West Virginia/Louisville bolts for the Big 12, after Missouri departs for the SEC, we may witness the creation of an unholy conglomeration of up to 32 unwashed C-USA, Big East and Mountain West souls huddled together in the hope their group hug will confer BCS legitimacy. Those Leftovers had little cachet before they coagulated into a great pile of who-gives-a-damn, and they’ll remain largely undesirable after it – no matter how rich their espn contract may be.

Every time someone decries the behavior of these greedheads, he is dismissed as too old by people for whom history is what was presented on last week’s episode of Tosh.0. (Go ahead and invade Russia, folks. It just might work!) Well, here’s a news flash, kiddies: In 10-15 years college football won’t be much different than its NFL big brother, from the cynical in-game “experience” to the cheerleading media coverage designed to promote the product. Wait a second; we already have that.

Spend three hours in a big-time college football stadium, and you’ll witness a slickly-produced show that incorporates elements of the sport’s past – marching bands; cheerleaders who don’t look like, ahem, dancers and real student sections – along with plenty of professional trappings. The promotional/sponsorship presentation is growing at a scary rate. A lot of the band music has been replaced by standard-issue “motivational rock,” which attempts to create enthusiasm and remind fans that certain parts of the game are more important than others. The giant video boards attract thousands of eyes away from the field, so many spend three hours watching TV, instead of the game itself.

With each new season and hiring of yet another AD that has no experience at all in sports, the atmosphere gets closer to that of the NFL. Factor in the decaying traditions and an end to several historic rivalries – so long Texas-Texas A&M, Pitt-West Virginia and Kansas-Mizzou – and you have a more sanitized, though certainly profitable, college football product.

One problem: as the sport lurches closer to the NFL version, it loses its soul. That may be fine to the generation of kids for whom the word “classic” refers to last year’s Alabama-Auburn game, but it does nothing for those of us who remember when Autumn Saturdays featured gridiron encounters that were almost romantic. The upshot of the new conference alignments will be made-for-TV affiliations that represent nothing but the opportunity to maximize profits, or at least stay out of the deep red.

When Arkansas left the Southwest Conference, back in 1992, the Razorbacks were viewed as the worst of traitors for having upgraded their lot by joining the SEC. Decades of tradition were ruined, as the SWC splintered, and the Big 12 emerged from the pile. Today’s movement is happening so fast and furiously that it’s hard to put the black hat on any one school. So, we look at the real culprits: the TV networks. They sit behind the scenes and counsel conferences and institutions on which moves will make them most attractive to their checkbooks. The goal is a fat contract that guarantees the highest payout to league members. If that comes with the creation of a money-printing conference network, all the better.

The wheel has been set in motion, and it’s impossible to stop it. The next couple years will feature a reshuffling of schools’ home addresses and eventually produce a conglomerate of powerful players that rakes in the big bucks and attracts the top talent. Those who fail to find a properly prosperous home will exist on the margins, collecting scraps. It’s not hard to imagine members of the Mid-American or Sun Belt Conferences staging sit-ins at the site of a future BCS title game under the “Occupy the 50-yard line” banner. Fans will eventually adjust to and accept the new order and forget the Old Days.

But as the product and its presentation get closer in style to that of the NFL, college football will slowly lose its identity. Years from now, it will be practically impossible to differentiate between Saturday and Sunday, as contrived new “traditions” are seen for what they really are: marketing ploys. And mascots will be no more than corporate symbols, like the Michelin Man or Captain Morgan. Maybe then, people will pine for the 1990s, just as many fans look back wistfully at the ’60s and ‘70s.

With apologies to Lou Pascal: yes, it used to be beautiful, what with the wishbone, the hundred-dollar handshakes and January 1.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Me-O held a Peter Brady workout earlier this week: Many were invited; no one (except for a couple TV cameras) came. Hard to believe there’s no market for 37-year olds coming off major knee surgeries with massive, locker-room-threatening egos. You would have thought the Packers or Patriots would have offered him a five-year deal…The NBA and its Players Association made some real progress toward a deal Thursday, and fans celebrated by turning on the hockey game. You do have to give the parties credit for understanding that if they had trashed another couple months of play, people would have found other things to do besides watching a game between the T-wolves and Raptors – like having a cavity filled without anesthesia…In other basketball news, Allen Iverson has told the world he’s healthy and ready to accept a reserve role on a team, so long as he can have Tuesdays and Thursdays off to go to the casino and the training table is at TGIFriday’s…Top-ranked women’s tennis player Caroline Wozniacki has complained that rival Victoria Azarenka’s grunting during matches is too loud and can be a competitive advantage. Azarenka, of course, disputed that claim and said the issue was not one of trying to gain an upper hand but due to a lack of sufficient levels of fiber in her diet.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Eagles fans will no doubt be in full froth Sunday night when the Cowgirls come to town, and there may even be some snow in the stadium to fire at the Dallas players, coaches and owner False Face Jones. But no matter how loud the fans are or how much trash is talked between the players and Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, the fact remains that the Birds must prove they are legitimate playoff threats or consign themselves to two more months of criticism. The good news is that Andy Reid is 12-0 after bye weeks during his tenure in Philadelphia. The bad news is that the win over Washington two weeks in a row did not contain enough deodorant to remove the stench of the previous four straight futile weeks. The Eagles must prove they can play turnover-free football, hold tight to a lead against a good team and play some respectable defense. Philadelphia is now reasonably healthy and at close to full strength. Beat the Cowgirls, and 2011 prosperity remains a possibility. Lose, and the cries for Reid’s head will increase, and for the first time in his tenure, be legitimate.

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AND ANOTHER THING: UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma can be a lot of things, including arrogant and hard to stomach. But he was completely correct earlier this week when he said Notre Dame’s sweetheart deal with the Big East hurt the conference badly. But don’t forget to blame the folks in Providence, who allowed ND to play football as an independent while housing the Irish’s “Olympic” sports in a safe harbor. The Big East should have gone to Notre Dame’s administration years ago and said, “Either join for everything or take a walk.” That may have pushed ND into the waiting arms of the Big Ten, but at least the Big East could have retained its dignity. As ND continues to play hoops, soccer and lacrosse in the conference, the Big East’s football profile takes a monthly hit, forcing the league to chase schools like Houston, Memphis and UCF. Golden Domers, who can hardly be considered the most reasonable people, must admit they have it pretty good. The Big East, on the other hand, looks foolish as one of its “members” benefits from scheduling security while getting a little something on the side. Hats off to Geno for pointing that out.


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