Friday, June 11, 2010

Screw Nostalgia


“At the end of the day, we’re going to make the decision that best serves Nebraska.”
-- Chuck Hassebrook, Nebraska University Regent

Wednesday night, El Hombre happened upon a programming gem on the Big Ten Network, and it distracted his attention from the icy proceedings in Philadelphia and just about every other modern-day sporting pursuit. It was the 1952 football highlight reel, and it included footage of the conference’s nine teams – plus Michigan State, which would join up officially the following season. There, in beautiful black-and-white, with piped-in crowd effects and a classic ‘50s voiceover, were the gridiron exploits of Hopalong Cassady, Alan “The Horse” Ameche and Tom O’Connell. No matter how futile a team’s season was, the announcer assured fans that if the “injury bug” could be avoided, prosperity was nigh. Or that coach So-and-So’s “rebuilding project” was well under way.

It was great to see the offensive sets and the fakes executed by shifty backs. There was even an old-fashioned “Navy” kick that backfired and resulted in a long return. It was a wonderfully wistful half-hour capped by the following poetic sign-off:

“We close another season of great upsets and hard play that make football the favorite fall sport of America’s youth.”

It’s entirely possible that within the next five or 10 years, we may have the opportunity to look back at the 2009 college football season through the same misty eyes. The high-definition video may even seem wonderfully archaic, should the onslaught of 3-D television occur at a pace expected by many in the business. Names like Ingram, Tebow, Suh and Gerhart may be more easily recalled, but the spirit of the game and its essence will be changed.

The tectonic plates of college football – and college athletics on the whole – have already begun shifting. Nebraska will be a Big Ten member. Colorado has already defected to the Pac-10. Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and whatever other schools they deem worthy of inclusion in their big-money club could join the Buffaloes. Or, they may go to the SEC. Or to the English Premier League. The Big 12 is toast. The Big East could be blown to bits as well, replaced by an aggregation of Catholic basketball schools that might be required to begin each game with a “Hail Mary.”

The resulting structure will resemble less the quaint regional aggregations that were built on rivalries and tradition and more like the corporate models that dominate the business landscape. Historic relationships will be replaced by market share. Long-time partners will be torn apart, replaced by marriages of convenience that dilute the soul of the sport.

This is, of course, inevitable. Money is the engine that drives the big-time sporting train, and relationships that produce the most cash are the most valuable. Welcome to the 21st century, folks. Check your nostalgia at the door, and make sure to tune in for that “instant classic” between Texas Tech and Oregon State. In college football heaven, Grantland Rice is crying on Sleepy Jim Crowley’s shoulder.

This isn’t the first time we have had a cataclysm like this. One upheaval began in 1984, when Georgia and Oklahoma successfully sued for possession of the rights to televise their football games, and the College Football Association was born. The resulting loosening of the TV reins brought fans an expanded menu of action that continues to swell today. It was good news for fans who wanted more choices and more opportunities to watch the great sport play out every week. But it had an unintended consequence. No longer were towns like College Station, Ames and Starkville mysterious destinations, tinged with a sense of the romantic, despite their relatively backwater locations. Before ’84, we would receive occasional dispatch from those gridiron outposts but rare was the full glimpse. From that point on, we knew them all too well. That was good news for the denizens of those hamlets and the schools that inhabit them, but for the fans who idealized them, it was something of a disappointment. Illusions were shattered. You mean Iowa State games aren’t all played under gunmetal gray skies with tornado threats posted at halftime? That the cowbell chorus at Mississippi State ends after the game? And that members of Texas A&M’s silent drill team actually speak when they’re not performing?

Throughout the next 25 years, the conference landscape shifted, as schools grabbed for a bigger slice of that TV pie. The SEC stole Arkansas and killed the Southwest Conference, leading some Texans to liken the Razorbacks to Iranian terrorists. (Really.) The Big 12 formed from a marriage between the SWC’s remnants and the mighty Big Eight. The Big East started playing football. The ACC discovered the sport. And Penn State became a Midwestern school. You know the story.

And you knew it was inevitable that it wouldn’t stop there. The mega-conferences are coming, and those who resist change stubbornly as a nod to a rosy past will be left behind like schools in small-time TV markets. Progress continues, and you can either surrender to it or be overrun. When El Hombre was teaching his Young Geniuses this past term in “The Future of Sports Journalism,” he was sure to remind them every class that the business is moving forward, and those who still look at it in terms of an eight-column broadsheet are doomed. So, saddle up and get ready for the Pac-16, or whatever it will be called.

Just don’t expect it all to be as much fun. College football exists now for the money, from the players to the coaches, to the ADs to the hypocritical presidents who spew on about “student-athletes” and how to protect them best. You want to serve your students, Mr. President? Then don’t make your softball team travel from Stillwater to Pullman. For decades, college football was about the wonderful, unique rituals that surrounded the games. Ohio State fans have always thirsted to beat Michigan, but only after the band ran through the script Ohio. Pretty soon the final two words of “The Notre Dame Victory March” will be “registered trademark.”

One of the reasons why the Missouri-Kansas football rivalry was so great was that it was born out of a pre-Civil War dispute between the states over slavery. (Kansas was pro-slavery; Missouri wanted it abolished.) From the minute the schools started playing each other, in 1891, there was a contentious tone. In a few weeks, it’s possible that the game may never be played again. Or, if it is, it won’t come in late November. That’s a shame. And no matter how hard the new leagues and their TV partners try to sell the new matchup, an Oklahoma State-Arizona clash born out of greed won’t have the same impact as a game that emerged from seething border hostilities during one our country’s most dire periods.

College football is changing, and fans and media had better get on board. Just don’t expect things to be nearly as good or as much fun.

Meanwhile, keep an eye out for those old-fashioned TV programs. They help ease the pain.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: The good news for Nationals prodigy Stephen Strasburg is that he gets one more Class AAA start – Sunday against the Cleveland Indians – before he has to face big-league hitters…Pig Pen Roethlisberger wants fans to know that he apologizes to them for being “immature,” “young” and “dumb.” How about being a felon (allegedly), forcing himself on women (allegedly) and being a scumbag (definitely)? The Steelers’ QB apologized to the fans and his family, but not to either of the women (if there were only two) who accused him of forcing himself on them. Unfortunately, since Pig Pen is following the Mea Culpa Playbook to perfection, all will be forgiven soon. Of course his (alleged) victims will never forget…The LeBron James soap opera continues to spin wildly, even though no one is allowed to speak with the underachieving Cavaliers’ forward officially until July 1. Teams continue to jockey for position in the competition for his services, and the Cavs are trying to find a coach that will make him happy. What he really needs is someone who will help him grow up (that means no more pre-game skits and choreographed dance routines during timeouts) and force him to learn how to shoot a jump shot. That will be worth more to him than even the biggest contract…Let’s give it up for Pete Carroll, who was able to skip town before the NC2A gumshoes laid down the smack on his USC program for not preventing Reggie Bush from accepting cash and prizes from an agent. The Trojans will lose up to 30 scholarships, miss out on bowl games for two seasons and forfeit games from the ’04 and (probably) ’05 seasons. The only justice is that former Carroll lieutenant Lane Kiffin, who was present during the shenanigans, is forced to pick up the pieces. ‘SC cheated, because school officials knew what Bush was doing and will now pay a severe price. Good.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The best thing to come out of the Flyers’ thrilling Stanley Cup near-miss was the attitude of Philadelphia fans, who actually appreciated the team’s success, despite the disappointing outcome. For once, the zero-sum game that has been sold to the area’s denizens was abandoned in favor of the joy of rooting for a team and not focusing merely on the outcome. Yes, the run to the final round was not expected, and that made fans less prone to demanding a championship or else. The resulting good feelings and desire to celebrate the Flyers’ accomplishments was truly refreshing. Unfortunately, the happy mood won’t last. The Phillies and Eagles are different than their underdog counterparts and won’t receive free passes. They shouldn’t. Unlike the Flyers, whose post-season run came out of nowhere, the Phils and Eagles have sold us championship dreams and must therefore be judged their relative success. As for the Sixers, a three-game winning streak would almost warrant a parade.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: It has almost become a cliché for Americans to regard soccer as a 90-minute sleep aid. Anybody who favors the sport is weak, bland and – worse – French. But the World Cup is different. You may not have an interest in an MLS matchup between FC Topeka and Real Bayonne (although the Philadelphia Union is worth checking out), but a slugfest between a pair of historical rivals is a different story. When Croatia beat Germany, 3-0, in the ’98 World Cup, it wasn’t just an athletic triumph, it was also an historic verdict for a country that had spent time under Nazi oppression and destruction during WWII. Every victory doesn’t have the same significance, but the combination of the sport’s best players and a heavy dose of nationalism makes the World Cup compelling theater, even if the game ends 1-0. Enjoy the artistry. Experience the passion. And don’t worry; we won’t tell the NFL you were watching. As for the tournament itself, figure the final four to be Brazil, England, Argentina and Spain, with the Samba stars facing off against the Spaniards for all the marbles. Advantage: Brazil. Looking for a dark horse? Try the Italians (14:1), who always do better when less is expected of them.


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