Bye, bye tradition: College football sorely lacking historical perspective

09/16/14 by Matthew S. Vandriak

I remember the days when the word "tradition" defined college football.
Well much like the days of meaningful bowl games, playing your rival every season, and actually knowing what color uniforms your alma mater is wearing, those days are gone.
Twenty years ago, there were 107 schools playing Division I college football. The college football landscape consisted of 10 conferences and 11 schools playing as Independents. There were 19 bowl games in 1994. So 35% of college football teams qualified for a bowl game. This year, there will be 39 bowl games. A staggering 125 schools play on the Division I, or FBS level. That means 62% of college football teams will play in a bowl game.

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Playing in a bowl game used to be an accomplishment. Now more teams make the postseason than those who miss it. And bowl games used to have their own tradition and identity. Playing in a particular bowl game was treat for teams and fans because of all that was associated with the bowl game and city it was played in.
The same bowl games were played in the same cities every year, which generated excitement in those host cities as well. Now with an overload of corporate sponsored minor league bowl games in places where there is no tradition associated with the bowl game played there, that annual experience and tradition of playing in a bowl game is gone. And with the National Championship no longer being decided in a particular bowl game, or one of the other major bowl games having any implication of who the will win the NCAA championship, not surprisingly, attendance for bowl games is on the decline.
Attendance was down for the third straight season, reaching the lowest average in 35 years.
Another tradition gone from college football is the "rivalry game." Every season college football fans could look forward to playing their rival. It didn't matter what the teams records were, those rivalry games brought out the best in the teams involved and were something to look forward to whether your team was in the hunt for a bowl birth or now.
Now those games are gone. No more Oklahoma and Nebraska. No more Texas and Texas A&M. Same for Pitt and West Virginia and now Notre Dame and Michigan. But there are plenty of home openers in their place, where an overmatched FCS team gets a "pay to play" date. So instead of the excitement and intensity of rivalry games, we get to watch a 55-0 pounding instead.
Of course there was a time when a college football program was identified by their coach. Bobby Bowden at Florida State. Bo Schembechler at Michigan. Lou Holtz at Notre Dame. Joe Paterno at Penn State. Tom Osborne at Nebraska. Those days are gone. Now a coach can sign a multi year contract at a university, then break that contract if a better opportunity is available. If a player transfers from one university to another, he has to sit out one season. But for coaches, it's fine to be here one day and somewhere else the next, which diminishes entire seasons come bowl time, when the team that played an entire season with their head coach is being led by an assistant coach or interim coach for their bowl game. Not to mention that college football coaches salaries are beyond ridiculous. College football is not a professional sport. But college football coaches are commanding salaries equal to and in some cases higher than coaches in the NFL. College football coaches are the highest paid employees at some universities. That shouldn't be the case at an institution of learning where the sport is played by student athletes who are still considered amateurs. The tradition that associated a coach with a university has been replaced by coaches creating their own legacy wherever their best opportunity (or pay check) is.
And of course teams used to be identified by the uniforms and helmets they wore. Tradition was worn on the field in uniforms that carried the schools colors and identities on their helmets. Now, you don't even know what color uniform your own team is wearing until they take the field. The uniforms and colors of universities that carried meaning and identity and represented years of history and tradition have been replaced by crazy color combinations that make you feel like you have vertigo when you watch them play...I'm talking to you especially Oregon and Maryland.
Maybe I'm a traditionalist. Maybe I'm one who feels that the way things used to be in college football were better than they are today. Maybe I miss the meaning that was associated with playing traditional conference rivals and qualifying for a bowl game. But if the NCAA is going to do away with the great tradition that college football was under the guise that it's the best way to determine a "true champion", the NCAA needs to do just that.
Go to an actual playoff system where teams actually play each other to determine who that true champion is. Otherwise college football will continue to be defined by it's new tradition: mediocrity.

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