College Football Synergies
A few days stateside at the start of 2010 have allowed me to tune in to some of the College Football Bowl Season, recently capped by the University of Alabama’s first national championship since 1992; the Crimson Tide having defeated the University of Texas in Pasadena’s historic Rose Bowl arena (scene of the 1994 World Cup Final) on Thursday. Of course, the whole shebang can seem as alien as Chinese opera to British viewers, with media coverage outside the US and the internet roughly equating to zero. For all its parochialism, however, I think there are important parallels to be drawn with our own Coca Cola Championship. Here are a few I would pick out:
College football is an effective second tier. The National Football League trumps even the Premier League for corporate excess, with ballyhoo, endorsements and marketing obfuscating any semblance of a sport. The College genre is far from bereft of these characteristics, but the mood is toned down. Instead of pampered stars strutting about and switching clubs at the drop of a hat, the NCAA’s young stars seem proud to sport their “uniforms”. That the players are not paid and that most are still youthful is a difference (there are no wizened old pros a la Shaun Derry), but it’s still a natural staging post on the way to better things. The storied Heisman Trophy, awarded to the best young player in College football has seen a host of future greats rewarded, with Vinny Testaverde, Roger Staubach and a certain OJ Simpson all former winners who went on to Pro Football fame, just as the likes of Joleon Lescott and Andy Johnson have graduated from the Championship. Coaches too, can use the college arena as a stepping stone: University of Southern California Coach Pete Carroll is just today on the point of joining the Seattle Seahawks.
University level sport also allows regional centres of lesser population to support major sports teams. With the unforgiving franchise system allowing NFL owners to up sticks and move clubs at will, the comparative immutability of a college team’s location inspires greater solidity. On first encountering the college game, I was surprised to see that cities and states that do not support a professional team are very prominent among the top sides, with the Universities of Oklahoma, Nebraska and Notre Dame all giants of the drama. In the same way, an English league title for a Norwich or a Coventry is only a dim possibility, but it’s well within their grasp to dominate the second rank.
This point naturally leads on to perhaps the most obvious similarity. A colleague of mine in my company’s New York office remarked to me yesterday that the fans of the college game are “just that bit more into it”. Just as Premier League clubs’ followings are diluted by plastics, glory-hunters, fair weather fans and exiles, or whatever you may call them; the NFL is plagued by national support for which ever team is the flavour of the moment. Until recently, it was the New England Patriots and the profile of an outfit from another sport, the New York Yankees makes Man United look restrained in their grubby hunt for far flung fans. By contrast, backing for college teams borders on the rabid. A few years ago, I visited the University of Illinois campus to find it festooned in orange and blue and the University of Florida practically only exists because of gridiron. For Wednesdayites, Baggies and Bluebirds, read Gators, Seminoles and Cornhuskers.
The relative egalitarianism of the college game and lack of a “Big Four” leads to big showpiece finals involving a range of clubs from around the nation. Who can forget the Clive Mendonca play off final finishing 4-4 between Charlton and Sunderland, Stuart Lovell’s missed penalty in the 1995 Reading v Bolton classic and Hoddle inspiring Swindon to victory over Leicester Amusingly, the Americans have only seen fit to organise a match to decide upon an undisputed national Champion since 2006 but the battle is always hard fought. I was in New Orleans at the time of the 2008 match between Louisiana State and Ohio State Universities and the atmosphere on Bourbon Street saw fans mingling in the same manner as one of those lamented Cardiff finals, although there is no branch of “Frat House” in South Wales of course. Such fervour makes for some of the most impressive stadia in sport: with Penn State University’s Beaver stadium dwarfing the campus with a capacity of 107,282. Peck on that Magpies.
Lastly, although a coterie of massive teams do come back to the table for honours on a regular basis — Ohio State, USC, Texas, Florida and LSU most prominent among them — the potential for the unexpected is still there. Boise State University from Idaho have defied all odds with an eye catching run in recent seasons, capped by an unbeaten 2009-10. In this they resemble a Blackpool or a Doncaster. Another US trip, to the North Carolina mountains in 2007, coincided with an earth shattering win for tiny Appalachian State University against the might of the University of Michigan, a match still talked about throughout the country and an upset that makes Leeds’ win over United look like small budweiser. It’s a Saturday and the NFL Wild Card match ups are about to start, but for huge numbers of Americans, the action finished earlier this week.