Commentary

Let's keep 'college' in college football

Updated: April 28, 2009, 3:58 PM ET
By Jim Caple | Page 2

Washington and Washington State were two of the worst teams in college football last year, so you wouldn't think it possible they could make their fans' experience even worse. Yet that's precisely what the two had in mind. Before finally coming to their senses Friday, the two were talking very seriously about moving their annual Apple Cup to a "neutral site" each season at Seattle's Qwest Field.

Washington State fans were outraged because they correctly saw Qwest Field less as a neutral site and more as a four-mile drive from the UW campus (and a 300-mile commute from Pullman). Washington fans were angry because Husky Stadium is a cherished historic venue where the school has played for nine decades on the scenic shores of Lake Washington, while Qwest Field doesn't have any place you can tailgate. (Seriously, no tailgating. What's the point of going to the game?)

In the end, the two dropped the proposal because -- surprise! -- they couldn't agree on a ticket allocation system. But a better reason is that the idea would have violated an essential tenet of college football: The more you separate the college from the football, the worse it is.

Although they involve the same sport, college football and the NFL are considerably different experiences. The NFL is a faster, more violent version played by superior athletes, and it takes place in a corporate environment primarily structured for people watching at home from their couches. College football is based as much on tradition and past players as those you see running on the field on game day. Marching bands, fight songs, student sections, cheerleaders in swirling skirts and aging alumni with nostalgic memories of youth -- "I had pants with a 30-inch waist. Seriously, a 30-inch waist! And I had to cinch them up with my belt!" -- are an essential part of the overall experience.

Off campus, a football game is just a football game that literally could be played anywhere. On campus a game triggers an emotional memory of college so powerful that you'll want to stack empty beer cans against the living-room window when you get home.

Yes, there are several neutral-site games that are very successful. The Oklahoma-Texas game is played in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. The Georgia-Florida game is played in Jacksonville. The Army-Navy game is primarily played in Philadelphia. But at least Dallas is midway between Norman and Austin, the Florida-Georgia game is notable as much for its intangibles (the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party), and when was the last time the Army-Navy meant anything big? More importantly, the schools started playing games at those sites so long ago (the Red River Rivalry has been in Dallas since 1912) that they weren't breaking a longstanding tradition.

Otherwise, rivalries not only need the bi-annual home-field advantage for kicking the collective asses of those lousy, no-good, manure-tossing SOBs for daring to trespass into your temple, they require the anxiety, trepidation and thrill of venturing onto their turf and conquering those lousy, no-good, manure-tossing SOBs just for being alive. It's no coincidence the Washington-Washington State rivalry instantly became more even and more spirited when the Cougars moved their Apple Cup home games from Spokane (75 miles away) back on campus.

Imagine the Ohio State/Michigan game at Detroit's Ford Field. Or the USC-Notre Dame game played in the middle ground of, say, Utah.

Moving to a neutral site simply to make a little extra money is not only selling out on the cheap, it's extremely short-sighted. The more games you play off campus, the fewer students who attend. The fewer students who attend, the smaller your future fan base. The smaller your future fan base, the lower your long-term revenue. The lower your long-term revenue, the more silly ideas you need to consider to raise money. Like playing your biggest game of the year away from your campus.

College football is like real estate. The three most important things are location, location, location.

This is particularly true for the Apple Cup, where the University of Washington and Washington State are separated by 300 miles, a mountain range, vastly different climates and significantly different cultures. When the game is played at Husky Stadium, the temperature is always pleasant and the fans are so passionate, supportive and intelligent we do our spellouts in Latin ("Eamus Canis Lupus Familiaris"), while donating generously to the general scholarship fund for every first down. When the game is played in Pullman, it always is 20 degrees below zero and snowing sideways so heavily that the crude, hygienically challenged and drunk fans can't find their cows to ride home after the loss.

Or at least that's how I see it. Cougars fans might have a different view, though I wouldn't put much stock in their opinion because they are, of course, drunk.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com