For the love of the game
Despite what your thermometer says, spring has arrived, at least if you believe the practice schedule at Miami, Stanford and a few other campuses. The 2009 season has begun, and if you're like me, the seven weeks since the BCS National Championship Game felt as if they would never end. I took a little vacation, recharged the batteries and took a step back to appreciate 10 things I like about college football. My list will differ from yours, and I'd love to hear how.
1. The best regular season in sports: You want to quiet even a drumbeat for a college football playoff? Ask the drummer what will happen to the tension that builds every week from Labor Day to Christmas shopping. The BCS has its issues -- don't worry, we're not going to rehash them here -- but the one thing it has done in its 11 years of existence is ratchet up the excitement of the regular season. The BCS defies the rest of American sport. Yeah, it defies logic. But it also creates a nationwide, top-of-the-lungs debate every fall. Compare that to the current college basketball season. Started paying attention yet?
2. Quarterbacks Sam Bradford of Oklahoma, Colt McCoy of Texas and Tim Tebow of Florida: For the first time in the 74-year history of the Heisman Trophy, the top three vote-getters return to play another season. Just to enjoy the return of three proven stars, two of them Heisman winners, would be enough. But on top of that, all three are good citizens and great role models. It would be too much to ask for them to go a combined 37-4 again. But a guy can hope.
3. Opening weekend: Two decades ago, the Kickoff and Pigskin Classics brought fanfare to the beginning of the football season. College football offered those games as a sacrifice to obtain a 12th regular-season game for everyone. Last season, Chick-fil-A Bowl president Gary Stokan filled the excitement void on Labor Day weekend by staging a game between highly-ranked powers at the Georgia Dome. The idea has spread. This season, Alabama and Virginia Tech will play in Atlanta, and Oklahoma and BYU will play the first game at the new Cowboys Stadium. Opening weekend is special again.
4. Football in Iowa: After Kirk Ferentz had three consecutive mediocre seasons at Iowa, Hawkeye athletic director Gary Barta didn't panic. Instead, he stood behind Ferentz. Iowa rebounded last fall with a 9-4 season and a top-20 finish. From 2005-2008, Ferentz went 28-22. Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer went 29-21, one game better. Iowa just signed Ferentz, a perennial NFL candidate, to a contract extension through 2015. Tennessee kicked Fulmer to the curb. I'll take patience and a long-term vision over what-have-you-done-for-me-lately every day of the week.
5. SEC passion: Tennessee's canning Fulmer is the dark side of SEC passion. What got Fulmer's successor, Lane Kiffin, into trouble is the bright side. Think about it. Kiffin ignited the firestorm about Florida coach Urban Meyer while speaking at a booster breakfast attended by 1,000 fans. That's right -- they paid for banquet food ("Eggs not cold enough? I'm sorry.") on a February morning to hear football talk. The SEC pays the biggest salaries and has won the last three national championships. The engine that makes that machine hum is the passion of the SEC fans. They buy the seat licenses. They wolf down the cold eggs. They love their football.
6. Food and football: No other sport combines victuals and victory so well, not even baseball, which memorialized the fans' love for peanuts and Cracker Jack more than a century ago. College football provides an emotional connection between fan and campus. So does college football food, whether it's at a tailgate, a concession stand (turkey legs at Virginia Tech, the Louisiana hot sausage in the southwest corner of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum) or a campus eatery (insert your favorite barbecue joint here). There's a reason that the Latin phrase alma mater means "nourishing mother."
7. Paul Johnson: The triple option once dominated the college game. It died in the 1980s of obsolescence -- or so we thought. For the last two decades, the option has been the booster seat that allowed the service academies to sit at the table with the big boys. Johnson turned the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy into his personal doorstop while at Navy. In his first year at Georgia Tech, Johnson proved an offense based on the option can beat the big boys. The Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to LSU may have been ugly, but it doesn't diminish what Johnson and the Yellow Jackets hath wrought. The option is back.
8. A pulling guard: Football is rarely an elegant sport. If you're lucky, a couple of plays a game you'll see a fully extended receiver at the sideline, or the running back who opens his hip to a tackler, then closes it and glides away. But when a 300-pounder vacates his anonymous setting next to the center and races -- yes, races -- outside the hash mark to play bodyguard for a tailback, football mixes strength, speed and deception with a simple elegance that can steal your breath.
9. Draddy Trophy: The National Football Foundation is promoting this award as the Academic Heisman. Perhaps there will be a day when the Draddy stands on its own. The award recognizes a football player as dominant in the classroom as on the field. Among the recipients of the $25,000 postgraduate scholarship are four NFL players (Peyton Manning, Tennessee, 1997; Chad Pennington, Marshall, 1999; Kyle Vanden Bosch, Nebraska, 2000; Brian Leonard, Rutgers, 2006), an MIT professor (Jim Hansen, Colorado, 1992) and, yes, a Heisman winner (Danny Wuerffel, Florida, 1996). Too often the connection between athletics and academics is tenuous. The Draddy proves that doesn't have to be the case.
10. The Golden Age of coaching: We have legends in Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno. We have 200-win future Hall of Famers in Frank Beamer, Jim Tressel and Mack Brown. Among the 10 winningest coaches (by percentage) in the game, four are under 50 -- Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops, Mark Richt and Brian Kelly. Take them all in. Given the size of coaching salaries, financial security is available at a younger age than ever. Before the BCS National Championship Game, both Meyer and Stoops scoffed at the idea that they will be coaching into their 70s. There may never be another era that combines masters old and young quite like this one.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.
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