What's the Big Deal With College Football?

What's the Big Deal With College Football?

By Michael T. Benson
What exactly is the allure of a fall afternoon, a rivalry game, a packed stadium, and grown men running headlong into each other at full speed? Given the successes of Coach Urban Meyer and his squad at the University of Utah, this year finds our state particularly engrossed in the spectacle known as college football. I’m always struck - especially at this season - by the enormous attention paid to the largest spectator sport in collegiate athletics. My fascination is mirrored by another unique phenomenon: nearly all of America’s great universities are - or once were - prominent in football. A quick glance at this week’s Top 25 rankings includes some of our country’s finest public institutions: Michigan, Cal-Berkeley, Wisconsin, Texas, and Virginia. Some might argue that Utah - with its advances in federally-funded research, its highly-ranked medical facilities, and its accomplished faculty, to name just a few indicators - should be included in that category as well.

Douglas Toma of the University of Pennsylvania, in his thought-provoking Football U, attempts to define the powerful galvanizing force that is college football. While baseball may be considered America’s pastime, football - both collegiate and professional - has captured our nation’s attention and devotion in a manner unrivaled by any other team sport. The National Football League’s television contracts for coverage of its games exceed those of baseball, basketball, and hockey - combined. Despite the unmatched excitement of March Madness and the NCAA Basketball Tournament, can anyone argue that this year’s BYU-Utah contest wasn’t the biggest sporting event in our state since the 2002 Winter Olympics? And who can resist the hold-your-breath excitement of the black box mystery and its inner workings known as the BCS computer rankings? Well, maybe some can.

A listing of America’s football powerhouses in the 1900s included Harvard, Yale, Penn, and Princeton. Franklin Field at Penn and the Yale Bowl - both seating over 60,000 spectators - date to the early part of the last century and remain today a testament to the importance of college football on Ivy League campuses during that era. Another football powerhouse in the 1920s, the University of Chicago, was a founding member of the Big Ten in 1895 but chose to abandon football in 1939. Although the home to the legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg and a perennial powerhouse, Chicago’s president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, once stated: “Football, fraternities, and fun have no place in the university. They were introduced only to entertain those who shouldn’t be in the university.” President Hutchins would probably get a rather stern argument to the contrary from the 110,000 blue and maize-clad fans at the Big House on a Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Stagg himself was an All-American player at Yale and joined the faculty at Chicago at the same time as Albert Michelson, the famed physicist who later became the first U.S. citizen to win the Nobel Prize in 1907. An informal poll of Americans in the 1900s would have revealed more citizens familiar with Stagg’s renown as one of America’s great coaches than they would have known about Michelson’s ground-breaking experiments.

While various external constituencies - alumni, trustees, regents, legislators, donors - may appreciate academic pursuits such as undergraduate teaching and applied research, they are often more interested in things collegiate. And, according to Toma, many are passionate about that principal element of collegiate identity: spectator sports on a football Saturday from South Bend to Salt Lake; Lincoln to Los Angeles; Baton Rouge to Boston. This collegiate ideal, as uniquely displayed on Saturdays in the Fall, provides campuses from coast to coast an invaluable means to reach the aforementioned entities for numerous objectives such as fund-raising and legislative support.

In the case of Snow College, we take tremendous pride in the accomplishments of all our student-athletes but are probably the best known for those achieved by our football players. Three examples from the last two years will help illustrate this point: quarterback Paul Peterson, a Snow graduate in 2002, currently starts for Boston College and helped lead the Eagles to a share of the Big East title this year, the College’s first ever. Brian Romney, a starter at wide receiver for Snow last year, led Cornell University in receptions this season and was recently named All Ivy League Honorable Mention. Given the Ivy League’s prohibition against athletic awards, Brian is studying pre-med at Cornell on a full academic scholarship. His teammate from season, Deuce Lutui currently starts at right tackle for the defending national champions, the Trojans of Southern California. Listed in the USC media guide at 6-6 and 370 pounds, Deuce was the envy of every offensive line coach in America last December. These are just three examples of hundreds of young athletes whose path to Division I programs have passed through Ephraim.

By sheer force of numbers of participants and spectators, college football far exceeds any other team sport. Yet beyond the numbers, there is a unifying influence football Saturdays bring that is unmatched by any other community activity. To state this fact is not to whitewash the obvious and significant challenges in governing so vast and complex an endeavor as college football - particularly as it relates to the enormous amounts of money involved. The current BCS situation is illustrative of policies adopted by a few but resented by many. Congressional hearings and public outcry from those outside the fortunate BSC conferences notwithstanding, changes to the current structure may or may not be in the offing. But at least the University of Utah has helped break down at least one barrier to BCS bliss.

As it relates to rivalries within our state (particularly BYU-Utah), there is no other activity that brings together such a diverse group of individuals - on both sides of the aisle and from every imaginable camp, persuasion, belief, conviction, and allegiance - as a football Saturday. Each side identifies with “their” team, regardless of what differences might possibly separate them on the other 364 days a year. It is truly a phenomenon unlike any other.



Snow College
Snow College, founded in 1888, serves approximately 3,000 students at its Ephraim campus. The college provides general education and applied technology programs leading to Associate of Arts, Associate of Science, Associate of Applied Science and Associate of Pre-Engineering degrees, and certificates of completion in a number of occupational areas. Once owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Snow College became a state college in 1932.