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A whole new ballgame

Big money, bigger players, higher stakes

  Florida State's victory in last January's Sugar Bowl symbolized much of how the game has changed. Matthew Stockman/Allsport

By Stewart Mandel, CNNSI.com

The fight songs, the cheerleaders, the tailgates. Some things never change.

But in most other respects, college football -- America's oldest team sport, along with baseball -- enters the 21st century with little resemblance to the game of 100 years ago.

"The basic concept of advancing the ball and trying to win is the same," says Bernie Kish, executive director of the College Football Hall of Fame. "Everything else, from the equipment used to the style of play to the size of the players -- it's like 180 degrees."

For the 79,000 fans at the Louisiana Superdome and the 56 million television viewers who watched last season's Nokia Sugar Bowl, Florida State's 46-29 victory over Virginia Tech was merely an entertaining end to another exciting season.


Interactive timeline:
The 20th century

A whole new ballgame: How the game has changed

Where we go from here: College football in the 21st century

Nothing but trouble: Scandal part of coaches' daily life 
 
 

But if Teddy Roosevelt had been there, he would have felt like he was watching a miracle.

As president of the United States in 1905, Roosevelt faced the possibility of having to outlaw the popular sport of football, primarily a college phenomenon at the time. The most recent season had seen 18 student-athletes die from this brutish game where, play after play, the ballcarrier would plunge into a pile of bodies hoping to muster a couple yards.

"Though I've only seen snippets of the game back then, it really had to be a boring game -- I don't know why anyone would have watched," says Kent Stephens, a historian at the Hall of Fame. "No one's throwing 50-yard bombs, no one's running reverses. Everyone's just putting as many people in one spot as possible and shoving the ball in there. It's more like tug of war."

That offseason, Roosevelt summoned leaders of the sport to Washington for a meeting, the results of which were several rules changes to open up the field and reduce brutality. Most notable was the legalization of the forward pass.

Nearly a century later, if he could have watched the Sugar Bowl, Roosevelt would have seen a wide-open game, with Florida State's Chris Weinke throwing numerous "forward passes" to Peter Warrick and Virginia Tech's Michael Vick running anywhere but up the middle.

And what if a university president circa 1900 could have dropped in last January to see this spectacle?

He and his peers had sensed the potential, even then, of a sport that drew several thousand spectators to their campuses on fall weekends. But not in his wildest dreams could he have imagined a scenario where games like the Sugar Bowl, as part of the Bowl Championship Series, could offer tens of millions of dollars to the participating schools and their conferences. And where, for dozens of schools, the interest level in the sport could be so great as to financially drive the entire university.

That schools from Florida and Virginia would even be playing in such an important contest also would have seemed unfathomable at the turn of the century. The few national polls and All-American teams that existed at the time were dominated by the East Coast programs that essentially invented the sport: Harvard, Yale, Princeton etc.

But as improvements in travel over the first quarter-century made it possible for schools to play more intersectional games, the balance of power gradually shifted. Along came the Midwest's Michigan and Notre Dame, where former player Knute Rockne built a dynasty as its coach in the 1920s; Oklahoma and Nebraska in the Plains; California and Stanford in the West; and Alabama in the South.

Strategies and innovations, like Pop Warner's Single-wing in the 1910s or Texas' wishbone in the 1960s, traveled as well by way of copy-cat coaches. But a funny thing happened along the way: Rather than each new fad replacing the last, most continued to stick around, allowing for modern-day situations where a team like Nebraska, which still runs the option, can play a team like Oklahoma, with its spread-receiver sets.

"That's the beauty of college football," says 28-year BYU coach LaVell Edwards. "It's always been more of an entertaining game for me than pro football, considering the wide variety of offenses and defenses you see. We'll play against a wishbone one week against Air Force, then the next week we'll play a team that spreads you all over the field."

The athletes playing the game have changed considerably as well. Looking at a team picture from 50, 60 years ago, the players were all relatively the same size. At the time, everyone played both offense and defense, and in fact the "two-platoon" substitution system of today, where a lineman would certainly never be confused for a receiver, did not become a permanent feature until 1965.

"That's when specialization came into play," says Stephens. "Before, you had to have the ability to play 60 minutes both offensively and defensively. Now you have defensive ends who play just third down to rush the passer, even players who are just a long-snapper."

No matter what position, players are all bigger -- in some cases, 100 to 150 pounds bigger. Weight-training and conditioning have become year-round requisites. Notes BYU's Edwards: "When I began, weight training was virtually non-existent."

Throughout much of the last century, the biggest changes to college football's landscape have come not at the hands of players or coaches, but the proverbial "powers that be" -- administrators, TV executives, conference commissioners, even Supreme Court justices. Their initiatives, some popular, others not -- have contributed to many of the sport's characteristics today, including:

  • The availability of numerous televised games, both on national networks and on a regional basis, including Thursday nights and certain other non-Saturday games.

  • The formation and expansion of six "major" conferences -- the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, Big East, Pac-10 and ACC -- whose coalition controls the national title race through at least 2006.

  • The separation of smaller programs from larger programs, including the relegation of the once-mighty Ivy League to the lesser Division I-AA.

    And yet, despite the sport's staggering overhaul through the course of the century, the one thing most associated with college football hasn't changed at all: the passion.

    Nebraska received more than 28,000 requests for 4,000 allotted tickets to its game at Notre Dame on Sept. 9, the Cornhuskers' first trip to South Bend since 1947. But it won't be the first time Lincoln has sent a caravan there. In 1924, some 2,000 Huskers fans traveled to their game at the Irish's then 22,000-seat stadium, mostly by train.

    Similar scenes are sure to play out along interstates and campus drags across America this autumn.

    "A lot of the things you experienced 40 or 50 years ago, your children and grandchildren have as well," says Stephens. "You have a lot of commonality that has branched through generations -- that's great for college football."

    Stewart Mandel is college sports producer for CNNSI.com


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