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A big day for the small fry
William Taaffe
October 11, 1982
CBS sent its NFL heavies out into the boonies to air Division III games
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October 11, 1982

A Big Day For The Small Fry

CBS sent its NFL heavies out into the boonies to air Division III games

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It's Monday, Sept. 27. The scene is an office in the CBS building in New York City, where the network's NFL announcers have gathered to learn their assignments for the following Sunday. As a CBS executive goes down the line, handing out slips, anticipation turns to disbelief. "Wisconsin-Oshkosh at Wisconsin-Stout?" says Tim Ryan in bewilderment after reading his slip. "Where is this Stout?"

"There isn't any Stout," says a voice from the back of the room. "That's supposed to be a college. The name of the town is Menomonie."

"Anybody know what a Millsap is?" says Tom Brookshier. "First they separate me from Pat Summer all, then they give me West Georgia versus Millsaps in Jackson, Mississippi. You think they're trying to tell me something?"

Suddenly John Madden breaks into the room, waving his arms. "As I was saying," he shouts, "this here game they gave me, Wittenberg versus Baldwin-Wallace, is in Springfield, Ohio. My train only goes to Toledo, but on this map here, it's two inches to Springfield. So if I catch the train from Grand Central tomorrow...."

Should the history of Division III football ever be recorded, let it be noted that Ryan found Stout, Brookshier learned to love Millsaps, and Madden drove those final two inches to Springfield. And at the University of San Diego-Occidental game in Los Angeles, Dick Stockton didn't fall from his open-air broadcast scaffold at the 50-yard line onto Occidental's dirt running track. As our semifactual opening scene suggests—most of the words were spoken, but not in one room—some at CBS were skeptical about the network's decision to air a slate of Division III games in place of NFL reruns on Sunday. They needn't have been. These games caught the spirit of American football Saturdays in a most unusual way. Midway through West Georgia's 41-6 victory over Millsaps, Brookshier put it well. Noting that Division III colleges offer no athletic scholarships and mindful that more than 3% of Millsaps' student enrollment of 1,205 is on the football team, he said, "This is the way college football was meant to be played."

According to its $131.75 million contract with the NCAA, CBS had to show four Division III games this season. When, where or how didn't matter. In fact, CBS planned to air the games "point-to-point," or only to the towns where the schools are located and the immediate surrounding areas. But faced with the NFL strike and scrambling for substitute programming, CBS decided to fulfill its commitment in one afternoon. The result? A Division III TV blitz in every region of the country. Fleeting fame for the likes of Steve Varga, the son of a Yugoslavian immigrant, whose fourth-quarter field goal gave Baldwin-Wallace a 16-14 win over Wittenberg. A glimpse of Lamar West of West Georgia, a 5'8", 155-pound kickoff-return man who scored touchdowns of 92 and 91 yards. Afterward, West said of his first TV appearance, "I don't think they could see me because I'm so small." In short, the day was a moment in the sun for the unsung. " CBS asked us for our highlight films," said Wisconsin-Oshkosh Sports Information Director Scott Berchtold. "We don't even have highlight films. Sometimes we're lucky to have game films."

That CBS carried the Division III games says more about power politics in sports television than the network's commitment to the football have-nots. When the NFL went down, CBS wanted to fill its pro football slots with Division I-A games. The NCAA said O.K., but the other college football broadcasters—WTBS, Ted Turner's SuperStation, and ABC—wouldn't allow CBS to broadcast extra games without extracting several pounds of teleflesh. Turner wasn't even disposed to let CBS move a Division I-A game from Saturday to Sunday without the network making what it considered unreasonable concessions. For example, he wanted CBS to promise not to schedule college telecasts opposite the proposed NFL Players Association All-Star games, the rights to which he owns.

CBS said no to Turner's demands, leaving itself only with Division III, which accounts for 193 of the 506 football-playing schools in the NCAA but only .4% of this season's television revenues. So impoverished is Millsaps' football program that the $15,000 it got for appearing on CBS was equal to three-fifths of the college's athletic budget. By contrast, a Division I-A university receives $600,000 for a regional TV appearance.

Once it settled on Division III, CBS had to choose the best matchups and persuade the home teams to switch their games to Sunday. Wittenberg, Millsaps and Occidental, which beat San Diego 34-20, agreed to the move before the first $1,000 bill fluttered to the ground. But No. 1-ranked Widener (playing Muhlenberg), Bowdoin (playing Amherst) and Wesleyan (playing Tufts) declined. Wisconsin-Stout became the final piece of the regional TV mosaic. Said Stout Athletic Director Warren Bowlus, "When we heard we had a chance to be on, it didn't take long to get the game switched. I think my hardest chore was trying to convince Jim Flood [ Oshkosh's athletic director] that I wasn't kidding." Stout defeated Oshkosh 23-15.

For the announcers and the crews, solving logistical problems was no mean feat. As viewers learned, Division III stadiums are small. Brookshier had a hard time even finding Millsaps' Alumni Field in Jackson. First he went to 62,500-seat Memorial Stadium, where Mississippi State plays. Then he stumbled onto Newell Field, a 10,000-seat high school facility. Both stadiums dwarf Alumni Field, which can seat 1,800 if all the fans sit with their legs together. At Occidental's Patterson Field, 2,500 sardines sat on one side of the field, forcing the cameramen and announcers to set up in front of unfinished stands on the other side. "I've seen stadiums in western Pennsylvania that were bigger than this," said Stockton before the game. "The press box they have looks like a mummy's tomb. It seats about four. Five players on the Occidental team live under the stadium. No kidding. Their rooms are under the stands, including the starting quarterback's and the wide receiver's."

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