FOR ALL THE COLLEGE GAME'S IMPERFECTIONS—THE LOW graduation rates of players at certain schools; the embarrassing, perennial shortage of black men in head coaching positions; the cash-fueled drift toward those superconferences; etc.—it remains far more attractive than the NFL.
I'm not just talking about the USC Song Girls or the leather chaps sported by the members of the Texas Pom squad. College football boasts some of the most spectacular venues in America—secular cathedrals like Notre Dame Stadium and the Big House; Bryant-Denny and the Rose Bowl. Yes, Lambeau Field and Arrowhead Stadium are distinctive and drenched in history. The remaining NFL venues range from charmless, aging hulks to inoffensive, antiseptic life-support systems for luxury boxes to the nine domed and hermetically sealed structures rising over their surroundings like toadstools.
It goes without saying that playing on fake grass in a glorified, climate-controlled terrarium drains some of the character, the challenge, the fun from football. It is, at its core, unnatural. But it's a good business decision to put your team under a dome. (A warm, dry, comfortable fan is a fan more likely to keep coming back—to keep opening his wallet.) And the bottom line, it goes without saying, guides every decision made in the NFL. That's why, a few years back, the league put the kibosh on an Indianapolis church's plans to show the Super Bowl on a big screen, tut-tutting that such a screening would violate copyright laws. Concern for that bottom line is also how Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland justified asking a wide receiver, during a predraft interview in April, whether the player's mother had been a prostitute. (That's a general manager we're talking about, not some just-hired underling.) If the player had childhood traumas, Ireland's reasoning went, the club wanted to know about them before investing millions in him.
Sure, college football is a cold business in its own right. Ask the surviving members of the Big 12 or the schools of the Big East. The commissioners of the BCS conferences bow to no one when it comes to their keen interest in maximizing profits. Yet there is something about the college game, with its marching bands and student sections—where the chest-painted, fright-wigged loon to your left is also the guy you see three mornings a week in molecular biology—with its talismans, its traditions and its menagerie of live animal mascots, that makes it...more of a game. College football isn't just older than the NFL, it is less rational, less sane and, as a result, much more compelling.
There is something at once whimsical and transcendent in the sight of an Ohio State senior sousaphonist high-kicking his way to a spot above the third letter of Script Ohio, in the moments before kickoff, then dramatically "dotting the i." How cathartic it must be for John Short, a middle-aged insurance salesman who was attending his 27th straight Georgia-Florida game when I met him, to don his foam Bulldogs helmet and bone-shaped BITE ME, GATORS bow tie, inflate the Hairy Dawg blow-up figure atop his van, then commence mixing his famed (and feared) 14-ingredient, antifreeze-colored "Gator-killer punch."
These are the passions spawned by college football's ancient feuds, which have no NFL equivalent, and which serve as border disputes and culture clashes all at once. Two of the best known of those—Florida versus Georgia and Texas versus Oklahoma—engender such hostility that they must be contested in neutral settings. Of course, if the decision to play at a neutral site were based on ill will alone, Michigan and Ohio State would play their annual showdown in, say, Toledo or Kalamazoo. The Game, as it is known in the heartland, packs more history and hatred than any other rivalry, not just in college football but also, arguably, in all of sport. I reflected on this fact several years ago while nursing what can only be described as a modest-sized pail of beer at the Newport Music Hall on North High Street, just a mile from Ohio Stadium in Columbus. On the eve of the Game, a punk band called the Dead Schembechlers ripped through a set of half-screamed numbers like Bomb Ann Arbor Now, M Means Moron and I Wipe My A--with Wolverine Fur. Out of respect for Schembechler, who had died that morning, the band changed its name to The Bastard Sons of Woody Hayes.
Earlier that week, I'd spoken with then Buckeyes wideout Anthony Gonzalez, whose father had played for Schembechler at Michigan but lost his scholarship after getting injured.
Did his father leave on bad terms with Bo? "My dad?" said Gonzo. "He has great things to say about Bo. Great things."
Gonzalez, now an Indianapolis Colt, was a philosophy major with a 4.0 GPA nearly every academic quarter. I remember his admonition when I confessed that I'd never read Plato: "You've got to read The Republic."
I saw Gonzo a few months later at the NFL's annual scouting combine, so named, I suspect, because it combines elements of a beauty pageant, a cattle auction and hard-core interrogation sessions. Like all other prospective draftees, he was dressed in an NFL-issued gray sweatshirt, on which was stamped his league-assigned four-character code. We chatted while he was shuttling between physical and psychological tests. He was bemused, I recall, by some of the Bizarro World questions posed to him by the grim-faced NFL personnel "experts." "Whatever you do," I advised him, "don't mention Plato."