Friday, September 10, 2010

The Other Football

As I alluded to in a recent post, the rest of the world views American collegiate sport as an oddity. The training grounds for professional athletes anywhere but the U.S. are, oddly enough, professional teams. 

Overseas, promising soccer and basketball players are nurtured by professional clubs, beginning at a young age. The advantage: athletes who are interested in pursuing sport as a vocation don't have to pretend that they are students. The disadvantage: athletes who are interested in, but not good enough to, be professional athletes end up without any marketable skills.

Of course, there are other downsides to college athletics besides the fact that they are not supposed to be equipped to do what they do -- train amateur athletes to be professionals. Especially in football, agents, the bowl system, and the exploitation of unpaid athletes for the generation of millions of dollars of revenue for some "institutions of higher learning" understandably makes many an educator or administrator queasy.

But all of those doubts disappear, for me anyway, come Saturday afternoons in the fall (well, it should be Saturday afternoons, and only Saturday afternoons, as far as I'm concerned). There is something very unique and special about college football that, for me, no other sport can match. 

Maybe it's the fact that there are only 12 (or 13, or 14 nowadays) games in a season. Part of it is the pageantry. Part is the history of whatever team(s) you root for and a link, somewhere, to a glorious past. And part is that college football has the unique ability in the U.S. to join uncommon people in a common bond, at least for a few hours. In much of the rest of the world, soccer is the sport that does this. But in the U.S., I believe that it's college football, more so even than the NFL.

This coming weekend is one of the two biggest of the college football season for me. And, no, not because it's WVU v. Marshall on Friday night. Remember, when it comes to being a fan, I never take the easy route. For while I generally root for both WVU and Marshall, I am first and foremost a fan of my alma mater, Wake Forest (which has the tradition of being one of the worst major college football programs), and of the University of Michigan. And Saturday Michigan plays Notre Dame.

I grew up going to The Big House with my Dad and brother, watching Michigan play the best teams in the nation. It was just us and 110,000 of our closest friends. I saw a surprising number of great offensive players over the years -- surprising because Michigan had the reputation of being a "three yards and a cloud of dust" team. Tom Brady, Brian Griese, Chad Henne, and Elvis Grbac are all quarterbacks I saw play in person, and Anthony Carter, Charles Woodson, and Desmond Howard were among the wide receivers.

Just as important as the team or the players, though, was the atmosphere: bright orange and yellow and red maples on the drive to the stadium on a crisp fall morning; parking on the U of M golf course (!) or in some five-times-a-year entrepreneur's yard; walking to the stadium with and past thousands of fans decked out in Maize and Blue; the smell of the food simmering on their tailgate grills. 

Then, there was the stadium itself. There is nowhere like Michigan Stadium on a Saturday afternoon. From the street it looks singularly unimpressive -- perhaps twenty rows of stands. But when you walk in, you realize that it was sunk into the ground and the sheer enormity of the place is overwhelming.

U of M Stadium from the air -- golf course/parking lot to your right.
And that's before the band takes the field. I have never played an instrument and am about as far from a "band geek" as you can get. But every time I hear the cadence of the Michigan band entering the field, the hair on the back of my neck still stands on end. And when they play the best fight song in the land, well, how can you not get a little amped after that?

Being a Michigan fan was never a big deal in West Virginia until the U of M stole WVU's basketball and football coaches in successive years. The hiring of John Beilein as basketball coach was not a big deal as he was an outsider who had lead the Mountaineers well, but for whom the state had no real allegiance or love. When Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez, however, it was a different matter entirely. Rodriguez was West Virginia born, WVU educated, and led a dynamic, successful program after the retirement of Don Nehlen. His departure was seen by WVU fans as an affront to the school and the state, and made an enemy of both the coach and the institution that hired him to all things Blue and Gold (as opposed to Maize and Blue).

After Rodriguez's first two unsuccessful years in Ann Arbor, I've had to put up with a lot of ribbing from my WVU friends. All along, though, I've said the third year of the Rodriguez era in Michigan, and the Bill Stewart era in Morgantown, will tell the tale.  Rodriguez runs a unique offense that requires a certain kind of player, certainly not those that Lloyd Carr recruited before him; Stewart's coaching and recruiting abilities are at best unproven.

Last Saturday was the start of the third season, and it began very well for Michigan. Much better, I thought, than WVU's performance against its I-AA opponent. The games this weekend, however, will give a little better idea of how good Michigan might be, and how ordinary WVU could be. And while usually I remain neutral regarding WVU v. Marshall games, I have to admit that a little bit of me wouldn't be disappointed to see The Thundering Herd give me the first chance to say I told you so.

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