That may seem as curious as an American developing a passion for cricket. But curiosities abound and we each contain multitudes. Perhaps it was the sight of an entire turkey being deep-fried in a windy cow-field at State College, Pennsylvania, or perhaps it was the genteel politeness of tail-gating in Ann Arbor that helped persuade me that college football would supplant baseball as my favorite American sport.
Most of all, however, I think it was the nature and idiosyncrasies of a culture that, for foreigners, remains America’s hidden sporting gem. Now, thanks to a roommate who bled maize and blue, a small corner of Scotland will be part of the Wolverine Nation this fall.
College football is king in an America that tourists rarely see. This is not surprising, given that few of America’s greatest cities are hotbeds of collegiate football. Few tourists find themselves in Gainesville or Columbus, Athens or Norman.
Baseball and the NBA have long targeted overseas markets while the NFL has built an international following these past twenty years and even played a regular season game in London last year. In as much as the rest of the world follows American sport, it pays attention to Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady and the New York Yankees. College football might as well exist in another country altogether, one that is arguably more truly American than anything the big leagues can offer.
I discovered, quite by accident, that Washington DC was actually an ideal location for falling in love with college football, precisely because there’s no football power in the city. Each fall I’d become aware of a deep divide between my friends who attended Ivy League universities and those who studied at public universities in the South or across the Midwest. At parties the former group would be immersed in the usual Washington small talk — interminable discussion of social security or immigration reform and the usual interminable political and media gossip; the latter, by contrast, were liberated by the return of something much more important: college football.
On fall Saturdays, the city’s bars were turned over to one alumni association or another as young professionals from Texas or Tennessee, Missouri or Miami gathered for the latest sporting day of obligation. Like so many trade associations and lobby shops, every major programme in the country had a presence in the city.
Cheap beer and memories of carefree undergraduate days wiped away the concerns of political life. Democrats and Republicans put their differences aside to root against a common enemy. For a few hours, they could, thanks to the miracle of ESPN, leave Washington and return home.
And that, I think, was one of the reasons why I fell in love with college football. In a capital city often defined by transience, college football offered a sense of place and, for a foreigner, a reminder that it’s a big country out there. Or rather, half a dozen territories, known by curious acronyms such as ACC and SEC and numbers that spoke of the vast expanse of the prairies (Big 12) and the rolling fields of the Midwest (Big Ten).
It was a place populated by weird but compelling people too. Remarkable relics such as Joe Paterno, slick villains like Nick Saban, sweet-talking assassins such as Steve Spurrier and blustering, bumptious braggarts like Charlie Weiss. And that’s just among the coaches. The fans, from LSU to Wisconsin, were something else. Even the names of the games seemed exotic (the Iron bowl) or filled with romance (the Red River Shootout).
For all that college football remains an unknown quantity in europe, there are aspects of collegiate sport that are more reassuringly familiar than anything the NFL or baseball can offer. You support your local team or the school you attended rather than hitching your colors to whatever power might be enjoying success on a national level.
A kid growing up in Nebraska isn’t likely to become a Florida Gator just because Urban Meyer is bringing success back to Gainesville. Nor, happily, is the University of Nebraska likely to up sticks in the manner of so many MLB, NFL and NBA sides simply because their owners can get a better deal from long-suffering – and gullible – tax-payers in some other city thousands of miles across the country. There is, in that sense, a permanence to college football that is comparable to european soccer or rugby.
True, sports teams in Europe have owners, but their sides are held in trust, beholden to the supporters and the communities that hold them dear. It is all but unthinkable that their teams could be moved as a result of proprietorial whim. Even in an age in which sport has become big business, there’s an identity and belonging, rooted in a keen sense of place, that endures.
And there’s the sport itself. My room-mate in Washington liked to call the NFL the “no fun league” and he had a point. It’s professionalism, indeed its excellence, mean that there are few surprises in professional football. What’s more, most teams play in more or less the same fashion. The contrast with the joyous unpredictability and variation that abounds in college football could scarcely be clearer too.
There’s something else too: not every match matters in the grown-up leagues. Professional sport in the United States is run along oddly un-American grounds. Revenue sharing, salary caps and luxury taxes are designed to level the playing field, while the NFL and NA drafts create the perverse incentives of encouraging weak sides to lose end-of-season games in the expectation of being able to draft the most promising talent coming out of the collegiate arena. There is a curious Marxist element to professional sports: from each according to their means, to each according to their needs.
European sport, by contrast, is organized upon the ruthlessly Darwinist principle of the survival of the fittest. Promotion and relegation sort the wheat from the chaff and only the strong survive. Each year the herd is culled, permitting upwardly mobile teams a chance to compete with the big boys.
That means every match matters in a way it simply doesn’t in the excruciatingly drawn-out NBA or MLB seasons. These marathons often seem to be no more than a warm-up for the concentrated pressure of the play-offs. But why wait all year for that, when college football offers such exquisite agony every week? Despite commercial pressure to change, college football has, by and large remembered that scarcity increases value.
A 12 game season leaves precious little margin for error when a single defeat can ruin national championship or conference title aspirations. Each week, then, offers the prospect of disaster or, for smaller programs or those who’ve already been knocked out of contention, the joy of ruining someone else’s season. These are powerful, even atavistic, emotions.
True, the closed nature of the college conference system is a little different from the way european sport is organized. But every side has the opportunity to improve if, through good fortune and better coaching it can muster the means and determination to do so. Poor performances at Indiana or Minnesota don’t grant those universities the right to pick the cream of midwestern high school talent for next year’s recruiting class. The competitive nature of college football reaches down to the high school level as universities battle for recruits.
Schools rise and fall on their own abilities. Where was USC before Pete Carroll took over in 2000? Bo Schembechler revived a Michigan program that had been in the doldrums until he arrived in 1969. But the recruiting of high school athletes always offers hope for the future. Theoretically redemption is only a year or two away and the reality of the theory is more important, more powerful, than the fact that theory can’t always be turned into practice.