Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
University of Buffalo coach Turner Gill's squad won the Mid-American Conference title and played in the school's first bowl game.
University of Buffalo coach Turner Gill's squad won the Mid-American Conference title and played in the school's first bowl game. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
When you think about it, college football really is a strange duck. Things are simply more different in college football than in other major sports.
And it's not just the bizarre system used to pick the two teams that will play for the championship, which is Thursday night. It's a system that isn't employed in any sport anywhere in the world.
Consider, too, that only in college football do teams in the playoff take off a month or more between the end of their regular season and the title game.
A Growing Fixation
Another strange aspect of college football is that the attention devoted to the top individual award far exceeds that of any other team sport. People start handicapping the Heisman Trophy winner as soon as the season starts. The so-called Heisman Watch is a weekly feature.
But in college basketball, now, do you hear talk about who the winner of the Wooden Award will be? Discussion about the MVPs in professional sports rarely peaks till near the end of the season. College football is different.
College football also has so many more players — and coaches and subordinates of every stripe — than any other sport. Its finances dwarf the rest. It's the only sport in which a large number of athletes choose to become unhealthy in order to play. The number of obese players dwarfs those in every other sport, too.
Football As A Cultural Force
And really, at the end of the day, college football is more cultural than athletic. Even as baseball became the national pastime, college football was becoming far more important on campus.
Football, after all, correlates with the start of the school year. College is back; football is back. People don't think of college football games; they think of college football weekends. The alumni return to campus for homecoming — for football. So many college football programs now are, in effect, overseen by off-campus, quasi-official booster clubs.
This seems to be one of the reasons why college football alone awards so few head coaching jobs to African-Americans.
In college basketball and in the major pro sports, black coaches are so common now that nobody much bothers to mention race when one is hired or fired. But just a month ago, only three of the 119 Division I football coaches were African-American — 2.5 percent — when it's estimated that at least half of all Division I players are black.
A veritable frenzy of minority hiring has raised the number of black coaches to seven — but it's invariably the lesser colleges that give blacks a chance.
Auburn chose a white guy whose record was 5 wins, 19 losses, instead of Turner Gill, an African-American who had completely turned around the University of Buffalo's program. Gill's alma mater, Nebraska, had passed on him, too.
Race And The Face Of A School
In some countries, the second most famous man in the land is the national soccer coach. That's also pretty analogous to the way it is in our colleges with football, only more so.
The football coach is the face of a college, and a lot of boosters and alumni and athletic directors and presidents aren't ready to see a black man out in front of our football team — our place.
College football is different, different even from the United States.
Frank Deford joins us from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Conn.