ARI SHAPIRO, host:
The Florida Gators and the Oklahoma Sooners meet tomorrow night in Miami for the National College Football Championship. One of them will win the title, but that's not likely to settle the controversy over how college football chooses its champion. Commentator Frank Deford says it's just one of the sport's oddities.
FRANK DEFORD: When you think about it, college football really is a strange duck. Things are just more different in college football than in our other major sports. It's not only the bizarre system used to pick the two teams that play for the championship tomorrow night - a playoff that isn't employed in any sport anywhere in the world. The attention devoted to the top individual award for college football 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 Trophy will be? College football is different. College football has so many more players and coaches and subordinates of every stripe than any other sport. Its finances dwarf all the others. It's also the only sport where 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.
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, 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 five wins, 19 losses, instead of Turner Gill, an African-American who had completely turned the University of Buffalo's program around. Of course, Gill's alma mater, Nebraska, had passed on him, too. 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 the 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.
SHAPIRO: Commentator Frank Deford joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.
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