Only when it comes to college football do we believe that the deaths of a girlfriend and grandmother will spur a 21-year-old to lead his team to victory, and accept that a 22-year-old sprained his ankles from leaping off a three-story balcony to rescue a drowning nephew. The NFL may be played on Sundays, but college football is religion, with each team steeped in its own obscure mores, traditions, and believers.
College football is a confounding sport with an arcane history at the intersection of higher education, the twilight of adolescence, and semi-professional football, all institutions of questionable integrity. The mix is captured and explained beautifully in Michael Weinreb’s new book Season of Saturdays.
While the sport’s early days as an Ivy League hobby may seem to have nothing in common with today’s multi-billion-dollar, South-oriented industry, Weinreb uses 14 games to illustrate how the sport has remained constant. Manipulating perception, on field and off, was just as critical for Knute Rockne as it was for Jimmy Johnson’s Miami Hurricanes. Politics is just as vital to the game as the pigskin. Weinreb does his best to make Season of Saturday a no-spin zone.
Weinreb says that the primary tool used to sway perception is The Argument. Since college football was the one sport in the country for the past century to decide its champion by popular vote, optics was more important than results on the field. It’s why Notre Dame’s Ara Parseghian’s 1966 team played for a tie to keep its record unblemished. It’s how Nebraska’s Tom Osborne captured multiple championships in the 1990s at the end of his career because voters felt he "earned" them from past seasons.
Season of Saturdays isn’t so much a critique of The Argument as it is an explanation. Weinreb admits that the whole endeavor doesn’t make a ton of sense to the uninitiated who have never had a power hour at 8 a.m. in 40-degree rain. The Argument is an unforgiving and irrational master, but it’s also the source of the sport’s economic and cultural power.
College football is more often that not at complete odds with elite conversation. Woody Hayes’s 1960s Ohio State teams’ rigid offenses made convincing arguments because they were the only things more conservative than Hayes’s politics. Voters had the 1969 Argument made up for them when President Nixon used his bully pulpit to pump up Texas and Arkansas. It will be worth reading the book’s paperback edition to see what Weinreb is able to extract from Northwestern University’s current union and labor negotiations.
No one would give a flip about college football if the product weren’t any good. Weinreb does a splendid job capturing the eccentricities of Boise State’s offense in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl and Mike Leach’s Air Raid at Texas Tech and how their redefinition of the status quo has broadened the Argument and mutated college football into the more eccentric cousin of its professional counterpart. NFL loyalists are resolute in denouncing the sport as a quirky, lesser product. That lower-case argument is what makes Weinreb’s "Ballad of Reggie Bush" required reading for collegiate loyalists and detractors alike. No writer has been able to describe as well the dichotomy between professional and collegiate players and explain why athletes can assume mythic proportions one year and become mortal the next.
Since college football fandom develops in early adulthood, the sport becomes unassailable in the eyes of its fans. It’s not rational. Occasionally, it can be illegal. For many us of, Vince Young will be known forever for that end zone trot in Pasadena.
Nostalgia gives college football the sepia-tones of simpler times. Season of Saturdays is able to gift you that tingly sensation you haven’t felt since your folks left you behind for orientation week. It leaves you with that pit in your stomach not felt since the night before game day. For a sport with problems and blemishes, college football endures because a sport becomes more than just a sport for 13 fall Saturdays. Nostalgia becomes reality.