When we hope for, root for, wish for, the return of college football, what are we really craving?
Games and traditions we love, of course. Wins and losses. Surprises. New heroes. Dazzling athleticism. Cleverness. The joy of the spectacle of college football, which packs more wonder into each game than any sport that captures our imagination.
But in this troubled summer, I think we are wishing for, and wanting, something that seems even more elusive: A return to the life we knew before the world started shutting down in March.
When I think of college football Saturdays, they bring a flood of memories. Of going to Wisconsin games when I was a student, knowing they would get clobbered by Ohio State and Michigan, and would often stumble around against lesser opponents. College football in the 1970s was not a great product among also-rans. Everything about it was more stodgy.
And yet, we loved the rituals of autumn Saturdays. The pre-game sloppy joe’s washed down with watery beer. The hopeful walk to Camp Randall. The excitement of sneaking the pints of flavored brandy and schnapps through security. (It wasn’t very difficult in those days.) The sunshine. The Badgers. The camaraderie.
When I became a sportswriter, the rituals changed, but not the enjoyment. In the ’80s, before television dollars changed things, games tended to kick off on Saturday afternoon, not Saturday night or Saturday morning.. Sportswriters could gather for decent Friday night meals, which often were hosted by the home school. We shared information as well as friendship.
In those years, I was covering Notre Dame, which was, not surprisingly, a passion play. The angst of the failed hire-a-high-school-coach experiment, Gerry Faust. The arrival of the chivalrous knight, Lou Holtz, to restore glory. What a saga that was to write about.
Adding to the drama, we went in the locker room after every game. We had real conversations with players. And the coach. After doing a press conference, Faust and Holtz would later hang around in the locker room to answer questions one-on-one or in small groups. Or just be there.
I will never forget Gerry Faust in the claustrophobic visitors’ locker room at Penn State, after the loss that assured he would not return to his beloved Notre Dame. He went around, commiserating with players and media. It was like a husband who had lost his wife, thanking friends and family, trying to reassure them that he would be all right.
The rituals. And the human drama. . . those are the things I will miss most if there is no college football season.
In later years, when I moved to the Illinois beat, the rituals became even farther removed from the actual football. It was great when the Illini had moments. Ron Turner’s breakthrough win at Michigan. Ron Zook beating a No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus. Even the Zooker’s candid and heartfelt post-games after losses were interesting.
But more and more, football Saturdays revolved around seeing media friends. John Supinie and Mark Tupper from Downstate. Bob Asmussen and Loren Tate from Champaign. Kent Brown and his excellent Illini sports-information staff. Jeremy Rutherford and Stu Durando from St. Louis. And so many Chicago Tribune friends. Shannon Ryan and Terry Bannon, to name just a couple.
When I ``retired,’’ and did a lot of Northwestern games as a freelancer, I looked forward to seeing Skip Myslenski, Fred Mitchell and Teddy Greenstein and so many dedicated Northwestern staff. From athletic director Jim Phillips and coach Pat Fitzgerald, whom I first met when he was a player, to all of NU’s sports-information people—the people became more important than the games.
I have gone to fewer and fewer games over the years. But this has the great benefit of allowing me to see many games instead of one. Every Saturday is like New Year’s Day—a head-spin of football. I have games on the TV, my laptop, my phone. The iPad is for stats and scores.
Knowing that I will be couch-locked all day, I even have a ritual pre-game bike ride. I get out by 9 and can be back by 11.
If they don’t play this fall—and I believe the virus hurdles are too overwhelming to play—I will miss the football. But I also will miss the rituals and routines that come with a college-football Saturday.
I am thinking you will miss your rituals and routines, too.
But they will be back. They will have changed. Smuggled schnapps, 1 p.m. kickoffs and media in locker rooms are mere memories now. But the game endures. And we will embrace it again, whenever it returns, in whatever ways it has changed.
CHECK OUT HERB'S BOOK
If you like sports history with an extra bit of drama, please check out Herb Gould's 1908 Cubs novel, The Run Don’t Count: The Life and Times of Frank Chance and his 1908 Chicago Cubs. As Jack Brickhouse and Harry Caray used to say, you can’t beat fun at the old ballpark. . . Excerpts and other information at facebook/therundontcount. It’s available in paperback and Kindle at Amazon.com.