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Football like it oughta be: Why college blows away the NFL


Darn right it was a turbulent offseason for college football. So many changes. Let the Pac-10 henceforth be known as the Pac-12, the Big 12 as the Big 12 Lite and the Big Ten as Delany's Dozen. And the fasten-seat belts sign is still illuminated. Superconferences are on the horizon.

While these changes -- actual or proposed -- may leave some partisans disoriented, disappointed and disgusted, none of those alterations can undermine the premise of this essay: that college football reigns supreme over the NFL. With its ancient rivalries and revered traditions, its oversized passions and colorful characters, the college game is this country's most compelling sport, warts and all.

Of course, even transcendent beauties have flaws. (You'd be surprised how many of the SI swimsuit models smoke.) And in this case the flaw is avarice. Conference commissioners continue to hyperventilate over those superconferences and the stratospheric sums they'll be able to wring from TV networks by expanding their respective league's footprints from, say, 12 to 14 or 16 teams. Who knows, maybe more. You can bet that Larry Scott, the Pac-10's ambitious first-year commish -- who calls his charge nothing less than "reinventing" his conference -- isn't about to content himself with poaching just Colorado and Utah.

Such dramatic expansion will result in contraction elsewhere. Just ask the Big 12, whose long June weekend in intensive care ended only when Texas decided not to bail. At least for now.

Superconferences will lead to the extinction of some treasured rivalries, just as they will accelerate the polarization between college football's haves and have-nots. The rich will get richer. (And the TCU Horned Frogs will still end up kicking their backsides more often than not.) And you know what? Bring it on. Change is inevitable; it's healthy; it's good -- unless you're the Big East and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is eyeballing you the way a boa looks at a fluffy white bunny.

However the landscape of this sport changes during the next several seasons, college football will still be more beautiful, more interesting and more fun than the dome-sheltered, corporate, conformist game that's played in the NFL. College football will look different but remain strong.

Whether the SEC is made up of 12 teams (as currently constituted) or four four-team divisions, undergrads at Ole Miss will continue to dress up for tailgates in the Grove, those stately oaks casting blessed shade outside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. However supersized the Pac-10 becomes, the USC Trojans won't stop "tapping in" at Goux's Gate before every practice. The Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band, which once commemorated the flight of O.J. Simpson by driving a white Bronco around the Stanford Stadium track, will continue to amuse, entertain and offend. Regardless of the state of the ACC, the Clemson Tigers will refuse to descend into Death Valley until they've rubbed Howard's Rock. Even if (or when) the Big 12 truly implodes, forcing Missouri into the arms of, say, the Mountain West, Mizzou students will still celebrate huge wins by lugging the goal posts the 17 blocks from Faurot Field to Harpo's, the renowned public house whose bartenders will then dispense small hacksaws to patrons so everyone can go out and get a piece. And isn't that what college is all about?

Don't get me wrong, if there's an NFL game on, I don't have trouble walking past the TV. I've been on the college football beat for 15 of the last 20 years, but covered the NFL for five years in the mid-90s. Monday Night Football is a ritual in my house, even though Tony Kornheiser was an acquired taste I never acquired and the braying of Hank Williams Jr. makes me wince. Literally. I like NFL football as much as the next guy. I'm just saying that, for a bunch of reasons, I prefer the college game. I mean much prefer. I mean, it's not even close.

OK, let's give credit where it's due. The NFL has bigger, better, faster athletes than we see in the college game. Hmm. What else. For a sports writer, it offers the advantage of having more direct flights. Other than that, to my way of thinking, it's no contest. Better athletes do not equal better football. There is less risk-taking in the NFL, less variety, more cautious coaches spending more time scrutinizing percentages and playing not to lose. The high school football coach and prolific author John T. Reed has identified what he calls the "principles of contrarianism," and they are much more evident on Saturdays than Sundays. "I'm all for giving each team an equal chance to win with regard to spending limits and the draft," Reed has written. "However, when parity takes the form of uniformity of offensive tactics and strategy, it is not entertaining at all. It is boring."

College football is many things, but homogenous isn't one of them. With its smorgasbord of offensive attacks -- from the no-huddle, hurry-up offenses common in the Big 12 to the triple options favored by the service academies to the pistol offenses recently unholstered at UCLA and Arkansas -- the college game offers much more variety than the conformist, cookie-cutter NFL.

Around the same time that Tim Tebow started flummoxing SEC defenses by passing over the linebackers on one play and knocking the snot out of them the next, the then Florida Gator started hearing the questions, the doubts: Yeah, he's a winner and a born leader, but can he play QB in the League?

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We're about to find out. Yes, Tebow has had to tweak his release point, and no, he's not the prototypical NFL quarterback. (Tebow is actually more multidimensional than that: a superior athlete.) Maybe Tebow will pan out with the Denver Broncos and open-minded head coach Josh McDaniels. Maybe he won't. But if Tebow never thrives as a pro -- well, the way I see it, if one of the most exciting players in the history of college football can't find a home in the NFL, that's more an indictment of the League than it is of the player.

For all the college game's imperfections -- the low graduation rates of players at certain schools; the embarrassing, perennial shortage of black men in head coaching positions; the cash-fueled drift toward those superconferences; etc. -- it remains far more attractive than the NFL.

I'm not just talking about the USC Song Girls or the leather chaps sported by the members of the Texas Pom squad. College football boasts some of the most spectacular venues in America -- secular cathedrals like Notre Dame Stadium and the Big House; Bryant-Denny and the Rose Bowl. Yes, Lambeau Field and Arrowhead Stadium are distinctive and drenched in history. But the remaining NFL venues range from charmless, aging hulks to inoffensive, antiseptic life-support systems for luxury boxes to the nine domed and hermetically sealed structures rising over their surroundings like toadstools.

It goes without saying that playing on fake grass in a glorified, climate-controlled terrarium drains some of the character, the challenge, the fun from football. It is, at its core, unnatural. But it's a good business decision to put your team under a dome. (A warm, dry, comfortable fan is a fan more likely to keep coming back -- to keep opening his wallet.) And the bottom line, it goes without saying, guides every decision made in the NFL. That's why, a few years back, the league put the kibosh on an Indianapolis church's plans to show the Super Bowl on a big screen, tut-tutting that such a screening would violate copyright laws. Concern for that bottom line is also how Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland justified asking a wide receiver, during a predraft interview in April, whether the player's mother had been a prostitute. (That's a general manager we're talking about, not some just-hired underling.) If the player had childhood traumas, Ireland's reasoning went, the club wanted to know about them before investing millions in him.

Sure, college football is a cold business in its own right. Ask the surviving members of the Big 12 or the schools of the Big East. The commissioners of the BCS conferences bow to no one when it comes to their keen interest in maximizing profits. Yet there is something about the college game, with its marching bands and student sections -- where the chest-painted, fright-wigged loon to your left is also the guy you see three mornings a week in molecular biology -- with its talismans, its traditions and its menagerie of live animal mascots, that makes it ... more of a game. College football isn't just older than the NFL, it is less rational, less sane and, as a result, much more compelling.

There is something at once whimsical and transcendent in the sight of an Ohio State senior sousaphonist high-kicking his way to a spot above the third letter of Script Ohio, in the moments before kickoff, then dramatically "dotting the i." How cathartic it must be for John Short, a middle-aged insurance salesman who was attending his 27th straight Georgia-Florida game when I met him, to don his foam Bulldogs helmet and bone-shaped Bite me, Gators bow tie, inflate the Hairy Dawg blow-up figure atop his van, then commence mixing his famed (and feared) 14-ingredient, antifreeze-colored "Gator-killer punch."

These are the passions spawned by college football's ancient feuds, which have no NFL equivalent, and which serve as border disputes and culture clashes all at once. Two of the best known of those -- Florida versus Georgia and Texas versus Oklahoma -- engender such hostility that they must be contested in neutral settings. Of course, if the decision to play at a neutral site were based on ill will alone, Michigan and Ohio State would play their annual showdown in, say, Toledo or Kalamazoo. The Game, as it is known in the heartland, packs more history and hatred than any other rivalry, not just in college football but also, arguably, in all of sport. I reflected on this fact several years ago while nursing what can only be described as a modest-sized pail of beer at the Newport Music Hall on North High Street, just a mile from Ohio Stadium in Columbus. On the eve of The Game, a punk band called the Dead Schembechlers ripped through a set of half-screamed numbers like Bomb Ann Arbor Now, M Means Moron and I Wipe My A-- with Wolverine Fur. Out of respect for Schembechler, who had died that morning, the band changed its name to The Bastard Sons of Woody Hayes.

Earlier that week, I'd spoken with then Buckeyes wideout Anthony Gonzalez, whose father had played for Schembechler at Michigan but lost his scholarship after getting injured.

Did his father leave on bad terms with Bo? "My dad?" said Gonzo. "He has great things to say about Bo. Great things."

Gonzalez, now an Indianapolis Colt, was a philosophy major with a 4.0 GPA nearly every academic quarter. I remember his admonition when I confessed that I'd never read Plato: "You've got to read The Republic."

I saw Gonzo a few months later at the NFL's annual scouting combine, so named, I suspect, because it combines elements of a beauty pageant, a cattle auction and hard-core interrogation sessions. Like all other prospective draftees, he was dressed in an NFL-issued gray sweatshirt, on which was stamped his league-assigned four-character code. We chatted while he was shuttling between physical and psychological tests. He was bemused, I recall, by some of the Bizarro World questions posed to him by the grim-faced NFL personnel "experts." "Whatever you do," I advised him, "don't mention Plato."

He smiled, then went through some door to a place where I was not allowed to follow. For guys whose goal it is to play at the next level, the combine is a necessary part of the process. But I thought of it then and think of it now as a kind of rendering plant where fun goes to die.