On Sunday a shirt-sleeved crowd of 74,000 fans poured into the Los Angeles Coliseum to see a National League football game. The Coliseum is a temple of college football, but Pacific Coast Conference football has yet to draw 74,000 to the Coliseum this year. The big crowd—some of them even waving pennants—were there to watch the spectacular football of the pros. They got their tickets' worth in a rousing, bruising game in which the champion Detroit Lions twice came from behind to beat the hometown Rams, 27-24.
That same afternoon in San Francisco 53,000 fans watched an even more spectacular Spectacular. With 25 seconds to play, an end for the Chicago Bears named Harlon Hill caught a 46-yard pass and ran 20 strides to the end zone. It was Harlon Hill's fourth touchdown. It was the touchdown that upset San Francisco's unbeaten 49ers, 31-27.
Snow fell in Cleveland Sunday morning. By early afternoon the snow had turned to cold, dreary rain. Still, more than 30,000 people traveled to bleak Municipal Stadium to see for themselves whether the Browns' great quarterback, Otto Graham, had grown too old, whether young Fullback Maurice Bassett, successor to Marion Motley, was too young and whether the Browns, as a team, were dead. Clevelanders shivered and caught cold, but were profoundly cheered to see Graham and Bassett combine to boost the Browns to a 24-14 victory over the New York Giants. The Browns, Cleveland was convinced, were not dead. They'd been pulling a switch: hibernating until cold weather came along.
On Monday, despite imminent elections, the National Football League got its customary large portion of headlines. In the eastern division, headlines proclaimed, the Giants, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers were all tied for first place. If winter comes, ripened fans mused, can the Browns be far behind? Winter was six weeks off and the Browns, long-time champions of the East, were closing in, just half a game behind the three leaders. In the West, headlines told of a virtual tie. The Lions had won four and lost one. The 49ers had won four, lost one and tied one.
By Tuesday, professional football's fans were looking ahead to the new weekend. The Giants are to play the Steelers in a game that should loosen the Eastern knot. The Rams are to play the 49ers in a game that should produce at least a minor San Francisco earthquake.
Last Sunday and last Monday and last Tuesday were typical. All around the National Football League this season turnstiles have been spinning, owners have been smiling and fans have been chanting, "Go, go, go."
Subways in Philadelphia are decked with posters begging, "Watch Penn Score in '54." The University of Pennsylvania isn't scoring, but the Eagles are. Carnegie Tech and Pittsburgh University once had football almost to themselves in Pittsburgh. One night this year the Steelers met the Eagles and Forbes Field overflowed with close to 40,000 fans. Not long ago in Los Angeles the University of Southern California Trojans regularly packed the Coliseum. Southern Cal's top game this year—against the University of California—attracted 66,000. The top pro game so far pitted the Rams against the 49ers. The pro game drew 93,000.
THE ROOTS OF SUCCESS
There are many roots of the professionals' success. Fans seeking the most for their football dollar have been pretty well convinced that professionals are better football players than college boys. Every pro play is loaded with touchdown potential. Almost every pro player was a college standout. The pros are grouped neatly into two divisions and at the end of the season a playoff determines the champion. Colleges, strung in complex conference setups all across the nation, rarely have a clear-cut ruler. The Associated Press polls sportswriters on colleges each week; the United Press polls coaches. Sometimes at season's end the coaches and sportswriters agree. Often the season ends in confusion, compounded by an excess of bowls.
Saturday was always a college day and the pros have respected golden October afternoons. But golden October Saturday nights are the private property of no one. Where colleges have wrestled with television and been thrown repeatedly, the pros have handled TV the way Bob Waterfield used to handle a hand-off.
An ambitious professional program is, in effect, covering Saturday nights and Sundays, using two networks to bring football into living rooms. Fans in New York were asked by the colleges to watch Penn play Penn State on TV last Saturday, a nervy request in view of the records of the teams. On Sunday the pros offered New Yorkers the Giant-Brown game.
Typical of pro network televising wisdom is the program of the Detroit Lions. The Lions feature Texans Doak Walker and Bobby Layne and therefore televise heavily into Texas. When does this pay off? During the exhibition game season, which is even more important to professional football treasuries than spring training is to baseball coffers.
There are, of course, a number of ways in which the colleges can react to professional success. One would be to take the athletic budget, divert it to the English department and make sure that all college graduates can spell. For high-pressure football factories this is absurd. The factories have declared cold war on the professionals.
Minutes of a meeting held in Chicago last June reveal at least a chunk of contemporary collegiate athletic thought. The special conference demanded that no college hire a coach from pro ranks until at least a year has passed since his last association with professional sports. The point here is not that Casey Stengel might want to coach Amherst's baseball team. The point is strictly football. Other resolutions recommend banning pro scouts from the comparative comfort of college press boxes, and ending exchange of complimentary tickets. The Big Ten has a rule forbidding "discussion or mention of professional athletics on broadcasts of its athletic events."
MORE BIG TEN RULES
Another Big Ten rule makes it "illegal" for a college coach to appear on any of the between-half shows during broadcasts and telecasts of professional games. Finally, the Big Ten forbids its coaches and players from appearing on any television or radio show if that show offers one glimpse of or one word from a professional.
As a tactic, cold wars are still too new for final appraisal, but chances are that the hot football played by the pros—football that has won so many fans—will win more fans. At last check a lot of old school ties had been stuffed into drawers along with plus fours, leaky flasks and diagrams of the flying wedge.
The pro game may never displace college football—as Robert Hutchins has wishfully predicted—but it has become big enough and good enough to be a rousing, indispensable part of the U.S. sporting fall.
PRO FOOTBALL CROWDS
Connie Mack Stad.