Say You Want a Revolution? Sousaphones and Song Girls notwithstanding, signs point to an imminent change--for better or worse--in the tradition-bound game

December 29, 2003

Much of college football lives on agelessly, blind to the passage
of time. When Michigan scores a touchdown, kicks a field goal or
simply takes the field through the narrow tunnel at the east side
of Michigan Stadium, the maize-and-blue faithful break into a
spirited rendition of The Victors, a fight song written more than
a century ago and first performed in public by John Philip Sousa.
When Penn State plays in its massive coliseum on a central
Pennsylvania hillside surrounded by tailgaters in their RVs and
by sprawling acres of farmland, the Nittany Lions wear the same
plain blue-and-white uniforms that have signified their prideful
simplicity for decades. This year students wore ties to watch
Eli Manning's Rebels, as their predecessors did when they
watched Eli's dad, Archie, more than 30 years ago. On every
campus there is a thread that connects the past to the present
and ignores the calendar. Each year college football seems to be
the same game played in the same way in the same places. Nothing
changes but the names on the roster.

In a sport so defined by lovable tradition--buckeye decals on the
helmets in Columbus, checkerboard end zones in Knoxville every
year--small signs of evolution are easy to miss. Only with a
practiced eye can we look at Heisman's game, Rockne's game,
Bryant's game and see that college football is at the end of an
era. Soon old verities will be cast aside, and the game will be
very different.

You can see the metamorphosis in Larry Fitzgerald's dancing,
dark-brown eyes as the Pittsburgh wide receiver prepares, along
with suspended Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett, to challenge
the NFL's rule against drafting players who are less than three
seasons removed from high school. You could see it on a small
stage at the Yale Club in New York City, as Fitzgerald, a callow
sophomore, sat next to Jason White of Oklahoma, the Heisman
Trophy winner; third-place finisher Eli Manning of Mississippi;
and fourth-place Chris Perry of Michigan--three superstar
seniors, a soon-to-be endangered species. You could see it in the
haggard mug of Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, the public
face of the beleaguered Bowl Championship Series, as he tried
desperately to spin this fall's BCS embarrassment into an
acceptable aberration. You could hear it in the halls of
Congress, where senators discussed the merits of the arcane title
system and shrilly criticized it.

The transformation, in fact, has already begun. On a mid-November
afternoon, windswept rain drove Pitt's practice indoors. As the
Panthers ran coach Walt Harris's passing offense in
seven-on-seven skeleton drills, a small cluster of NFL scouts
stood on the sideline, watching with poker faces, hands shoved in
their pockets. One scout approached an SI writer and said, "I
just want you to know I'm not evaluating Fitzgerald, because he's
an underclassman." With that the scout rolled his eyes
theatrically, eliciting titters from his peers. Then they all
went back to the business of not watching Fitzgerald, who is
expected to ask the NFL for permission to enter its draft,
receive it and be taken among the first few selections. (If he
isn't granted permission--and he has an argument for being an
exception to the NFL rule, having spent a fifth year of high
school at a military academy to improve his grades--he'll
probably sue for the right to enter the draft, like Clarett,
whose case is expected to be decided by February 1.)

More than three decades have passed since Spencer Haywood left
the University of Detroit after his sophomore season of college
basketball to play in the pros, eventually winning his case
against the NBA in the Supreme Court. Others followed him through
what was first called the "hardship rule" (hardship or not), then
"coming out early." Now many of the very best players simply skip
college altogether. Baseball and hockey players have long been
drafted as teenagers. Football is being dragged into this modern
era, forced to confront the dual realities of today's young
athletes. Like Fitzgerald, they are more physically and
emotionally mature than their predecessors--more ready to move
from college to professional football, thanks to early weight
training and years of summer football camps. Like Clarett, whose
NFL prospects are far less certain after having played just one
injury-plagued college season, they have a sense of entitlement
that matches their precocity. They are no longer content to wait
for their millions.

Though the process could get ugly, with a series of court battles
over several years, the basketballization of football seems
inevitable. Surely there will eventually be a high school player
who jumps directly to the NFL. But even if the number of early
departures is smaller than in basketball, their influence will be
felt. Redshirting, already on the wane, will become even rarer.
Coaches will feel even more pressure to win now, with their good
players slipping quickly through their grasp. The star who stays
and plays for four years--like White (who last week was granted
another year of college eligibility) and Manning--will become a
commodity to be cherished, much as he is now in college
basketball.

The better-sounding news is that championship teams will spring
from a system that is vastly different from the BCS or its
precursors. Before the current BCS contract ends in 2006, expect
to see more adjusting of the convoluted system that failed so
miserably this autumn when USC was voted No. 1 in both polls yet
excluded from the official national championship game in favor of
Oklahoma, which had just been thrashed by Kansas State, and LSU.
It is likely that a single postbowl game will be added. But money
and the public's desire for a true national champion will bring
more sweeping change. College presidents will find a dignified
way to cave in to their opposition. Before another decade passes,
a playoff system will decide the national champion. It will most
likely start with four teams and then expand to eight. In office
cubicles around the land, fans will fill out their brackets as
they have long done each March.

Yes, the changes will create excitement, but if you're a
traditionalist, the effect will be jarring. Consider that the
playoff games will have bowl names but they will not be bowls,
because bowls are not quarterfinals or semifinals: They are
self-contained civic events, with parades and festivals. Whether
the bowl game as we know it will exist a decade from now remains
to be seen. Consider also that the magnificent regular season,
with its do-or-die fall Saturdays, will be forever altered. Under
the new system a team will be able to recover from what is now a
fatal defeat (or even bounce back from two bad losses) and still
win the national championship. If Saturdays in January will be
enhanced, surely those in October will be diminished.

Whatever you think about the changes, there is no stopping them.
Underclassmen will win the right to sell their services in the
pros, and in the matter of a championship tournament the demands
of the marketplace seem inexorable. In both cases college
football is merely catching up to other sports.

Fortunately, there is no stopping many of college football's
great traditions either, but make no mistake: They'll be familiar
touchstones in a new world.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER OUT PATTERN If Pittsburgh's Fitzgerald gets into the NFL draft asa sophomore, he could open the floodgates for other young stars.

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