Will NCAA go the way of the NFL?

When I was a young boy, I decided to select an NFL team to pull for. My friends were mostly Cowboys or Saints fans, and wanting to be different, I simply pulled out the agate page from the day's sports section, and selected a team I'd never heard of before.

That team was the Seattle Seahawks, who I've followed since 1983. That decision made me perhaps the happiest Tide fan on the planet when Shaun Alexander was drafted following Alabama's 1999 season.

The Seahawks were, and still are, part of the NFL's lesser half. When the Seahawks made the playoffs in the mid-to-late 1980s, it was therefore a cause for celebration around my house. The Seahawks, you see, never contended once winter came to call.

These days, teams that were 4-12 one year can be 12-4 the next due to things like free agency, fewer draft selections, smaller rosters and a little thing called parity, which is enforced from the top down. The idea is to give every team a fighting chance year in and year out to be successful, so fans in all the league cities expect a winner and stay interested in the team's games -- unless, apparently, you pull for the Cincinnati Bengals or the Phoenix Cardinals.

The days when coaching giants like Paul Bryant and Woody Hayes (shown joking around before the 1977 Sugar Bowl) could consistently dominate their leagues are past.

The idea of parity works. And it's also potentially the worst idea in sports.

Football is a game, but more than that, it is a peaceful war. The conflicts on the field mimic the conflicts in real life. In war, most of the time, there is a stronger opponent and a weaker opponent, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out who's who. For this reason, war becomes ultimately more interesting when the underdog shocks the stronger nation -- and when it happens, it provides the stuff of literary inspiration for generations to come.

The same thing once held true in college football. There were things known as dynasties -- the Oklahomas, the Alabamas, the Notre Dames of the world winning year in and year out. An upset loss meant something. Care to imagine the reaction had Paul "Bear" Bryant's 1966 team lost on Homecoming to Louisiana Tech?

For better or worse, those days are gone and won't be coming back. The 2003 college football season has been an exercise in extreme parity, best articulated on the field last Wednesday night when 2-4 West Virginia knocked off 6-0 Virginia Tech, and not by some freakish late touchdown. The Mountaineers dominated Virginia Tech and beat the Hokies soundly.

That game was a distillation of many other games this season, most notably California upsetting Southern California, Wisconsin beating Ohio State, and on a smaller scale, perennial doormat Memphis beating an Ole Miss team that now looks like a legitimate contender for the SEC title. This leads to several questions -- how, being the first one -- and brings up the elephant-in-the-room questions of whether college football in general is headed towards a slew of who-knows weekends, and whether it's a good thing.

The how is easy to answer. It's because of the 85-scholarship limit and the proliferation of televised games. In olden days, prep stars that wanted big-time television exposure had about 20 schools from which to choose. Today, there are probably that many schools in Texas alone that are on the tube weekly. Furthermore, as the notion of playing for historically powerful teams begins to rust into the background of Grandma, apple pie and DeSoto automobiles, it's less desirable to ride the pine for three years at Alabama or Texas behind someone and start for just your senior year than it is to go to a Marshall or Central Florida and start as a freshman.

Unfortunately, when the security of there being 20 or so truly powerful teams goes away, a large part of the romanticism that is college football goes away with it. It is infinitely more interesting to watch an upset that's really an upset. Will we someday come to the point where watching Tennessee play Fresno State means watching two equal programs?

BamaMag.com is pleased to announce that Jess Nicholas, a veteran Journalist and long-time Internet commentator on college sports, will be writing for the website. Jess is hardly a stranger to the ‘BAMA Magazine family--or to the Alabama Internet community. For the past three years he has been a major contributor to the annual ‘BAMA Football Yearbook, and he has also written for the magazine.

His full-time job as managing editor for The Daily Sentinel in Scottsboro keeps him busy enough, but Jess always finds time to write about Alabama football, a subject close to his heart. An avid sports fan in general, Jess graduated from Alabama and has followed Crimson Tide athletics essentially all of his life.

Basically we'll take anything Jess can send our readers' way, but he'll start off doing preview articles on the upcoming week's games, including the occasional column.

If that day comes, and it might very well be sooner rather than later, I believe you'll see interest in the sport wane, not increase. College football is built around so much emotion; when Fresno State upsets Tennessee and it is no longer really an upset, will ESPN SportsCenter really care?

It will affect scheduling, as athletic directors looking for that one easy game will now have to search the Division-IAA and Division-II ranks for their marks. It will also take some time for college football fans to accept the change. For Alabama fans, there will never be an excuse for losing to a Southern Miss or a Louisiana Tech. There will always be Alabama fans who will harken back to the days of Thomas, Wade and Bryant -- even if they weren't alive when those days occurred -- and plot out the next coaching search if the current coach doesn't live up to that old standard.

But that's the future. We live in the present, and must learn from the present. The lesson the present is teaching us is clear:

Don't schedule Memphis, California or West Virginia. And certainly not Northern Illinois.


BamaMag Top Stories