April 05, 2020

On holiday bowls and looking to the past

What would the recent holiday season have been without National Car Rental Bowl Week? There was something for everyone, including the Insight.com Bowl, the Poulan Weed Eater Bowl, and — for the less commercially minded — the Humanitarian Bowl. Operating under the assumption that if a few are good many are better, the networks now offer almost wall to wall bowl games during the holiday season.

I grew up in the early ’50s on the outskirts of Detroit. My grandfather was an alumnus of the University of Michigan. One of my fondest early memories is going to Ann Arbor to watch a mediocre Michigan football team. Michigan’s recent Rose Bowl victory represented welcome progress in its football fortunes. The traditional hoopla, however, masked deterioration of the game itself.

Nostalgia for good old days that never were comes too easily to writers my age, but there are reasons to lament many of the changes in the game. College football in the ’50s was more a player’s game than is the case today. Like many other great midwestern universities, Michigan has its history of legendary football coaches. Fritz Crisler comes to mind. Nonetheless, in an earlier era the quarterback was responsible for learning the game plan and executing it. Play calling from the sidelines — either via signals or sending in substitutes — was an event reserved for only a few key situations. How ironic it was on New Year’s day when senior quarterback Brian Griese, the son of one of the game’s smartest quarterbacks, took orders from Lloyd Carr, Michigan’s relatively inexperienced head coach.

Someone has said that today’s games have become too important to place in the hands of 20 year olds. I am not so naive as to deny that even in the ’50s Michigan football was becoming big business. But at some point a difference in quantity becomes a difference in quality. Michigan’s athletic director is now responsible for a $58 million budget. In the ’50s, games were entrusted to undergraduates and the skill of the coach lay in his ability to prepare young athletes for these responsibilities. Part of the education of the player — and even of the fans who watched them — was the young athlete’s efforts to discharge these responsibilities.

The college football player has changed in other important ways. Up until the late ’50s, college football operated under a limited substitution rule. Many players played both offense and defense. The punters and field goal kickers were position players who had also learned to kick. Ron Kramer, Michigan’s All American tight end of the late ’50s, was also its field goal kicker.

Football today has moved inexorably to a game of specialists. No longer content with offensive and defensive teams, coaches now give us “special teams,” “nickel backs,” and “goal line defenses.”

Much of the strategy of the game today is efforts by coaches to trap the other team with the wrong “player package” on the field. Michigan safety Charles Woodson, this year’s Heisman trophy winner, stands out in his ability to play offense and defense and return punts. In an earlier era most great players were multi-talented.

Paradoxically, as the game becomes more specialized players are asked to make even greater commitments to it. More than an extracurricular activity, football has now become the scholarship athlete’s obsession. The college season of the ’50s was nine games. Today, 12 games are the norm for major football powers like Michigan. State-of-the-art indoor practice and weight training facilities beckon the athlete year round.

Doubtless we now have a game that has achieved a distinctive excellence. Today’s Wolverines, continuously trained, bulked up, and well versed in every tendency of their opposition, could have easily overwhelmed Fritz Crisler’s All Americans. But if Crisler’s teams were in some sense inferior, one suspects players of his era had more occasion to achieve genuine athletic excellence, rounded skills, and a broader knowledge of the game.

Fortunately, vestiges of that older game still survive. I enjoyed Michigan’s first undefeated season in fifty years. Woodson’s many superb plays on both offense and defense were an especially unusual treat. As for who the “real” national champion is, coaches and sportswriters can have their polls and their endless debates. As for me, I can live with a version of the late Sen. George Aiken’s answer to another irresolvable national debate, Vietnam. I’ve declared Michigan national champion. Though Nebraska fans have been so benighted as to make the same claim, I can live with the ambiguity. I’ll happily forgo a college playoff package, the dream of many university AD’s. Football and the ever diminishing cadre of real student athletes will be the losers if we subject the game to even more of the imperatives of modern economic life.

John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers wishing to contact him may e-mail comments to: jbuell@acadia.net.

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