With the completion of the Oregon v. Auburn national championship game last month, the ever-lengthening college bowl season came to a close. College football—from a certain preferable and limited angle—carries with it much of what some think of as good and endurable about our modern circumstances. Not, of course, something of ultimate consideration, but certainly something worthy of attention, where one might be a fan while not slipping into the role of the fanatic. There is a purity to the game—or so it seems on the surface—with something of an amateur-status wall in place to stave off the corruptions of overly ambitious sports-agents, professional contract squabbles, lock-outs, and the like. Even with the game being circled-in by the business of both higher education and the professional ranks, this appearance of purity or the reality of the game’s integrity is still not entirely upset.
Some of the goodness of the game has been challenged of late by the jumping of numerous teams from one conference to another; assumed to increase both their financial and bowl-related prospects. One such example is the planned University of Nebraska move to the Big Ten, which will happen later this year. The most noble reasoning for the Cornhusker jump can be found in a piece from ESPN.com: “Osborne [Athletic Director] and Perlman [University Chancellor] both made the case that Nebraska is better aligned with the Big Ten academically, culturally and even in climate.” There is certainly truth in this statement, but it has to be weighed against the following, it too from ESPN.com:
To generations of Nebraska fans, going to the Big Ten at one time would have been unthinkable. The school’s athletic tradition is built on more than a century of football games against the likes of Missouri and Kansas, dating to the days the team was known as the Bugeaters.
The Huskers, in fact, have been conference partners with Iowa State, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Kansas State since 1928; with Colorado since 1948; and with Oklahoma State since 1960.
Now the Huskers are taking their five national titles in football, three Heisman trophies and enthusiastic fans east. They will look to start building new traditions, such as a border rivalry with the Iowa Hawkeyes and regular trips to Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State.
Considering this, it is somewhat saddening to consider such a history and its attending sentiments and attachments torn asunder and watered-down, not that I should be too surprised by the whole matter. (Though it should be noted that the Nebraska incorporation is certainly not as egregious as Texas Christian University entering the Big East in 2012 mind you.)
Even with such events transpiring the goodness of college football remains. Some of this can be found in occurrences of local attachment, as well as inherited affiliation and affection for one’s favorite team, among others. Much affection for one’s preferred collegiate team can arise from a noble sense of loyalty to one’s alma mater, state, town, or region. There is also oftentimes an inherited passing along of affection and affiliation: “Dad likes this team, as does Grandpop, so, well, so do I.” Such affection and loyalty can also lead to particular folkways, traditions, rivalries, biases, and dislikes of the relatively harmless variety. Take for example the annual meeting of the Harvard and Yale football teams, known simply as The Game, which was first played in the late-1800s. Another would be the annually mismatched Delaware v. West Chester game (31-0 this year in favor the Blue Hens), not being played for its competitiveness it has tradition to turn to, and, as one who has gone to this game in the past, it is still worth the time to attend in order to see the tradition continue.
Folkways brought about through college football lend a certain color to a locale and region. For instance, I wasn’t aware of the particular Western Pennsylvanian dislike of the nasty “Nitters” from Penn State prior to enrolling at the University of Pittsburgh, but it is there and very much a part of the fabric of the area. While at Pitt, amongst my native roommates who harbored this grudge, I got a sense of the uniqueness of the region, that this was a place—a real, living place—with an identity and history, and that amongst these early twenty somethings this identity had been passed on, no matter how incompletely or imperfectly. This has also contributed to my feeling a particular fondness for Pittsburgh and its inhabitants.
But being from the eastern side of Penn’s woods, and having a grandpop who went to Penn State, I have been a somewhat distant but real rooter for the Lions of State College. I’ve also developed a particular affinity for the conference of the Big Ten, to which Penn State belongs.
Regarding the football side of it, the Big Ten has a palpable if loosely identifiable grittiness to it. Games played in locales from the middle of Pennsylvania to the upper-mid-West carry with them a sense of toughness and stoutness of heart. Some of this might come from the simple fact that in these places there can be found some climactic climes—cold and snow always set a more dramatic scene for a football game. The spartan weather of the state of Michigan can even make games in a trendy campus town like Ann Arbor come off as close relatives to those played on Lambeau’s icy tundra. The teams of the conference, of course, often express this larger sensibility: tough defenses, run-focused offenses—Penn State is even referred to as Linebacker U., and there is no position with a greater mystique of toughness than that of linebacker (think Butkus or Singletary).
All in all the conference seems to have a self-contained identity rooted to a geographic region. The inclusion of Penn State in 1989 was not antithetical to this regional rootedness either. This somewhat cohesive identity becomes more fragile with the impending inclusion of the University of Nebraska though. Now, nothing against the plain states (I once spent a wonderful three months in Kansas), but Nebraska isn’t exactly Michigan, Wisconsin, or the middle of Pennsylvania. At least from my perch, and I could be wrong, it doesn’t seem to carry the same regional sensibility. Admittedly, the University of Iowa is in the Big Ten, but even though the Hawkeye state borders Nebraska its university’s football team seems to fit the Big Ten while the Cornhuskers of Nebraska come off as a bit too far from the west. Of course this might sound all a bit too undefined, but isn’t that the case with many a sentiment?
Nebraska is not the sole party to criticize here, the Big Ten deserves its share as well. And, while I doubt regional identity was on the higher end of the conference decision-makers’ considerations, it should be noted that the impressiveness of the Big Ten is determined by more than how many wins its teams accumulate or how healthy its revenue stream is. A greater attentiveness to regional identity and cohesion would be welcome as this can be a source of venerability for an institution.
Now, a question remains: does all of this really matter? I think we can answer in the affirmative when we consider that Americans are nothing if they aren’t sports fans. Even some of those who hard-headedly consider football nothing more than some meatheads mashing one another in between million-dollar commercials tune in for the Super Bowl (an event I happen to be somewhat sour on). Something important is happening, however indefinable, when people either watch or partake in athletics. With this in mind, cases like the University of Nebraska jumping athletic conferences in the manner it did are more significant than they at first might seem. Among other things, they truly represent modern trends which happen only to pop-up in other venues, being translated to other sets of circumstances: overly pragmatic and commercial considerations unnecessarily leading to an uprooting of both tradition and local affection, and an abandoning of tetheredness to historic commitment and benefit.