' ' Cinema Romantico: A Digression: Mythical No More

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A Digression: Mythical No More

Last year a wide receiver for Division I-AA (reader's note: I refuse to acknowledge the term "Football Championship Subdivision") Morgan State named Edwin Baptiste momentarily turned into Shaobo Qin in "Ocean's Eleven" and made a catch firmly of the you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it variety. Instantly the "Greatest Catch Of All Time" argument was ignited. Was it the greatest?

Well what about the September Saturday afternoon back in 1991 I spent on the brown sofa in the basement of our house on 220 3rd Street watching on TV as Michigan downed Notre Dame 24-14 in a grand game courtesy of the moment on 4th and inches when, ignoring conventional strategy, Michigan quarterback Elvis Grbac dropped back and lofted a pass toward the end zone where his teammate Desmond Howard improbably laid out and made an immaculate finger-tip grab for an incomprehensible TD. I recall freaking out, sashaying about the room, screaming at no one since no one was with me, "Did you see that?! DID YOU SEE THAT?!" Was that the greatest catch of all time?

Well what about the astonishing reception in the 1987 Cotton Bowl by Ohio State's Cris Carter that has remained vivid in my memory for every one of the 22 years since it happened in which he leapt up at midfield, wedged between two defiant Texas A&M defenders, and somehow, like a shoulder padded Ringling Brothers acrobat, as they all reached for it simultaneously, snared the ball for himself, absorbed the hit, and kept hold as he returned to the turf? Was that the greatest catch of all time?

Well what about Nebraska's Maurice Purify against those same poor Aggies from Texas A&M with the 2006 Big 12 North title on the line, less than 30 seconds to play, Nebraska down by six and their QB Zac Taylor's deliberately underthrown ball wafting toward the corner of the end zone, where Purify, mighty Purify, mirroring the grit of Anthony Wayne leading the charge on the British bastion at Stony Point, out leapt his defender for possession of the ball and the clinching score which, contrary to popular belief, was not "a catch" but The Catch? The Catch that caused me to run out onto the deck of my Chicago apartment and bang a chair repeatedly against the much-less-than-sturdy wood while whooping. Was that Catch the greatest? (Well, maybe from a personal, biased standpoint, yes.)

Was one of these catches the greatest? Is there another one I've missed? Are there several more I've missed? How can we be certain of the greatest? How can we truly know the unknowable? Do you see my point?

It wasn't that long ago - the mid 90's was the last time I recall hearing it - that college football's ultimate prize was referred to consistently as the Mythical National Championship. Mythical, as in myth, as in "without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation." Unknowable.

But the mid 90's was also the dawn of the the harbingers of doom (i.e. the whining playoff proponents) whose obsession with conformity led them to a misunderstanding of why college football can't do it like - say it with me! - "every other sport" (retch) and institute a playoff. Therefore the BCS (or Bowl Championship Series) was born in the horrific, wacked-out, mathematical hope of determining which two teams deserved to play at the end of each season for the national title. And so the term Mythical National Champion was put out to pasture.

Now every year the drum beats get bigger, bolder, louder, as this new breed of college football fan, which seemed to be much more in the minority back when I first fell in love with the sport, along with the assistance of pedantic sportswriters - in the words of Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel "(those) who pay little to no attention to college football during the regular season, then swoop in at the end and tell those of us who do follow the sport closely everything that's wrong with it" - cry out for a playoff to determine the "true" national champion.

Is the BCS an intelligent way of selecting a "true" national champion? Oh God, no. Absolutely not. It's as stupid as Gary Barnett's decision to squib kick the day after Thanksgiving back in 2000 but here's what those sniveling playoff proponents don't understand - college football has never been about selecting a "true" national champion.

I am in the throes of trying to compose a screenplay about one of college football's greatest all time upsets, tiny Centre College defeating Harvard (the USC of its day) 6-0 back in 1921. In reading about this game you never - not once! - find a Centre playing discussing the ultimate ramifications of this win or how it may or may not lead to them being considered the "best team" of 1921. They wanted to beat Harvard. They beat Harvard. They delighted in beating Harvard. End of story. The game itself mattered, not what the game could potentially lead to further down the road.

Remember Boise State and their preposterously dramatic victory over Oklahoma in 2007's Fiesta Bowl (you know, the one with the "Hook and Ladder" and "Statue of Liberty" and the Boise State guy proposing to his cheerleader girlfriend)? Of course, you do. One of the greatest college football games of all time. Let's say that game happens precisely as it did but happens in a playoff format instead. Let's say it happens in a quarterfinal. And then the next round Boise State goes out and gets beat. Do people still consider it one of the greatest games of all time? Before you answer consider what just happened in the NBA playoffs between the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics in the first round. It went seven games, had something like 12 overtimes, five games decided by three points or less, and while it was happening people were already starting the "greatest playoff series ever" debate. Yet a few weeks later, when the dust had settled, the commotion died down. A great series, yes, but not the greatest. It didn't have a true impact on the NBA champion, they said. So on and so forth. Gone. Forgotten. As fast as a Colorado receiver dropping the ball when a game's on the line. But the 2007 Fiesta Bowl will live on forever, arguably the most mythical bowl game of them all.

In his poetic argument against the playoff Chuck Klosterman, in words I hold near and dear to my heart, declared that "football is event-oriented. Every game is autonomous." Exactly! It is the only sport left of which that can be written. Autonomous. No major sport has a season shorter than college football which makes every game that much more special. (I don't remember what sportswriter it was but awhile ago one of them, when arguing that college football had better rivalries than, say, Red Sox/Yankees and Packers/Bears and Duke/North Carolina and so forth, said, "How can it be a rivalry when they play more than once a year?" AMEN.) Every single game is meaningful and righteous unto itself.

College football is too vast, too epic to be decided by shoehorning a few teams into some piddly dink bracket. The sport contains 120 teams. The NFL has, what, 30? Besides, our sport has never really been about deciding anything in the long run because nothing can be decided. It all goes caverns of miles past the inane question of "Who's Number One?" It's about the feeling that one single game conjures up. It's about border wars and holy wars and ridiculous prizes and clean, old fashioned hate and the Oklahoma and Texas fans split 50-50, right down the middle, every October at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Believe me, the Sweet 16 of college football ain't settling the feud between those two. Oklahoma played in the "BCS National Championship Game" (yack) last year but Texas beat Oklahoma and I encourage you to ask any fan of those respective schools which one mattered more. Go ahead, ask 'em, see what they say.

Nebraska beat Colorado last year and they beat us the year before and we beat them two years in a row before that and they beat us two years in a row before that and....on and on and on, round and round and round, grudge matches that span an eternity, down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands of time until - oh, look at me, I'm rambling.

Here's an idea for all you whimpering playoff proponents, take a year away from our game. How about it? You've got the NFL and the MLB and the NBA and the NHL and the PGA and all that crap. That'll keep you occupied. We'll get along fine without you. What, you don't believe me? You don't think those 102,000 and 106,000 and 107,000 seat stadiums won't still get filled? You wanna put some money on it?

Then check back in with us one weekend, doesn't matter when, September, October, November, any time, and I'll bet you find a whole big bunch of people who won't be troubled at all with your ceaseless calls for reform having fallen by the wayside. I'll bet you find some games where the stakes are monumental, whether it's a couple titans like USC and Ohio State going toe to toe or 1-10 Washington State tustling with 0-10 Washington (as thrilling as any game I saw last year - the skill level may not have been high but it was intense and full of passion), and not because the regular season is the playoff, as the saying goes, but because every game on every day of every week of every season is an event. Autonomous. It does not need something artificial and manmade like a playoff to generate it. It's something else, something deeper, something more pure, something....unknowable. So please, for the love of God, stop trying to figure it out.


drinkof said...

NC State, UNC, early 70's. Last play of the game, NC State down 7. QB throws a rainbow, which the receiver leaps, reaches over the defender and plucks it from in front of his facemask way after you thought he had a prayer of touching it.

Not so widely noted, as they went for 2 and failed. Clincher: the QB and receiver were twins, last name Buckey, don't recall first names.

Oh, and yes, UNC / Duke is as big as any football rivalry, because the games are twice as important!

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