From an award-winning writer, journalist, and college football expert: an entertaining cultural history that highlights the key moments, games, personalities, and scandals of the popular and controversial American pastime.
Every Saturday in the fall, countless college students, alumni, and sports fans wake up filled with a particular kind of hope and excitement, ready for their team’s game. Half of them finish the day in joyous celebration, and the other half in abject depression, but all of them are ever ready to do it over again the next weekend.
College football is one of the unifying cornerstones of American culture. Since the first game in 1869, football has grown from a stratified offshoot of rugby to a ubiquitous part of our national identity. Today, as college conferences fracture and grow, amateur athlete status is called into question, and a playoff system threatens to replace big-money bowl games, we’re in the midst of the most dramatic transitional period in the history of the sport.
Michael Weinreb’s Season of Saturdays examines the evolution of college football, from the moral and ethical quandaries that informed its past to the fascinating changes that may affect its future. Since its nascent days on elite Ivy League campuses, college football has inspired both school spirit and controversy. Weinreb explores the game’s inherent violence, its early seeds of big-business greed, and its impact on institutions of higher learning. Filtered through the stories of such iconic coaches as Woody Hayes and Joe Paterno and Steve Spurrier, Season of Saturdays also celebrates some of the greatest games of all time while exploring their larger significance. Part popular history, part memoir—and always uniquely American—Season of Saturdays is both a look back at how the sport became so fraught with problems, and a look ahead at how the sport might survive another century.
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About the Author
Michael Weinreb has written about college football for The New York Times, GQ, Sports on Earth, ESPN, and Grantland. He has been featured on NPR’s This American Life and ESPN’s 30 for 30, and has appeared on CNN, ESPN, and ESPN Radio. His book Game of Kings won the Quill Award for Best Sports Books of 2007. He lives in San Francisco, California.
Read an Excerpt
Season of Saturdays
Discussion Topics: You • The Author’s Inherent Bias • The Author’s Repeated Attempts to Justify the Existence of a Sport That Often Defies Rational Sense • Also, Cows
So maybe you already understand:
Maybe you are nine years old, and your father takes you to a college football game. You reside in the vicinity of a sprawling state university; the stadium looms on the outskirts of campus, a clunky leviathan of exposed steel beams and concrete pillars, surrounded by freshman dormitories and parking lots and acres of muddy agricultural pastureland. The roads are narrow, the traffic is suffocating, and the tailgates go on for miles, tethered to recreational vehicles and trailers and pickup trucks. Everything is so huge; even the air seems weighed down with smells, charred meat, and churned-up dirt and manure of varied origins. You pass into the stadium through Gate E and the ramps are too narrow and the people too thick (both individually, because this is rural America, and collectively, because the game is a sellout), and you stand there and wait for the arteries to clear (both figuratively and literally), and every so often, you hear adults buzzed on cheap pilsner bellow like corralled cattle to pass the time.
Maybe all of this rings familiar to you. Maybe this was your childhood, too.
* * *
For me, it goes back to 1982, when prime-time college football was not yet a regular thing, packaged by cable television into a commodified national experience. For me, it was Nebraska at Penn State, a matchup of top-ten programs in front of eighty-five thousand people, the first game in the history of this particular stadium that required lights (the lights were portable, mounted on trucks, and given to frequent short-circuiting). The home team led 14–0 early, and then they trailed 24–21 late in the fourth quarter, and I could not see most of what happened after that, because I was too small and everyone around me was standing and I was engulfed in a thicket of down jackets and cigar smoke and pocket radio antennas and the voice of a guy named Steve was critiquing the play-calling.
At that point, my memory blends with the television replays, and because I tend to recall my childhood in snapshots, I have retained this photographic image of the stadium clock showing one minute, eighteen seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. And in conjunction with this image, I recall trying to count seventy-eight seconds in my head during the commercial time-out as Penn State awaited the kickoff for the last drive of the game, as if I might somehow be able to slow the progress of time by deconstructing it inside my own head. (It’s almost as if I was already nostalgic for what was about to happen.)
There was a throw to the sideline, to a Penn State tight end who was clearly out of bounds but was ruled in bounds, for reasons that either defy explanation or raise suspicion, depending upon one’s perspective; there was a throw to the end zone, to a klutzy tight end whose nickname was actually Stonehands, who cradled the pass in his arms and toppled to the ground for the game-winning touchdown. And I remember the quake and the aftershocks inside that stadium, and I remember the bacchanalia outside, and I remember listening to the radio broadcast in the car, and I remember watching the highlights on the news and on television the next morning, and I remember thinking that I would never, in the course of my life, see anything bigger than that again.
It’s a difficult thing to quantify: the elation, the connection, the sense of belonging that college football provides. But then, maybe you don’t need me to tell you. Maybe you already understand.
* * *
Or maybe you don’t understand at all:
Maybe you attended a liberal arts college in New England, or maybe you grew up in a city where the athletes were professionals (New York, say, or Boston, or Chicago, or London). Maybe the very idea of college football resided at the far edge of your consciousness, a rural preoccupation like Garth Brooks and Peanut Buster Parfaits and moonshine, the province of southerners and state-school graduates and scrubbed fraternity boys in hooded sweatshirts. Maybe the thought of a university’s morale being tied to its football team strikes you as a fundamental failing of American society. Maybe you hear stories about corrupt recruiting and grade-fixing, and maybe you cannot understand how a sport with a long history of exploitation and brutality and scandal can still be considered a vital (and often defining) aspect of student life. Maybe you see it as a potentially crippling frivolity, or as a populist indulgence, and maybe the threat of football encroaching on the nation’s educational system makes you wonder how someone could possibly write an entire book extolling its cultural virtues.
* * *
And the thing is, I would like to tell you that you’re wrong, but I also know that you’re not entirely wrong.
* * *
I am writing this in the fall of 2013, as college football reaches a turning point: In 2014, a four-team playoff will commence, the most tacit acknowledgment to date from the NCAA that the sport is no longer an amateur pursuit. There are lawsuits pending as to whether college athletes will be able to trade on their name and likeness, and there are debates over whether they should be paid a stipend or whether the sport should be opened up to the free market. All of this is happening at the same time as we ponder legitimate questions about whether the sport of football is too violent to exist at all.
After the Penn State child sex abuse scandal broke in 2011, I wrote some words that got circulated online and I somehow briefly became a de facto spokesman for my hometown; in the process, I had people asking me multiple versions of the same question: Why does college football exist? It came from graduates of East Coast private schools that did not field football teams, from hard-core academics who saw college football as anathematic to their own purposes, from writers in Brooklyn who viewed college football as a simple-minded “southern thing.”
So this book is an attempt to convey why college football means so much to me, and maybe to you, if you grew up in a place like my hometown of State College, Pennsylvania, or if you graduated from a school like Michigan or Ohio State or Alabama or Texas, or if you are one of the roughly 50 million Americans who attended a college football game last season. It is a cultural history and a personal history and it is an exercise in nostalgia; it is a lamentation of the sport’s enduring stubbornness and a celebration of its enduring innocence. It is a sentimental defense of college football from an obsessive fan who still lulls himself to sleep by thinking about the end of that ’82 Nebraska game, and it is an attempt to detail how college football’s long history of scandal and politicization and bureaucratic infighting have led us to this point. It is an exploration of the varied meanings that college football holds for so many otherwise rational Americans, and it is an exploration of the ways that college football, in arousing such passion (and such unabashed hatred), has come to reflect our national (and regional) identity. No other nation in the world can even fathom the notion of attaching a prominent moneymaking athletic operation to a university; the fact that college football has existed for nearly 150 years, and the fact that it remains one of the most popular sports in America, must say something about who we are.
I grew up with college football in my blood. I am not so blinded as to fail to recognize its inherent hypocrisies, and yet I still enjoy it more purely and completely than I enjoy almost anything else in my life. I don’t want it to die. I don’t want it to fall victim to corruption and violence; I don’t want it to wither in a courtroom due to the failures of bureaucrats. I want it to find a rational path beyond this point of crisis. I want people to understand.
What follows is my attempt to explain.
Table of Contents
A Preface 1
Discussion Topics: You
The Author's Inherent Bias
The Author's Repeated Attempts to Justify the Existence of a Sport That Often Defies Rational Sense
Rutgers 6, Princeton 4 7
November 6, 1869
You Men Will Come to No Christian End!
Discussion Topics: Yale
Fried Beef Hearts
The Flying Wedge
The Forward Pass
Notre Dame 35, Army 13 25
November 1, 1913
Like a Prayer
Discussion Topics: Catholicism
Shitting on Pitt
Brigham Young University
Minnesota 21, UCLA 3 (Rose Bowl, Ohio State Votes To Decline Invitation) 43
January 1, 1962
An Irascible Man
Discussion Topics: Woody Hayes
Cold War Angst
Notre Dame 10, Michigan State 10 55
November 11, 1966
Kissing Your Sister
Discussion Topics: Ara Parseghian
"Games of the Century"
The Minnesota Golden Gophers
Kill Bubba Kill
Texas 15, Arkansas 14 75
December 6, 1969
Does Your Conscience Bother You?
Discussion Topics: Richard Nixon
"Pooch Kick Frank"
The Early Iconography of Joe Paterno
Michigan 24, Ohio State 12 91
November 22, 1969
The Leaders and the Best
Discussion Topics: The Social Mechanisms of Park Forest Elementary School (Circa 1982)
The Big Ten
The Big Chill
Alabama 14, Penn State 7 (Sugar Bowl) 107
January 1, 1979
Discussion Topics: Keith Jackson
The Phantom Touchdown
The Goal-Line Stand
The Length of One's Tallywhacker
Miami 31, Nebraska 30 (Orange Bowl) 123
January 2, 1984
The Resolution Will Be Televised
Discussion Topics: Tom Osborne
The History of Tiebreakers
Nebraska 62, Florida 24
Miami 58, Notre Dame 7 135
November 30, 1985
In the Air Tonight
Discussion Topics: Jim Kelly
The 1987 Fiesta Bowl
Southern Methodist University
Wide Right I
2 Live Crew
Texas 41, USC 38 (Rose Bowl) 151
January 4, 2006
The Ballad of Reggie Bush
Discussion Topics: Fresno State
The Twilight Zone
The 1983 NFL Draft
EA Sports NCAA Football
The Iron Bowl
Boise State 43, Oklahoma 42 (Fiesta Bowl) 169
January 1, 2007
My Blue Heaven
Discussion Topics: The Hook-and-Ladder
The Statue of Liberty
Strange but True Football Stories
Georgia Tech 222, Cumberland 0
Centre College 6, Harvard 0
LSU 9, Alabama 6
Texas Tech 39, Texas 33 185
November 1, 2008
Discussion Topics: University of South Carolina
Florida 30, Auburn 27
The Fun 'n' Gun
The Air Raid
The Tortoise and the Hare
East Dillon High School
Johnny Fucking Football
Auburn 34, Alabama 28 (Iron Bowl) 205
November 30, 2013
Get Behind Me, Saban
Discussion Topics: The Weather Channel
Oregon 0, Oregon State 0 (Toilet Bowl)
Oatmeal Creme Pies
Stanford 17, Oregon 14
The Play (Cal 25, Stanford 20)
An Epilogue Penn State 14, Miami 10 (Fiesta Bowl) 221
January 2, 1987
The Grand Experiment
Discussion Topics: Penn State 24, Notre Dame 21
University of Chicago Maroons
Amos Alonzo Stagg
Despite His Doubts
Reasserting College Football as a Force That Gives Us Meaning