Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games

Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games

by Michael Weinreb

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Overview

From an award-winning sports journalist and college football expert: “A beautifully written mix of memoir and reportage that tracks college ball through fourteen key games, giving depth and meaning to all” (Sports Illustrated), now with a new Afterword about the first ever College Football Playoff.

Every Saturday in the fall, it happens: On college campuses, in bars, at gatherings of fervent alumni, millions come together to watch a sport that inspires a uniquely American brand of passion and outrage. This is college football. Since the first contest in 1869, the game has grown from a stratified offshoot of rugby to a ubiquitous part of our national identity. Right now, as college conferences fracture and grow, as amateur athlete status is called into question, as 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.

Season of Saturdays examines the evolution of college football, including the stories of iconic coaches like Woody Hayes, Joe Paterno, and Knute Rockne; and programs like the USC Trojans, the Michigan Wolverines, and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Michael Weinreb considers the inherent violence of the game, its early seeds of big-business greed, and its impact on institutions of higher learning. He explains why college football endures, often despite itself. Filtered through journalism and research, as well as the author’s own recollections as a fan, Weinreb celebrates some of the greatest games of all time while revealing their larger significance.

“Wry, quirky, fascinating...This surely is one of the most enjoyable books of the college football season...Weinreb wrestles in captivating prose with the violence, hypocrisy, and corruption that are endemic to the sport at its most cutthroat level” (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781451627824
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 08/11/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 418,453
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

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

A PREFACE


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.

Season of Saturdays

A PREFACE


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

Also, Cows

Rutgers 6, Princeton 4 7

November 6, 1869

You Men Will Come to No Christian End!

Discussion Topics: Yale

Harvard

Walter Camp

Fried Beef Hearts

Charles Eliot

The Flying Wedge

Teddy Roosevelt

Death

The Forward Pass

Nick Saban

Notre Dame 35, Army 13 25

November 1, 1913

Like a Prayer

Discussion Topics: Catholicism

Hebrew School

Shitting on Pitt

Imaginary Girlfriends

Brigham Young University

The Gipper

Faith

Superstition

Minnesota 21, UCLA 3 (Rose Bowl, Ohio State Votes To Decline Invitation) 43

January 1, 1962

An Irascible Man

Discussion Topics: Woody Hayes

Projectiles

Vietnam

Michigan

Sputnik

Cold War Angst

Slap Shot

Indoctrination

Rage

Hippies

Notre Dame 10, Michigan State 10 55

November 11, 1966

Kissing Your Sister

Discussion Topics: Ara Parseghian

"Games of the Century"

The Polls

The Argument

The Minnesota Golden Gophers

George Wallace

Kill Bubba Kill

Anticlimaxes

Texas 15, Arkansas 14 75

December 6, 1969

Does Your Conscience Bother You?

Discussion Topics: Richard Nixon

Darrell Royal

Southern Football

Regional/Racial Politics

Player Revolt

Coaches' Paranoia

"Pooch Kick Frank"

The Early Iconography of Joe Paterno

Rattlesnakes

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)

Fielding Yost

Boss Weeks

Bo Schembechler

The Big Ten

Demographics

The Big Chill

Appalachian State

Rich Rodriguez

Headstrong Idealism

Alabama 14, Penn State 7 (Sugar Bowl) 107

January 1, 1979

Bear's Way

Discussion Topics: Keith Jackson

Marcel Proust

Poll Controversies

Ole Miss

USC

Michigan

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

Enemas

Two-Point Conversions

Turner Gill

Bowl Executives

The History of Tiebreakers

Nebraska 62, Florida 24

Zero-Sum Football

Miami 58, Notre Dame 7 135

November 30, 1985

In the Air Tonight

Discussion Topics: Jim Kelly

Howard Schnellenberger

Jimmy Johnson

Sonny Crockett

Reaganomics

The 1987 Fiesta Bowl

Red Dawn

Southern Methodist University

Wide Right I

Bobby Bowden

2 Live Crew

Insurrection

Texas 41, USC 38 (Rose Bowl) 151

January 4, 2006

The Ballad of Reggie Bush

Discussion Topics: Fresno State

The Twilight Zone

Todd Blackledge

The 1983 NFL Draft

Tecmo Bowl

EA Sports NCAA Football

Pete Carroll

Matt Leinart

Vince Young

The Iron Bowl

Jonathan Franzen

Tebow

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

Utah

TCU

Chris Petersen

Georgia

LSU 9, Alabama 6

Porcupine Saddles

Texas Tech 39, Texas 33 185

November 1, 2008

Jokermen

Discussion Topics: University of South Carolina

Florida 30, Auburn 27

Steve Superior

Banquet Beer

Ray Goof

Mack Brown

Stanford

The Fun 'n' Gun

The Air Raid

Four Verticals

Bart Simpson

Mike Leach

Dementia Pigskin

The Tortoise and the Hare

East Dillon High School

Texas A&M

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

Mick Jagger

Chip Kelly

Nepalese Carpeting

Stanford 17, Oregon 14

The Play (Cal 25, Stanford 20)

Holy Shit

Holy Shit

Chris! Davis!

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

Red Grange

Oberlin

Joe Paterno

Beaver Canyon

The Author

Despite His Doubts

Reasserting College Football as a Force That Gives Us Meaning

Acknowledgments 241

Bibliography 243

Index 247

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