They say that college football was born this month in 1869, but “they” may not know what they’re talking about.
Are we really supposed to count a game between Princeton and Rutgers played 146 years ago as true football competition when the rules of the day were no carrying or throwing of the ball? That’s right, everybody just tried to kick a round ball into the opponent’s goal and the first team to six goals was the winner.
If that’s not soccer, you can call me Kaka.
So let’s try to come up with our own birthday for college football, one that actually sounds American. I will list several options and you can cast your vote, either by e-mail or retweet.
- 1906 and the first halftime show featuring a marching band. Illinois played the University of Chicago that day. Nobody remembers the final score but dozens of newly converted fans agreed that football had a great beat and it was easy to dance to.
- 1912 and the creation of the modern scoring system: Prior to that year, both touchdowns and field goals might be worth four or five points each, according to who was counting. It was improvisational chaos on a scale never recreated until the Atlantic Coast Conference started training and releasing football officials on an unsuspecting public.
- 1913, the year that both Paul “Bear” Bryant and Woody Hayes were born. If the significance of that harmonic convergence needs to be explained, you are not qualified to vote in this poll.
- 1916 and the first flagrant effort to run up the score. Georgia Tech edged Cumberland College 222-0 at the urging of Yellow Jackets coach John Heisman. Was he forever vilified for this act of cruelty? No, Heisman’s name was placed on the most prestigious individual award given to a college player each year. It’s a wonder, given our winner-take-all history, that he wasn’t elected president, too.
- 1923 and the construction of the Rose Bowl stadium. Prior to this event, the granddaddy of all postseason football games was played in a Pasadena park, which means there were no massive stands to fill and no ticket gates and no concession stands and no real reason for a corporation to want to buy naming rights for the whole shebang. Football was simply a game, in other words, and as every American knows, football was never meant to be simply a game.
- 1936 and the introduction of the Associated Press college football poll. That Minnesota was the first AP national champion is an indication of how primitive the voting was at first. Legend holds that carrier pigeons delivered the ballots, leading many Southerners to mistakenly and instinctively shoot their team’s chances for a No. 1 ranking right out of the sky.
- 1963 and the 28-7 victory of No. 2 Texas over No. 1 Oklahoma, which verified that the polls really didn’t mean that much after all.
- 1973 and the NCAA’s decision to divide member schools into divisions according to size. No more Cumberland vs. Georgia Tech. Thankfully the concept of the “body bag” game was preserved, enhancing the experience of homecoming games everywhere.
- 1979 and the founding of ESPN. Prior to this occasion, there were no talking heads to lead the discussion on who is No. 1 and who should win the Heisman and which coach should be run out of town on a rail. People actually watched games for themselves, but not many games because not all were televised. This is not science fiction, but it does require a similar suspension of belief.
- 2014 and the blessed arrival of the College Football Playoff system. Four teams were included, which had people wondering why eight teams wouldn’t be better, or 16, or 32. Congress eventually will get involved in all of this, and then the Supreme Court and, finally, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where football isn’t considered football at all.
At that point, college football might cease to exist as we know it, and might be reborn in some new form. I hope it’s without instant replay. Just helmets and goalposts and I’m good. That’s taking it all the way back to the game’s creation story, whenever “they” say that was written.