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In the fourth and final installment of A Look Back revisits weeks 13-16 of the college football season. In this segment, I witness a pair of classic rivalries: Harvard vs. Yale and Army vs. Navy. In between, I see the final home came for the Penn State seniors who were freshmen when the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal broke, and I travel to the rustbelt town of Alliance, Ohio to explore the most dominant division 3 program in the country. While I only saw one top-25 division 1 team during this stretch – Michigan State – the final four weeks featured a slate of games that harkened back to the timeless nature of the sport. At the Army-Navy game, Army did not complete their first forward pass until late in the fourth quarter, but the lack of offense did little to quiet the crowd. At Penn State, the overmatched Nittany Lions played in front of a half empty stadium, but at the game’s conclusion, the entire senior class remained to sing the alma mater with a team that had endured so much. More than football, the final four weeks offered a portrait of camaraderie, companionship, and the importance of tradition. Driving home from Baltimore after the Army-Navy game, I could not remember any particular plays from the game, but the sight of 8,000 Cadets and Midshipmen swaying back and forth, arm in arm as they sang each other’s alma mater is one that will stay with me forever.

 

IMG_3111Week 13 – Harvard 31, Yale 24: While most of the college football world was gearing up for the final push for the playoff, I returned to New England for a matchup between two national powers of yesteryear. For the first five decades of college football, Harvard and Yale were firmly entrenched in the upper echelon of the sport. Between 1872 and 1927, Yale and Harvard combined to win 34 national championships – although in those days, there was no title game so news outlets often awarded national championships to different schools. Yale players won two of the first three Heisman Trophies. When the Yale Bowl was constructed in 1913, it became the largest stadium in the world, seating over 70,000 people.

Today, the Harvard-Yale game is irrelevant to the national rankings – the Ivy League does not participate in postseason play. Every other Saturday of the year, the stadiums in New Haven and Cambridge sit largely empty – the vacant seats serving as reminders of the programs’ fall from their illustrious past.

Like Williams-Amherst, most of the students and alumni at Harvard and Yale are not truly football fans. These are businessmen and academics masquerading as sports fans, elite students swept up in the fervor and turned into diehards. At the tailgates, you don’t see jerseys and baseball hats. You see Barbour jackets and striped scarves. Conversations center on old memories and life updates rather than anticipation for the game.

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Better days are a'comin

Better days are a’comin in Knoxville

In the third installment of “A Look Back,” I explore weeks 9-12 of the college football season. I visit two proud programs who have recently fallen on hard times – Tennessee and Michigan, return to the Northeast to watch “The Biggest Little Game in America,” and head south to the modern-day capital of college football: The University of Alabama. Along the way, I witness the limits of fan loyalty at a shockingly empty Big House, the effects of winning on the city of Tuscaloosa, and the power of hope on the Tennessee community.

IMG_2432Week 9 – Alabama 34, Tennessee 20: From Mississippi, I drove north to Memphis and east to Knoxville. College football in East Tennessee is about as big as it gets. Drive fifty miles in any direction from campus, and you’ll find small towns cloaked in Tennessee orange. Nearly every non-Christian radio station is dedicated to Tennessee football coverage 365 days a year. The area code in the Knoxville area (865) even spells out VOL.

For Tennessee fans, the past seven years have been a nightmare. There are a few different places you could point to as the beginning of the dark ages, but the hiring of Lane Kiffin in late 2008 serves as a pretty could start. After calling Tennessee a dream job, Kiffin left Knoxville after just one year – a year in which he led the Vols to a 7-6 record. Kiffin’s departure to USC, which was announced in the middle of the night, led to such outrage in town that residents named a waste treatment facility in Kiffin’s “honor.” Tennessee hired Derek Dooley three days after Kiffin’s departure, but Dooley floundered his way to three straight losing seasons.

In 2012, Butch Jones replaced Dooley and hope for the future returned to Knoxville. Jones’ ‘brick by brick’ philosophy of rebuilding the program from the bottom up has been widely embraced, though as Offensive Coordinator Mike Bajakian told me, the honeymoon period only lasts so long before you have to win football games. Last year, Tennessee finished with a 5-7 record for the third year in a row, and the Vols entered the game against Alabama at 3-4 and struggling to stay in bowl contention.

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The second installment in my look back at the 2014 season. In this section I fly west to Seattle, visit one of the winningest Division 2 programs at a small town in Northern Missouri, watch 4 games in 24 hours in Texas, and tailgate with the Tuohy family (of Blind Side fame) at The Grove. Along the way, I further explore the ways in which money is impacting the college football experience and have my first real encounter with the terrifying reality of concussions.

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Now that students have returned home for the holidays and stadiums have shut down for the winter, I find myself looking back at my season in college football. In 16 weeks, I went to 19 games across 15 different states and 10 different conferences. Along the way, I met bricklayers and farmers, school teachers and CEOs, soldiers and local politicians. I sat in on radio shows, attended campus rallies, ate countless dining hall meals, and spent many a night in the back of my car. My goal was to explore college football’s place in America, to understand the game’s impact on our culture, and to, in turn, understand our culture’s impact on the game. In many ways you could look at my journey as a search to answer a simple question: why do people care about college football?

Each week, I wrote articles about the communities I visited, relating stories about the people I’d met and the culture I’d witnessed. Focused as I was on the present, I rarely had an opportunity to write about the places I’d left behind. But, as I traveled, I started to feel connections for these places. On Saturday afternoons, I’d find myself searching d3football.com for St. John’s score updates or scrolling through ESPN for previews on South Carolina, Texas, or Iowa.

In this article, I’m offering a week-by-week look back at trip – a summary of my destinations followed by a discussion of what happened to the team after I left. I hope you enjoy!

 

Week 1 – #21 Texas A&M 52, #9 South Carolina 28: The college football season began for me on a balmy Thursday night in Columbia, South Carolina. Coming off of three-straight 11-win seasons, the Gamecock faithful entered Williams-Brice stadium that night expecting big things. Folks I met talked about a berth in the SEC championship game as a minimum for success. Most were focused on a trip to the inaugural playoffs.

The 2014 season officially begins

The 2014 season officially begins

That night, I sat with a pair of freshmen – Sean and Deonte. They had each decided to come to South Carolina in part because of the opportunity to be a part of SEC football. They had grown up watching big games and had planned their visits to campus around football weekends. Before kickoff, they were as excited as I imagine they’ve ever been in their lives. They had to pinch themselves to believe their eyes – 82,000 screaming people, a top-10 ranked team, a nationally televised game – and they were a part of it. Unfortunately for my seatmates, their feelings of triumph were short-lived. Upstart Aggie Quarterback Kenny Hill ripped the South Carolina defense apart, throwing for 511 yards and three touchdowns en route to a resounding 52-28 victory.

As Sean and Deonte left that night, I wondered whether their visions of grandeur would ever come to fruition. South Carolina has never been a consistent national power. Maybe the Texas A&M game was a sign of things to come – a new normal of mediocrity.

As it turned out, the loss to Texas A&M was the first in a series of disappointments for the Gamecocks. After three straight wins, including a thrilling 38-35 victory over then-number 6 Georgia, South Carolina lost four of their next five games. An overtime win over a subpar Florida team and a victory over South Alabama made the Gamecocks bowl eligible, but a season-ending defeat at rival Clemson solidified a sense that this was a down year in Columbia.

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It’s a little after seven o’clock. The sun in upstate New York has long since set over the western hills, and a steady rain is slowly turning to snow as the temperature plummets towards freezing. The towns that are nestled around this spot are quiet – their residents have returned home to huddle around fires. No one’s going outside in this weather.

Yet here on an open field the size of a large Walmart, the mood is different. Four thousand young men and women dressed in army camo are standing around a football field. In the stands, a group of students are singing – or more accurately, chanting – Christmas carols, their enthusiasm more than compensating for their shaky efforts at holding a tune. A line is forming at a hot chocolate truck near the bleachers. The football field is lined with groups of students who are packed in so close to the field that whenever a player runs towards the sidelines there is a ripple effect in the crowd as people attempt to move out of the way. The game is an annual tradition here – a flag football grudge match between the upperclassmen and the underclassmen.

I’m at West Point – the home of the United States Military Academy. The camo-clad young adults in front of me make up the corps of cadets, the future officers of the US Army. On sunny days, the site of their football game is one of the most beautiful spots in the country. To the west, tree-covered hills envelop the school, offering a cozy background for the stone-gray barracks, library, and chapel. To the east, the land slopes down to the Hudson River at a spot where the river curves its way past a series of high bluffs. George Washington realized the strategic importance of this particular plot of land early in the Revolutionary War, establishing a fort here and stringing an iron chain across the river, which successfully prevented British ships from transporting troops along the waterway.

Despite the fact that many of the cadets are only six months away from possible deployment, war now feels a long ways off. The camo is not in response to some foreign invader, it’s preparation for a more immediate foe: the Navy. “The cadets wear their combat gear all week because they’re ‘going to war’ against Navy,” a tour guide told me. With finals only a week away, this celebration is a respite from the library – a rare opportunity to let loose before returning to the strictness of military life.

On Saturday, the Army and Navy football teams will meet for the 115th time. For Army, the game is a chance at revenge after falling to their rival each of the previous twelve meetings. The recent history and the fact that the Black Knights are a double-digit underdog in the game have only intensified anticipation for the game. Rumors are floating around that the Army Superintendent – the school’s equivalent to a college president – will cancel finals if Army wins. “We’ve never seen an Army win against Navy, but we’ve heard stories about how drastically life changes if we win. You get more free time, there’s more access to parking, officers are less strict on some of the rules,” one cadet told me.

Signs of the rivalry are everywhere. On the roof of the field house, the shingles spell out “Sink Navy.” An archway over one of the central paths on campus is named the “Beat Navy Tunnel.” “Beat Navy” is plastered on posters and flags, weights and milk cartons. “It’s not just football,” a West Point alum explained to me. “We want to beat Navy in everything – soccer, boxing, basketball. I don’t know if we have a chess team, but if we do, we’d want to beat Navy in that too.”

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Rain slaps against my face, and I claw at the hood of my jacket, struggling to pull it lower over my exposed forehead. The pothole-ridden sidewalk is filled with pools of water, and I leap from ridge to ridge in an attempt to avoid completely drenching my already-wet sneakers. There’s no one else walking these streets, and those in the cars that speed by are probably too empathetic to laugh at my dance-like movements. December has arrived, and with it, the Midwest has turned a dreary grey.

As I move further from campus, the collection of fast-food joints and big box stores gives way to the remnants of a once-vibrant city center. Large homes line the street, but their exteriors are dilapidated and their lawns are unkempt, suggesting that much has changed since their construction. Long blades of grass are fighting their way through cracks in several of the driveways. It’s been years since families called these buildings home.

I crest a small hill and dart across the road onto Main Street. Multi-story buildings line each side of the street. Squint hard enough, and I can imagine a bustling downtown complete with movie theatres, department stores, and happening bars. But that was years ago. Now the dark buildings seem to blend into the grey sky around them. I slow to a walk as I head up the street.

A few restaurants and a delightful-looking cheesecake shop stand in contrast to the decay around me. Most of the buildings are at least partially vacant. The painted store-signs tell visitors more about what used to be there than any current enterprises. It must have been at least two decades since “SEARS” actually occupied the place that still bears the company’s name. The majority of the stores are antique shops, selling tangible reminders of the city’s once-prosperous past. To the north, I can see the outline of industrial buildings – a mill or factory maybe. Places that at one time employed thousands. On an overpass at the far end of the street, near the point where the road dead ends into a railroad station that transported hundreds of soldiers a day during the World War II years, a banner of Martin Luther King Jr. from the March on Washington proclaims: “I have a dream.” Life here may have changed when the last mill left town, but it did not stop.

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IMG_3171Saturday was a big day in college football. In Mississippi, Ole Miss knocked off fourth-ranked Mississippi State. In Ohio, Florida, and Oregon, a trio of playoff contenders held off upset bids from archrivals to remain in the national championship race. And in Alabama, the Iron Bowl lived up to its billing as Auburn gave the mighty Crimson Tide all it could handle before fading late.

In the midst of the excitement, Penn State hosted tenth-ranked Michigan State in a game that served as little more than an afterthought for most outside observers. Michigan State entered as a double-digit favorite, but, with two losses, the Spartans were essentially eliminated from playoff contention and had no shot at winning the Big Ten title. Penn State entered as a team in turmoil. Their promising 4-0 September had given way to a 2-5 record since, including a loss the previous week to lowly Illinois. The Nittany Lions had clinched a bowl berth, their first in three seasons due to NCAA restrictions, but to most Penn State supporters, the season was a disappointment, and Saturday’s game would do little to change that.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Happy Valley. In my mind Penn State was a series of stereotypical images I’d seen on TV of a proud program marred in controversy: 106,000 diehard fans at the annual white out game juxtaposed with shots of press conferences and courtroom proceedings. To me, Penn State was the no-nonsense, working-man’s program of my childhood – the team that still played on a grass field and wore jerseys with no names on the back. But Penn State was also the newscast portrayal of a troubled program whose leaders had turned a blind eye to child sex abuse committed by one of its own. Penn State was the cover-up and the drama around the investigation – an investigation that eventually sent the offender, Jerry Sandusky, to prison and resulted in the termination of the school’s President, Athletic Director, and legendary coach, Joe Paterno.

Now, two and a half years removed from the Sandusky trial, the news trucks have moved on, and, to a large extent, so have the college football analysts. The announcement of the reduction in Penn State’s sanctions earlier this season barely made headlines outside of Pennsylvania. If I wanted to see the new epicenters for college football, I’d be better off elsewhere. But driving into State College on Saturday morning, I was excited to witness a bit of the real Penn State – to get a glimpse of something beyond the 30-second sound bites and TV broadcasts. Despite the team’s poor record and the likelihood of defeat to the Spartans, Saturday’s Senior Day offered the perfect setting for my exploration. For on Saturday, the final class of students and players who were on campus before the Sandusky trial bid a final farewell to their Penn State football experience.

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