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Since 1882, we’ve been arguing about how to end college football games

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College football disputes never resolve. And that’s often been the case for the games themselves.

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Getty Images. Banner Society illustration

In 1882, shortly after Walter Camp’s extra-innings idea — the original football overtime, tacking time onto tied games — failed to keep a third veritable Princeton-Yale title game from ending in a 0-0 tie, Camp talked everyone into his downs-and-distance idea. That forced “block game” offenses like Princeton’s to use the football or lose it.

Avoiding deadlock at the end had thus changed all of regulation. And this would be the first of many times we’d spend years arguing about changing football because two teams failed to reach a decision.

A year later, Camp began adjusting the point value of scoring plays. 1882 Yale had led the country with 6.5 points per game; 1883 Yale would lead with 60 per game. Perhaps a broader range of numbers would decrease the likelihood of ties?

Nice try. Yale and Princeton had another 0-0 championship the next season, then another in 1886. (The latter was called early, so everyone went to a hotel to argue about a rematch. That argument, like all others in college football history, accomplished nothing.)

So as of 1886, roughly a third of football’s 16-season history had come down to the same two schools failing to settle anything on the field, despite Camp’s masterwork.

Luckily, a few years later, college football figured out how to ensure each game ends with a winner and a loser. By “a few” years, I mean “109.”

The center of the debate, as reduced to two quotes from Iowa in October 1989:

  1. “Bo [Schembechler] and I shook hands [after a tie]. The first thing he said: ‘What a waste of time,’” Hawkeyes head coach Hayden Fry said. Fry said overtime being part of top-level college football “would have given the fans more football for their money. It would have taken off the negative feelings that are experienced by both teams when you have a tie.”
  2. His state’s biggest paper then weighed in on the idea of bringing OT up from the lower levels: “The current atmosphere among college administrators is dead-set against any escalation of college football, including overtime periods. The rationale is that universities exploit athletes, and overtime without overtime wages would be a further exploitation.”

The college admin has always been fine with money coming via amateur athletes playing a little extra baseball. College basketball has had overtime for ages. But the college admin has a breaking point: amateur football players slamming into each other for six hours.

“I was all for tiebreakers, but this is carrying the pursuit of victory too far,” Maine head coach Ron Rogerson said in 1982, after his team lost two of the longest games in football history to that point ... in consecutive weeks. “We don’t have the right to ask our players to keep on going and going, to risk those tired, drained, young bodies to injury long after the traditional final gun.”

Any change in college football takes forever, but especially one that could make someone in charge feel queasy.

That queasiness bubbled back up in 2018, when LSU and Texas A&M journeyed into seven-overtime lunacy, FBS’ highest-scoring game ever and one of its longest. It was a delirious joy, but by hour five, you’re fully torn between WHAT A STRANGE DELIGHT and LET’S NOT GET ANYBODY ELSE HURT.

Lmao this timestamp

Once we’ve decided every game should have one winner, this is the other part of the debate: how do we make sure every game ends fairly?

(The latter means your method is out, NFL. In a superior reality, Matt Ryan got one drive in Super Bowl 51’s overtime.)

The only way to hasten resolution is to keep making the math weirder, decreasing the chances of two teams having the same number on the scoreboard. If every scoring drive is a seven or a three, then the result generator is gonna spit out a lot of ties. But what if you can mix in sixes and eights?

In the 1880s, when Camp began experimenting with point values, he wrote that his goal was ensuring “matches might be more surely and satisfactorily decided.”

In 1930, a Maryland professor proposed reducing ties by awarding points for gaining yards. (Coaches hated that.)

In 1958, when the NCAA began allowing teams to mess with the math by trying two-point conversions, coaches immediately thought of two-pointers as tiebreakers. Only a day after the change, Maryland’s Tommy Mont noted the biggest side effect, that “the rule should eliminate some tie games,” and other coaches viewed it as a step toward overtime.

In 1989, the NCAA’s idea to limit ties was banning kicking tees, making field goals and PATs more difficult. A review of field goal percentage stats from the 10 years before and after shows no obvious difference, but I’m not going to do all that math. It’s likely the NFL later found a more effective adjustment: moving extra points farther away.

After 2018, the NCAA rule book’s response to LSU-A&M was to turn each possession from the fifth OT onward into nothing but a two-point try, adding to the rule against kicking one-point PATs after the third overtime. Naturally, many fans and media people complained about the likely insignificant change, arguing it’s a penalty-kicks gimmick.

2019’s NCAA then started brainstorming a rule change while watching two depleted Big 12 defenses trade two-pointers into a 26th overtime. Or, if the NCAA hadn’t started before this, it should’ve, because Big 12 offenses will test the limits of math. Just get weird and use one of these overtime ideas, NCAA.

Twenty years after Princeton and Yale split the 1886 title due to tying each other on the field, they did it again. The co-champions’ tie then kept returning at least every 20 years, like a comet of sports argument.

The split national title has been with us since nearly the beginning, but this is a special kind: when the two champs actually played each other.

Twenty years after 1906’s big tie, one game would decide 1926:

The Courier-Post

However, partly because of a Bama blocked punt that ended it at 7-7, not only can both Bama and Stanford claim 1926 with historical authority, so can the motherfuckin’ Lafayette Leopards.

(This was the third year in which NCAA-recognized historian Parke Davis, who lived in Lafayette’s town and had coached the Leopards, sided with the minority and declared Lafayette the champs. Yes, Davis awarded himself a piece of the 1896 national title. 1896’s other champ: Princeton, which had ... tied Lafayette.)

(UConn should pay Jeff Sagarin a head coach’s salary, then have him declare UConn the national champ every year. The NCAA would just keep putting that in the record books.)

Twenty years later, at 1946 Army-Notre Dame, arguably the first “Game of the Century,” the Associated Press wrote of a ticket scalper asking for the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $2,400, higher than the get-in price for 2017’s Georgia-Alabama title game in Atlanta. Was the 0-0 game worth it?

“I thought it was dull as hell,” [Army’s Doc] Blanchard remembers. “Of course, we thought we were going to beat them.”

Says [Notre Dame’s Jonny] Lujack: “I really don’t like watching the film of that game.”

”All the way through it, people were expecting something to happen,” [Notre Dame’s Terry] Brennan recalls.

At season’s end, a Chicago Tribune reader wrote, “the Monday morning quarterbacks’ continued arguments about that Army-Notre Dame tie game seem to be much ado about nothing to nothing.” The two co-champs soon made a tradition of unresolved tension. They announced a rivalry hiatus, due to extreme national interest “escaping the control of the two colleges.”

We’d thus screamed at two equally elite rosters full of World War II heroes until they couldn’t stand to be near each other. What a great use of everyone’s time!

Twenty years later, in 1966’s GOTC, #1 Notre Dame correctly guessed it could park on a tie against eventual co-champ Michigan State and cruise to the end with a lead in the polls. The “enormous emptiness for which the Irish will be forever blamed,” as described by Dan Jenkins:

Even as the Michigan State defenders taunted them and called the time-outs that the Irish should have been calling. Notre Dame ran into the line, the place where the big game was hopelessly played all afternoon. No one really expected a verdict in that last desperate moment. But they wanted someone to try. When the Irish ran into the line, the Spartans considered it a minor surrender.

In 1978, the Sugar Bowl tried to avoid the bonkers-for-a-century oxymoron of the tied championship game by setting up a sudden-death plan for its game between #1 and #2, but Joe Paterno and Bear Bryant weren’t interested.

We’d never again stumble into a championship split between two teams that’d played each other (a thing that will never feel less insane to type), but fortunately, we’d continue to have other deadlocked arguments about deadlocked football.

Though no one ever loved ties, I’ve found shockingly little talk before the ‘70s about installing tiebreakers.

Some coaches appreciated having ties as bailouts for poor performances, the NFL spent World War II hemming and hawing about whether to expand sudden-death OT into the regular season, and people threw around wild schemes every now and then (“how about having a center jump at the 50-yard line just like basketball,” was the Orlando Evening Star’s 1952 proposal, and the idea in 1956 was to just start OT right where the fourth quarter ended), but that was about it. In 1973, college coaches voted on whether to get rid of ties — and the vote tied.

But that was the upper level of college football, where there wasn’t a tournament to win. As lower levels adopted tournaments, they realized tournaments need winners.

  • College football’s first modern (as in, not Camp’s 1881 extra innings) overtime wasn’t Buena Vista’s 1976 Division III playoff win over Carroll, though that was the NCAA’s first.
  • The first modern college game to go to overtime was Manitoba’s 1970 victory over Queen’s in Canada’s playoff.
  • The first in America was likely West Liberty beating West Virginia State in 1972, the year their NAIA conference instituted an OT rule.

Meanwhile, these small games began planting seeds. What if big games did this too?

Over the next two decades, with high schools and lower-level college tournaments using the nearly perfect Kansas high school plan — each team takes turns with the ball, starting close to the opponent’s end zone — and the NFL having adopted sudden-death rules, interest surged in major college football adding OT, with pushback from coaches and admins.

“A lot of us were not in favor of overtime,” former Auburn coach Terry Bowden told CBS. “We didn’t exactly know why do it. The game would go longer. You thought about injuries and all kinds of stuff. I think what happened is ties had been a part of football, and it’s something you learned to live with. College coaches don’t like unknowns. I think most of us were happy settling for ties.”

Finally, as major college football lurched into an era of deciding championships, major college football realized it needed a way to decide games.

In 1992, the SEC needed to promise its new championship game, sponsored by Dr. Pepper in a full Georgia Dome and broadcast on ABC, would actually crown a champion. Thus, top-level college football had overtime rules on hand for the first time in NCAA history.

By 1996, every college football game would guarantee a winner, expanding on the SEC provision.

That system, a modified version of the Kansas plan, has since proved to be awesome drama, beautiful within the context of the sport’s rules, and about as fair as it could possibly be.

It’s just funny to think of it this way: after more than a century of discord over how to end amateur games, nothing happened until a pile of money from Dr. Pepper and ABC broke the tie.

What else have we been arguing about for a century or so? Lots of stuff, but how about whether there are too many bowl games or whether a small handful of teams is killing parity?