People have been hitting things with sticks for fun since sticks were discovered a million years ago, and our ancestors were tackling each other for fun before people even existed. But complex rules in most modern team sports weren’t formalized over broad geography until right around the 1800s.
Amid all this, one of the first sports to reach its industrial era was invented in one of the world’s youngest countries. We move at tempo.
1869’s Princeton vs. Rutgers game was held only 2 years after the Marquess of Queensberry rules codified modern boxing, with Walter Camp soon codifying football and professors around the country soon wondering what was paying for all these new buildings on campus. It would be 22 years before James Naismith tried basketball, decades before almost all other American-born sports, and 33 years before the first attempt at pro football.
The point is: mass-market college football is unusually old.
Consider some ancient tall tales that are real:
- A Union soldier who’d been injured in an 1863 Louisiana battle keyed the winning score for Rutgers against Princeton.
- A year before the Dakotas, Montana, and Washington became states, Lehigh fans burned down their “stadium” to celebrate a win over Lafayette. (They still burn stuff each year.)
- Just 12 years after Thomas Edison patented a light bulb, the first night game featured a General Electric lightpole in the literal middle of the field.
It’s easy to find old studies about the same debates we have today — amateurism, coach salaries, safety, rivals pretending they’re avoiding each other for reasons other than ego — and notice those arguments haven’t changed since the Great Depression. The wild part is when those studies describe those debates as being unchanged since the 1880s.
College football has more than 5 million all-time players, more than 1,000 current North American teams, and more history than almost any other American sport, long ago reaching the mass required to generate truckloads of bizarre stories, and it could’ve never gotten quite that big if, say, a couple of those arguments from the 1880s had turned out differently.
These anomalies are eternal, and they produce our deepest feelings about college football.
It’s a massive puppy that will never understand its own legs. We love 250-pound kickers, five-overtime games with Mobile Bowl berths on the line, rivalry trophies made in the image of the pigs who used to be the rivalry trophies, the fact that it’ll take more than 150 years for everyone to agree on how to end a season, mascot sparring matches, and recruits getting great deals on Benzes.
It’s also been a gigantic contradiction and aberration since before the invention of cars (1885, Karl Benz).
Each season, we walk right up to an epiphany: the most meaningful way to talk about this sport is to marvel at what’s already happened.
To look back at the feats, jokes, injustices, and mayhem this sport has produced for 2⁄3 of United States history is to know you’re stepping into a rabbit hole with no end.
We look at moments from more than 12 months earlier and remember upsets, athletes, and memes. We fortify our memories by investing 2 hours in YouTube highlights of players changing the fortunes of states we’ve never been to. We look back on our own heartbreak and laugh at it.
We remember: even when Clemson-Alabama and North Dakota State are dominating the peak, Washington State and UC-Davis are generating joy out of nothing. Nothing ever changes. Everything constantly changes.
The fan with one eye toward history has learned that in college football, life finds a way.
But too often, that’s not how we talk about a season yet to come. We cling to unfounded certainty, and we believe only one team out of 1,000 matters.
Our team is being disrespected by a February slideshow that ranks us #13 instead of #12, even though the category is something we didn’t know existed. By July, we have plotted out which millionaire coaches will see their stocks rise or fall toward new employers. It is laughable, a sign of corporate conspiracy, for the TV to suggest in August that University X might beat us this year.
We then wait for the season to meet expectations and validate feelings. Inevitable, as Thanos liked to say.
By October, we’re startled to discover every certainty was a hunch all along, and Auburn has already either wildly overachieved or wildly underachieved. By November, we’re rolling around in chaos like delirious toddlers. By December, we’ve ascended — our brains are nothing but Famous Idaho Potato GIFs.
And then January begins a new cycle, because we have way-too-early rankings to be mad about.
So how can we make sure we get as much out of the future as we do the past?
It’s fun to keep up with news and invest emotion in what might happen, to be clear. We all have hot seat guesses and would prefer to be right. I have a lot of fun doing bowl projections each year. We’d all prefer our alma maters to win.
But why, in a sport so overflowing with primordial grudges and endless geography, would we choose to focus almost all of our attention on only what might happen to the 5 or 6 highest-paid coaches on a rolling 3-month basis?
Even when we’re arguing about something that won’t matter 24 hours from now, we will get more out of it (and probably be more correct) if we remember the eternal precedent: college football will butcher the most educated wisdom into 2007 or 44-16 or 2,850, and we will thank it.
The main thing we should do is apply that everlasting perspective to the present.
We look back at the ancient expanse and are staggered into genuine awe, realizing we could never scale a natural wonder this stupid. In hindsight, we realize how special each player was all along. Each surprise confirms what was already overwhelming, that college football has always done exactly what it wanted.
The sport has problems we should agitate to solve, but we don’t have to pretend to care about the drama of the hour, one billionaire conference yelling at another billionaire conference about TV markets or whatever. The debates that actually matter are the ones that have always been with us.
Everything that might happen to your team this year has already happened to somebody else’s. Your preseason #1 might go .500, your unranked team might win it all, and everything in between. We evidently know nothing other than what has already happened, so let’s not get too attached to the future.
Looking at each season as another piece of history isn’t just for the archivist. Applying this massive trove of collective memory to the present will also enhance our experience going forward.