College football is inextricably linked with music, and not just because two marching bands provide a near-constant soundtrack after every play. Television networks also use music to try and set the scene. Not just with licensed songs by popular artists, but also with the orchestrated, lyric-free pieces that play at the beginning of a big broadcast — you know, like the old NBA on NBC theme, but college football. This post assesses the latter.
There is one thing I ask when rating any song: Does it slap?
Whether a song slaps is easy to determine. Either it hits the mark or falls short. You know it when you hear it.
I’ve found as many college football intro themes as I could, throughout the history of televised CFB, and gone one by one to answer that important question.
Late-1970s NBC theme
Excuse me, I’ll take my college football with a side of funk guitar, thank you very much.
This bad boy sounds like it should be accompanied by a soul train line, not a college football game.
Does it slap? I’m putting some bell bottoms on as we speak. Yes, it slaps.
Mid-‘70s ABC theme
It’s a psuedo-marching band theme.
But the problem is it follows a quick promo at the outset for ABC’s coverage of the Olympics. The Olympic theme transcends slapping, and to say that it does would be an insult to Leo Arnaud and John Williams. Imagine thinking anything that can follow it could so much as hold a candle to it.
Does it slap? No way. But perhaps degree of difficulty should be taken into consideration.
1980 ESPN theme
Thank God it got better than this for the four-letter network. Its early days feature, shall we say, Spartan quality.
Does it slap? It most certainly does not. ESPN got way better in this department.
1985 CBS theme
There was another CBS college football theme song? I feel bad subjecting you to this, but here we go.
Does it slap? Not a chance, and I’d like to revise history to show that this theme did not exist, and it has always been the SEC on CBS theme, which we’ll get to later.
1985 something called TEN’s theme?
Yeah I’ve never heard of it either, but it’s got a theme.
Does it slap? You know what, I believe it does. Gets the shoulders shakin’ ever so slightly.
1985 ABC theme
Honestly, who cares which song beds under this, because ...
... Keith Jackson is talking over it, and the man can make any music slap by pure osmosis.
Does it slap? Damn right it does. RIP, KJ.
1987 SEC on TBS
Yes, there was a time before time, when the SEC and CBS were not in cahoots. TBS had some rights back in the late-1980s, and their theme song may not have been memorable, but its accompanying video certainly was.
Does it slap? Sometimes a great music video can make up for a meh song. With that in mind, I do declare that it slaps.
Early-‘90s ABC theme
It’s like ABC thought we were all frolicking through a meadow pregame with this fluttering tone and marching band motif. Sure, it’s got a ref’s whistle — because football? — but besides that, it’s hard to associate this with a sporting event. Get this cheesy mess outta here.
Does it slap? It most certainly does not.
The mid-’90s ABC theme
Listen to the early-‘90s theme song, then listen to the early-2000s theme song. This one is sandwiched right in the middle, both chronologically and sonically.
The beginning’s more or less the same as its successor, but then it devolves into something that sounds a lot like its predecessor. It’s a song stuck between two eras.
Does it slap? Debatable. Because it’s clearly the precursor to something greater, perhaps it slaps in the way a prologue or an origin story does. But no, I’m inclined to say that it does not, in fact, slap.
The early-2000s ABC theme
Before ABC Sports fused with ESPN in the mid-2000s, it had its own sports production arm. It rocked college football games with this thunderous tone-setter with pulsating guitar throughout.
And the network raised the stakes for BCS telecasts with this triumphant tune.
Does it slap? Oh you bet your bottom dollar it slaps, my friend.
I always thought FSN was kinda like diet Fox growing up. I guess, from a business sense, this was technically true. The FSN theme song almost sounds like Fox’s NFL theme’s distant cousin. But it is all one big preamble to its final bar.
Does it slap? Just for the very ending alone, it slaps.
NBC’s Notre Dame-ass theme
NBC’s gone away from it, but the Peacock Network made no bones about its link to Notre Dame in theme songs since the beginning of the deal in 1991. Here’s a version from 1993:
That theme song — which was basically a rock version of ND’s fight song — held until the mid-2000s, when it was replaced with a slightly less Notre Dame-y jingle.
Does it slap? It’s not 1950 anymore, and we ain’t winning anything for the Gipper. No, it does not slap.
ESPN’s evolving CFB theme
The network used a version of the same theme song for roughly two decades. It started a little too melodically for me, but the guts are in there.
By the early 2000s, we do indeed have a good theme from the folks in Bristol. Why it works? Not really sure. There’s plenty of chimes, and a Seinfeld bass line under it, and some strong brass in it too. But damnit, it all works.
The evolved version used in the late 2000s works too.
Does it slap? Like a fine wine, main ESPN’s theme song got better with age, and it slapped throughout the years. In fact, ESPN’s theme slapped in three different versions. That’s impressive.
P.S. A moment as well for the xylophone melody that ESPN2 had going on. The Deuce was originally meant be ESPN’s cooler cousin. This theme was ... uhh ... not that.
The early-2000s TBS theme
No, not the hard rock version of the Elton John “Saturday” song, but the fake epic horn theme in the beginning of this video:
Does it slap? No discerning factors to make it stand out in anyway. Therefore, does not slap.
The NCAA Football 2002 intro theme song
Remember the canned commentary from Brad Nessler that intro’d your virtual dynasty games back in the day? This is the extended version.
I had completely forgotten about this, but man them drums be hittin’ after the electric guitar drops and the fanfare out.
Does it slap? In a perfectly nostalgic way, it most certainly does, with a nod to my childhood that included plenty of sleepless nights with a PS2 and enough Mountain Dew to simulate a cocaine binge, as far as my dopamine receptors were concerned.
Jefferson Pilot themes
Man, it was always way too early for this much guitar. It’s a Jefferson Pilot SEC game, which meant it could be something like 11 a.m. local. They never really fit the bill of two average teams going at it as a table setter to the day.
But I will contend that whatever flutey tune is going on here in the much older-school JP games does have some slappin’ merit.
Do they Slap? A hung jury on this one, if we’re being honest. But starting the CFB day can never be wrong, I guess. So I’ll let it slide.
The SEC on CBS
Speaking of the SEC ... If you think this doesn’t slap, you’re wrong. This is the gold standard, the big kahuna, the Grand Poobah. It is the bar by which all other college football themes should be judged.
It’s been the soundtrack to my fall Saturdays for as long as I can remember, and it’s untouchable. Like Prince for a while, it actually doesn’t have a name. Perhaps it’s better that way. It’s so good that it’s survived for 30 years, and as the SEC’s exclusive deal with CBS became fruitful in the late 1990s, it ascended throughout the 2000s to its place in preeminence throughout the sport.
The familiarity between the music and the SEC’s brand is so strong, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said the network has concluded several times over the years that changing it would be a mistake. It is so entrenched that sometimes marching bands live in the stadium play it “right on cue” as CBS is coming out of commercial, McManus said.
Does it slap? Why did I even bother asking myself this? In the pantheon of sports intros, perhaps the only ones that slap harder are NBC’s Roundball Rock, ESPN’s NHL theme, and the classic Monday Night Football instrumental theme. The SEC on CBS’ song is that good.
It’s literally just the marching band version of the NFL theme song.
Go home and think about what you’ve done, Fox. Come back when you’re ready to do better. (Or at least get an HBCU band to do it, so the drums knock).
Does it slap? No, this Great Value theme does not slap.
The Big Ten Network’s original theme
BTN’s original version was short, sweet, and to the point. For that, I appreciate it.
Also, it will forever be associated with that time Michigan beat Appalachian State, the first game that ever aired on the network.
Does it slap? We’ve all got songs that are of questionable musical quality, but associated with an important moment. This is that. It slaps.
The modern ESPN theme
At its best, this theme does good work as a bed under an announcer’s voice building to kickoff or setting the scene with a blimp shot. It’s not overpowering, and it is a strong complimentary piece. That certainly doesn’t mean it’s bad.
Does it slap? It’s definitely a theme to appeal to the millennial sensibilities. Mission accomplished.