By Bob Markus
Having just watched two disgraceful performances by my two favorite professional football teams, I'm ready to declare what I've felt all along: the college game is better. The players may not be as good or as well coached. They're certainly less experienced. Perhaps their game is less nuanced, less full-bodied. But, like a nouveau beaujolais compared to a mature cabernet, it is by far more sprightly. It is, I suppose, a matter of taste and while my palate tends to favor a big red wine, in football give me the saucier version.
Never has there been a better example of the divide between the two games than on the week-end just concluded with the New England Patriots 41-14 whomping of the Miami Dolphins. Saturday was a football fan's delight. I saw my first college football game 63 years ago (Notre Dame 26, Northwestern 19) and I've seen hundreds more since, most of them from a press box as a sports writer for The Chicago Tribune. I've seen some of the most storied games in college football history, from Texas' 15-14 national championship clinching victory over Arkansas in 1969 to Nebraska's 35-31 thriller over Oklahoma in 1971 to Miami's 26-25 win at Florida State in 1987 when Bobby Bowden went for two in the closing seconds and didn't make it.
Since retiring 14 years ago, almost all of my football viewing has been on television. It's not as rich an experience as being there. There's nothing like the feeling on a college campus on a football Saturday. But TV does give you the chance to watch many games on the same day. It's the rare game, especially a game featuring one of the elite teams, that you can't find somewhere on the television spectrum.
A baseball team owner once told me he loved the game because "there's an orgasm in every ball game." What he meant, he explained, was that in even the most one-sided game there comes a moment when one pitch, one swing of the bat, can turn the tide of the ball game. If the same is true of college football, then Saturday ws multiorgasmic. There were more choices for the football connoisseur than you'll find on the menu of your favorite Italian restaurant.
For my antipasto I chose Northwestern vs. Minnesota, a game won by the Wildcats, 29-28, on a last minute field goal by a kicker whose earlier missed extra point had been the reason his team was two points behind (the missed kick had forced Northwestern to try a two-point conversion after its next touchdown). For the second course I passed on Michigan State-Wisconsin, a battle of ranked unbeatens and chose to look in on Michigan at Indiana, mainly to watch Wolverine wunderkind Denard Robinson. The Michigan sophomore delivered a masterpiece, scoring on a 72-yard run the first time he carried the ball, and carrying the Wolverines on his back in the final minute on a 73-yard drive that ended with his 4-yard run for the game-winning touchdown. Somewhere in the post game wrapup I discovered that Tennessee had a 14-10 lead at LSU with a second left to play. I hastily scanned my TV listings and switched to that game just in time to see new Tennessee coach Derek Dooley angrily throw what appeared to be a radio handset to the ground and stalk off the field. That's when I found out that Tennessee actually had stopped LSU's last second try, but was penalized for having 13 men on the field. Since a game cannot end on a defensive penalty, LSU was awarded a play after time had expired. This time the Tigers had hammered it home and, since there were now about 10,013 men--and some women-- on the field, didn't try, or need, the extra point.
After a brief timeout to recharge my taste buds, I ordered dessert. I could have chosen the No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 7 Florida concoction, which came highly recommended, but chose to go with the high-calorie special, Stanford at Oregon. Good choice. After falling behind 21-3 in the first quarter, Oregon stormed back for a 52-31 victory, which not only was highly entertaining, but ultimately pushed the Ducks into the No. 3 spot in both national polls. Those who opted for the Alabama-Florida game were disappointed by a Florida team that collapsed like a soggy souffle. Oh, and did I mention that somewhere in the course of the evening I saw Washington beat Southern Cal 32-31 on a game-ending field goal? What a football Saturday it was !
Now it was the NFL's turn to strut its stuff. It's not that I don't like pro football. I've seen my share of big NFL games, but few of them have been truly exciting. In fact, the most famous game I covered, the Franco Harris "immaculate reception" game, was downright boring until the final two minutes. I covered 10 Super Bowls and only one of them was truly entertaining. I'll admit that in the last few years the Super bowl has produced some thrillers, the lone exception in the last five games being the Bears' humdrum loss to the Indianapolis Colts when the highlight for us Bear fans was the opening kickoff.
I didn't watch any of Sunday afternoon's NFL games, chosing to take my wife to a movie and maintain family tranquility rather than watch the Donovan McNab-Michael Vick showdown. Another good choice. From what I read in Monday's paper the movie (Jack Goes Boating) was better than any of the games and, as a reward for being a good boy, I got to watch the Bears-Giants game Sunday night (with an hour's break for "Dexter" in the first half.) It might have been the dullest football game in history and Bears' quarterback Jay Cutler probably is lucky that his ninth sack in the first half resulted in a concussion that, hopefuly, left him unable to remember the dirty details.
Then, last night brought the Patriots' romp over the Dolphins in which the Miami special teams unit gave away three touchdowns, a performance so awful that a local writer described it as "The Triple Crown of Terrible." I fell asleep in the second quarter of this one and woke up just as Brandon Tate was returning the second half kickoff for a New England touchdown. I soon went back to sleep and so did the Dolphins.