Saturday, June 23

The Big Plan

Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning – they and other sports icons have gained many enthusiastic fans who follow them on TV, cable, the Internet and via video games. Their popularity generates product sales in the billions of dollars. Yet their fans’ loyalty is fickle and superficial in comparison with that of a more traditional one, the American college football fan.

American sports fanaticism is at an all-time high. We have a greater variety of popular sports than ever before, and each of them has its fans at every level – from little league to the NFL. Millions of people tune in to SportsCenter every night, a program that frames much of the sport-watching public’s point of view. Obsessive aficionados obtain up-to-the-minute information from the internet and debate the most current minutiae as it occurs. In general, we are seeing a trend where tradition is less important. Free agents constantly change teams, rivalries have become mere formalities, and the big games seem to matter less each year. Success is fleeting in the American sports world. Controversy is more publicized than triumph.

The passionate fans of college football are a unique group. They approach their game differently than those of all other American sports. Tradition is not only valued, it is emphasized and debated. Culture is not merely an aspect of the game, it is one of its virtues. Many followers plan their lives around their teams. They place more importance on their school and its games than religion – almost like an additional member of the family. They proudly proclaim how long they’ve held season tickets and even “will” them to the next generation. Yet over the last few years, the game has seen increasing change. The BCS, big money coaches, and gigantic TV contracts have altered the nature of the game. The core fans are still traditionalists, but they are fighting for that ideal against powerful monetary interests.

Beyond the changes in the world of sports, we are seeing cultural change across America. Movies leave theaters in two to three weeks. The music industry is totally driven by pop singles. Homebuyers are finding what they want in “McMansions” that place little import on traditional refinement. Communities are being built around strip malls and Wal-Marts. While all this newness is certainly “nice”, it is further removing us from our cultural history. As college football fans insist on the value of tradition, they buck the societal trends going on all around them.

College Football fans take tremendous pride in their team and their school. They will argue to their last breath that Tennessee is better than Alabama – or vice-versa. Debate has always been an expected element between college football fans. Everyone knows if you get a Texas backer and an Oklahoma supporter in a room together you might have a fight on your hands. However, I believe that these opposing fans have more in common than not, even fans from opposite corners of the country – that their passion for the sport does more to bind them than they realize.

How I plan to research and write this story

My goal is to fully penetrate and examine that culture – determine unifying traits and differences across the country. I will research in depth how their love of college football relates to their social, political, geographic, and religious attitudes. We will discuss their feelings on the current changes facing their sport. I will examine how their fandom is entwined with their day-to-day life. By attending at least one game every week in a different part of the country and interviewing fans of all races, age, and gender, my subjects will provide varying perspectives. There will be pre-interviews, but I will also visit their homes, tailgate with them and attend the games. I will be driving to each location on my itinerary, providing an intimate view of America from coast to coast.

I will include the history of each of the schools, particularly as it relates to the fan base and their traditions. A key insight will be the breakdown of fans that know the history and further, how important it is to them. Finally, I will also assess the future of the college football fan. Certainly, there are the aforementioned forces working either for or against them, but their attitudes will go a long way to shape the future of the sport.

The itinerary, subject to change, is as follows:

9/1 – Georgia Tech @ Notre Dame
9/3 – Florida State @ Clemson (Monday game)
9/8 – Virginia Tech @ LSU
9/15 – USC @ Nebraska
9/22 – Iowa @ Wisconsin
9/29 – USC @ Washington
10/6 – Texas vs Oklahoma @ Dallas
10/13 – Guilford College @ Bridgewater College (Div III)
10/18 – South Florida @ Rutgers (Thursday game)
10/20 – Princeton @ Harvard
10/27 – Florida vs Georgia @ Jacksonville
11/3 – Wisconsin @ Ohio State
11/10 – Arkansas @ Tennessee
11/17 – Ohio State @ Michigan
11/23 – Texas @ Texas A+M; or 11/24 – Alabama @ Auburn
12/1 – UCLA @ USC

Like most American boys, I grew up a big sports fan. Upon arriving at the University of Michigan for my undergraduate degree, I was introduced to the world of college football. As I have grown older, my interest and fervor have grown. Aside from the occasional triumph of my alma mater, my most enjoyable experiences have been connecting with fans of other schools and discovering that we share a similar passion. I greatly look forward to doing that on a large scale for an entire season.

My story of how I encountered the most colorful, passionate, and devoted fans will be an interesting and thoughtful one. I anticipate a finished work that lies somewhere between Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs, Jeff MacGregor’s Sunday Money, and Dan Jenkins’ Saturday's America. Certainly a lot of this hinges upon the interviews and experiences, but I am confident that there will be plenty of fascinating stories to tell.

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