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.


Natalia said...

Yessss ... one more Reed blog I can read! I hope work doesn't fire me for my yet another decrease in productivity. A: Good luck and have fun ... and write often.

Greg said...

Plenty of people have great ideas...but they never pursue them. I was blown away by this idea when you shared it with me last year, and I cannot tell you how excited I am that you are actually making it a reality! The schedule that you've laid out looks like a dream come true. What an experience you will have. I look forward to following your story.

Anonymous said...

If you actually earn a living off of this I swear I'll streak the 50-yard line at a game of your choosing... provided you bail me out of the clink!

Dan said...

Nice! Good luck in your ventures. I'm really interested in how this all comes out.

Jon said...

Are you covering any bowl games?

Reed said...

Hey Jon,

Currently I'm taking a "wait and see" approach on the bowl games. After three months of traveling, I'm not sure where my head will be at with it. If there are some compelling stories, maybe.

Thanks for the link!

Anonymous said...

this sounds like a good plan, but why isn't Penn State on the list, we have more people tailgating than nearly every other team in the country?

Anonymous said...

Why aren't you visiting The Grove at the University of Mississippi. Its the unquestionable tailgating experience in the nation. I think your book will be extremely interesting, but won't be complete without a visit to the place that defines tailgating.

jonathantu said...

I just emailed you, but figured I'd drop a line here too. I cannot believe someone else is doing this the year I finally get around to my dream road trip. Congratulations, and I hope you're showering more than I am.

I'm documenting some of my trip at if you're interested.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you seriously have an "or" relating to the decision to attend Texas v Texas A&M OR Alabama at Auburn. Hands down, you should do Alabama v Auburn. Easily the best rivalry in the country - it goes on for 365 days a year - and with Saban now at Bama trying to break a five game Auburn winning streak, it will be an absolute frenzy down on the Plains. Trust me on this one! A&M is a great place to watch a game, but Jordan-Hare is the place you want to be on Nov 24th.

Anonymous said...

I would HIGHLY suggest you check out the tailgate/party scene at WVU for the upcoming game with PITT on Sat. Dec.1st.
First of all, its party central in Morgantown(voted best party school in the US), WVU and PITT are very hated rivals so there will be alot more "rowdiness" than usual, and it will be a night game with a 7:45/8pm kickoff.
Nothing better than a night game in Morgantown.
You wont regret it as long as you are with on of our Mountaineer faithful.

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