Charlie Harper: Preparing For The Last Season Of College Football As We Know it
Monday, August 28th, 2023
The weather says summer, but the calendar says fall. We know this because the University of Georgia Bulldogs are ready to suit up between the hedges in Athens to defend their National Championship. Or better said, Championships. Plural.
In Georgia there are rules, which are often more clear, easier to understand, and followed more closely than the laws found in the official code. One of them is that this season is to be revered, and that plans requiring compulsory attendance of family and friends are not to be made on Saturdays.
Time moves on, and the rules change. The world changes. Nostalgia and our reverence for our elders has us cling to the world we once knew. The things that were important then, and to them, remain important to us, but the world moves on.
Such is the state of college football. I wrote a piece last year that contained the following warning, and today I will put a finer point on it. This is the last year of college football as we know it.
Truth be told, what once was has long been slipping away. The days of these games being a proxy for, as the Patron Saint of UGA Football and “real” Georgia BBQ Lewis Grizzard put it, “our way of life against theirs”, are over. People move all over the country and the conferences themselves have lost most pretenses of regional identity. Given the current state of flux in conference composition, one can openly question why conferences even exist, or how long they will before we morph the top schools into a professional sports league.
This year will be the last year of pretending the bowls matter. Already re-purposed for a four team playoff, next season we begin a twelve team scrum for the trophy. You can call these playoff games “bowls” all season long if you like, but they’re not. And the non-playoff bowls are now officially lovely parting gifts
The hold out in moving the playoffs to next season from 2026 was the Rose Bowl, trying to protect the tradition of their Big-10 and PAC-12 matchup and 2pm Pacific time kickoff as long as possible. The last time I checked the Big-10 now had 18 members and the four teams left in the PAC-? were trying to find a new home. The “Big Granddaddy Of Them All” bowl game has lost control of the grandkids.
We’ve also dropped the pretense that athletes in major programs are amateurs. Name, Image, and Likeness contracts are openly discussed as recruiting, retention, and transfers
Traditionalists want these players to recognize the thousands spent on their scholarships while ignoring the billions being made by adults on their efforts. Not letting them share in the economic activity they create is not a tenable stance when every bit of remaining tradition is on the table as a sacrifice to the ever present enticement of even more revenue for the sport.
We’re now at a point where schools can expect nine figure revenues for fielding an “amateur” football team, some of the “amateur” players can get paid more than NFL league minimums, bowl games are irrelevant, and a team can now afford to lose one regular season game, maybe even two, and still have a direct path to an “undisputed” national championship trophy. This is not a sport that Lewis Grizzard would recognize today any more than his former newspaper constantly referring to an in-town Atlanta restaurant specializing in Texas style brisket as the standard for Georgia “barbecue”.
My dad spent his first year at UGA on the football team, as a student athlete in the leather cap era. I remain a fan of my father’s team, and my father’s game
At some point, though, you know when you inherit your fathers ax, and you replace the handle and then the blade, you eventually will wonder if you still have your father’s ax. The 2023 season will still resemble the game I learned to love in the late 1970’s and especially the early 80’s – and really, really enjoyed in 2021 and 2022. I will enjoy it while understanding it’s the last of an era.
Time and the game have moved on. The generations currently swinging the ax on the field and filling the student sections never knew the game of my dad played, nor even the one played when I was on campus in Athens. They’ll have their own nostalgia and tradition to reconcile with future generations at some point.
Amidst all the change, there are some standards that remain the same. I was gratified this week to see that Grizzard’s local BBQ place, Newnan’s Sprayberry’s, got their cast iron Brunswick stew pot repaired after a “long week”, and are once again serving the best stew in Georgia. They make it without adding any green vegetables, as the unwritten rules insist upon.
Time may march on, but you can still get it as a side with the special named after Lewis, along with a pulled pork BBQ sandwich and onion rings. It’s best consumed with tea as sweet as the words “back to back defending national champions.”