By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) The appeal to tradition has long been a honey that attracts one of the larger swarms of flies. That doesn’t mean there is anything logical behind it, though. Hence it being such a standby of college football fans.
Sing the alma mater after the game. Rub the good luck thing. Drive the car across the field or ride the horse down the sideline or run next to some other beast of burden that isn’t Charlie Weis. It’s always been this way, so it should always stay this way. Rah rah school.
It is atmosphere, and I can appreciate that without thinking it actually has anything to do with actual football. Such lipstick really works well to make observers forget that NCAA football is the cold business hoping that most don’t look behind the curtain.
Which is why it might come off initially as surprising that Notre Dame and Michigan are ending their annual matchup after this Saturday. Two schools known for their general pomposity squaring off for what is usually bragging rights of slightly more than underachieving football vs. “Well, our College of _____ is better anyway.” Both sharing quite a national loathing outside of their own alumni and childhood fans too dumb and poor to get in to the school (hi!). The “rivalry” actually being somewhat more myth than reality since the schools played each other zero times from 1943 to 1977 and sporadically prior to that.
How could college football not hang on to that narrative perfection? The answer that is always the answer that no fan wants to be the answer is money. Mutual financial windfall restored play in 1978, and a lack thereof (at least on the end of the Fighting Irish) is ceasing it.
“The money is driving it, the Big Five is driving it,” said Michael R. Steele, author of The Notre Dame Football Encyclopedia. “The independents are losing power and their ability to be players at the table. Notre Dame was an exception. If it had a good season, it would be in BCS consideration, but what kind of guarantee will they have in the College Football Playoff, even if they win 11-12 games?
“This phenomenon, it’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s the obvious thing to look at, but it’s showing you some other signals as well. This is a symptom of realignment. You’re now in uncharted territory.”
And when something in sports is about the money, it’s usually about the hypocrisy, too. Notre Dame claims it can’t squeeze Michigan into its schedule anymore, what with having to contractually accommodate humbler institutions like Duke. But somehow adding Ohio State into future schedules works out fine. Enter egotism masked as humility, another staple of the façade of all that is pure in college football.
“I am excited we are able once again to bring these two programs together on the football field,” Notre Dame athletic directorJack Swarbrick said. “Football games between Notre Dame and Ohio State make great sense from a strength-of-schedule standpoint. In addition, with (Ohio State athletic director) Gene Smith having both played and coached football at Notre Dame –and with (Ohio State head coach) Urban Meyer having served as an assistant football coach at Notre Dame–there are some obvious, high-profile connections between our two institutions.”
Shake down the thunder and money from the sky. The Buckeyes are a huge draw and have greater potential to be a more talented football program for a longer time. That shouldn’t be difficult to comprehend, nor should why ending a “tradition” be considered detrimental to anything but pregame show feature pieces and large-print books you buy your dad at the holidays.
Notice how Swarbrick said “once again” in regards to playing Ohio State. Paint the green money with as much red heart-tugging gravitas as you can. When one tradition ends, just conjure another one up knowing that many fans aren’t all that picky about traditions so long as they can say they’re part of one. South Bend faithful will quickly shift the smack talk to “Maurice Clarett” this and “Our business school” that and “Sit on my knee and let me tell you of a time when some criminals used their heathen ways to defeat our golden boys in the Fiesta Bowl way back in aught-six” that. A new rivalry will be reborn and later abandoned for “scheduling reasons” and Nick Saban invading Poland and Indiana.
Ann Arbor’s focus will move to actual conference rivals like Michigan State and … Ohio State. That is at least until the Big Ten (of 14 football teams and Johns Hopkins in men’s lacrosse) realigns again to be the 2(B1G – 4) and the Wolverines vs. the Texas Tech Red Raiders storied legacy commences.
And if it’s still around a few years down the road, the NCAA will continue its lopsided rivalry between the story and the reality. That’s a tradition it will always hang on to.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @TimBaffoe.