Rue's Rant on College Sports in Alabama

September 20, 2009 11:27 PM

Small-college football a refreshing pastime

In between watching Alabama’s waltz against North Texas and Auburn’s stirring comeback against West Virginia on television Saturday, I took in the Miles College-Samford game.

Now, I truly love big-time college football, especially the Southeastern Conference. I attended Alabama in the 1970s when Paul “Bear” Bryant was still stalking the Crimson Tide’s sideline in his famous houndstooth hat and I was familiar with Auburn and its legendary coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan.

I also loved the NFL. My mother would let me leave church early so I could be at home in time to watch the noon kickoff of the NFL game on TV. I became a big fan of the Baltimore Colts because of Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore and John Mackey and cried when they were upset in Super Bowl III by Joe Namath and the New York Jets.

I didn’t really care for what I thought was small-time football, you know, something besides the NFL, SEC, Pac-10, Big Ten, Southwest Conference and Big Eight. For those of you too young to remember, the SWC and Big Eight were forerunners of the Big 12. The ACC was – and still is to a major degree – a basketball league. And there was also that independent college power from South Bend, Ind., we in Alabama loathed. That would be Notre Dame for those of you who wonder why NBC elects to show games of such a woebegone program.

In recent years, I have gotten a chance to attend a few small-college games and have come to appreciate football at that level. The players work and play just as hard as they do at bigger schools and some fans are just as rabid, but the atmosphere is totally different. It’s more of a pastime. You have few fans yelling at the coaches and calling them idiots for their play-calling. Boos are usually reserved for the refs after what the faithful think is a bad call. And while the adults are watching the game, you have some children beyond the end zone playing their own game, caring little about what’s happening on the field with the college guys.

To some extent, it harkens back to the days of yesteryear when college football still hadn’t sold its soul to money. Greed is rampant among the major schools.

From the billions of dollars the various TV networks throw at major programs and their conferences to broadcast games, to the millions the colleges pay their coaches, to the millions spent on stadium expansions (and the extorting of alumni and boosters to pay for it through the sale of skyboxes), to the millions made in merchandising of products (jerseys, caps, shirts, etc.), to the rising costs of tickets (and making fans attend at sometimes unreasonable hours because of TV), money rules in college football – regardless of any argument pandering college presidents and the NCAA might make.

Despite all that, I still enjoy the Alabamas and Auburns of the college football world, but I also have discovered there’s something refreshing about small-college football.

The Miles-Samford game was one of just two games this season that will feature two head coaches who are both members of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. Samford’s Pat Sullivan was inducted in 1991, while Miles’ Billy Joe was named to the Hall of Fame in 2007. Sullivan won the 1971 Heisman Trophy as a quarterback at Auburn. Joe, in his second season at Miles, ranks second in all-time wins (239) at historically black colleges and universities behind Grambling State legend Eddie Robinson (408). Most of Joe’s wins came in 11 seasons at Florida A&M (86) and 13 seasons at Central State in Ohio (120).

Samford is where Florida State coach Bobby Bowden got his start when the school was known as Howard College and it’s also where his son, Terry Bowden, coached for six years before going to Auburn. Samford is a member of the Southern Conference, which includes Appalachian State, a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) powerhouse that upset Michigan two years ago.

Miles doesn’t have as rich a football tradition, but for many years it was known as one of the top academic black colleges in the nation. It plays in the NCAA Division II Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) that includes Tuskegee, the 2007 national black champion.

The game was entertaining even if the outcome was predictable. Samford rallied from a 12-3 halftime deficit to beat Miles 31-12.

The genteel Joe was magnanimous in defeat. “No question it was great to be part of game in which both institutions stress academics,” Joe said, “and it was a great contest.”

And I left richer for having been there.

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