The Wonder and Terror (Mostly Terror) of College Football

1869 was a banner year for the United States of America. The stench of flickering, saliva-soaked tobacco and here-one-moment-gone-the-next whiskey bottles drifted through the halls of Grant’s White House. Slick city speculators unsuccessfully conspired to exploit the federal government’s precarious finances and corner the gold market. Insufferable party-pooper Wayne Wheeler, who would spend his life stone cold sober and crying like a baby, was born. And the first college football game was played.

Students from Rutgers College and the College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton, met on a field in New Brunswick, New Jersey. They played a game few would recognize today, or even a week later, when the schools played a rematch under different rules in Princeton. Rutgers won the first game by two “runs,” 6-4. The men of Princeton, wily as ever, edited the rules to suit their strengths and won the second game 8-0.

Although both games were surely played with the cast iron courage and Pauline charisma that only takes hold of the male spirit on the battlefield and the gridiron, it’s hard to imagine either group of gentlemen had the audacity or bankrupt sense of humor to claim they were “national champions.”

However, the fiercely irrational, provincial caste system we call college football just wouldn’t be the same without a little controversy. So, over a century later, some guy in Oklahoma named Richard Billingsley went back and manufactured one.

In 1933, Parke H. Davis, a lineman for the Princeton Tigers in the 1880s who, in the grandest traditions of the game, went on to become an ethically dubious coach and a glib, unremarkable historian, set about the task of naming national champions for each season since the sport began. Given that Princeton and Rutgers only played two games, each against the other, and were the only two teams in 1869, Davis decided to name Rutgers and Princeton co-national champions.

It was a pointless and pompous exercise but, if you’re forced to make a call (which Davis wasn’t), an admittedly commonsensical conclusion.

Then, in the mid-1990s, Billingsley, a high school graduate in Southeastern Oklahoma, took a formula he developed in the 1970s for ranking college football teams and began retroactively naming his own national champions. Billingsley’s formula favors the most recent game played and he therefore crowned Princeton, which won the second of the two contests, college football’s first national champion.

The title, shared without contention by two schools that played their best football in the 19th century, was now in dispute.

Billingsley isn’t a well-known figure in college football, but he is a hugely influential one: The ranking system he used to determine the 1896 title is one of the many elements that currently help select which two teams play for the national championship.

It sounds ridiculous to say a rural Oklahoman who lacks either institutional expertise or a background in mathematics developed a formula that plays a crucial role in determining the makeup of the national title game, but when considered against the backdrop of the sport as a whole, it’s par for the course.

College football may have begun in the Northeast but it’s more reminiscent of the sweat-stained, glad-handing, historically agrarian cultures in which the game has thrived. College football is incredibly popular across the United States—basically everywhere except the Northeast—but something about it always strikes me as quintessentially Southern.

Maybe it’s because, since the Associated Press began polling sportswriters in 1936 – a rough marker of college football’s “modern era”—to determine the finest team in the country, 40 of the 74 Division 1-A national champions have been from the 11 states that seceded from the Union or Oklahoma. Maybe it’s because, since the Bowl Championship Series, the current system for determining the national championship, was devised in the late ‘90s, only two schools outside those 12 states—Ohio State and USC—have won a title.

But really, it’s the shameless opulence, rigid class structure and self-congratulatory oversight of a system of indentured servitude that reminds me of the Old South.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I’m a benefactor of this system. Having been raised in Austin, I am a proud fan of the University of Texas, a member of college football’s Brahmin caste. I don’t merely root for the Longhorns. During Texas games, I engage in something that resembles a Pentecostal ecstasy, but with less equanimity. It’s the kind of perverse dedication that makes you disown children and dump women of your dreams if they happen to root for a rival.

(My girlfriend once asked me would we be together if she were an Oklahoma fan. I chose not to respond, out of concern that I might be honest.)

However, I am not so blind with devotion as to deny the fact that Texas benefits from the current system as much as if not more than any other school in the country. There are so many structural advantages a school like Texas has it’s hard to know where to begin. I say we start with the money.