Column: College Football Beats the Pros

College teams are all heart, while NFL is all about profit
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Last Saturday, the Michigan State Spartans beat the Michigan Wolverines in the most anticipated rivalry game in years. But that was overshadowed just one day later by the Detroit Lions, who pulled off one of the great upsets of the NFL season, when they … beat someone. Anyone. Doesn’t matter. At football!

Hard to believe it was just two years ago the Lions became the first NFL team to lose all 16 games. And now, here they are, standing tall at 1-5.

That’s why their victory was such big news. I hear from my friends who have real jobs that it was bigger talk around the office water cooler than the Michigan-Michigan State game – and that’s saying something.

It just proves my theory that Detroit really isn’t Hockeytown. It’s a football town. Whenever the Lions so much as show a pulse, the locals go loco.

But I’m still not biting. Not just on the Lions, but on pro football itself.

Yes, I watch the games. Yes, I know the teams and follow the players. But the NFL has never captured my imagination the way college football has.

Granted, when I was growing up, the Wolverines were great, every year, and the Lions were – well, the Lions. Every year. But it’s more than just wins.

College teams were created over a century ago by college students, just for fun. NFL teams are created every few years by NFL owners, just for profit.

College teams play on college campuses, where students actually go to school. NFL teams play in big cities, where they don’t have homecoming games, because nobody ever attended Jacksonsville Jaguars University.

College teams never threaten to change their colors or move to Oklahoma City if you don’t build them a new stadium – at taxpayer expense. No, they play in grand old coliseums surrounded by green lawns and radiant trees. They have marching bands and fight songs and crazy customs that go back 100 years. NFL teams play in sanitized, soulless domes, with loud scoreboards that tell you exactly what to yell and exactly when to yell it.


The NFL’s rules are designed to create as much parity as possible – which is why it seems like almost every team finishes nine-and-seven, or seven and nine. (The Lions being a notable exception.) Pro football functions like a giant gumball machine, randomly jumbling the players around the league, and spitting out winning teams seemingly by dumb luck. When you hear the score of an NFL game, you have to stop and think: Was that an upset? I can’t recall. But when Appalachian State beats Michigan, you know it’s big.

Pro teams choose their players, but college players choose their teams – and it shows. They’re more passionate playing for free than pro athletes are playing for millions. And when college players have a good year, they don’t demand to “renegotiate” their contracts. College players don’t play for paydays or playoff spots, but Brown Jugs and Brass Spittoons – and good old-fashioned bragging rights. Who brags about beating the Carolina Panthers?

Yes, the Spartans say A.A. stands not for Ann Arbor but Arrogant Asses, and the Wolverines come back by calling MSU a cow college – but they’ve been doing it for a hundred years, and they’re not likely to stop any time soon.

Well, good for them.

It may be crude, obnoxious and unfair – but it’s tradition, real tradition – and that is something the NFL will never have.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By Don
    October 15, 2010 at 11:12 am | permalink

    I normallly look forward to this column but the simplistic overstatements here concerning both pro and college ball are infuriating. Since we’re in a college town, I’ll focus on that side and only one issue (I’d consider asking for a rebuttal column if I had the time to write it). The pros are about money and colleges, at least at the FBS level, aren’t? Did you miss the renovation of Michigan Stadium or all of the conference realignments that have been going on?

    They’re all about pulling in more cash, without regard to whether college stadium appearance gives way to a somewhat pro exterior or whether realignments eliminate old rivalries that you consider so important; Nebraska’s joining the Big Ten will end 80+ year old traditions. Come to think of it, what meaning does “Big Ten” Conference have any more? Not the one I had growing up in a Big Ten state.

  2. October 15, 2010 at 6:23 pm | permalink

    Mr. Bacon is obviously not a Packers fan, nor has he seen any Packers fans. (Or Steelers fans, for that matter.)

  3. By None
    October 15, 2010 at 7:30 pm | permalink

    At least the NFL is honest about what it is. Does anyone really believe D1 games are about anything other than money?

  4. October 15, 2010 at 8:06 pm | permalink

    Their win was so big, John, that let’s get their name correct: Appalachian State.

  5. By Mary Morgan
    October 15, 2010 at 10:46 pm | permalink

    The typo is fixed – thanks.

  6. By Coach Sok
    October 16, 2010 at 1:32 pm | permalink

    I don’t what color shades Bacon was wearing when he wrote this column. Division I college football is all about the money — just look at the renovations in the Big Hole for proof. Come on John, write something with substance.

  7. By ChuckL
    October 18, 2010 at 5:23 pm | permalink


    If the players should have to give away their skills for free, so should the NCAA, the coaches, the schools and the networks, or…pay the players what they are worth! The stench of the hypocrisy just gets smellier every year.

  8. October 20, 2010 at 12:57 pm | permalink

    I normally look forward to readers’ letters, and do not respond – after all, I’ve already had my say — but when enough readers misconstrue what I’m saying, I feel it warrants a clarification.

    Let’s start with the big picture, and work our way down. As for the worthiness of the subject, Ann Arbor has drawn over 100,000 fans every football Saturday – roughly equivalent to the town’s population – for the past 35 years to watch college players compete, while the very next day the Detroit Lions struggle to sell out their 65,000-seat stadium downtown, with players who are clearly bigger, faster, stronger and more talented than the college kids.

    In this state, college football is much more popular than the pros. Why? That’s a question worth asking.

    I can’t speak for the 112,784 Michigan fans who watched the Iowa game, so I answered the question for myself.

    As I wrote, I prefer college football partly because money did not inspire its creation, nor does it tempt teams to move, change their colors or hold up taxpayers for new stadiums – and it does not motivate the players, only a few of whom will never see a pro camp. (Some Michigan’s players receive up to $250,000 in scholarship money – which no parent paying out of state tuition would consider chump change — not to mention free meals, coaching, medical care and the like. But they don’t get any more of any of these things for playing better.)

    But from there it’s a bit of a leap to the conclusion I therefore must be oblivious to money’s role in college athletics. Regular readers here might recall my pieces condemning the NCAA’s decisions to expand March Madness and add a 12th regular season football game (“a shameless money grab”), among many others. But all that is driven by the presidents, the athletic directors and the NCAA – not the players, who almost always oppose playing more games in every sport.

    Now, those are just a few of my reasons for preferring college football, but they might not be yours. But that’s why it’s a column, not a news story. To say I’m wrong to prefer college football is tantamount to saying, “No, you’re favorite color is actually red, not green – and here’s why.”

    Yes, the column is simplistic – as any piece under 550 words is bound to be. I had to cut my reflexive bashing of the Fab Five, my praise of the Ford family, which has never threatened to move the Lions, and my love of – yes – Green Bay, and the college-like love affair between the Packers and their Backers. (Agreed, Mr. Edward Vielmetti!) This response already runs longer than the original piece, and the first reader’s letter runs about a third as long. You see the problem.

    However, Steve Bean, you are absolutely right that Appalachian State deserves to have its name spelled correctly, with an ‘n.’ Well done, sir. And kudos for signing your name, too. I always admire readers willing to stand by their statements.


    -John Bacon