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How Do You Balance Tradition and Innovation in College Football?

Changes Keep Coming so the Question Bears Asking!

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / staff via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Hello everyone. It has been a long time since I wrote something on here so I thought I would chime in once I thought of something that might be worth reading and discussing. We have seen some interesting articles from Dbbm, Alex Craft, and Ryan Kantor in recent days pertaining to the imminent expansion of the CFP playoff system and with the NIL rights coming for college athletes. I’ve read the comments and seen the range of traditionalists crying foul and non-traditionalists praising the changes. I feel I’m nestled in the middle of all of that, as I am old enough to have grown up in the Ford era yet young enough to not be too embedded in the old ways of doing things.

I do think there are a lot of examples out there where too much push for change and departure from the roots of a sport have really hindered the product and damaged the sport. NASCAR would be the first thing that I would put in that category. I grew up about 30 minutes away from both Rockingham and Darlington where we could easily go to four major races a year if we wanted to. I was living in Asheville, NC when NASCAR probably hit peak popularity nationally in the early 2000s, which led to the sport’s expanding into other markets at the expense of races in places like Rockingham. Many point to the death of legend Dale Earnhardt, Sr. as the turning point, but I believe it only sped things up a little to what was going to happen. We’ve since seen NASCAR work to try to mend some fences with the more traditionalist crowd who walked away from the sport with things like the throwback race schemes at Darlington, but I think we will never see the levels of attendance and ratings the sport enjoyed around 1999-2000 ever again. Some might argue that was unsustainable anyway, but that is what the comment thread is for!

I think that college football’s popularity surge in the last thirty years has been boosted by several innovative changes we have seen during that time. One of the greatest things about college football, in my opinion, is the diversity of coaching styles and systems that you see. We’ve ultimately seen the NFL diversify more as a result of this after years of seeing probably the same three systems used ad nauseum across the league on offense. After decades of tight formations and run dominant offenses, schools like BYU and Houston began throwing it all over the yard in the 1980s. That led to more balanced attacks at places like Miami, Florida State, and Florida. These things would not have been possible without schools going for some outside the box thinking in their coaching hires. Alabama has been the kingpin of the sport and even the old school Crimson Tide has moved to cutting edge offensive systems in its most recent runs to the title.

Obviously Dabo Swinney has many tremendous gifts which is why he has been so successful. One of those gifts has been his ability to hold on to traditions that speak to the older generations, such as protecting the uniforms made popular in the early Ford era and embodying the “aw shucks” small southern town underdog vibe that Ford perfected (albeit in a much more understated fashion). Swinney also has been more than willing to push the envelope in areas where Clemson had been stuck in the mud. I will grant that Tommy Bowden got the ball rolling on several of these issues, especially regarding facilities and behind the scenes support, but Swinney has clearly been the much better salesman with the powers that be. One of Bowden’s weaknesses, in my opinion, was the somewhat aloof air he could put off that certainly turned some folks off, including those in the academic buildings in Clemson. Swinney has been able to bridge that gap unlike any other coach in Clemson history, but it certainly required a different way of thinking about how football should operate. Swinney has put in new traditions such as the Tiger Walk and the team’s arm and arm walk to the endzone during pregame warm ups which will surely endure beyond his tenure when it ultimately comes to an end.

So, how does college football successfully change for the better without going too far? Will a 12 team playoff and NIL changes produce things that alienate the traditionalists? Banking on marketing to new fans, as NASCAR did, can prove to be problematic if many of the older fans decide to turn away. Truth be told, many fans become fans (and I certainly did) because a parent or grandparent brought them to the sport and immersed them in it. If the parents and/or grandparents begin to stop doing that, the chances of the younger generation embracing the sport without that influence goes down without a doubt. I for one am OK with the mid to lower tier bowl system dying off. The bowl system was bound to be a consequence of the move to the CFP system. The four team playoff system was supposed to be just enough to have both worlds work, but it produced a growing rash of opt outs for non-playoff bowl games. Last year’s Orange Bowl was a major opportunity for Mack Brown’s UNC program to really announce an ascension, and even though the Tar Heels competed well, they were gutted by opt outs of major offensive weapons. Imagine if Clemson had played Ohio State without Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd in 2014? What if Deandre Hopkins had opted out of the 2012 Peach Bowl? Those were landmark games for the Tigers to show the program had indeed taken another step. I’d like to think those guys would play if those games had been in the CFP era, but you really just don’t know.

One thing is for sure, the powers that be can’t just take for granted that the fans of the sport will stay that way no matter what. There is a ceiling out there somewhere for the kind of money we have seen pour into the sport. The trick is not bouncing off that ceiling and falling down the stairs in a way that prevents your ever reaching that ceiling again. This is the realm that Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney are currently in with their programs. It might be where college football is now. I’m interested in what you folks think about where to draw the line between traditions and new ways of thinking (or balancing those things correctly).