Tonight, the University of Alabama meets Clemson University in the college football playoff championship. It’s a rematch of last year’s game, and the third year of the playoff format. As you prepare for the game, our resident college football historians — Hunter Hampton, Andrew McGregor, and Michael T. Wood — reflect on the legacy and impact of Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, the playoff system, and the nature of Southern college football.
Where does Alabama’s current dynasty place among the history of college football dynasties? Where does Nick Saban rank among the sport’s greatest coaches?
Alabama’s accomplishments over the past decade are incredible from so many different angles. As for winning percentage, Saban’s reign is right there with names like Yost, Bryant, Rockne, and Osborne. Admittedly, it is hard to compare Alabama to programs like those of yesteryear, but just getting in that class of names shows the dominance of his run. I know us sports fans love power rankings and spend hours arguing about them. My favorite route to direct these arguments is to think about the confluence of structures, strategies, and personalities that make the different dynasties. Considering these categories, Saban is the greatest coach in my lifetime. He mastered the magic formula to create a dynasty. Alabama pumps the hundreds of millions of dollars to feed their football machine. Saban adapts his strategy to fit his player and coaching personnel each season. And something about his crotchety, overbearing personality makes it all work.
If Alabama wins, it will be their 5th championship in 8 seasons, and Nick Saban’s 6th overall, tying him with Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most by a major college football coach. This puts both near the top of all-time greats. Of course, this relies on winning as the central indication of greatness. Saban has won at big-time, high pressure jobs as well as helped (re)build programs. As historians I think we need to be sure not to privilege winning as the only measure of a great coach and concentrate on the context of the accomplishments. Current coaches like Bill Snyder at Kansas State, who took over a team that had only won 3 games in 4 seasons and within 10 years had them (briefly) ranked #1, demonstrate a different type of “greatness.” Similarly, Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma football program of the 1950s embodied a certain toughness when they won 47-consecutive games over parts of 5 seasons during an era of 3-year eligibility and single-platoon (i.e playing both ways) football. That winning streak is unlikely to be matched. The success of Saban and the current Alabama program have occurred during an era of an intensifying athletics arms race and infusion of even more money into the game. You also have increased recruiting pressures. Conference expansion, the move away from cupcake scheduling by power conferences, new rules against over-signing, and the development playoffs help frame the recent period of college football. This is all to say, that Saban and the Crimson Tide rank highly both historically as well as the best of the current era of college football.
In the spirit of full-disclosure, I was born and raised in Alabama, and I am an alumnus and faculty member of the University of Alabama. So, some of my responses may be filtered through crimson-colored glasses. I will do my best to be objective, but no promises.
In my opinion, the current Alabama dynasty, four championships in seven years, has the potential to be the most impressive run in modern (post-WWII) college football history. The two comparable dynasties that come to mind are Paul “Bear” Bryant’s Alabama teams in the 1960s and 1970s that won or shared six national championships, and the University of Miami’s run from the early-1980s to the early-2000s, where the ‘Canes won five national championships.
As for Nick Saban, I consider him to be the best college football coach of his generation/era. His ability to build a championship program – recruiting, player development, investment in facilities, etc. – is the standard in modern college sports. Now, comparing Saban’s success with other coaches in college football history gets a little tricky. The rules of the game, both on the field and NCAA regulations, styles of play, and overall competition changes over time, so I would rather limit the comparisons to his peers.
Dabo Swinney has made religion a central component of the Clemson program. How does this relate to other programs in history? Do you see it as a new-type of muscular Christianity?
For 100% selfish reasons, I love this question. Dabo is a character, and he certainly uses his faith to his advantage. What isn’t unique to Dabo is his use of muscular Christianity in college football. I would argue that the greatest muscular Christian college football coach of all time is the winningest college football coach of all time, Knute Rockne. At Notre Dame, he converted to Catholicism after seeing how his players’ faith helped them on the field. Following his conversion, he used his position at Notre Dame to spread Catholicism in America. I believe that he is the most important Catholic in 20th-century America. On the field, he fully implemented the forward pass and trained coaches across the country. Off the field, he helped make Catholicism normative in American culture. Through his muscular Christianity, Rockne built a football program that became the face of American Catholicism.
Dabo’s muscular Christianity embodies the type of Christian manhood preached today in the United States. He yells, jumps, and flexes on the sidelines to hype up his players. But he also hugs them and cries when necessary. I believe the acceptance of the overt displays of emotion reveal the influence of therapeutic culture on American Christianity. This balance of overt manliness and emotional awareness appears in muscular Christians today including Tim Tebow, Tony Dungy, Josh Hamilton, and the cast of Duck Dynasty.
I’m not an expert about the connection between religion and sport, but I think muscular Christianity has been a central component of the culture of college sports since the very beginning. Notions of respectability, sportsmanship, “playing the game the right way,” abstaining from certain vices, and so on, have their roots in the way sports were made palatable and popularized by muscular Christians for middle class consumption and participation. Extending from these beginnings, I think many of the early qualities of muscular Christianity have become secularized into cultural norms regarding respectable athlete and fan behavior as well as a deeply held belief in the power of sports to foster character development. I think what Dabo Swinney, Tim Tebow, and many other elite athletes and coaches who are outspoken about their faith are doing builds on these origins while simultaneously engaging in a type of culture-war by pushing back against liberal-secular society. I don’t question their commitment to their faith, but I think they have made an overt decision to be Christian role models as a way to offer “alternative” role models to other coaches and athletes caught up in scandals, etc. The central of role of religion in the program works well with certain fans, and contributes to a family-type atmosphere.
Historically, I believe this is somewhat common. Amos Alonzo Stagg nearly became a minister before embarking on a long, distinguished coaching career. As one of the first professional coaches, Stagg relied on these values to shape his program and the culture of sports more broadly. Glenn “Pop” Warner, while less religious, cultivated a fatherly personality as he “assimilated” Native Americans at Carlisle, and later authored “books for boys,” instructing them how to engage in sport. At Oklahoma, the administration made sure to include the fact that Bud Wilkinson was a Sunday School teacher in promotional materials. They wanted to make Wilkinson relatable to the public and underscore his fatherly-values with his religious convictions. Swinney follows this path, boldly proclaiming his faith in a social and political climate that is less receptive to such overt displays.
I have known of Dabo Swinney for a fairly long time. He is from Alabama and graduated from UA, was a walk-on wide receiver in the early-1990s, and worked as an assistant coach there until the early-2000s. Swinney strikes me as being genuine in his beliefs and I do not see his profession or emphasis on religion within the Clemson program as just a marketing or recruiting tool. As for historical comparisons, I can see parallels with Bobby Bowden’s approach at Florida State. I am not sure if this is a new-type of Muscular Christianity. I would be interested to read what others think about that subject.
This is a rematch from last years, and Clemson and Alabama both represent the Deep South. How/why do Southern states continue to dominate college football?
Some southerners (cough, me, cough) may just say that it is just another sign of southern superiority in all things from food to contracting pronouns. But the only answer to this question is that there is no one answer. You could easily argue race, cultural identity, gender, class, or a host of any other factors. So I will take a side and argue for geography. After spending this weekend in Denver at the AHA, the impact of cold weather is fresh on the brain. In the south, the warmer weather makes practicing or playing a game that was only played outside until recently, easy. The ease of playing outside made football over the decades an essential part of southern identity that starts in grade school and certainly high school. For this reason, the most talented southern athletes are funneled towards football, whereas students in the north are pushed to basketball. This is why, speaking broadly, southern states produce football talent and northern urban centers produce basketball players. Applying this to Alabama and Clemson, when coaches like Sweeney and Saban recruit southern football players they sell proximity to family as an essential reason to play for them. Therefore, southern coaches have more players to recruit and an easy line to sell as they sit in living rooms full of anxious and excited parents.
I’d point to the rich local talent that makes recruiting easier (i.e. the racial demographics of the South), and the larger cultural investment in the game than other areas. Kurt Kemper and Randy Roberts have both hinted that the South used football during the Civil Rights Era to establish and maintain regional pride. Likewise, the game’s emphasis on toughness made it culturally significant during the Cold War. Thus, Southern football success helped show the South’s strength, especially when segregated teams continued to rank highly. This football culture remained following the desegregation of the SEC schools and other major Southern colleges. Black athletes helped reinvigorate the Southern football tradition. U.S. Census maps show that the South has a higher African American population than other regions, and 57% of college football players are black. Based purely on the numbers, this gives the South a big advantage.
This is an interesting question. There are a host of macro-level factors – the adoption of college football as a cultural component of the New South in the early twentieth century, the development of the Sunbelt during and after the Second World War, the integration of college sports, etc. – that could explain the success of Southern schools in college football.
I would like to propose an alternative interpretation. Instead of Southern exceptionalism, I credit the success of Alabama and Clemson to the commitment by each university to not only big-time college football, but to winning championships. There are a handful of schools at the top of the Power Five conferences, like Ohio State and Oregon, who have also invested in coaches, staff, recruiting, academic support, and facilities with the goal of being the best in the nation. To be clear, I do not discount other programs, but the majority of schools do not have the resources and/or are not willing to totally commit. That seems to me why most years we see the same few teams competing for conference and national championships.
How has the creation of the College Football Playoff affected your viewing of bowl games? Do they feel less important now?
The playoff system hasn’t changed my viewing of the bowl games. If we are honest, bowl games have not meant a lot to determine a national champion quite some time. Historically speaking, the entire bowl system is about increasing revenue, exposure, and moral. Whether it was the Bluebonnet Bowl in the 1960s or 1970s or the Belk Bowl now, schools and sponsors make money, the teams get national news coverage, and fans, coaches, and players can spin their season as a success if they win. So, I don’t believe the playoff system undercut the value or quality of the bowl games. As this year proved, many of the non-playoff bowl games are more entertaining than the ones with championship ramifications. But to make sure you catch the exciting games, you must watch parts or all of most of them.
I’m not sure if it is because of the College Football Playoff, but I watch fewer bowl games now than when I was younger. College football is largely regional game with deep-held traditions. BigTen fans always watch the Rose Bowl, fans of the old Big Eight always watched the Orange Bowl, and so on. The BCS, conference realignment, scheduling changes, and the move of more and more of the games to cable channels like ESPN, has hampered my interest. I was talking about this the other day with friends on Twitter. I remember as a kid a New Years bowl game was a significant accomplishment — bowls had a more clear rank to them. I also remember lying around watching 3 or 4 bowl games on New Years day — usually on ABC. Maybe I am out-of-touch today, but it seems like the schedule has changed with more night games on random December week days.
Personal feelings aside, I think bowl games are more important now. Playing in a bowl game means extra practices and more money. Both of those things are crucial for keeping-pace in the arms race and hyper-competitive world of college football. Teams like Purdue, who’s won 9 games in the last 4 season, keeping falling further behind because they don’t have the extra month of practice to develop their players. This is why there continues to be so many games, and colleges are OK with allowing a few 5-7 teams to fill spots.
The College Football Playoff has not really had an impact on my viewing of bowl games. Aside from the teams that I have a rooting interest (Alabama and TCU), over the last five or more years I have paid less attention to bowl games generally. I am not sure if that is a function of the College Football Playoff or of me being busier these days. Time permitting, I try to watch interesting matchups. For example, this year I watched LSU’s defense against Louisville’s Heisman-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson, and the USC-Penn State Rose Bowl (all four and a half plus hours of it).
Bowl games having meaning or importance is a relatively new development. They started as locally sponsored exhibitions and, in some cases, they still are. For the most part, I view them as just television programming now. With that said, they are important to the coaches, players, schools who participate in them. I would not want to take that away.
Each year there has been some controversy with selecting the four playoff teams. How would you fix or change the selection process?
I actually love the four-team playoff system. It is the perfect balance of maintaining the importance of winning regular season games, but slightly expanded the opportunity to compete for the championship. No matter how many teams play or if a person or computer selects them, controversy will follow. But isn’t that what we love about it? As sports fans, we love to complain, argue, and feel marginalized. So I feel that the current system is the best selected and run system for determining a national champion in all of college football history. In saying all of this, it will expand to eight teams within the next five years. There is just too much money to be made to not expand. This seemingly inevitable move will only discount the importance of winning in the regular season and the quality of games in the playoffs.
I’m in favor of a 16-team playoff, where each of the 10 conference champions (Power 5 & Group of 5) get an automatic berth and the remaining spots are filled by selection committee. This would restore order to the conference realignment racket because smaller leagues give their members better odds of making the playoffs. You may have some movement as teams try to seek the best path to the playoff. This format also adds weight back to winning one’s conference. Because it would add four games to the schedule in December, I’d cut at least 1 regular season game (maybe 2).
I realize that’s a pipe dream, so to fix the current system, I’d require the teams included be conference champions. That would make the conference championship games a de facto first-round of the playoffs. This is the philosophy behind the gradual movement to 4 super conferences of 16 teams — which makes sense. Each division would be 8 teams — roughly the same size of normal conferences 3 decades ago. As long as it is only 4 teams and there are 5 power conferences, the playoff will always be controversial. Of course, controversy is one of college football’s longest running traditions.
Honestly, I had no problem with the BCS computer system (it was kind to Alabama). But seriously, the College Football Playoff introduced more drama with the selection committee. One solution would be to reinstate the BCS formula and take the top four at the end of the year. An alternative would be to expand the playoffs to six teams. Maybe have conference champion auto-bids from the Power Five and an at-large pick (but then there would probably be drama surrounding the at-large bid). If this happens, I would also suggest giving the top two seeds a first-round bye. Anything beyond six and the FBS should move toward the FCS’s playoff system and abandon the bowl tie-ins.
Where can readers go for more analysis of college football history? What are you favorite book(s) or article(s) on college football history?
This is a really hard list to cut down, so I will go with my favorite college football history book from 2016. For me, the best book I read was Julie Des Jardins’ biography of Walter Camp. What I loved about this book is its balance. About one third of her book is nitty-gritty football history that focuses on the changes to the rules, outcomes of games, and development of programs nationwide. The second third is the fascinating story of Camp and how his life shaped early football. And the final third analyzes how college football under Camp’s direction changed the definition of American manhood. As if that wasn’t enough, her writing style is excellent and engaging. I recommended the book to other sport historians and passionate college football fans, and received rave reviews from both. So if you are interested enough to have gotten to this point in this roundtable discussion, you will love this book.
Besides boxing and baseball, college football is probably the third most-studied sport by historians. This means that there’s a rich historiography to choose from. A couple of books that I really enjoy and have influenced my work are: Robin Lester’s Stagg’s University: The Rise, Decline, and Fall of Big-Time Football at Chicago and Jeffrey Montez de Oca’s Discipline and Indulgence: College Football, Media, and the American Way of Life during the Cold War. A good read about football the University of Alabama is Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski’s Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, and Dixie’s Last Quarter. An article worth reading about early college football is Hal Sears’ “The Moral Threat of Intercollegiate Sports: An 1893 Poll of Ten College Presidents, and the End of ‘The Champion Football Team of the Great West'” (Journal of Sport History, 1992).
There are so many good ones. I will limit my response to the academic works that influenced me the most and make a couple of recommendations for books about the current state of college football.
For academic studies of college football history: Michael Oriard’s Reading Football (1993) and King Football (2001), John S. Watterson’s College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy (2000), the college football-related chapters from Patrick B. Miller’s edited collection The Sporting World of the Modern South (2002), especially Andrew Doyle’s “Turning the Tide,” and Brian A. Ingrassia’s The Rise of Gridiron University (2012).
For the current state of college football: Howard P. Chudacoff’s Changing the Playbook: How Power, Profit, and Politics Transformed College Sports (2015), Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian’s The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football (2014), and Jessica Luther’s Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape (2016).
Hunter M. Hampton is a Ph.D. Candidate in history at the University of Missouri. His research is focused on religion, sports, and popular culture. He is writing a dissertation on the muscular Christianity and the making of Christian manhood in 20th-century America. You can email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @hhampton44.
Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African American studies. He is also the founder and co-editor of this blog. His current research explores the intersections of college football, race, masculinity, and politics in postwar America through the lens of Bud Wilkinson and the University of Oklahoma football dynasty.You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @admcgregor85
Michael T. Wood is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History and Geography at Texas Christian University. His research focuses on American football played between U.S. and Cuban teams from 1900s to 1950s. He currently teaches sport-related courses as an instructor for the Department of American Studies at the University of Alabama. You can contact him at: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com.