Meaningless to Most, but Meaningful to Others

If you’ve paid any attention this week, then you’ve no doubt heard the story that Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette have decided that they won’t participate in their respective teams upcoming bowl games.  Just yesterday, Baylor Running Back Shock Linwood announced he also would not play in his team’s bowl game.

In the case of McCaffrey and Fournette, it is completely understandable.  Both are guaranteed first round selections in April’s NFL Draft so why risk a catastrophic injury on either North Carolina or Louisville.  Linwood is a little more of a curious decision as most NFL scouts (and make no mistake I’m not one) call him a marginal talent likely to get drafted in the later rounds.

McCaffrey and Fournette have both made what Hall of Fame Defensive Back Deion Sanders once called a business decision.  Sanders was asked one time what you do when a big running back like Jerome Bettis is barreling straight at you and Sanders (who was clearly shy about contact) said in that instance you had to make a business decision on whether to tackle him or let him go.

You’ve also probably heard both sides of this story.  Some say it doesn’t matter than McCaffrey and Fournette are skipping the bowl games because they are meaningless exhibition games anyway.  Others have jumped high on their soap box and proclaim that these two have quit on their teams.  Actually, they probably need to save their righteous indignation for something that actually does matter.  I don’t mind and I don’t care that those guys don’t want to play in a game where they aren’t getting paid when next year they will be getting paid to play.  Let’s also be honest, other than 3 games, Alabama vs. Washington, Clemson vs. Ohio State, and the National Championship game matching the winner of both of those games, the rest of the games do not matter in terms of a National Championship.

Some would say they don’t matter at all.  I’m not so sure about that as it’s my belief that they are important to the players who get one last chance to play in a game (and presumably most of those playing college football enjoy playing football), some kids play four years without ever getting the bowl experience, and unlike most other sports at least 20 teams will finish the season with a win. And, Soccer moms wouldn’t have it any other way, right?  Trophies for everyone.

Then there’s the case of Old Dominion University.  The Monarchs have qualified for their first-ever Bowl game, the Bahamas Bowl in the Bahamas of course.  If you are going to qualify for a bowl game for the first time, you might as well go big.  All the national talking heads can call these bowl games meaningless, but I don’t think you will find anyone associated with the ODU program who would proclaim this game as meaningless. Rather, it’s the latest high mark in a program that literally came from nothing.

Old Dominion is located in Norfolk, Virginia in the heart of the “757” named for the area code covering the area where most of the best football players in the Commonwealth of Virginia reside.  The area is so fertile in talent that lately Virginia Tech and Virginia are getting out recruited in the area by outsiders like Michigan, Ohio State, Florida State and Penn State.  But, from 1940 until 2009, ODU didn’t have a football program and so if you played football in the “757” you had to find your opportunity elsewhere.  If a school is looking to either restart or begin a football program, they’d do well to follow the pattern set by ODU.

On June 14, 2005, ODU’s Board of Visitors voted unanimously to restart football, not a cheap process and not one where you can just dip your toe in the water.  Instead you have to jump in the deep end and the school did just that.  ODU previously had a team from 1930 – 1940 when it was known as the “Norfolk Division of the College of William and Mary”.  The revived program was to begin play in 2009, and reportedly was an effort for the school to reestablish a connection with its alumni base.  I’ve said before that the single biggest thing any alum can identify with is a school’s football program and the games are mostly played on Saturday making it easy for the working folks of the world to come to a game.   ]

With a four-year period to start the program, ODU hired on former Virginia Coach George Welsh as a consultant.  In February 2007, the school hired then little-known Maine Associate Head Coach Bobby Wilder to be the head coach.  Wilder signed his first recruiting class in 2008, spent the year getting them bigger and stronger, then signed his second class in 2009 and started play in the 2009 season as a FCS Independent program with a bunch of young players and some transfers.  They were an instant success, going 9-2 which is the best record ever for a first year football program.  Just two years later, ODU joined the Colonial Athletic Association (an FCS league where most of their other sports participated) and made the playoffs beating hometown rival Norfolk State in the first round, before losing to Georgia Southern in the second round.   The Monarchs then won the 2012 CAA title, but since they had decided to leave the conference to go to FBS, were ineligible to “officially” claim the title and the automatic berth to the playoffs.  No matter, they made the FCS field as an at-large.

In 2013, they made the move up to FBS leaving behind FBS wannabees like Liberty and James Madison playing as an independent before getting and accepting a place in Conference USA for all sports in 2014.

Since restarting the program, ODU is 66-30 with just one losing season, a 5-7 mark last year.  This year they are 9-3 and on Friday will play their first ever bowl game against Eastern Michigan.  The school, which was frankly more known for its womens’ basketball program and it’s three national titles prior to 2009, now has plans to expand its home Foreman Field from its current 20,000 to 30,000 seats.  And why not?  The stadium which once housed local high school games and ODU’s field hockey and womens’ lacrosse teams is now in the midst of 54 consecutive home football game sellouts.

They’ve also been successful keeping some of the “757’s” talent at home.  The current ODU roster has 27 players from that area code.  And beginning next year, they’ll play seven games in nine seasons against the commonwealth’s most successful program over the last 25 years, Virginia Tech, which includes Tech visiting ODU in 2018, 2022 and 2024.

There are entirely too many bowl games.  There are 40 of them and that means for the second straight season several bowls will have 5-7 teams in them.  The NCAA currently has a moratorium on new games so we are set at 40 I guess until someone says otherwise.  I don’t think it’s going to decrease and so there will be small crowds in places like Boca Raton, Miami and St. Petersburg where the St. Petersburg Bowl is played in the undisputed worst baseball park in America in Tropicana Field.  There will be games in freezing locations like Boise, Idaho and New York City, there will be two games in San Diego, two in Phoenix, and two in Orlando, bowls with names like “Quick Lane” and “Motel 6”, and if you are worried about your team not making a bowl game just do what the University of New Mexico and the University of Arizona have done and create your own.  The Lobos have made the New Mexico Bowl part of their schedule and if Arizona can ever get back to 6 wins and they have no other options, well there’s their own Arizona Bowl.

Meaningless exhibitions?  Depends on your perspective I guess.  I’ve always said that college football shouldn’t try to be college basketball.  The post-season format of basketball just wouldn’t work in college football.  More importantly, the NCAA controls basketball while the school Presidents control football and that means as long as there are teams that can get to 5 wins, there’s a place for them to play in the post-season and trophies for everyone.

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