Much of college football lives on agelessly, blind to the passage of time. When Michigan scores a touchdown, kicks a field goal or simply takes the field through the narrow tunnel at the east side of Michigan Stadium, the maize-and-blue faithful break into a spirited rendition of The Victors, a fight song written more than a century ago and first performed in public by John Philip Sousa. When Penn State plays in its massive coliseum on a central Pennsylvania hillside surrounded by tailgaters in their RVs and by sprawling acres of farmland, the Nittany Lions wear the same plain blue-and-white uniforms that have signified their prideful simplicity for decades. This year students wore ties to watch Eli Manning's Rebels, as their predecessors did when they watched Eli's dad, Archie, more than 30 years ago. On every campus there is a thread that connects the past to the present and ignores the calendar. Each year college football seems to be the same game played in the same way in the same places. Nothing changes but the names on the roster.
In a sport so defined by lovable tradition—buckeye decals on the helmets in Columbus, checkerboard end zones in Knoxville every year—small signs of evolution are easy to miss. Only with a practiced eye can we look at Heisman's game, Rockne's game, Bryant's game and see that college football is at the end of an era. Soon old verities will be cast aside, and the game will be very different.
You can see the metamorphosis in Larry Fitzgerald's dancing, dark-brown eyes as the Pittsburgh wide receiver prepares, along with suspended Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett, to challenge the NFL's rule against drafting players who are less than three seasons removed from high school. You could see it on a small stage at the Yale Club in New York City, as Fitzgerald, a callow sophomore, sat next to Jason White of Oklahoma, the Heisman Trophy winner; third-place finisher Eli Manning of Mississippi; and fourth-place Chris Perry of Michigan—three superstar seniors, a soon-to-be endangered species. You could see it in the haggard mug of Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, the public face of the beleaguered Bowl Championship Series, as he tried desperately to spin this fall's BCS embarrassment into an acceptable aberration. You could hear it in the halls of Congress, where senators discussed the merits of the arcane title system and shrilly criticized it.
The transformation, in fact, has already begun. On a mid-November afternoon, windswept rain drove Pitt's practice indoors. As the Panthers ran coach Walt Harris's passing offense in seven-on-seven skeleton drills, a small cluster of NFL scouts stood on the sideline, watching with poker faces, hands shoved in their pockets. One scout approached an SI writer and said, "I just want you to know I'm not evaluating Fitzgerald, because he's an underclassman." With that the scout rolled his eyes theatrically, eliciting titters from his peers. Then they all went back to the business of not watching Fitzgerald, who is expected to ask the NFL for permission to enter its draft, receive it and be taken among the first few selections. (If he isn't granted permission—and he has an argument for being an exception to the NFL rule, having spent a fifth year of high school at a military academy to improve his grades—he'll probably sue for the right to enter the draft, like Clarett, whose case is expected to be decided by February 1.)
More than three decades have passed since Spencer Haywood left the University of Detroit after his sophomore season of college basketball to play in the pros, eventually winning his case against the NBA in the Supreme Court. Others followed him through what was first called the "hardship rule" (hardship or not), then "coming out early." Now many of the very best players simply skip college altogether. Baseball and hockey players have long been drafted as teenagers. Football is being dragged into this modern era, forced to confront the dual realities of today's young athletes. Like Fitzgerald, they are more physically and emotionally mature than their predecessors—more ready to move from college to professional football, thanks to early weight training and years of summer football camps. Like Clarett, whose NFL prospects are far less certain after having played just one injury-plagued college season, they have a sense of entitlement that matches their precocity. They are no longer content to wait for their millions.
Though the process could get ugly, with a series of court battles over several years, the basketballization of football seems inevitable. Surely there will eventually be a high school player who jumps directly to the NFL. But even if the number of early departures is smaller than in basketball, their influence will be felt. Redshirting, already on the wane, will become even rarer. Coaches will feel even more pressure to win now, with their good players slipping quickly through their grasp. The star who stays and plays for four years—like White (who last week was granted another year of college eligibility) and Manning—will become a commodity to be cherished, much as he is now in college basketball.
The better-sounding news is that championship teams will spring from a system that is vastly different from the BCS or its precursors. Before the current BCS contract ends in 2006, expect to see more adjusting of the convoluted system that failed so miserably this autumn when USC was voted No. 1 in both polls yet excluded from the official national championship game in favor of Oklahoma, which had just been thrashed by Kansas State, and LSU. It is likely that a single postbowl game will be added. But money and the public's desire for a true national champion will bring more sweeping change. College presidents will find a dignified way to cave in to their opposition. Before another decade passes, a playoff system will decide the national champion. It will most likely start with four teams and then expand to eight. In office cubicles around the land, fans will fill out their brackets as they have long done each March.
Yes, the changes will create excitement, but if you're a traditionalist, the effect will be jarring. Consider that the playoff games will have bowl names but they will not be bowls, because bowls are not quarterfinals or semifinals: They are self-contained civic events, with parades and festivals. Whether the bowl game as we know it will exist a decade from now remains to be seen. Consider also that the magnificent regular season, with its do-or-die fall Saturdays, will be forever altered. Under the new system a team will be able to recover from what is now a fatal defeat (or even bounce back from two bad losses) and still win the national championship. If Saturdays in January will be enhanced, surely those in October will be diminished.
Whatever you think about the changes, there is no stopping them. Underclassmen will win the right to sell their services in the pros, and in the matter of a championship tournament the demands of the marketplace seem inexorable. In both cases college football is merely catching up to other sports.
Fortunately, there is no stopping many of college football's great traditions either, but make no mistake: They'll be familiar touchstones in a new world.