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Feinstein: September Is The Real Start Of The Sports Year

John Feinstein
September 04, 2019 - 3:22 pm
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If you have been a sports fan your entire life as I have, you mark the dates in a year not so much by holidays or birthdays but by the sports calendar.
 
For some reason, perhaps because I always mourned the end of summer and the start of school—unlike my eight-year-old daughter who raced out of the house yesterday morning yelling, ‘school, school—I can’t wait!’—September has always felt like the beginning of the sports year for me.
 
I’m a great believer in the rebirth that comes when pitchers and catchers report to spring training and I count the days until the Islanders play their first hockey game of the fall. About the only reason I look forward to winter is that it means I’ll be going to college basketball games. I do NOT find snow romantic, except when it appears in the final scene of ‘White Christmas.’ And my version of Christmas is Army-Navy. Or, Selection Sunday.
 
But September means football—the NFL and the NCAA.
 
I’m old enough and jaded enough now that I don’t find very much romantic about either. I care very little about who wins the Super Bowl or who gets into the College Football Playoff; or who wins the Heisman Trophy.
 
That doesn’t mean I don’t watch the games—I do, in part because I’ve always watched—in part because it is my job to know what happens. But I find the money and the hype overwhelming in all big-time sports; more so in football than any other sport.
 
College football now begins in late August, thanks to the creation of something the NCAA insists on calling, “week zero.” The reason it is called “week zero,” is simple: the NCAA doesn’t want to call attention to the fact that the regular season now begins in late August and doesn’t end until the second weekend in December.
 
Army-Navy play the last regular season game this season on December 14th. The ‘bowl season,’ begins six days later and doesn’t end until the national championship game on January 13th. The two teams who play in that game will be playing in their 15thgame—unless one of them has played in Hawaii, in which case they’ll play 16 games.
 
When I was a kid (insert age joke here) college football teams played ten regular season games and then there were perhaps 10 bowl games that allowed teams to play an 11thgame. The last games of the season were played on New Year’s Day: the Cotton, Sugar, Rose and Orange Bowls.
 
One of the reasons the college presidents insisted back then that there could not be and should not be any kind of playoff to crown a real national champion was that they didn’t want to ask too much of the so-called, ‘student-athletes.’
 
Then they added an 11th game. And a 12th. As leagues began to expand—and TV dollars kept growing—conference championship games were added, meaning that the best teams were playing a 13thgame BEFORE they played a bowl. Then, when the money on offer got to be too big to say no, the College Football Playoff came along five years ago, meaning if you won (or lost) a conference championship game and played in the national title game, you were playing 15 games.
 
That’s one MORE game than NFL teams played in the regular season when I was a kid. When the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs played Super Bowl I in January of 1967, each was playing it’s 16thgame of the season—TOTAL. Now, to get to the Super Bowl, a team has to play at least 19 games and if a wild card team gets there, it is playing its 20thgame. That’s not counting exhibition games.
 
Given their druthers, the owners would expand the regular season to 18 games. At the very least, if they can’t get the players to go for 18 games, they will add two more games to the wild card round come 2021.
 
It’s worth noting that other professional sports haven’t really expanded schedules even as they have expanded the number of teams in their leagues. Major League Baseball went to a 162-game regular season schedule when it expanded from 16 teams to 18 in 1961 and then 20 in 1962. Now, there are 30 teams and they still play 162 games although the postseason has gone from two teams in 1968 to 12 now. Once, you had to win four World Series games to be champions; now you have to win 11 games—or 12 as a wild card team—to win a title.
 
The NBA has played 82 games for as long as I can remember, even though it has expanded from nine teams in 1966 to 30 now. It takes 16 wins—four best-of-seven series and two months—to win a championship. The National Hockey League was a six-team league in 1967 with a 70-game schedule and four playoff teams. Now it is a 31-team league with an 82- game schedule and an identical playoff format as the NBA.
 
Everything is bigger; everything takes longer—lots more TV commercials, longer halftimes, much more pre-game babble.
 
The first Final Four I covered was in St. Louis in 1978. The opening semifinal began at 12:30 local time. The second one was over before 5 o’clock. I finished my story on the second game shortly after six—which is now the time that the first semifinal starts in the East. This past season in Minneapolis, which is on central time like St. Louis, I finished my column on the second game at 11:30.
 
I write as fast now as I did then, but not only are the games MUCH longer than in the old days, the time the media has to wait for postgame interviews is considerably longer.
            
I realize that being nostalgic for the ‘old days,’ is ludicrous. The TV dollars are so big now that starting times and commercial breaks are completely controlled by the networks. The only exception to this rule is the Masters, where the green jackets are willing to take less money in TV rights in return for retaining control of the telecasts. When you are that rich, a few million here, a few million there is no big deal.
 
And so, as football starts again, I’ll watch the Packers and Bears on Thursday night and I’ll have at least one eye on the TV most Saturday and Sunday afternoons. But the college games I will watch most often will involve Army and Navy and, to a lesser degree, Air Force. I’ll also pay attention to teams at the FCS level—notably the Ivy League.
 
I grew up going to Columbia games and still follow the Lions—who have been much improved in recent years under Coach Al Bagnoli—and the entire league. The Ivies used to play nine games. Now, they play 10. No one goes to postseason, which I find ridiculous since athletes in EVERY OTHER SPORT get to play postseason. Still, when Yale plays Harvard on the last Saturday of the season and they call it THE Game (sorry, THE Ohio State University) it is THE Game whether it decides the Ivy title or not.
 
My NFL team has always been the Jets, dating to when I paid $3 for standing room tickets at Shea Stadium when Joe Namath was the quarterback and then sneaked into empty corporate seats after the first quarter.
 
That’s why my most vivid football memory is Super Bowl III, the Jets’ famous 16-7 upset of the Colts on January 12, 1969. I never have to look the date up. Nor do I have to look up October 16, 1969—the day the Mets beat the Orioles to win the World Series; or May 8, 1970—the date of game 7 of Knicks-Lakers in Madison Square Garden.
 
Boy was I innocent back then. I just figured that, every few years, your team won a championship. Since then, the Jets haven’t BEEN to the Super Bowl; the Mets have won the World Series once (1986) and the Knicks have won one more title (1973). So, if you’re keeping score, that’s three titles in 16 months and two since then. I do have four Islander Stanley Cup wins to treasure, but the last of those was in 1983.
 
Super Bowl III is ingrained in my memory as if it happened yesterday. Kickoff in the Orange Bowl was at 1:30. The cost of a 30-second commercial was $55,000 (I did look that up)—as opposed to the $5.25 million for a commercial last season.
 
My parents were never sports fans. They were at a concert that afternoon and got home early in the fourth quarter. My dad came in to see how the Jets were doing.
 
“They’re winning 16-0,” I told him.
 
Dad knew enough about football to know this was shocking—the Colts were 18-point favorites; everyone knew the AFL couldn’t compete with the NFL.
 
He surprised me by sitting down to watch. I was pacing up and down in front of the TV set. I always did that during Jets game—I was coaching. After a few minutes my dad said, “John, sit down, you’re making me dizzy.”
 
I explained I was coaching. He said, ‘they’re up 16-0, relax. And sit down.”
 
I did as I was told. Don Shula had just subbed Johnny Unitas for Earl Morrall at quarterback. Unitas promptly drove the Colts 80-yards to cut the margin to 16-7.
 
“Go ahead and pace,” my dad said.
 
I paced my way to the sweetest victory I’d ever experienced.
 
I hope the Jets win the Super Bowl again in my lifetime. I have no doubt I’ll enjoy it—even though it will never feel the way that January afternoon 50+ years ago felt.
 
But it’s now September again. The start of a new sports year. I still love the way that feels. And I’m grateful for that.
 
 
John Feinstein’s new Young Adult novel is, “Benchwarmers,”—about two sixth grade soccer players—a boy and a girl—dealing with a misogynist coach. His two most recent books—“Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in Professional Sports,” and, “The Prodigy,” the story of a 17-year-old who has a chance to win the Masters are just out in paperback. His website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com