These are the immortals: Fielding Yost and Amos Alonzo Stagg; Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy; Fritz Crisler and Bo Schembechler; Woody Hayes; Howard Jones; Paul “Bear” Bryant; Duffy Daugherty; Bernie Bierman; Bud Wilkinson and Earl “Red” Blaik; Joe Paterno and Urban Meyer. And a few others. Just a few.
These men were college football coaches. And their names and their legacies transcended the names of the governors of the states where they filled stadiums with their teams on Saturday afternoons across America.
They were idolized and respected by multitudes. And they were feared by their athletes and assistants; and feared so often by the ink-stained wretches of the sports media who glorified them into giants.
And these immortal college football coaches must be joined by one more.
Nick Saban. The vagabond coach who hop-scotched from job to job, university to university. From college football to the pros and back. The coach with the pompadour who paces to and fro, who seldom smiles, a man of ordinary size who dominates in a sport of gigantic athletes.
It is an odd perspective — perhaps it is cockeyed — perhaps it summarizes the hold that sports have on ordinary citizens – that I, and most of you, are able to identify Alabama’s football coach but cannot name that state’s governor.
Saban has coached four of his teams to national championships under a couple of selective college football formats. And he is favored to earn a fifth national championship when Alabama plays Clemson Monday night under the newest system — the four-team College Football Playoff.
Crowded trophy mantles
Up there in the coaching stratosphere with multiple championships Saban, with his four at Louisiana State and Alabama, is close to the super immortals: Bryant with a contested seven at Kentucky and Alabama; Yost with six at Michigan; Bierman with five at Minnesota; Rockne with four at Notre Dame; Leahy with four at Notre Dame; Blaik (born in Detroit, incidentally) with three at Army; Bud Wilkinson with three at Oklahoma; Meyer with three at Florida and Ohio State.
Multiple championships were rare back in history — and have become rarer as college football was by consumed television. And deep research lists a half dozen or more systems that were in vogue for selecting national champions.
For decades, the wire service polls ruled. The Associated Press poll could be termed almost authentic. Except it used sportswriters in its balloting. Those who voted — and still vote — indulged a lot of guesswork. Often, the polls delivered two national champions, based pretty much of whim.
Then the Bowl Championship Series became the method in 1998. It was a mélange of the selected polls and computer printouts that resulted in supposedly reliable national championship matchups.
The BCS was vilified by — well, a large body of sports journalists who whined for a playoff system.
Alabama vs. Clemson will be the second championship game in this still new College Football Playoff method. This format consists of brainwork by 13 certified football wizards.
They met weekly through the last several weeks of the 2015 season – and came up with the four teams.
This brilliant concept resulted in Clemson devouring Oklahoma, 37-17, followed by Alabama’s terrible humiliation of Michigan State, 38-0.
These semifinal games were played on New Year’s Eve with the expected drop in television ratings suffered by ESPN, the pompous, self-fancied worldwide leader in sports.
The 13 wizards should be decertified in the pregame festivities prior to Alabama vs. Clemson.
For years, during the BCS era, a high segment of the sports-journalist population, hollered for a college football playoff. My colleagues maintained that college football was the only major sport without a postseason playoff system to establish a proper champion.
Before the New Year Eve’s routs, there was even yelping that a four-team playoff should be boosted to an eight-team scramble. And then ultimately to 16.
The theory is that the more-the-merrier system works in college basketball.
Well, basketball is not football.
Some universities even have student bodies that are required to visit classrooms. In some institutions, even the supposed student-athletes must attend classes now and then — and take examinations. Horrors!
A college football playoff with eight or 16 teams?
It would become football follies.
Actually, we have already witnessed the football follies.
The wizards who selected this season’s playoff entrants could not uncover a decent four.
Ohio State and Stanford were worthy, they belonged.
Oklahoma did not belong.
Michigan State did not belong. Indeed, upon close examination, Michigan State received its lofty ranking based on one play — the fluke in Ann Arbor.
Yet in the aftermath of the destruction by Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide of Michigan State there were bitter media lamentations out of East Lansing and Detroit that the Spartans were not as awful as they appeared.
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports writer.