For much of my childhood, my favorite book was a compilation of gridiron odds and sods aimed at young adults called Strange But True Football Stories. If I am being honest, I probably hearken back to Strange But True Football Stories more often than any other football book I have ever read:1 I thought about it during Week 1 of the college football season, when Kent State’s Andre Parker scooped up a loose ball and hurtled 58 yards toward his team’s own end zone, only to be wrestled to the ground by a pair of equally disoriented Towson defenders;2 and I thought about it on Saturday night, when, nagged by a perverse sense of curiosity, I surfed over to the Florida State–Savannah State game, only to find they’d pulled the plug on the whole charade.
Chapter 2 of Strange But True Football Stories (written by Larry Fox) is entitled “When Disaster Struck Cumberland,” and it tells the now century-old story of a team of young men from a small college in Lebanon, Tennessee. In the spring of 1916, the school received a letter from the football program at Georgia Institute of Technology, asking whether they might be interested in playing in Atlanta on October 7 of that year. Their reward: a $500 guarantee. As the recruitment rules were almost nonexistent back then, Cumberland’s football manager, George E. Allen, endeavored to pick up several ringers from Vanderbilt University during a stopover in Nashville on the train ride down. But Allen was unaware that Vanderbilt had a big game coming up (I suppose Phil Steele’s annual was not widely distributed yet), and three of Cumberland’s players “got lost” in the city and never made it back to the train. The only recruit Allen could dredge up was a local newspaperman who played under an assumed name, because these were the days when newspapermen still had pride.
Cumberland made it to Atlanta with 16 players, and used 14 of them. Georgia Tech, under John Heisman, was about to commence a 33-game winning streak. The Yellowjackets led 63-0 after one quarter, and 126-0 at halftime. They gained 978 yards, and had 13 different players score touchdowns. The final score was 222-0, but it could have been worse: The clock in the final two quarters was cut down to get it over with as quickly as possible. George E. Allen took his $500 and spent most of it “showing his players the sights of Atlanta,” which, I think, is young-adult-book parlance for “pissed it away on hooch and showgirls.” Eventually, Cumberland’s Bulldogs took the Pullman back to Lebanon, having set the standard for a hundred years’ worth of early-season paycheck games; many of them, including quarterback Charles Edwards, were reluctant to ever speak of it again.
I imagine that “When Disaster Struck Cumberland” affected me so deeply because I came of age during Paycheck Season in college football. When you are a child being raised in a major college football town, these early-season blowouts are the games for which tickets are readily available; hence, these are the games your parents can afford to take you to without calling in Mafia favors. I grew up watching my future alma mater gorge itself on Colgate and William & Mary and Rutgers, and I assumed it was the natural order of things. It was a preseason in a sport that never had one.
And so on Saturday night, in the heart of Paycheck Season, two games neared a climax: In Tallahassee, with Florida State leading 48-0, the Seminoles and Savannah State — not just a Football Championship Subdivision team, but one of the lowliest programs in the Subdivision Formerly Known as I-AA, a team that fell 84-0 to Oklahoma State the week before — agreed to play with a running clock. The ‘Noles scored again, and then a rain delay gave the officials time to consult the NCAA’s rules manual (King James version) to see if they could just call the whole thing off, thereby infuriating no one except a few masochists in Vegas who had parlayed the 70-point spread. Thus were renewed the annual set of questions about the haves enlisting the have-nots as chumps just so those chumps can afford to replace the pile carpeting in the locker room.
Meanwhile, in Little Rock, Arkansas, a second paycheck game was slowly turning sideways: Arkansas led the Warhawks of Louisiana-Monroe by only a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. The Hogs’ starting quarterback, Tyler Wilson, had been knocked out of commission by the ULM pass rush, because we all know the old saw about nobody breeding hungry defensive ends quite like the Sun Belt Conference. With 47 seconds to play, ULM tied the game, threatening to spoil a season that had once seemed like Arkansas’s best hope at a national title since Jerry and Jimmy were in crew cuts … at least before their head coach went all Jim Tom Pinch on a chopper and was replaced on an interim basis by an emotional dynamo who once broke into tears after losing the Humanitarian Bowl.
I am speaking, of course, of John L. Smith, a man who has skydived from 14,000 feet and run with the bulls in Pamplona, a man whose entire preseason motivational regimen was based on his underestimation of the temperature of urine. Smith was an assistant under Bobby Petrino, and this offseason he took the head job at his alma mater, Weber State, and then he turned around and came back to Arkansas before the moving trucks had even arrived in Utah, because somebody had to coach this team, and why not the guy who once spiked a Gatorade bottle at a press conference?3
Ever since that day, the Razorbacks seemed fated to fail in spectacular fashion. You just didn’t think it would happen so soon. The Hogs booted a field goal on their first possession of overtime, and then, facing a fourth-and-1, the Warhawks chose to go for it; Arkansas’s defensive ends rushed too far upfield, and quarterback Kolton Browning — who was either named after a shotgun or will have a shotgun named after him soon — slid into the pocket and then to his right, finding a seam that led all the way to the end zone, thereby elevating the Sun Belt to a 2-105 record against ranked opponents.4 The Warhawks charged the field, and coach Todd Berry’s team supplanted the Cotton Stakes Cutting Horse Show as the hottest story in Ouachita Parish, and Arkansas would soon plummet from no. 8 to “others receiving votes,” the second-biggest drop in the history of the Associated Press poll. Suddenly the possibilities of Paycheck Season, spoiled to the core in Tallahassee just a short time earlier, seemed fresh and renewed.
We are at a curious precipice when it comes to Paycheck Season, because an impending playoff system will most likely change everything. Any sort of playoff selection committee will most likely look unkindly on wins over inferior opponents, and the incentive to schedule at least one or two “big” non-conference games will minimize the number of paycheck games. This is good for the consumer, but I wonder what it means for teams like Louisiana-Monroe, for schools from the Sun Belt and MAC and Conference USA that are both a part of the Football Bowl Subdivision and yet completely separate from it. In the opening week of the season, Ohio University defeated Penn State, and I grant you that Penn State’s roster is depleted to Timmy Lupus levels,5 but Ohio might well have beaten Penn State if no sanctions had been handed down. Ohio may go undefeated, and the Bobcats still would probably have no shot at playing for a national championship even if the playoff system were already in place.
This is what a debacle like Savannah State–Florida State obscures, at least in the mind of the casual fan — because all paycheck games are not created equal. There used to be little difference between a season opener against Toledo and a season opener against Eastern Kentucky, but that’s not true anymore. The gulf between the Mid-American Conference and the Big Ten has narrowed to the point that I’m starting to think the entire Leaders division should be relegated to the MAC West. And while the gulf between the Sun Belt and the SEC is still yawning, it has now officially been bridged. A four-team national playoff will lock out these conferences most every year, and could potentially give them fewer opportunities to even demonstrate that they’ve narrowed the margin.
This lingering sense of possibility, of a football coach embracing a state trooper on a warm night in Little Rock, is what sets college athletics apart; it’s why the NCAA tournament is the greatest single event in sports even though a 16-seed has never beaten a 1-seed, and it’s why the narrowing between major and mid-major is something that college football should embrace as it moves forward, rather than sweep away.
In 1921, five years after the Georgia Tech–Cumberland fiasco, a tiny Presbyterian college from Kentucky took on Harvard, then a national power. No team from outside the East had ever defeated the Crimson, and the team known as the Centre College Praying Colonels didn’t seem to have much of a chance, either. But they went up 6-0, and they held on for the victory. It was strange, but it was true, and trust me when I say that 90 years later, there are still people who remember it from Chapter 15 of the book that shaped their whole ethos.