What are college football's top innovations of the past 50 years?
The Athlon Sports era began with the publication of our first SEC preview magazine in 1967, and the intervening half-century has brought so many seismic shifts to the college football landscape that we wonder if our founder, Jerry McCoin, would even recognize the sport that inspired him to launch a company. In honor of our golden anniversary, here are the 50 most impactful changes, innovations and outright breakthroughs to hit college football in the last 50 years.
College Football's Top 50 Innovations (50-31)
50. Smurf Turf
Talk all you want about Kentucky bluegrass, but the stuff Boise State plays on is really blue. Back in 1986, the Broncos were set to install a new artificial turf field at Albertsons Stadium, and BSU’s athletic director at the time, Gene Bleymaier, was upset that no one would know the school spent $750,000 on the carpet. So, he decided to make it a distinctive color. Visitors from 37 different countries and all 50 states have checked it out, and the school isn’t about to change things: In 2010, a survey revealed 90% of Boise residents love the blue turf.
49. Numbers Game
We all know that Clemson won the 2016 national title with a thrilling comeback win over Alabama, but if it were up to the numbers, the Tide would have taken the crystal trophy by six points — at least if you believe ESPN’s team efficiency ratings. That’s little solace for the Tide, but it shows just how much information is available these days for college football fans. An avalanche of advanced stats measures teams’ various success and failure rates in all three phases of the game and gives folks even more information to process before Saturday’s kickoff. Analytics have become part of life in the professional ranks, and they are every bit as fascinating on campus, too.
48. On the Go
The explosion of youth sports did more than create a world of participation trophy-craving kids who clogged every inch of available green space on autumn Saturdays. It also robbed college football fans of their ability to watch their favorite teams, because attending Junior’s age-five soccer game at 2 p.m. was way more important than watching State play Tech.
Thanks to the growth of remote technology, the disappointment of choosing family obligations over college football was over. People could stream games on their phones, tablets and computers. And since the Internet offered a much larger platform than individual TV stations, dozens more games were available than just what was aired on the flat screen. Streaming took college football everywhere, at all times and for everybody — even youth soccer hostages.
47. More Bowling
From 1972-74, Michigan won 10 games every season, finished 30–2–1, tied for the conference title all three years and played in exactly zero bowl games. The Big Ten’s policy that only the conference champion could enjoy the postseason — established in 1946 — was the culprit, and the Wolverines weren’t too happy about it.
In 1975, both the Big Ten and Pac-8, which at the time tied their champions to the Rose Bowl, announced that teams that didn’t finish first could play in bowls. That year, Big Ten runner-up Michigan fell to Oklahoma, 14–6, in the Orange Bowl, while USC, the Pac-8 fifth-place finisher, dumped Texas A&M, 20–0, in the Liberty Bowl.
Let’s face it: Unless you are an alumnus of a Mid-American Conference school, you won’t be tuning in to random MAC games on Saturdays throughout the season. If you live in the Midwest, you are likely to watch Big Ten contests. If you live anywhere else, you have other options.
But in 1999, the MAC realized that it could increase its national profile and satisfy the cravings of football fans starving for programming by playing televised games in November on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights. MACtion was born. It can wreak havoc for the coaches and their schedules — Northern Illinois didn’t play on a Saturday in the final five weeks of the 2016 regular season — but that’s the price of publicity. And while the average fan isn’t going to pay too much attention to that Toledo-Eastern Michigan game, at least there is some football to watch in the middle of the week.
45. Kicking the Tee
Talk to most football players, and they will tell you kickers have it easy. They don’t get hit in practice, and they aren’t subject to the same strength and conditioning mandates as their full-contact teammates. In 1989, the NCAA agreed that the kicking life was too soft and ruled that placements could not be attempted from a tee. In 1987, kickers were successful on 67.1 percent of all tries, including 80.2 percent from inside 40 yards, an increase of 40.6 percent and 30 percent, respectively, from ’67. At first, the kickers howled. Then, they adjusted. By 2009, they made 72.9 percent of their field-goal attempts.
44. Repeat Performance
There was no school in the Big Ten happier in 1971 that the conference dropped its egalitarian — but rather silly — no-repeat rule regarding the Rose Bowl than Ohio State. Unshackled by the elimination of the mandate, the Buckeyes played in Pasadena from ’73-76 (the 1974 appearance came thanks to a 6-4 vote of Big Ten athletic directors after OSU tied Michigan, 10–10). It was only the second time since 1947 a Big Ten team had repeated at the Granddaddy. Minnesota had back-to-back appearances in 1961 and ’62, because the agreements between the Big Ten and Pac-8 were in flux. And the Pac-8 ended its no-repeat practice in 1966, paving the way for USC to compile a four-game streak of Roses (1967-70) of its own.
43. EA Sports NCAA Football
Nothing could bring the gridiron to young people better than EA Sports NCAA Football video games. Begun in 1993 as “Bill Walsh College Football” as a partner to the popular EA property “John Madden Football” (later “Madden NFL”), it allowed gamers to control teams and players, create seasons and eventually incorporate NCAA legends into the action.
EA Sports dropped Walsh in ’96 and renamed the game “College Football USA 96.” Two years later, it became “NCAA Football 98,” the appellation it kept until 2014, when a lawsuit by former players angry at their likenesses being used without any compensation ended the fun.
42. Kickoff Classic
The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority decided that, instead of the struggling Garden State Bowl, it would hold a big preseason matchup that would fill Giants Stadium. The NCAA granted an exemption so the game would not count against the 11 games teams were permitted to play, and The Kickoff Classic was born. On Aug. 29, 1983, No. 1 Nebraska met No. 4 Penn State in the inaugural Classic. Although there were other exempt preseason contests, the New Jersey version was the big one. Once the NCAA added a 12th game in 2002, the “exempt” games were finished, but neutral-site openers between top programs live on.
41. Yellow First Down Line
There have been greater inventions throughout the history of mankind, like the printing press, the telephone and nachos, but when it comes to watching football on TV, it’s tough to beat the yellow first-down line invented by Sportvision. It debuted in 1998 during a Sunday night NFL game between the Ravens and Bengals and was an immediate hit. Within a couple years, it was a standard feature on each NFL broadcast and practically every college game. Watching football on TV without it is quite maddening. And its presence has fans asking one big question: When will it be visible on the field for those actually at the game?
40. Thursday Night Football
If some is good, then more is better, right? When it comes to college football, ESPN couldn’t agree more. So, in 1997, it started airing games on Thursday nights, giving fans an early start to the weekend and steering clear of Friday night high school action. Mike Tirico handled play-by-play the first nine seasons and was teamed most notably with Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit. Games often involved teams from the ACC, SEC and Big East, but many other programs participated, the better to create an on-campus event and increase national awareness. The Nov. 2, 2006, game between Louisville and West Virginia remains ESPN’s highest-rated Thursday night game.
39. Bowl Tie-ins
Today, each FBS conference publicizes its various bowl tie-ins that link its members to specific games and opponents from pre-selected leagues. That’s how we know that representatives from the AAC and C-USA will get together in December for the Boca Raton Bowl.
The genesis for these agreements is the post-WWII pact between the Big Ten (then the Big 9) and Pac-12 (Pacific Coast Conference) that linked the leagues’ champions to the Rose Bowl. Not long after, the Sugar (SEC), Cotton (SWC) and Orange (Big Eight) established relationships with conferences. Today, just about every bowl has some form of agreement, although the biggest games are tied partly to the College Football Playoff and therefore must exercise greater flexibility than does their Belk Bowl cousin.
38. Artificial Turf
Indiana State’s Memorial Stadium holds but 12,764 people and sits atop a dirt mound in Terre Haute. But in 1967, it became the first college football venue to convert its playing surface to ChemGrass, or AstroTurf. The carpet soon became ubiquitous, and artificial turf continues to be a cost-effective choice for many programs.
37. Notre Dame Broadcasting Company
In 1991, it was no secret that the biggest ratings draw in college football resided in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame had the only true national program in the country.
As TV dollars poured into established conferences, the Fighting Irish stood alone. That changed in August 1991, when NBC agreed to televise all of Notre Dame’s home games, a relationship that continues today. There are those who criticize the network’s homerism when it comes to airing the team — with good reason. But the deal allowed ND to maintain football independence, something that has always been very important to the school.
36. College GameDay
Not even the most optimistic ESPN employee could have imagined in 1993 that bringing a pregame show on the road would result in a weekly autumn phenomenon. But once ESPN’s College GameDay became a movable feast, its popularity began to mushroom.
The idea began in the Bristol studios in 1987. Six years later, ESPN started the live broadcasts, with the first taking place in South Bend before the ‘93 matchup between No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Notre Dame. Since then, it has been a Saturday fixture at the biggest games, mixing entertainment with analysis and plenty of promotion.
35. Air Raid
From 1976-94, a BYU quarterback led the nation in passing yards nine times, and in 1984, the Cougars won a national championship. LaVell Edwards wasn’t running a pure Air Raid attack, but the skies above Provo were often filled with footballs.
Even Edwards might be surprised at the explosion of passing in the college ranks these days. Thanks to folks like Hal Mumme, Mike Leach and Mark Mangino, the four-wide, one-back, throw-it-almost-every-down attack has been in vogue for a couple decades. Quarterbacks call the plays at the line, identify mismatches before the snap and toss it all around to amass crazy amounts of yards and points.
Twitter presents the opportunity for instant news and analysis, the sharing of opinions and the opportunity for an explosion of controversy.
(Find Jim Harbaugh Tweet used in magazine)
33. Fiesta Bowl: No. 1 vs. No. 2
Now that college football chooses a national champion by a tournament, rather than an election, it’s hard to remember what it was like in the Old Days, when men in funny-colored jackets tried to make deals with schools to play in their bowl games.
When the 1986 regular season ended, Miami and Penn State were Nos. 1 and 2 in the polls. More important, each was an Independent and therefore not tied to any one particular postseason game due to conference affiliation. The Citrus Bowl tried to money-whip the teams into playing each other in Orlando, but the Fiesta Bowl convinced the Hurricanes and Nittany Lions to get it on in Tempe. Then, NBC stepped in and moved the game — which suddenly had more cachet than the more established Rose, Orange, Sugar and Cotton Bowls — to Jan. 2, to create a stand-alone national championship event. The move worked. More people watched the Fiesta Bowl, a 14–10 Penn State win, than any other bowl to that point.
32. Testing, Testing
It didn’t exactly take an act of Congress to get the NCAA to begin testing its athletes for drugs, but a Congressional investigation sure helped. Facing questions from legislators about the role of drugs in college sports, the NCAA in 1986 announced that it would start testing participants in college bowl games and Division I-AA, II and III tournament contests.
The NCAA said it would examine samples for 90 different substances, including recreational drugs, steroids, stimulants and diuretics. In 2006, the NCAA introduced year-round testing. By then, most schools had their own programs. The message was clear: The party was over — if you got caught.
31. Until Death…
As long as the NCAA has been investigating shenanigans when it comes to recruiting and maintaining eligibility of players, it has handed down probationary sentences. But in February 1987, the organization’s Infractions Committee did something unprecedented. It canceled SMU’s entire ’87 football season. Coach Bobby Collins’ Mustangs had already been banned from postseason play in 1985 and prohibited from playing televised games in ’86. But the severity of SMU’s violations warranted more than bowl bans and TV exclusion. Thus, the Death Penalty.
For more than 10 years, the Mustangs had been using a slush fund to pay recruits and reward players for good performance. And it worked. From 1980-84, SMU won 49 games and three Southwest Conference titles. But once the NCAA hammer came down, the party was over. The Mustangs didn’t play in 1987 or ’88, and the program was never the same.