I love college football fans. Outside of European soccer fans, there is no one collective group of people so passionately and blindly devoted to their cause.
Hardcore college football fans are raised like religious extremists. They are taught that their team — often the team that plays at the school closest to where they grew up — is the only team anyone should ever root for. They are taught this at a young age and raised to believe it. They are taught that their loyalty will be rewarded with wins and championships — endless fodder for bar room and water cooler arguments about whose team is the best team.
They are also taught intolerance. They are taught to question, scoff at and shout down any statement made about their team that doesn’t paint the prettiest picture in terms of their team’s immediate or long-term outlook. They are taught that a down year is a “rebuilding” year, and that no matter what; their team will improve from year to year. But it’s not just gospel in their minds — it’s science.
Some of my closest friends are hardcore college football fans. I love college football as well, but I’ve never married myself to one specific program like some of them have. I’m more of a fan of coaches, systems, culture and atmosphere. That’s what makes college football so great in my eyes. I’ve always found it far too complex and colorful to marry myself to one team, regardless of where I grew up or whom my parents told me I should root for.
I suppose this is why I spend literally hours both interacting with and just observing college football fans online and in person. I’ll listen in on conversations within earshot. I’ll read message boards and join Facebook groups just to get inside their minds and see if their overall expectations ever change. As a writer, I’ll often play the role of “troll” and write an article that I know is going to stir the pot. Then, like that famous Michael Jackson meme, I’ll just sit back, grab my popcorn and read the comments.
By doing these things, I’ve been able to come to some fairly solid conclusions about college football fans. Are these things true across the board for all fans? Probably not, but they are extremely consistent throughout all of the most passionate fan bases in the sport.
It’s fun to watch fans discuss recruiting, particularly the recruitment of specific players. Truthfully, none of them know anything about any of these kids until one of a handful of websites that specializes in recruiting first mentions a name. From there, it’s on to Googling and YouTube-ing highlight videos designed to make 16-year-old kids look like the second comings of Barry Sanders, Reggie White and Peyton Manning.
You’ll see fans go from “wow, I hope we get this guy” to “wow, this guy just gave us a soft verbal, he’s gonna be a program changer!” and then, sadly, “He decommited. It’s ok, that’s not the type of player we want in our program anyway.”
Then you'll get the “why are we recruiting this kid?” which then evolves into “Our coaches must see something in him, I’m all in!” and eventually leads to “BOOM, he committed! Our rivals better look out!”
It’s all cupcakes and rainbows until a kid de-commits or doesn’t pan out and eventually transfers. And it’s hilariously entertaining to someone like myself who doesn’t have the logo of a school I’ve never attended tattooed somewhere on my body (I have a few friends who do. We're cool.).
There are three kinds of coaching hires in the minds of college football fans: The Big Fish, The Next Big Thing and The Wrong Guy.
The Big Fish are your Urban Meyers, Nick Sabans and Jim Harbaughs. You start counting future national titles long before they take the podium for the first press conference. They can’t fail. They won’t fail. Everything is going to be awesome because our new coach is awesome.
The Next Big Things are your James Franklins, Jim McElwains and Mike Rileys. Age is not an issue for these guys, young or old. It’s all about opportunity. They’ve either had decent success at small schools or had more success than they should have at programs with so much working against them. It doesn’t matter. Now that these guys are at your school — with all of the money and resources they’ve never had — you can start counting future national titles just like the schools with the Big Fish.
The Wrong Guys are rare, mostly because college football fans are eternal optimists. Almost every hire is a good hire, unless you have your heart set on one guy and the school hires another. Remember the angry mob that greeted the Auburn AD after he hired Gene Chizik instead of Turner Gill a few years back? And then Chizik wins a national title while Gill fails at Kansas.
In the end, they were both fired. In the end, most are fired. But college football fans don’t like to talk about that.
Player Development and Improvement
For some reason, college football fans think there is some sort of recipe that contains a formula with a timetable for when a player is going to be successful. Sometimes they apply this recipe to entire units or teams.
The idea is that if your freshman linebacker gets playing time in six games but stinks up the joint, he’s just a freshman and he gained valuable experience. Next season, because he went out and stunk up the joint this year, he’s automatically going to be better, because, well, science. But then, when that linebacker regresses instead of progresses — or doesn’t improve at all — it’s an anomaly. The milk or eggs must have been bad. Why else did he not improve or even get worse?
It’s even more interesting when applied to the entire team. You lose three or four games, graduate your two best players on both sides of the ball and then expect to improve the following season just because you return 14 or 15 starters. Those guys are all going to improve because — again — science. As a result, your team’s record is sure to improve. When it doesn’t, you look within. What did the coach not do? Did the players not work hard enough?
One thing you’ll rarely see a college football fan do is look at the outside factors, like, say, the other teams you face. Yeah, those are real players who are playing for the same trophy and working as hard as your team is working. They aren’t some computer controlled video game team that goes back in the box and into the closet after they play your team and the season wraps up. They’re out there, working hard, coaching and recruiting just as hard as your team — sometimes harder.
But you’ll rarely see college football fans acknowledge that. Instead, they want to believe that the stars are aligned so that one day, the team they’ve dedicated their lives rooting for, decorated sections of their house in honor of and scheduled weddings around the games of will eventually win that elusive or additional national championship.
The problem is, there are 128 teams with fans hoping for the same thing. Half of those teams have fan bases that believe, for whatever reason, that there is no excuse for their team not to win the sport’s top prize.
It’s all very fascinating to sit back and watch. I doubt it would be quite as entertaining if I were married to one team — especially if my team couldn’t get over the hump. In that case, I’d probably become the outspoken and intolerant fan that as a writer I love so much, calling guys like myself trolls, hacks, and... well, other things.
Never change, college football fan. Never change.