Small college football in the network limelight, even if only briefly

In any other season, it would have been unthinkable to put small college football on Sunday afternoon TV. But with the pros on strike, that's exactly what CBS did, covering four Division III games last weekend. Whether the ''experiment'' was a success depends a lot on one's perspective.

From the network's standpoint, the games (Baldwin-Wallace at Wittenberg, West Georgia at Millsaps, Wisconsin-Oshkosh at Wisconsin-Stout, and San Diego at Occidental) were not particularly good draws, though possibly not as bad as some may have thought. They did better than the Canadian Football League games carried by NBC (approximately 4 million households to 1.6 million in preliminary projections) and also better than the Super Bowl re-run CBS ran the previous week. That was the good news.

The bad, but not unexpected, news was that the Division III games couldn't hold a candle to the normal NFL ratings. And on this particular Sunday, they were eventually overpowered by ABC's coverage of major league baseball and its last-day suspense.

Looked at from another perspective, however, moving small college football to Sunday was a success - an artistic one that revealed just how much fun a game unadulterated by big-time trappings can be.

John Madden, the color commentator for the contest in Springfield, Ohio between Wittenberg and Baldwin-Wallace, cautioned against measuring the Division III games using the NFL yardstick, and said they must be appreciated on their own terms. The comment could have been misconstrued as an effort to apple-polish the product, but it came through as genuine.

Madden's point was well taken, because small college football has a charm and character not found elsewhere. And the caliber of play is probably a lot better than some people knew or remembered it.

The main difference is a slight bit less sophistication and a considerable dropoff in the raw speed, size, and muscle of some of the players. But hardly anyone cares about this latter fact, since a game's real interest is still determined by the effort put into it, not weight-room physiques. As Sunday's viewers may have rediscovered, there's as much heart in small as major-divison football.

There also can be quite a lot of interest, as the game played at Wittenberg proved. The Tigers' enjoy a keen rivalry with Baldwin-Wallace, and as usual the game was a sellout, with approximately 6,000 spectators there to witness BW's 16 -14 win. The arrival of TV cameras, including one mounted on a scissor-action platform in the end zone, just enhanced the excitement.

Wittenberg, a perennial small college power, was making its seventh network television appearance. In previous years, the school had received TV exposure playing in four Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowls for the Division III championship, and on two other occasions for regular-season games.

What made the latest telecast different was the fact that it was played on Sunday and was handled by CBS's top NFL broadcasting tandem of Madden and play-by-play man Pat Summerall.

The school's administration had some reservations about switching from Saturday to Sunday. A Lutheran institution, it wanted the game to start late enough not to disrupt the plans of its churchgoing fans. A 1 p.m. kickoff was acceptable to both parties.

As one of Division III's traditionally strong teams, the Tigers can expect to land future TV dates and more $10,000 paydays. The National Collegiate Athletic Association's contract with CBS and ABC calls for four Division III games to be telecast each season. Under the current two-network agreement, CBS is responsible for each of those ''exposures'' this season, while ABC must air six Division II games. They swap responsibilities next year.

Normally, small college telecasts are sprinkled in among the major college coverage. They have small regional audiences and are little noticed. Last Sunday, however, CBS gave the nation a concentrated dose of the small colleges. It was a convenient way to fulfill the network's NCAA commitment to the Division III schools in one fell swoop, plus the telecasts became a well publicized means of filling the void in the NFL season.

Small colleges offered the needed flexibility CBS was looking for. They could more easily change game days on short notice. Still, some schools balked at the idea. In New England, several colleges turned CBS down, indicating that moving games to Sunday would inconvenience Parents Day visitors and perhaps not be in keeping with the schools' educational philosophies.

On the latter score, Tufts Coach Vic Gatto believes there are other ways to make a statement about a school's academic emphasis without depriving players of the chance to play on TV. He suggests giving the TV money to charity, an option that colleges might consider if there's ever a next time. This Sunday, CBS will drop the Division III games and go with boxing and taped gymnastics and bodybuilding if the NFL strike continues.

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