The start of the college football season is always a much-anticipated date on the sports calendar. No other campus pursuit inspires as many reunions, as much pagentry, or quite the following. This year the fan in the stand will be talking about:
* Alabama Coach Bear Bryant and his quest to become history's most prolific winner.
* Georgia's Herschel Walker, the best college running back since Earl Campbell and only a sophomore.
* Notre Dame's energetic new coach, Gerry Faust.
* And powerful Michigan, a pre-season No. 1 pick.
As intersting as these topics may be, they pale in importance to the storm clouds now hanging over stadiums across the land. Not since Teddy Roosevelt warned football to clean up its act, or else, has the college game felt so threatened. In this case the threat comes not from the White House, where the chief resident once starred in "Knute Rockne -- All-American," but from within.
The College Football Association, a powerful lobbying group within the National Collegiate Athletic Association, has driven a wedge between itself and the sports governing body. The wedge is a $180 million television deal 61 big-time football schools -- not including those from the Big Ten or Pac 10 conferences -- have tentatively approved with NBC. The pact disregards a four-year $263.5 million contract the NCAA has already entered into with ABC and CBS.
Though neither contract really beings until 1982, the issue is approaching a critical juncture. The NCAA has given the rebellious institutions until Sept. 10 to cast their lot. Either they march to the NCAA's beat or they face the consequences, which could mean expulsion from the NCAA.
To distill the controversy to its simplest terms: major football-playing schools want greater control over their own destiny. Tired of letting mostly smaller NCAA colleges dictate the conduct of their football programs, CFA members have pushed a states' rights approach -- more decision-marking authority at the local level rather than in the mass membership.
The NCAA has 450 football members, but only 139 of these are in the top, or Division I, classification. All, however, vote on the rules by which the entire membership must abide, including restrictions on TV appearances.
BAsically, the NCAA has kept the Alabamas and Oklahomas from totally monopolizing college telecasts through an appearance formula, which provides token exposure for smaller schools.
Though money is not the only issue involved, some football giants, looking to stoke large operating budgets, feel the NCAA's appearance restrictions rob them of needed revenue.
While the NCAA has long claimed the right to negotiate TV contracts for its members, the CFA is challenging that notion, perhaps with an eye toward putting games on cable networks.
According to Chuck Neinas, the CFA's executive director, universities individually own their television rights and must give consent for someone else to sell them.
CFA schools do not want to break away from the NCAA, and only 33 reportedly voted in favor of the rival TV pact. As the moment of truth approaches, then, iths conceivable that many, if not all, of these colleges will bail out of the CFA's TV plan.
If they don't, college football -- as we've come to know it on TV -- might wind up in disarray. Games between teams under separate contracts could find themselves off the air.
CFA members may hesitate to cross the NCAA, knowing that it could ban them from lucrative bowl games. But by sticking together, they would make it tough for the NCAA to suspend or sever them, since NCAA championship tournaments in other sports would be rendered virtually meaningless.
When this crisis passes, of course, everyone will refocus on the field of play.
It's there that the University of Michigan must ward off those who would topple the nation's pre-season favorite. "When you think about it," says Wolverine Coach Bo Schembechler, "there are really not that many times that a pre-season national champion ends up actually wearing that title. IT's very hard to live up to everyone's expectations."
How true. But on paper, at least, Michigan has the makings of a 12-0 team, with 15 starters returning from a victorious Rose Bowl squad.
As expected, Michigan's chief Big Ten competition should come from Ohio State , which is led by senior quarterback Art Schlichter. The Buckeye passer was supposed to have the inside track on winning last season's Heisman Trophy, but OSU lost to every Top 20 team it played and Art finished sixth in the balloting.
Two of the players who finished ahead of him return this season, one being Georgia's Walker, and the other Brigham Young quarterback Jim McMahon. Playing for the pass-happy Cougars, McMahon has notched 32 NCAA records and shares two more. Walker, the catalyst for undefeated, top-ranked Georgia last season, will be hard pressed to equal his 1,616 yard freshman outing. Graduation has defoliated the Bulldog's roster.
The Montreal Alouettes made Herschel a lavish offer to play in the Canadian Football League, but, of course, he didn't take it. Instead, he took out an insurance policy worth a reported $1 million against injuries.
In an interesting contrast, Bear Bryant, a venerable white coach from the deep South, and Dennis Green, a rookie black coach from up north, have come in for special attention. The state legislature passed a special bill allowing Bryant to coach beyond the mandatory retirement age at Alabama, where he needs just nine victories to surpass Amos Alonzo Stagg's record of 314 wins. The 32 -year-old Green, on the other hand, will be looking for his first coaching victory when Northwestern meets Big Ten rival Indiana Sept. 12. The first black placed in charge of major conference team, he tries to reconstruct a program that has produced only three wins in the last five years.
Faust succeeds Dan Devine, who retired, at Notre Dame. Gerry owns no previous college coaching experience, but his Moeller High School teams won four Ohio state championships and funneled many players on to Notre Dame. His contagious enthusiasm has taken the campus by storm, increasing ticket demand by 30 percent and causing everyone to think" national championship."
Out west, five Pac-10 schools, including Southern Cal and UCLA, are off probation and once again eligible for conference honors and the Rose Bowl bid. In the Southwest Co nference, people wonder if the football revival among private schools like Baylor and Southern Methodist, which is on NCAA probation, will continue.
In the East the talk is about the possibility of a new conference that would pull together such regional independents as Penn State, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse. One school noticeably absent from the discussions is Villanova, which found the expenses of football too much and dropped its program. Said athletic director Ted Aceto, "The big schools are trying to make money and don't care if everybody else is second class. You have to wonder if down the road other schools will be forced to do what we did, however reluctantly."
Though some would dispute Aceto's comment about big-time schools, the developments pitting the NCAA and CFA definitely bear watching.