For college fans, more than a game

The orange and white of Tennessee and the garnet and gold of Florida State have taken their leave of the local streets. In the wake of a fortnight of high jinks and high times are left the memories, the terrific memories of college football's first ordained national championship game.

Tennessee won 23-16, which is not the point. Good thing since the actual game earlier this week was, to use a technical football term, icky. It had more low lights than highlights, more players wanting to be than being. The game looked like outtakes from a horror movie. Excellence is a descriptive that wasn't employed in a single postgame discussion.

It doesn't matter.

That's because the college game is enjoyed for what it is, which quite often can be not very good. But we don't mind.

And therein lies the difference between the college game and the professional version. It's not to say our standards for the college boys are lower, but our love for the entire collegiate spectacle is so much broader based.

In the pros, the only enjoyment comes from the winning, which by definition requires consistent, high-quality performance. Proof: Ask fans of Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia how much they enjoyed 1998. Too, there is little continuity in the pros, with teams either moving or threatening to move with depressing regularity: the Rams from L.A. to St. Louis; the Cardinals from St. Louis to Arizona; the Raiders from Oakland to L.A. to Oakland; Baltimore to Indianapolis; Houston to Tennessee. It's the here today maybe gone tomorrow syndrome. Even the owner of the wildly successful Denver Broncos was hinting at moving if the populace didn't vote him a new stadium. Understanding the nature and sincerity of the threat, it did.

Players, for the most part, have loyalty not to teams - as the teams don't have loyalty to them - but to pay checks, the more zeroes the merrier. It is an entertainment business, no different from a car business like General Motors. Success and profit margins are the ultimate measure.

No problem. To rail against sports because, grumble grumble, they are nothing but business is to completely miss the point that, of course, they are business. Like movies. Like the theater. Like opera.

Now, the college game certainly is business, too. On the telecast of the Monday night Fiesta Bowl here, there were 1,967 commercials and 108,476 signs around the stadium peddling a brand of chips. We just can't bring ourselves to cave into their greedy desires and mention the name. Sorry, Tostitos. Maybe another time.

But to millions of Americans, ties to universities are emotional and deep. A football game, in many respects, is just an excuse to feel close to the old school. Thousands here were Tennessee alums, Tennessee students, parents of Tennessee students, people who wish they had gone to Tennessee. If the old school succeeds on the football field, it's as if everyone who has ever had anything to do with it has their feelings and their support validated.

Along with football, some UT fans also delight in the excellence of the school's speech-pathology program; or in the achievements of its graduate programs in law, business, and education; or in its highly acclaimed master of accountancy degree; or in its libraries with more than 2 million volumes, not all of which are about Davy Crockett. For others, it is the sheer decadent delight of being on one of the 200 or so boats that float to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville via the Tennessee River on game days. It is called the Volunteer Navy. Anyone who has been there has experienced indescribable pleasure.

So is the fun of Tennessee football the boats or the game or the wearing of orange or the tailgating or the simply being a part? The answer is yes. Indeed, the total experience dwarfs the one piece called the game.

The discussion is not whether the college game is better than the pro game. Some think it is. Others don't. Both are right. There's no accounting for taste, which is why we have daytime television.

Rather, the college game gets deeper into more corners of our hearts and addresses a wider variety of our interests, passions, and hopes than does the pro game.

And that was what went on in Tempe. It was a feel-good time for college fans even though some Florida State backers cried at game's end. But that doesn't mean they didn't have a terrific experience.

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