The second in a three-part series from my conversation with the very engaging Chuck McDonald. Here, he shares his experiences and thoughts with the wonderfully quirky, charming and at times emotional traditions that all add to the lore of college football.
There is such an unbelievable atmosphere “any time you go into the big rivalries”, Chuck says. “You go into Red River (the annual Cotton Bowl showdown between Texas and Oklahoma), 100,000 in the stadium, half of them are dressed in orange, half in crimson and it’s just so amazing to walk out there. When you see it, feel the energy, you can’t fail to get hyped.”
Ohio State-Michigan is a historic rivalry, one of the most famous in college football, yet it’s been quite one-sided recently. “We do it every year.” he said. “We keep waiting for Michigan to change it up. We’ll see this year, new quarterback (Shea Patterson left after his senior year), so you never know.” Head coach Jim Harbaugh’s perceived struggles in Ann Arbor have been much documented. Chuck feels that Michigan are not that far away “but everyone focuses on that on game (vs. Ohio State who they haven’t beaten since 2011). It’s cool that he (Harbaugh) signed, and they’re not that far away and you just keep waiting. They’ve got to get over that hump. A lot of those games have been right down to the wire. Everyone forgets, you’re a controversial overtime call with J.T. Barrett from going to the Big 10 championship and probably the playoffs in his first year.”
(J.T.Barrett's controversial first down in the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry)
We talked, throughout our hour, about the fine lines between success and failure and Harbaugh’s tenure with Michigan reflects this: “That’s what those two teams are about, that one game. The storyline could be completely different now had the (J.T. Barrett) call gone the other way.”
There are some wonderful traditions in college football including The Little Brown Jug (the rivalry between Michigan and Minnesota), Paul Bunyan’s Axe, The Red River Rivalry and 'Sailgating', which we'll come to later. As someone who has travelled the length and breadth of the U.S. covering college football games, I was keen to know his favourites.
“All of them. I think that’s the other cool thing about college football. Even a bad matchup tends to have a hook to it.” We talked about the difference between the NFL and college football here. In the NFL, late in the season, you could have games involving teams that are out of the playoff race or not in the running for the top draft pick. In the college game, teams with average records will face off and inevitably there will be a rivalry or tradition involved, which elevates that game in the public eye. “You could have Iowa-Wisconsin, Wisconsin-Minnesota or Michigan-Michigan State. There’s always that hook, so I can’t really pick out that one specific, because I love all of it.”
I have to agree. The traditions of college football are what adds to the excitement for me. I was fortunate to watch Michael Vick play for Clemson at Virginia Tech, where the cannon, Skipper, is fired when the teams run out and on a scoring play. Oklahoma’s “Sooner Schooner” horse-drawn wagon is out on the field whenever OU scores a touchdown. Expect that to happen a lot this year (Oklahoma are ranked No.2 in the AP preseason Top 25 poll).
Which traditions particularly stand out for him?
“It’s the dotting of the “i” for Ohio State’s games, it’s the Jump Around in Wisconsin...” he pauses and mentions one that really hit home. “It’s the one Iowa created where at the end of the first quarter they wave to the kids at the children’s hospital (this overlooks Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium). We’ve been there once and I can tell you, even being in a truck, I’m not even out there seeing these kids’ faces, every single guy on the crew was crying. It was such an emotional moment. You can’t not get connected to it.”
“You go to Colorado, and they run out Ralphie the buffalo, (Texas) A&M when they’re all standing, the students stand the entire game, and they do their song where they’re all swaying. The whole stadium moves when they do that.”
He mentions a couple of West Coast teams: “You go to Oregon and it’s just so loud and such a different feel. You go to Washington and they’re right on the water and do all the sailgating. They all pull up to the harbour before the game. It looks cool, it’s Pacific northwest and they play off it.
If Chuck was a high school prospect with football scholarship options, which college would he have chosen?
“It’s so different now. Where I grew up, in Texas, it was really UT, that’s where everyone wanted to go.” Yet when it came time to go to college, some of his friends were at Texas A&M so he’d go and visit and “it was such a cool place”, adding “I never would have gone there on the surface.” He talks of the high pressure on high school and college students today, in California for example, the expectation to get into Stanford or USC and there are only so many places. “I could have gone to a hundred. As I get older, the energy on these campuses is so cool to be around.” Chuck’s daughter is approaching college and he tells her it’s about finding the right place for her. Unless you want to go to Harvard Law or a specific mechanical engineering school, he says, “if you don’t have that, they’re all amazing.”
He said he never would have been interested in attending Ohio State until he worked there. Of Michigan, “I love Ann Arbor, it’s absolutely beautiful. We’ve been to Wisconsin so many times in the dead of winter and it’s so cold, and then last year we had an early season game, we got to hang out around campus (in Madison) and walk around a little, I was blown away by that campus!” Iowa, he adds, “was one of the most fun atmospheres I’ve ever been around”.
“Honestly, if you’re a player, it all depends on where you were recruited, what your experience was when you got there, who the coach was. That’s why recruiting is such an art.” We talk about the millions spent, the huge amount of resource dedicated to attracting players to colleges and the importance in recruitment of the right cultural fit. He recalls a conversation with Stanford head coach David Shaw. Stanford are insistent that a recruit has to achieve the required grades to get in, there’s no wavering for a superstar quarterback prospect. David Shaw had commented: “If you’re a Stanford kid, and you really care about the education side and the culture side of what Stanford gives you, and I can get you on campus, you’re not leaving. If I offer you, you’re coming. A recruit could be visiting Alabama and Stanford. If the school part of it and what Stanford stands for outside of the football building is in the kid’s head, he’s not going to Alabama, he’s coming to Stanford.”
It does make me wonder why college football, such a huge part of life in the U.S., hasn’t completely caught on here in the way the NFL has. I think that will change in the next few years. The popularity of the NFL and increasing interest in the Draft has created a curiosity in college football, the players coming through, and the rivalries and traditions of the university teams involved. The animation in Chuck’s expression is sparked talking about these traditions. “When you see it and feel the energy, you can’t fail to get hyped.”