Exactly 20 years after one, the very idea of a “Game of the Century” sounds so, well, last century now.
Maybe because these days, it’s seems like there’s one on TV every week. And maybe it’s not all hype.
By any measure, college football has never been bigger: the number of fans, teams, dollars rolling in, bowl games; take your pick. But two decades later, it’s still open to debate whether the game ever had a better afternoon than on Nov. 13, 1993.
So rewind the tape — check that, go to YouTube — and check out the highlights from then-No. 1 Florida State at No. 2 Notre Dame. The Seminoles arrived with two dozen future NFL draft picks, soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward, and a deserving coach, Bobby Bowden, still chasing his first national championship. If you bought what Notre Dame’s Lou Holtz was selling, all the Irish had was their mystique.
“Perfect seasons at stake, a game in a perfect place, a collision in history,” Bob Costas said as NBC came on the air.
But soon after the football went up, Notre Dame raced out to a 24-7 lead. The Irish scored their first touchdown on an improbable 32-yard reverse by Adrian Jarrell, a part-time receiver and full-time punter making his first rushing attempt of the season, and just the third of his career. Full-time safety Jeff Burris ran for two more.
“I thought we had it under control a few times,” Holtz recalled ruefully. “But that’s what makes great fights. They kept getting up off the ground.”
Out of timeouts, but back within 31-24, Ward marched FSU down to the Notre Dame 14 with three seconds left. Flushed from the pocket on the final play, he rolled left and took dead aim at the left corner of the end zone.
“It’s sounds funny now,” Irish cornerback Shawn Wooden said. “But they’d scored on a tipped pass just before that, so on the sidelines, coach was yelling at the defense, ‘quit trying to intercept it! Just knock the ball down.’”
Wooden did exactly that — at the goal line.
“Knocked away! Not today!” announcer Charlie Jones howled a heartbeat later. “The ghost, whatever that means, is living! And he is smiling!”
But not for long.
The following week, Notre Dame was caught looking ahead and lost its last regular-season game, at home, to 19th-ranked Boston College. Florida State went unbeaten the rest of the way, and all the other dominoes in their path to a title game toppled just right.
“What do I remember,” Bowden asked. “One is how poor ole’ Charlie Ward was running for his life all afternoon.
“The other thing,” he chuckled softly, “is that we lost that battle but won the war.”
As fate would have it, Wooden’s knee, weakened earlier in the game, was shredded right after the final play when a pack of teammates jumped on his back. He recovered and — like 20 of his teammates that day — went on to play in the NFL. But when Wooden runs into Bowden on the charity circuit in south Florida, there is still only one topic of conversation.
“I love Coach Bowden,” Wooden said, “but every time I see that ring on, I remind him only half of it belongs to him. The other half, that should have been ours.”
College football revenues are up a whopping 347 percent in the 20 years since that game, totaling about $3 billion a year. Over that same span, expenses have increased 324 percent, to $1.8 billion. Even more money awaits just down the road, beginning with the game’s first-ever playoff in 2015.
By then, the Bowl Championship Series’ computers will be in storage and all the lobbying by coaches and players will matter only so much. But at the end of that appropriately gray afternoon, Florida State receiver Matt Frier created quite a stir by pleading with poll voters not to forget the Seminoles.
“I wasn’t trying to take anything away from Notre Dame,” he said. “I was just frustrated because we didn’t finish the deal. Charlie was a good friend of mine, too, and all of us who came in in 1989 — we were the No. 1 recruiting class that year — were frustrated. We always seemed to come up a play short. Those memories kind of came rushing back.
“Then someone stuck a microphone in front of me and asked, ‘How far do you think you should drop?’ All I said was, ‘I don’t think we should fall farther than No. 2,’” Frier recalled. “By the time I got back, my answering machine was full of messages from fraternities in Lincoln (Nebraska) and West Virginia. I can’t repeat some of what was said, but the gist was ... their teams were still unbeaten.”
Frier is lucky Twitter wasn’t around at the time. In a few campus towns, he was dubbed “Matt Crier,” but Frier got the last laugh. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated, one of three that singular game generated, and still has plenty of souvenirs from Florida State’s 18-16 win the following Jan. 1 over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
“At first, I was kind of like the public — ‘I wished he wouldn’t do that,’” Bowden said. “It sounded like begging.
“But you know what? He and his brother both played for me; they did a lot to help build the program. And most of all,” he added, “things turned out all right.”
The plea also turned out to be a harbinger of things to come. With the same cartel that morphed into the BCS just starting to take control of the postseason and TV networks throwing around cash, the jockeying for position only became more intense. The power conferences began trying to pick off schools from one another, sacrificing long-established loyalties and-or rivalries to gain even more power. Every school scrambled to get a piece of the growing pie, none more than the 19 that paid a king’s ransom step up into major college’s top division and play against the big boys.
“College football was always a big business, but everything about that weekend felt new,” ESPN “College GameDay” host Chris Fowler recalled. “We’d taken the show on-site for bowls before, but that was the first time we convinced the bosses to do it for a regular-season game. We’ve done it every weekend of every season since. ...
“I remember how high the grass was cut, how they were still putting fertilizer on it late in the week, to slow Florida State down. I remember we’d put the set up inside the athletic center, in front of the trophy case, because we needed some control over the surroundings. I remember the wild pep rally and how some guys who picked Florida State — I won’t mention names — asked if they could change their picks.
“And then,” Fowler added, “I remember Coach Holtz marching out of his office nearby after the game and onto the set right in the middle of a live segment. We put a mic on him and just went with it.”
These days, much of the chaos on “GameDay” is carefully choreographed. But that’s far from the biggest difference.
“The single-biggest change I see is the spread offense,” Holtz said. “What an equalizer that’s been. It’s why you don’t see a lot of great defenses anymore and how, all of a sudden, an Appalachian State is capable of beating Michigan. It’s opened the game up to a lot more folks.”
Yes and no.
Many of the same powerhouse programs that ruled then still hold sway today. The Southeastern Conference, fronted by Alabama, has a vise grip on the national championship, and schools like Southern California, Oklahoma, Texas and Ohio State still bubble up toward the top every few years.
Florida State won a second national championship in 1999 under Bowden, who retired four years ago, and after a few seasons on the outside, the Seminoles are squarely back in the picture for this one. Notre Dame still rakes in as much money as any program, but on the field it’s a different story. They finally made it back to No. 1 in the rankings last year for the first time since 1993, and went on to play in the title game against Alabama. But the 42-14 beating absorbed there was just one clear indicator of how far Notre Dame still has to go.
One thing that may never come back is the primacy of college football Saturday afternoons. Back in 1993, a game like Florida State-Notre Dame could make it seem like time was standing still.
Depending on whose criteria you accept, there were nine “Game(s) of the Century” in the 90-plus years before that. Some people argue the 2006 regular-season game between Michigan and Ohio State, and especially the Rose Bowl contest at the end of the 2005 season between Texas and USC for the national championship, were worthy of the same moniker for the 21st century.
What’s clear is that whether those games are deserving or not, the intensity of the argument has waned. The audience has a shorter attention span, recruiting has become a season unto itself, and with so many games on TV, the focus has been diffused. Being designated the “Game of the Week” is enough for most fans now.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever see a game of that magnitude again,” Holtz said. “What people forget, now that we try to make every game into a big deal, is that neither of us were one-year wonders. We’d been good for seven years by that point, and Bobby and them for 10 years.
“It wasn’t just No. 1 vs. No. 2, or North vs. South, like some people made it out. It was two of the best near their peak, and because of the way the college football was set up, people thought we could only meet in a bowl game, if we met at all. Plus, remember, when we played it was still mid-November.”
All these years later, when a big TV payday is the only reason established powers take scheduling risks, the timing that made Florida State-Notre Dame possible seems like the most serendipitous twist of all.
“We were originally scheduled to play Penn State, and they cancelled,” Holtz said. “So the administration came to me and said, ‘Who do you want to play?’ I said, ‘Miami,’ because it was such a great rivalry. But they said no, because those games brought out the worst in both sets of fans. They reminded me of the whole ‘Catholics vs. Convicts’ label people slapped on those games.
“I said, “That’s not fair, all our kids aren’t Catholics.’ But no one else thought that was funny. ... Well, we’d stayed with Bobby and Ann (Bowden) on our honeymoon, because we didn’t have any money, so I finally said, ‘OK, let’s schedule Florida State.’
“Man,” Holtz laughed one last time, “I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”