E(SEC)PN Rewrites History for the Benefit of Its Corporate Partner

Is ESPN showing itself as ESECPN again?

The Worldwide Leader in Sports tweeted out a congratulatory message of sorts to Nick Saban for once again coaching the Crimson Tide to a title game. The tweet juxtaposes Bear Bryant with Saban, and suggests Saban could join Bryant as the only coaches boasting five or more national championships.

What about Woody? Ohio State’s gruff coach lays claim to five national championships. In the days before the playoff, disputes arose to the “true” national champion. The Coaches’ poll designated one team the titlist, the AP poll called another team champion, and the Sporting News, New York Times, and other media outlets named their own top team that sometimes corresponded with the AP and Coaches’ poll. But ESPN itself noted Woody Hayes’ five national championships in a past article on its site. Two years ago, Brian Bennett wrote about the infamous 1978 Gator Bowl punching incident, noting how “Ohio State was led by the 65-year-old Hayes, who had won 205 games and five national titles during his 28 seasons in Columbus.”

The Buckeyes certainly “won” national championships for Hayes. But several came during seasons in which the various polls did not arrive at a consensus on a winner. Perhaps that’s why ESPN excludes Woody Hayes from its tweet. But by that logic, they should not have included Bear Bryant, either. Maybe they included Bear but excluded Woody because the network signed a 15-year contract with the SEC and not with the Big Ten. The twisted logic applying the strict standard to Hayes’ titles and the loose one to Bryant’s invites twisted cui bono logic applied to ESPN and its financial arrangement with the SEC.

Like Hayes’ “five” national championships, Bear’s “six” national championships came by way of fuzzy math.

In 1964, Arkansas ran the table and Alabama lost to Texas in the Orange Bowl. But the Crimson Tide maintain they won the national championship that season. In 1973, Alabama lost in the Sugar Bowl to undefeated Notre Dame. Case closed, right? No, the Coaches’ poll, taken before bowl season, declared Alabama the top team—kind of like when CBS, NBC, and rivals called Florida for Al Gore. In 1978, Alabama finished 11-1, just like USC. But the two teams played, and USC won. Yet, Alabama holds itself up as that year’s national champion, and ESPN apparently agrees.

The competing pope/anti-pope debates over coaches who won or didn’t win the national championship also suffers from the fact that, in addition to differing polls, on rare occasions the coach in title yielded to a de facto coach, which raises the question of whether history should recognize the titles won by such coaches in all but name.

Once upon a time a forebear of Bear Bryant and Nick Saban petitioned one such coach-who-wasn’t-the-coach-but-was-the-coach about tactics and rules. “I realize that you are an exceedingly busy man,” Alabama’s Doc Pollard wrote Yale’s Walter Camp in September of 1908. Asking “pardon” for intruding on the Yale gridiron guru’s “valuable time,” Alabama’s head coach meekly sought an expert’s opinion—and the expert in those days called New Haven, not Tuscaloosa, home—if his “wing shift” clashed with the rules. The head coach of the University of Alabama concluded his missive to Yale University’s pigskin pope: “I would greatly appreciate your ruling.”

After he ceased calling himself the coach, the New Haven football god guided the Bulldogs with a heavy hand as a succession of mostly one-and-done coaches led Yale with Camp leading them and looking over their shoulders. Yale won 11 national championships—by one count or another—in these years. Does Camp, who won three when he called himself the coach, rate the credit for any of those titles or do the team captains that go down in history as the team coaches deserve the accolades?

ESPN offered its answer in a Tweet in which Walter Camp, the man who largely invented football, finds his face nowhere next to Bear Bryant’s and Nick Saban’s. The Ivy League holds no football financial arrangement with ESPN. And like last month’s incessant plugs for Star Wars: The Force Awakens benefiting the four-letter network’s Disney overlords, the all-Alabama, all-the-time coverage indicates that with bucks come bias.

Perhaps that’s a stretch. But so are Bear Bryant’s six national championships.


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