If you've been reading this weblog for any length of time, you've probably gotten a pretty good idea of what I believe about many, many things, but you should be absolutely certain what I believe about four things: I love Georgia; I hate Auburn; I am convinced that, when you expect the worst, your only options are to be proven correct or pleasantly surprised; and I oppose a Division I-A college football playoff in any form.
As a staunch playoff opponent, I could not help but greet the latest talk of expanding the NCAA men's basketball tournament with anything other than a knowing "I told you so!" I have quoted previously the words of P.J. O'Rourke when noting that playoff brackets grow for the same reason zygotes, suburban lawns, and the federal budget do likewise: because they are designed to do nothing else but grow.
Now the talk concerns whether to increase the tourney field to an absurdly bloated 96 teams, which is an idea so ridiculous that refuting it requires only that one utter the notion aloud and watch as it collapses under the weight of its own preposterousness. Seriously . . . 96 teams? Will the ESPN commercial bumps feature Question Mark and the Mysterians?
The hatred for this idea is almost universal, yet there appears to be no concrete reason for that hatred, unless you consider tradition a concrete concept. Which I do not. There have been other reasons given for the opposition to 96 teams, and I'll get to them in a minute, but because those reasons are bogus and cannot be taken seriously, it all comes back to the same thing:
You don't want the NCAA tournament to expand because you're used to it the way it is.
Never mind that the NCAA tournament has been at 65 teams only since 2001. And that before that, it was at 64 teams for 16 years. Before that? It was 53 teams for one year. After being 52 teams for one year. And 48 teams for three years. And 40 teams for one year. And that takes us back to just 1979.
The NCAA tournament started with eight teams in 1939, but grew to 16 in 1951, then to 22, and to 25 and to 32 in 1975. Then came 1979, and those 40 teams.
You follow? Expansion won't hurt the tradition of the NCAA tournament -- expansion is the tradition of the NCAA tournament. So if tradition is your biggest concern here, I'm sorry, but you just lost.
There's not a single valid argument against the NCAA tournament growing to 96 teams.
But it'll water down the regular season and conference tournaments!
You mean more than those things already are watered down?
I should mention at this point that I am not a particularly big fan of musical theater. (Bear with me here; I have a point.) I don't dislike musical theater---heck, the first time I ever set foot in a state that did not have a star on the Confederate battle flag was on a family outing to Montana, where my wife's younger sister was performing at the Bigfork Summer Playhouse---but, while I'm perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief, I'm not clear on which specific disbelief I am being asked to suspend, and, frankly, that bothers me.
Am I being asked to believe that the characters in the musical are acting out a play and that their ordinary dialogue is being perceived by me to be singing and dancing, or am I being asked to believe that the characters in the musical find it utterly unexceptional that people break into song for no apparent reason? I've always thought someone like Tom Stoppard should try crafting a musical that basically expands upon the concept of the "Saturday Night Live" sketch set in "West Side Story" in which Norm MacDonald is the only one who finds it odd that street gangs fall into impromptu choreography without warning. I've been to Oklahoma, and I can tell you that people don't do that there.
That said, my favorite musical unquestionably is "Fiddler on the Roof," which pretty much sets my philosophy of life and politics to music. Paul V. Murphy's The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought quotes M.E. Bradford for the defense of the "clear sense of what Southern grandmothers have always meant in admonishing children, 'we don't do that': a prescription able to survive numerous violations, grounded in the memory of 'where we were born and raised'" that produces a "culture of families, linked by friendship, common enemies, and common projects." Fan bases who describe themselves as "nations," whether they will admit it or not, think very much like that.
The musical opens with the leading man, Tevye, explaining the title:
A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask, "Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous?" Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!
The story of Tevye is the story of a people clinging to traditions without being able to explain them yet realizing intuitively that the tradition is what defines them as a people. Tevye allows a deviation in allowing one daughter to marry a husband of her own choosing rather than entering into an arranged marriage, which seems to be a small sacrifice, until it becomes precedent for another, larger deviation, then another, intolerable one . . . but, by then, Tevye has sacrificed the traditions of his people, and they no longer are able to remain in Anatevka.
Doyel essentially admits that we who oppose a college football playoff are right; he acknowledges that our complaints about the devaluation of the regular season are correct, and his only retort is that, because we are right, the sacrifices we have made so far render it impossible for us to oppose conscientiously the encroachment of additional heresies. Our hypocrisy has enabled apostasy to become the new orthodoxy. Doyel sneers derisively at the idea that anyone would "consider tradition a concrete concept."
Well, Gregg, some of us think exactly that, even those of us who do not live in turn-of-the-century Anatevka. Some of us spend our fall Saturdays returning to the campus of the University of Georgia (founded in 1785) to see the Bulldogs (who adopted that moniker permanently in 1920, although the college's ties to Yale had caused that term to appear periodically in the record for years before that point) play between the hedges (first planted in 1929) in their silver britches (introduced in 1939). I sometimes drive in past an athletic complex named for Vince Dooley, an athletics headquarters named for Wally Butts and Harry Mehre, practice fields named for George Woodruff, and a gymnasium named for Herman Stegeman on my way to a stadium named for Steadman Sanford that includes a press box named for Larry Munson, and, afterwards, I usually use the bathroom in a student center named for William Tate. Gregg Doyel will have to pardon me if I consider tradition a concrete concept . . . as well as a brick, glass, and steel concept.
The NCAA tournament fell victim to the same trap as Tevye, allowing the usurpation of its defining tradition in increments so small as to be almost imperceptible in the moment. In the end, they destroyed all semblance of history and integrity, so that guys like Gregg Doyel can say sincerely that there's no reason not to continue the downward trend to ends of absurdity, because there is no meaningful tradition left to preserve. You can't be a conservative when there's nothing left to conserve.
There is still plenty left to conserve and preserve about college football. No, New Year's Day isn't what it once was, but Thomas Jefferson was right that half a loaf is better than no bread. If we cannot secure all of our traditions, let us secure what we can. Beating back the insidious encroaching scourge of a Division I-A college football playoff is one way to protect a sport that still remains worthy of our attention and affection.