My silver-haired, bespectacled old archivist of a father likes to sit hunched over a pile of college football albums and annuals, poring through them as if they were Plutarch. Some of his books are so old they have fabric spines, and you can hear glue crack as he turns the pages. Whenever a matter of college football history arises, I defer to him. I do so with the knowledge that whatever I might say on the subject would be sort of like hearing from Cody Gifford, when Frank's available.
The college football national championship is a subject of family ritual across the country this week -- parents and children will gather around televisions with plates of leftovers balanced on their knees and debate the merits of Miami vs. Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Sometimes, their game arguments will be stand-ins for other family arguments too dangerous to raise. In my family, we avoid all that by figuring father knows best. Any argument about college football is complicated by the fact that my father actually does know more about it than the rest of us: Dan Jenkins is an authority on the subject, maybe even an eminence. For more than 20 years he covered it for Sports Illustrated and spent all the New Years of my youth at bowl games, declaring national champions in print, and deflating more than a few self-important legends.
I was 10 or so when he took me to work with him one day. There on the wall of his office he had cheerfully hung a photograph of some enraged Notre Damers making a bonfire out of a pile of magazines containing one of his stories and with it, a note that read, "Go straight to hell! You lousy son of a -- -- !"
This was my introduction to the excited passions of a national championship race.
"Why are they so mad at you, Daddy?" I asked.
"Because I'm right," he said.
So my father, not me, is the one who can rightly tell you where Miami, with its 34-game winning streak and bid for a second straight championship, stands in the pantheon of great teams. Other families will have the ritualistic torture-pleasure of arguing this point; ours will not. Around our house, it's no contest. Compared to him, I'm a member of an archiveless generation to whom pageantry is a postgame riot. (I can already script the conclusion of the Fiesta: no matter who wins, louts will overrun campuses and light upturned fetid old sofas on fire. The fabric burns so quickly, yet the inner foam smolders for hours. Smells like football.)
My father can not only cite statistical evidence by heart, he has the advantage of having seen other dynasties firsthand. Mention the fact that Miami has won five championships in the last two decades, and he will reply that others have done the same or more, namely Alabama (won five titles and played for countless others between 1961 and 1979) and Notre Dame (five between 1920 and 1930). He can also tell you about Bear Bryant, whom he knew well and was fond of. Bryant managed to sustain excellence through the social tumult of the 1960s and '70s. One afternoon, a team captain went to Bryant and explained that a player wanted to wear a headband. A headband, he felt, was important to his identity. "All right, tell him he can wear a headband," Bryant said, "or his helmet."
Argue with an eminence and this is the kind of the thing you're up against.
Every weekend, my mother would turn on the TV and point to Nebraska and Oklahoma, or USC-Notre Dame, and say, "That's where your father is." My father would come home, go into his office and bang out stories on an old Royal typewriter, giggling to himself while I hovered behind him, rifling through his bookshelves, John Lardner, S.J. Perelman. I pestered him with questions -- "The gnat" he called me -- but he would answer them.
I learned that all dynasties must be measured against Fielding H. Yost's "Point a Minute" Wolverines, 1901-1904, with Willie Heston "toting the leather." They went 11-0, 11-0, 11-0-1, and 10-0 in that order, and in fact, didn't lose until the final game of 1905, ending with a 12-1 record.
After Yost's Michigan teams, there were Andy Smith's "Wonder Teams" at Cal with Brick Muller. From 1920 through 1924 they didn't lose a game, winning 44. "They were tied four times, but so what," he says. And Knute Rockne's Golden Domers, from George Gipp through the Four Horsemen, 1919 through 1924, posted a 55-3-1 record. After which Wallace Wade's Crimson Tide went to three Rose Bowls in six years, '25 through '30, and put Southern football on the map.
The Domers returned with Frank Leahy as coach from 1946 through 1949 (Johnny Lujack to Leon Hart) and went like this: 8-0-1, 9-0, 9-0-1, 10-0.
But you also had your Army teams of 1944-'45-'46, which went 9-0, 9-0, 9-0-1, in the midst of which Coach Red Blaik received the following wire: "The greatest of all Army teams. We have stopped the war to celebrate your magnificent success. MacArthur." And then you had your Bud Wilkinson streak teams at Oklahoma, 47 in a row.
I thought it was the most important profession in the world. "Who can explain the athletic heart?" my father liked to say. It seemed to me the question was worth answering. Playing fields, the way my father portrayed them, were laboratories for studying human behavior. What makes flawed, silly, ordinary humans perform extraordinarily? If I could explain that, then I would be able to explain everything.
Being a sportswriter meant a constant effort to think about things more plainly and thoroughly, the better to describe them. It was about making judgments on what was funny and what was not, what was poignant and what was not, what was worthy and what was not. It was about preserving a combination of jaundice and jauntiness of voice. It was about a peeling away of profligate excesses of feeling that surround sports, to find the real truth underneath.
Once, Bryant showed him a scarred Alabama helmet and gravely informed him that among the marks on it were the colors of every school in the Southeastern Conference. My father lifted an eyebrow. "Who's your artist?" he asked.
By my father's sweeping historical, not to mention penetrating, standards, this particular Miami dynasty can't compare with some others he has seen. In fact, as far as my father the archivist is concerned, this Miami bunch must compete even with its own past. They arguably trail the Hurricanes of an earlier era: from '86 through '91 the 'Canes won somebody's national championship every year, even though it was sometimes a syndicated rating system, like a Sagarin. "Let them go undefeated two more years," he says. "Then all us historians will kneel and lick their Nikes."
The main thing you learn about history around our house is, you can't win against it -- and you don't even want to. You just want to listen. It's how the family trade gets passed on.