A school either is or it isn’t.
Notre Dame is.
Ohio State is.
Missouri thinks it is but is not, Minnesota was but is no longer, Wisconsin just discovered what the meaning of is is.
Those opening lines hit pavement 16 years ago this month as part of one of the most enjoyable stories Rankman ever penned in 34 years at the Los Angeles Times. [membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
The inspiration for “program, not a program,” was hatched poolside at the Atlanta Airport Marriott by myself, Mark Blaudschun and Tony Barnhart.
We came up with some of our best ideas, in flip-flops, at cabana bars.
Oh, what it was like to be us then: three big-shot national college football columnists for the L.A. Times, Boston Globe and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, basking in the pre-crash glow of a newspaper business that still printed money and believed in putting down footprints that extended beyond the circulation area.
We had no Earthly premonition of the biblical plague about to be cast upon our industry. No sir, on that muggy summer’s day we were the Kings of Guttenberg, doing what we loved, on expense accounts, dreaming up our next college football adventure.
The rub was this: Rankman needed a college football preview story and had this seedling of a thought about what it takes for a school to be considered “a program.”
A few laughs later we formed the foundation for a piece that appeared, in the L.A. Times, on Aug. 26, 2000.
Where are we now?
Rankman and Blaudschun have just started a start-up website called The Media Guides, TMGcollegesports.com, while Barnhart is still working the South for the SEC Network and Gridiron.com.
TMG thought it would be fun to revisit a story that was originally concocted with crab dip on a cocktail napkin.
Barnhart, who elegantly carries the handle “Mr. College Football,” may have initiated events when asked what he thought it took to be a program.
“Can we whistle your fight song?” Tony said.
And off we went…
“Does your head coach lead practice, with a megaphone, from a tower?”
“Does your school have a live mascot?”
“Is your trophy room air-conditioned?
You are a program if:
-- “You think the 85-man scholarship limit is a communist plot.”
--“The chief of police keeps mug photos of your players in his top drawer.”
We asked: “Are you willing to accept NCAA sanctions as a reasonable condition for winning a national title?”
That last one would soon, prophetically, cement USC’s already blue-ribbon status when the Trojans won AP national titles in 2003 and 2004 in exchange the punitive Reggie Bush sanctions.
You were NOT a program if you stole Nebraska’s fight song and changed the words, or played in a conference that ends in any combination of U.S. and A.
We concluded, in 2000, these truths to be self-evident: not all football schools are created equal Our charter members included: Notre Dame, Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska, Texas, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Penn State, USC, Florida State, Georgia, Auburn, Miami, Clemson, LSU, Michigan State, Florida, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Army-Navy, Syracuse, Washington, Brigham Young, Mississippi, Georgia Tech, Mississippi State, Arizona State and Wisconsin.
Our inaugurals have, mostly, stood the test of time. Notre Dame topped the list then because we felt it was “the whole nine yards. Equal parts love, hate, history and myth.”
The Irish remain a power program despite not crowning a national champion since 1988 (having your own television network never hurts.)
So how did we do in program identification? Well, EVERY national champion since our poolside chat in 2000 has come from our pool of “programs.”
It has come time, however, to bring our list up to date, eliminate some programs and elevate others.
Alabama has only spit-polished its brand, with four added national titles since 2000, pushing it past Notre Dame for greatest “program” honors.
Tennessee recently solidified its status when the school settled a million-dollar Title IX lawsuit so that, we presume, it would not interfere with what could be the best Volunteer team in years.
Michigan hasn’t won a national title since 1997, yet recently paid not-a-program Arkansas a $2 million cancellation fee just so the Wolverines could resume their rivalry with Notre Dame.
Texas flashed its platinum-status program card this week when former coach Mack Brown mused about Texas A&M after the Aggies took a front-row seat in the misogyny hall of fame: “I’ve never lost a women’s clinic.”
It almost makes you want to cry.
Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio State, USC, Florida State, Auburn, Miami, LSU and Florida have also done us proud by all winning national titles since earning poolside honors 16 summers ago. It is also necessary, however, to English-soccer relegate Syracuse, Texas A&M, BYU, Washington and Arizona State.
Washington only made the first list because it seemed willing to sell its soul for a national title. Since 2000, however, the Huskies have made questionable hires in Ty Willingham and Steve Sarkisian, posted an 0-12 season and have also lost 12 straight to Oregon.
Stay tuned, though, because Washington could be on the comeback cusp under Chris Petersen.
BYU is OUT because its coach left to take a job at Virginia.
Schools put on double-secret program probation: Penn State, Georgia Tech, Arkansas, which still hasn’t won a league title since joining the SEC in 1992.
Penn State? Programs don't take down statues of legendary coaches.
Listen up, Georgia Tech, you’re going to have to do better than clobbering Cumberland, 222-0, or once having your coach, John Heisman, say, “better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football.”
Have there been schools, since 2000, who have clawed their way onto the “program list?”
Oh yeah. By the power vested in us, Oregon and Stanford have been promoted from our original list of “thinks it is…but isn’t.”
Oregon has played in two national title games since 2000, and arguably should have played for one in 2001, when the Ducks were ranked No. 2 in both polls. Oregon has revolutionized the sport with its up-tempo style and uniforms, produced a Heisman Trophy winner and stoically rationalized the indignity of NCAA sanctions that yielded a “show cause” violation for coach (Chip Kelly), who had to seek refuge in the NFL.
Stanford’s rise to a definite “yes” could have never, ever been predicted poolside in 2000, yet Jim Harbaugh’s hiring in 2007 literally transformed a former nerd school to program status.
Also graduating to top rank is Texas Christian, a steady force under Gary Patterson that has even, improbably, appeared in a Rose Bowl before Arizona.
Baylor was creeping toward the program status until a few creeps ruined everything.
Still thinks it is…but isn’t.
UCLA. The Bruins just missed the cut in 2000 but were ultimately left off due to the troubling fact its most famous football player, Jackie Robinson, was a more famous a baseball player. UCLA would have achieved program status years ago if it was only based on its killer, powder-blue uniforms, but not even making a Rose Bowl appearance since the survey 16 years ago is disqualifying.
Colorado. the Buffaloes were also close in 2000 but have only regressed since joining the Pac 12. Not even live-mascot Ralphie could save the cause.
South Carolina. Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier brought respectably to the program, but not program status.
Other “think they are” but definitely are not: Boston College, Kentucky, Purdue.
Still close-but-no-program cigar: Cal, Virginia Tech, Maryland, Louisville, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Duke, Missouri, Kansas State, West Virginia, Houston, Iowa, Arizona, Texas Tech.
What about a team that was completely off the radar 16 years ago but now has to be strongly considered for program status in 2016?
Boise State. The Broncos have had a remarkable run, highlighted by toppling program kingpin Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. That said, maintaining “program” status will be virtually impossible playing in a “Group of Five” conference.
Boise may get forever stuck in the vortex if the Big 12 snubs the Blue Turfs for the likes of Houston, UConn, Cincinnati, BYU, Memphis or Central Florida. Those schools, conversely, could use major conference status to build a program bridge from nowhere.
And look at you, Utah, not even mentioned in our original conversation. The Utes have since parlayed Urban Meyer and the Pac 12’s gift invitation to establish borderline program residency.
So how has your favorite football factory fared since 2000? Did it go up, or down? Is it in, or out?
If your team didn’t crack this list—Rutgers, don’t even ask--don’t be discouraged. We’ll do another fly by in 2032.
Remember: becoming a program is more than wins and losses. There remains a subjective, visceral, intangible factor that sometimes takes three judges, sipping umbrella drinks at a hotel pool, to delineate.
Lest you also be reminded none of your feats are set in concrete. All program licenses are subject for renewal and denial. A program must always maintain a fat-pocketed, knee jerk booster base willing to buy its coach out at a home-loss-to-Navy’s notice. All program commitment praise goes out to our dear lady of Notre Dame, which recently made the last payment on Charlie Weis’ ridiculous contract. He was fired in 2009. We salute your check books.
One last thing, for goodness sakes, if you want to get with our program, never, ever consider playing your home games in a domed stadium. [/membership]