I realize I'm just now returning to this site after a few years away, but anyone who read my pieces before knows I'm not really the world's biggest college football fan. In fact, until this past season, I hated the sport. Blame the BCS, blame the unseemly nature of big-time programs, whatever ... when it came to the gridiron, I vastly preferred the professional flavor. The college game left a bitter aftertaste on my palette.
But a funny thing happened on Sept. 5, 2009. I became a college football fan.
That's the day my alma mater, Old Dominion, began playing football again. I say again because the school had football once before, over 70 years ago when the school was still a division of William & Mary. Former ODU president Dr. Roseann Runte convinced the Board of Visitors in 2005 to bring football back to the Norfolk, Va. campus, and the next few years were a whirlwind. Hiring a new coach -- Bobby Wilder -- and his staff, along with renovating historic Foreman Field, turning it into a campus jewel and one of Virginia's prime college football stadiums.
Recruit players, drum up local support. All without raising tuition or asking the student body to foot any part of the bill.
For those unaware, ODU is, historically, a basketball school. Not just because the Monarchs won the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season and tournament titles this past season and upset Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Because ODU boasts one of the tournament's biggest upsets -- an 89-81 triple-overtime victory over No. 3 seed Villanova in 1995 -- and the 1975 NCAA Division II national title. ODU basketball alums include Clemson coach Oliver Purnell, Orlando Magic Assistant GM Dave Twardzik and former NBA players Kenny Gattison, Mark West, Chris Gatling and Cal Bowdler.
Because until the 2008-09 season, ODU boasted a 17-year conference winning streak in women's basketball. Alum Wendy Larry led the Lady Monarchs to perennial CAA dominance -- and the 1997 NCAA title game against Tennessee. The Lady Monarchs also won the NCAA championship in 1985.
ODU also boasts success in other sports -- to the tune of nine NCAA titles in field hockey, a nationally-prominent sailing team and a men's soccer team that was ranked No. 2 in the nation in 2002. Detroit Tigers standout Justin Verlander blew away CAA hitters for three years, setting school and conference strikeout records in the process.
ODU beat Division II Chowan 36-21 in its first game, then went on to finish the season 9-2 to set the record for most wins by a start-up football program. In 2011, the Monarchs will begin playing in the CAA, the nation's premier Football Championship Subdivision conference. Since 2003, four CAA schools have won four national championships: Delaware, James Madison, Richmond and Villanova.
I suppose part of my distaste for the game in the past was because I attended a school that had no football team. Without the proverbial dog in the fight, I had no real reason to follow the sport or root for anyone else. College football was, to me, an alien concept -- especially when one tries to explain to me the asinine and pointless BCS system.
But now that I have a team to root for -- a team that will actually be able to win a championship through a playoff system, no less -- I love the game. This doesn't mean I'll tune in to all the bowl games or find myself a "big-boy" school to root for; no, I'll stick with the FCS and my alma mater. The first time I attended a game and saw our new marching band playing the fight song, I got chills and welled up a little. I'm not ashamed to admit that I felt more pride for my alma mater in that moment than I had in years -- and I'm someone who's very proud of the school I attended.
The fact that the Monarchs won right away -- granted, against sub-par competition -- only made that feeling better. The pride, the euphoria, the experience of watching people tailgate throughout a campus where once you couldn't get students to stay once classes ended ... I finally understand why college football is so damn important to everyone. Where I once stood in opposition to ODU adding a football team, I now admit I was wrong and thank Dr. Runte for her determination and vision to see what ODU could become with the addition of football.
In college, it's not just about touchdowns and bone-jarring tackles. It's about school pride and giving everyone involved something beyond the classroom in which to emotionally invest themselves. Students, faculty and the community can come together every Saturday in the fall to hang out, maybe knock back a few drinks and share in a common experience that can define the college experience.
With all due respect to the run the men's basketball team had, almost beating Baylor to reach the Sweet 16, football was the story of the year at ODU, and I can't imagine campus life without it.