The 448th-Some-Odd/Give-Or-Take-A-Few Big Game is upon us, and you can be forgiven if you haven’t noticed.
No, that isn’t some lefthanded dismissal of the Cal-Stanford rivalry. For those who believe in it and for whom it matters, hats off. There’s no money in dismissing someone else’s beliefs unless there is actual money in dismissing someone else’s beliefs.
But in the new college football landscape, in which conferences, championships, rankings, bowl affiliations, television and the overall business are no longer as they were, and not necessarily for the better in all cases, games like Cal-Stanford have suffered. They are civilized celebrations of a small village, college football-speaking, and as such pale next to annual bloodsports like Alabama-Auburn or Michigan-Ohio State.
In the past, we used to think it was because the series has been lopsided – Stanford under David Shaw hasn’t lost to Cal, and Cal won six of the previous seven, and before that Stanford won the seven before that. The two football programs have in most ways been ships passing in the night. And only twice in those 21 years have their records been within two games of each other, and only four times have they both gone to bowl games in the same year. Moreover, there hasn’t been a Big game that resonated nationally since 1982, and that’s only because Kevin Moen and Gary Tyrell collided in the end zone at game’s end – Moen carrying a football, and Tyrell a trombone.
But that’s the trap of thinking that this is about results. Indeed, Cal and Stanford have conspired over the years to sell the Big Game as a rivalry among friends, which is going to take the edge off any rivalry. You wouldn’t hear that sort of soviet socialist claptrap before Alabama-Auburn, or Michigan-Ohio State, or Oklahoma-Texas, or Florida-Florida State, or even BYU-Utah.
This didn’t used to be the reality, but that began to erode when professional sports invaded the Bay Area, and more when the generation that remembered those distant days started to die off. The Raiders dominated the 70s, then the 49ers dominated the 80s, swallowing the attentions of those who weren’t pot-committed to either school.
It diminished even more when the Pacific 12 Conference started moving the game away from its natural residence of the Saturday before Thanksgiving, thus reducing its specialness, and the standard Cal or Stanford graduate now is as likely to move to other parts of the world to seek their fortunes as hang around within the shadows of either the Campanile or Hoover Tower.
All these factors have conspired to render Cal-Stanford a hyperlocal event, which seems too small a stage for it. But change is remorseless, and those who still believe in the curative powers of the Big Game do so by eschewing the need, desire or even though of evangelizing the event to anyone. Those who believe, believe unreservedly. Those who don’t . . . well, go with the deity of your choice.
There is no more of the belittling “you don’t get it” that elitist Big Game devotees used to bombard critics with, not only because the evidence doesn’t support it but also because the argument has essentially died. Those who love it do it without scorn, and those who don’t have simply decided to no longer care one way or another. The game matters to those to whom it matters because they have made a choice to have it matter, and there is no benefit in selling anyone else on its utilitarian value.
In short, the argument over why the Big Game does or doesn’t matter is just played out, no longer a debating point worth the beers it would take to settle the argument. There are 1,000 some-odd games a year, and The Big Game rises or falls to the level of the person beholding it – maybe as it should, and was always meant to do.
But if it helps, the 10½ Stanford is giving seems high to most early bettors, as the line has been driven down from its original 12. Hey, you’ve got your Big Game, and we’ve got ours.