Throwback Thursday: The Lasting Impact of the 1993 College Football Season

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Every passing moment moves us all one step closer to conclusion of our life’s journey from cradle to casket. It’s only upon reflection that one realizes how far they’ve progressed, and the realization settles in:

How damn old am I?

Related: The 2018 college football season marks 25 years since I became a true fan of the sport.

Though I have vague memories of tuning in earlier — most notably for Desmond Howard’s historic performance against Ohio State in 1991 — the 1993 season introduced me to the sport for the first time. And what a season to dive in.

Completely immerse oneself in football was obviously much more challenging then, but not impossible. In the days of just one ESPN channel broadcasting games, the Saturday viewing schedule often looked like this:

  • 9 a.m.: Big Ten, ACC, Big East or Southwest Conference on either ABC or ESPN; Notre Dame on NBC
  • 11 a.m.: Syndicated Western Athletic Conference Game of the Week, aired on a station in my hometown that, despite almost being close enough to walk to, the signal came in about as clear as if I was trying to watch sumo wrestling from Tokyo using a coat hanger and tinfoil.
  • 12:30 p.m.: Pac-10 regional broadcast on ABC
  • 4 p.m.: ABC prime-time Game of the Week
  • 5 p.m.: Raycom Sports Pac-10 Game of the Week, aired in syndication

ESPN’s Thursday night football was a burgeoning entity then, as well. My autumn Thursdays often consisted of a routine of shooting hoops in the driveway from 3 to 4 p.m., tuning into Batman: The Animated Series at 4, and watching ESPN’s Thursday night game at 5 with my dinner.

Before fueling NFL oversaturation, Thursday night football initially began as a mutually benefiting way for less prominent programs to get national airtime, and for ESPN to have inventory.

Frank Beamer in the past credited Thursday nights for bringing Virginia Tech to the forefront, though the Hokies actually didn’t play on a Thursday in the landmark ’93 campaign. The game I most remember from that campaign featured two WAC programs in an instant classic that, through the miracle of cable television, beamed into my family’s living room TV with clarity. BYU beat San Diego State, 45-44, in a contest I humbly present as the perfect avatar for 1980s/1990s WACtion.

BYU-San Diego State ranks as just one of numerous historic games in that season. Chalk it up to nostalgic bias, if you must, but 1993 ranks among the most influential and important campaigns in college football history.

Controversy and intrigue filled the 1993 college football season. While the proliferation of cable made following the storylines much more convenient, one of the most fascinated stories unfolded beyond the public eye. 

It’s almost unfathomable now, with the conference boasting its own very visible and very profitable network, but finding SEC football was a chore outside of the conference’s footprint. One contributing factor was rampant recruiting scandal impacting programs around the conference. Both TBS and CBS refrained from renewing their contracts to broadcast the SEC nationally, and Auburn was outright banned from appearing on TV in 1993 as a result of NCAA sanctions. 

Auburn  proceeded to go undefeated in the 1993 college football season, though my only knowledge of the Tigers doing so came from highlight-less score updates on ESPN. The mysterious nature of Auburn’s campaign, for which some since decided to retroactively stake claim to a national title, only added to the mythology of what was then college football’s “mythical” national championship.  

Auburn’s undefeated run under Terry Bowden made the controversial ’93 title picture a family affair, as Bobby Bowden’s Florida State sat at the heart of this transformational fall.

 

<<< RELATED: Hear Terry Bowden and others discuss the influence of their fathers on The Open Man Patreon >>>

 

The Seminoles were knocking on the door of the program’s first national championship for a half-decade prior to ’93, peaking with finishes of No. 2 in both 1987 and 1992. By 1993, Florida State appeared ready to make that final step behind a truly revolutionary quarterback.

For those who were too young, weren’t paying attention, or just need a refresher, Charlie Ward was doing PS4 things before Windows ’95 dropped. Lamar Jackson, Marcus Mariota, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton: All of these Heisman Trophy winners shined in the way vein as Ward.

To call Charlie Ward the prototype would be a disservice to his ability. Prototype implies an earlier model upon which improvements were made. Uh-huh. Futuristic science could find a way to drop Ward into a 2018 spread offense, and he would absolutely put up 4,000 yards passing and 1,500 yards rushing.

History remembers Bo Jackson as a premier athlete, and rightly so. But Charlie Ward seamlessly transitioned from quarterbacking Florida State to the No. 2 ranking in the fall of 1992, to playing as critical of a role as Sam Cassell to the basketball Seminoles’ Elite Eight run in March 1993, to winning the Heisman Trophy in December 1993.

Then, when stodgy NFL decision-makers were unwilling to give the most transcendent quarterback of the era a shake at the pros, all Ward did was embark on a successful, 10-year NBA career.

 

<<< RELATED: Find out which 2018 Florida State basketball players Seminoles Phil Cofer and Terance Mann said would make the best Charlie Wards with a subscription to The Open Man Patreon >>>

As you can probably tell, watching Ward shine on both the gridiron and hardwood made an impression on me. His style of play made an impression on the game of college football as a whole, with Ward unofficially giving birth to the era of the dual-threat quarterback.

Ward was my favorite offensive college football player; my favorite on defense was Arizona’s Tedy Bruschi.

Some background: I grew up at the intersection of Pac-10 and Western Athletic Conference Country in northern Arizona. I had more access to the Pac-10 than any other conference, and Arizona football came in clear on a local AM radio station. One of my vague memories pre-dating 1993 is Arizona’s 8-7 loss to defending national champion Miami in 1992, hearing the call of Steve McLaughlin’s would-be game-winning field goal. 

The Wildcats earned a shot at redemption against the Hurricanes in the 1993 season, however.

Arizona’s ballyhooed Desert Swarm defense earned UA a share of the Pac-10 championship, a feat still unmatched in program history. Also unparalleled in the years since is the prowess of that defense, which held opponents to 30.1 rushing yards per game.

The full strength of Desert Swarm became most evident in the 1994 Fiesta Bowl. Arizona’s shutout of The U was the only bagel produced in the game’s history, prior to the 2016 College Football Playoff semifinal between Clemson and Ohio State. My dad recently unearthed a crew-neck sweatshirt commemorating the event.

That’s one piece of memorabilia produced as a result of Desert Swarm. The other is the following season’s Sports Illustrated cover declaring Arizona the team to beat in all of college football.

SI capped an offseason of unprecedented hype for the Wildcats — hype that reached levels few college football programs ever have matched.

When I call the 1993 season influential, one need look no further than one of the most beloved action movies of the 1990s. Summer 1994’s Speed famously includes a shoutout for Dick Tomey’s Desert Swarm.

And college football’s influence on pop culture wasn’t limited to one-off references. Moviegoers took in a pair of college football movies during the 1993 season, with the fictional The Program, and the slightly-less-fictional Rudy.

The Program and Rudy presented college football through two very different lenses. The former’s fictional ESU endured a drama-filled season that most closely emulated the Miami teams of Jimmy Johnson’s tenure, but garnered comparisons to Florida State because of the maroon-and-gold uniforms. Steroid abuse, domestic violence, academic fraud, alcoholism and recruiting scandal: The Program touched on virtually every facet of the sport’s seedy underbelly.

Conversely, Rudy extolled the virtues of Notre Dame football through an idealized retelling of former Fighting Irish walk-on, “Rudy” Ruettiger. Despite taking serious liberties with reality, including rather needlessly and callously making Dan Devine a villain (see also: Max Baer, Cinderella Man), Rudy is fondly remembered.

Those two very different portrayals of college football seemed to clash in the real world with a “Game of the Century” that lived up to its billing — not an easy feat, given the hype.

Sports media outlets devoting a week to pumping up a matchup may not seem newsworthy in 2018. Since purchasing Monday Night Football in 2007, ESPN’s devoted segments throughout the programming day to make matchups between .500 NFL teams seem like the Super Bowl. In 1993, however, I vividly remember the lead-up to Florida State-Notre Dame giving it the gravity of a heavyweight boxing championship bout — which were still important in that era.

It wasn’t exactly Catholics vs. Convicts, but the game was presented with just a hint of that same quasi-problematic vibe. I credit/blame Rudy and The Program to a certain extent.

A big part of the hullabaloo leading up to the contest was College Gameday, then still a fledgling program previously relegated to a Bristol studio. Former Seminoles quarterback Lee Corso donned a Florida State cap and proudly predicted a Noles victory to a chorus of boos. That to me is the moment College Gameday as a centerpiece to the autumn experience really began.

Florida State added to the troll job. I credit the Seminoles for embracing its de facto role as the GotC’s Black Hat, doing so by wearing green hats. Showing up to South Bend donning Kelly green ballcaps with gold FS logos only added to the drama of the 1 vs. 2 showdown, a move that showed the same kind of swagger as Miami arriving to the 1987 Fiesta Bowl in fatigues.

Then again, the 1993 Game of the Century unfolded as well for the Seminoles as the ’87 Fiesta Bowl had for The U. Notre Dame jumped to a two-touchdown lead before weathering a Florida State rally in the fourth quarter, winning 31-24 and seemingly putting itself in the catbird seat for the then-mythical national championship.

But, as mentioned previously, the 1993 season’s November featured more intrigue than some college football season’s experience all fall. The Fighting Irish lost a week later to Boston College in another classic contest that completely rattled the landscape.

Florida State’s invitation to face Nebraska at the Orange Bowl for a second straight season, while Notre Dame went to the Cotton Bowl to meet Southwest Conference champion Texas A&M, provided me my first exposure to the playoff debate. It’s a debate that endured another two decades, but I credit the 1993 season for nudging the game into that direction, setting the framework for the Bowl Alliance a year-and-a-half later. Without the Bowl Alliance, there’s no BCS. And without the BCS, there’s likely no Playoff. 

Among the likely frontrunners for a place in the Playoff this year is Notre Dame, but the Fighting Irish must endure a gauntlet of a schedule that includes Florida State — almost 25 years to the day of the Game of the Century. The echoes of the 1993 college football season will ring louder then.

However, with every mention of the Playoff, each Thursday night broadcast, all the jaw-dropping highlights from dual-threat quarterbacks, the impact of ’93 resonates every Saturday in every autumn of college football.