This part of the country is filled with football-crazy residents, which is hardly a secret. Most will never have a chance to knock attendance at a national title game off their “bucket list” or create such a unique memory for their children to brag about as adults. All Northwest Georgians do have a sort of “last chance” this year and next for ... $25 a ticket.
What’s officially known as the 57th Annual Russell Athletic NAIA Football National Championship will be played this Thursday at Barron Stadium in Rome (6:34 p.m. kickoff as it is being nationally televised over the CBS College Sports Network). It’s actually the first of the bowl games, with roughly 37 others to follow.
Out of all those contests only four actually determine national bragging rights: The NAIA contest in Rome this Thursday, the NCAA Division II championship in Florence, Ala., on Friday and the NCAA Division III clash (the Stagg Bowl) in Salem, Va., on Saturday. Then come all those NCAA Division I “also-ran” games until the Jan. 7 battle to determine the true No. 1 between Notre Dame and Alabama.
Whoops! Take that back … better count one national title game already played on Nov. 17 even though receiving less coverage than Calhoun High’s winning ways receive. That’s the Victory Bowl of the NCCAA. T he extra “C” stands for Christian and Shorter University, even though a new regular NCAA Division II member, is also in that affiliation and one supposes eligible for that one as well.
THAT GAME was won by the Greenville (Ill.) College Panthers over the Northwestern (Minn.) College Eagles 28-27 in overtime. That score seems almost indicative of the hard-fought, evenly-matched contests that appear to take place at collegiate football’s “lower levels,” at least based on the NAIA clashes that have been held in Rome and thus appear well worth watching either in person or on TV.
Indeed, if Notre Dame vs. Alabama is such a huge deal then the parallels on the Barron artificial turf this Thursday are interesting. Notre Dame is 12-0 and Alabama is 12-1. Playing here Thursday evening are the similarly undefeated Morningside (Iowa) Mustangs (13-0) versus the one-loss Marian (Ind.) College Knights (11-1).
By the way, Morningside in the playoff semifinals defeated the St. Xavier (Ill.) University Cougars that won it all in Rome a year ago. And Marian’s sole loss — it was ranked No. 1 at the time and on a 23-game winning streak — was to … St. Xavier. Could even get more interesting as both teams appear to sling the ball around a lot while Marian also must have a heckuva kicker. They won their semifinal game 20-17 over previously unbeaten Missouri Valley with the kicker making four out of six tries … from 54, 51, 47 and 34 yards. The 51-yarder won it just as time expired.
However, this year and next may be the last times local football fans have to knock “attended national title game” off their list of things to do … particularly at an affordable price.
The NAIA may be exiting Rome earlier than expected because they would prefer to keep the game in an NAIA location, which this isn’t with the recent switch of both Shorter and Berry College to the NCAA ranks. At the same time, Rome has been invited to bid again as well. That could be because it will probably be difficult for the NAIA to find an upgraded, top-notch stadium with artificial surface as much to its liking as Barron, not to mention a host city as friendly and hospitable and as interesting for dining, shopping, touring as Rome has become.
ABOUT ALL Rome hasn’t been able to do is fill every seat in 6,500-plus Barron — a problem the game doubtless would face anywhere as it cannot rely on fans/alumni of the two top teams alone being able to do it. While football is as big a deal as those schools as it is as a UGA or Bama, they have small student bodies and alumni bases that will almost always have to travel many hundreds of miles to attend given the far-flung nature of NAIA affiliations.
Bob Berry, local co-chair of the organizing committee, expressed hope that the switch to Thursday night from Saturday would help as there will be no competing high school playoff games nor televised contests nor time taken away for weekend shopping during Christmas season.
In the past, he noted in an understatement, “We haven’t had overwhelming crowds on Saturday.” Not bad crowds, to be sure, but empty seats visible on national TV don’t do much for either local or NAIA images.
Rome will have many football-fan visitors this week. The teams arrived yesterday and this will be the first visit of both colleges’ faithful followers to this game at this place, so making them feel extra welcome is in order.
However, filling up a lot of those Barron seats has always depended on drawing football fanciers from this area who want to be part of the excitement and atmosphere of a championship game … even if they’ve barely heard of the competing teams before. There’s also not a bad seat in the house at Barron and, should standing room be required, as most know the levee makes a great observation point without a $1,245 charge.
SO, IF ROME is going out of the NAIA picture, even though that is not yet a sure thing, it might as well be with a bang both this year and next.
Such an attendance bang might cause second thoughts as well and help keep this national title football game in Rome where it belongs when community support is figured in. After all, only five places a year in the whole country can lay claim to being such a venue. And the game now is nationally televised as well. That’s the sort of notice worth even more than the estimated $1 million-plus a year that hosting the game adds to the local economy (rooms, meals, shopping).
As for just the plain football fun of it — always the best reason to show up at a game in person — the last three title games in Rome were decided by a grand total of 10 points … 24-20, 10-7, 25-22. Scores like that, alone, should be sufficient enticement for real football fans.
See you at the championship game.