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Shi: Be careful what you call an ‘instant classic’

Instant classics were once rare and few and far between. Once upon a time, before television, I’d imagine that classics weren’t just games you talked about after the final whistle for hours on end; they were games you memorialized in print, video and, ultimately, memory. The word classic used to have meaning.

That time is gone.

One of the benefits of television is that we’ve been able to preserve and remember more games than ever before. With thousands of cable channels up and running, there are simply more opportunities to broadcast flashes from the past. ESPN Classic, the Pac-12 Networks, Texas’ Longhorn Network and so many other enterprises need to fill screen time, and history fills that role in admirable fashion.

But the era of television is simultaneously the era of saturation. Though I appreciate football’s history and love watching its memories of the past, television has viciously distorted our perspective — our ability to see the ordinary and the legendary and know why the two are not the same.

In an age when nearly any decent game will be replayed over and over again, our newfound capacity for memory has exceeded our capacity for wonder. When ESPN’s Ivan Maisel visited The Daily to talk about his forty-year sportswriting career, he mentioned how, for a man like him who’s seen it all, the momentary glories of today are often not so readily apparent.

Maisel has the perspective that so many lack. Just this week I called the Stanford-Michigan State Rose Bowl an “instant classic” — but with the benefit of a more objective hindsight, it seems like a good game with a disappointing result, nothing more and nothing less. The titles “legendary” or “classic” are not words to be thrown around lightly; on the contrary, individual games deserve the same exacting scrutiny that I have held to Stanford’s rivalries in the past. To call the Rose Bowl a classic is to put it on the same pedestal as Vince Young taking down USC in 2006 or Miami-Nebraska in 1984. Here is my mea culpa: Calling so many games instant classics demeans those that actually are.

This is the fifth or perhaps the 50th consecutive year that we have predicted a “Game of the Century,” and, by definition, we will be let down more often than not. To a certain degree these dreams speak well of us: We ought to aspire to greatness and to hope that every game we see is one that we will long remember.

Yet the fact remains that the hype and the mass media of television, our crass new pomp and pageantry, ultimately detract from what nevertheless remains a beautiful game.

We blamed the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and not the teams on the field because in the end, we knew that the BCS was our imperfect solution to our difficult problem. After years of endless national championship debates, the BCS promised America that a game featuring the two highest-ranked teams in the country must inevitably be good. As it turned out, so much of the attention off the field only served to distort the drama unfolding upon it. Is that curious myopia the fault of modernity? No. It is ours — and that means that it is also within our power to reverse it. The BCS is now gone. Whether its successor will be any better is a question I certainly cannot answer.

The BCS and the coming College Football Playoff are both designed to produce a “better,” “truer” national champion. However, by attempting to make national championships real and not “mythical,” they have also committed themselves to the business of alchemy. Both systems are trying to crown champions, and in doing so they are attempting to replicate the necessary conditions for greatness.

I don’t mean to get into an argument about whether a national championship can or cannot truly exist — that is a question for another day. I do think, however, that the concept of the national championship matters a great deal and yet not as much as we think. The dream of immortality is the foundational aspiration of college football, and national championships are a part of that dream — but only a part. Flags fly forever, to be sure, but we don’t cheer for flags.

The true failure of the BCS was that making one bowl a national championship game did not necessarily carve that game into legend. Though elevated by the matchup, a great setting still had to be matched by a legendary game and, like Woolf’s matches struck unexpectedly in the dark, it did so very rarely. That stubborn exclusivity of fate is ultimately why classics matter. Still, we can safely say that without the BCS, Auburn and Florida State would never have clashed on Jan. 6. We are all very thankful for that.

When Winston Shi once unexpectedly struck a match in the dark, he accidentally burned down The Stanford Daily’s shrine to Lane Kiffin. Suggest a new idol for our sportswriters to worship at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Note from the author: I would like to thank the Auburn community and all my other readers for their kindness and support. Out of nowhere, an article I wrote without any expectation of outside interest became popular overnight. It was a testament to how a movement can so suddenly and so magically explode into being. When I awoke the next morning, my inbox was filled with kind words and in many cases heartfelt, incredible stories. I thank these people for their kindness and their magnanimity. I also urge them to keep reading the great work that this entire newspaper produces every day.

About Winston Shi

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. After graduation, he will begin law school, where he looks forward to preaching the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't. Contact him at wshi94@alumni.stanford.edu.