Monday, November 19, 2012

The myth about the first prime time college football regular season telecast

Despite what many media reports would have you believe, a significant first in sports TV history took place on Saturday 11/16/1968. That evening, ABC televised the Alabama at Miami game at 8:30 pm ET with Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson calling the action. This marked the first college football regular season prime time national telecast.

The following season, ABC provided national coverage of three prime time games in the regular season. The most famous of these was the Alabama-Mississippi matchup in Birmingham on Saturday 10/4/1969 at 9:30 pm ET with Schenkel and Wilkinson also at the microphones.

However, for some strange reason, numerous newspapers, books, and web sites over the years have incorrectly referred to that 1969 game as the first regular season prime time college football national telecast and multiple recent reports continue to make this mistake. Furthermore, it wasn't even the first such game in 1969 as ABC had televised Air Force at SMU in prime time at 9:30 pm ET on Saturday 9/13 to open the season. I am baffled as to why so many media outlets are wrong regarding the facts about a milestone telecast.

Here is a chronicle of some of these erroneous claims:

In 2007, ESPN compiled a list of the 100 defining moments in college football. ESPN ranked this 1969 game at #95 and described it as the "first nationally televised night game".

To commemorate its 50th anniversary in 2004, Sports Illustrated compiled a state-by-state "greatest of" feature. The section on Mississippi included the SI cover photo from the 1969 game and claimed it was "the first college game to be nationally televised in prime time".

In 2008, the University of Alabama official athletic site labelled the 1969 game as "the first prime-time telecast of a college football game"You would think the official Alabama site should know better since the Crimson Tide participated in the true first such game in 1968.

Thet same year, the Marietta (OH) Times and an LSU publication also printed the same error.

The same misinformation appears in several books. In 2005, ESPN published the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia. You would expect such a comprehensive reference work to be thoroughly researched, yet this tome refers to the 1969 contest as "the first regular-season college football game televised in prime time."

Other books making this false claim include:
  • The University of Mississippi: A Sequicentennial History
  • Football in the SEC: Southeastern Conference
  • 100 Things Crimson Tide Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
Fast forward to 2012 and publications are continuing to perpetuate this myth. In February of this year, the Courier Journal (of Florence, AL) called the 1969 game "the first national prime-time broadcast of a college football game". This summer, an Ole Miss site published a story describing the 1969 game as "the first national prime time broadcast of a college football game". And less than 2 months ago, an Alabama Crimson Tide online magazine contained a writeup on the 1969 game and stated that it was "nationally televised, a first in prime time for regular season college football".

So why do so many media reports continue to get this story wrong? Frankly, I have no idea, but I will offer a few theories:
  • The 1969 game was much more exciting than the one in 1968 and probably resonated more strongly in the memories of those who watched it on TV. The 1969 contest featured several lead changes and offensive records with Alabama scoring late to win 33-32. Mississippi quarterback Archie Manning passed for 436 yards. Meanwhile Alabama won the 1968 contest by a score of 14-6.
  • The 1969 telecast was in early October and featured two ranked teams, an undefeated Crimson Tide squad, and a highly publicized player in Manning. The 1968 telecast took place in mid-November when both teams had 3 losses and Miami was unranked.
  • The 1969 telecast likely stood out more as it was the only game ABC televised that day. In 1968, ABC had regional coverage of other games in the afternoon and the national game from Miami that night.
  • While I don't know how the myth got started, I suspect that once it appeared in print for the first time, subsequent publications picked up this erroneous information without verifying it and the effect snowballed. Still one would expect prominent media outlets such as ESPN and SI to perform more careful research. And there should be no excuse for media related to the Alabama Crimson Tide to make such a mistake.
In 2011, Ivan Maisel provided an interesting retrospective on the 1969 game on the ESPN site including a nugget that ABC chose 10/4 for its prime time telecast to avoid competing against the baseball playoff doubleheader on NBC that afternoon. Ironically, the central theme of Maisel's original article was the same false claim about the 1969 game being the first such prime time telecast. A reader pointed out this error in the comments section and Maisel updated the story to correctly cite the 1968 game as being first. Notice how awkwardly the second paragraph of that article reads from this revision.

Finally, I will point out that the weekly 2012 Miami Hurricanes football press release trumpets the fact that Miami was involved in the first prime time telecast in 1968, but incorrectly states that the game was played at Alabama. So even when the 1968 game gets its proper due, the truth still gets lost in the shuffle.


  1. Then President-elect Nixon was at that Miami game. That's about the only thing I remember about it, except that it wasn't very close and they made a big deal about one Miami player,Ted Hendricks.

    Good on you for setting the record straight!

    1. Thanks for the comments. I remember "The Mad Stork" Hendricks from the early-1970s Colts.

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  3. Maybe Miami was in a locally-televised prime-time game back in 1968 seen only in that market.

    1. The 1968 Alabama-Miami game was definitely a national prime time telecast and I have verified this via several newspaper archives.

  4. Nice to recall how history happens in football. And now we are enjoying watching these games even we are in our home.

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