Football brought something new to the campus. "The excitement, danger and masculine character of the game were key to its influence," the researchers said. It brought together universities that had been somewhat isolated from each other. As time passed their football teams were organized into conferences, and today, according to the research, conferences have grown into major givers – and deniers – of status.
Universities are found in conferences that reflect not only their football skills, but their academic achievements as well. Only schools that are deemed worthy both in scholarship and football are allowed to move up to the more prestigious conferences.
Boise State University has a highly rated football team, for example, but it was passed over when the Pac-10 recently expanded. Bob Kustra, president of the university, told a press conference that Boise State was "building our research programs and our graduate programs" to better its chances of eventually joining the celebrated conference, which has some of the highest rated schools – academically -- and most successful football programs in the country.
High profile football conferences, Kustra said, "look at schools that look the most like them." A winning team isn't enough. Football, in this case, is driving academics.
There are, of course, exceptions. Nearly any list of best universities in the country will include MIT and CalTech, for instance, neither of which is taken seriously as a football threat. Harvard tops many lists, and it can field a fair team, especially when playing arch-rival Yale.
So football isn't the only game in town.
"There are multiple status systems in higher education, and they are related to each other, but they are also independent of each other," Stevens said in the interview. "Very few schools can claim to be excellent in all things."
By the way, the researchers debunk the popular assumption that universities build football teams because they bring money to the campus.
"For the vast majority of colleges and universities, football costs much more money than it brings in," the study says, citing other research. Only the most successful programs are likely to reap significant television revenues and build high-capacity stadiums. However, a good program is a "sacred cow for trustees and alumni," which can add a few bucks to the coffers.
But even a struggling team brings one reward, the researchers found. It brings men back to the campus at a time when women are surpassing men in both numbers and academic performance.
And despite that old song, you don't have to be a football hero to get the prettiest girls. But it couldn't hurt.