October 1, 2001

The Rites Stuff
By Richard Deitsch

As he took his final, fateful steps towards becoming the dot on the i
in the script Ohio formed by the Ohio State marching band one autumn Saturday a few seasons back, horn player Join Waters had one last thought: Don't Fall.

If you've never witnessed the dotting of the i, you should watch Beano Cook's exaltation of it in the second episode, "Passion and Pageantry," of the compelling 10-part documentary on the history of college football, Rites of Autumn. "He dotted the i," says Cook, a longtime college football commentator of Waters, a band member from 1995-'99. "What else is there to look forward to? Forget being President. He dotted the i!"

The executive producers of the series, Wayne Chesler and Don Sperling of Pearl Entertainment, spent two years and $2.5 million collecting vintage footage, sifting through more than 17,000 still photos and interviewing more than 500 subjects. "College football had never been put under one roof the way baseball had," Sperling says. "We wanted to put out the statement of college football."

Rites of Autumn shuns chronology for topicality. Among the later episodes are "Bragging Rights," about the fiercest rivalries, and "Dynasties," about the illustrious programs. Narrating this trip through autumn is Burt Reynolds, a Florida State reserve running back in 1954, before he moved onto Hollywood. (Reynold's showed up for his tapings wearing garnet-and-gold colored sneakers.) While the opening episode highlights some of the sport's most memorable individual performances -- including Doug Flutie's Hail Mary heave that gave Boston College a victory over Miami in 1984 and Red Grange's scoring the first four times he touched the ball in Illinois's game against Michigan in ' 24 -- the series really its stride with "Passion and Pageantry," an examination of the game's myriad rituals and traditions. From the besotted purple-and-gold-clad LSU tailgaters in Baton Rouge to luck-seeking Clemson players touching Howard's Rock at Death Valley to the marching bands at Grambling and Ohio State, Rites is an entertaining celebration of a uniquely American pastime. Like the dotting of the i, it's not to be missed.