10 Best College Football Covers in Sports Illustrated History

David LutherFeatured ColumnistMarch 4, 2013

10 Best College Football Covers in Sports Illustrated History

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    Sports Illustrated has been around since 1954, and in that time our friends over at SI have built the brand into the preeminent sports media authority. From in-depth analysis to ground-breaking exposé stories, SI is closing in on its 60th anniversary while cementing its place in the zeitgeist of American sports journalism.

    Perhaps the most recognizable feature of any issue of Sports Illustrated is the cover. Long held as an honor—or even a curse—appearing on the cover has been a signal of popularity and importance. College football is certainly no stranger to the SI cover, and with nearly 60 years worth of issues, there have been some spectacular college football-related covers.

    We've sifted through and sorted those six decades of issues and have come up with our top 10 Sports Illustrated college football covers of all time.

Honorable Mentions

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    December 1, 1997: A great action shot lauding Michigan's victory over Ohio State. The Wolverines went on to win the national championship that season, shared with Nebraska—a result that finally led the Big Ten to join what would become the Bowl Championship Series.

    January 9, 2006: It's incredible to think that a perceived power like Texas hadn't won a national title in 35 years until you saw this cover.  It's also incredible to think that this is the last time we saw a non-SEC team grace the cover of a national championship issue.

    July 29, 2009: Nick Saban appears on the front of an “SEC Preview” special regional issue, and the tag line reads “Alabama Rising: Nick Saban Has The Tide in the Title Hunt.” Four title games later, Alabama has won three of them.

    January 18, 2010: “Can Anyone Stop Alabama?” asks this cover with the headline simply reading “Dynasty.” So far, all signs point to, “no, there isn't anyone that can stop Alabama.”

    October 4, 2010: “Boise State: The Great Debate.” While the Broncos have faded slightly over the past couple of seasons, the question still remains how deserving non-AQ programs are when talking about a national championship run.

    March 7, 2011: No picture necessary to describe an investigation that showed that over 200 players from teams in the Top 25 had been arrested at least once, including nearly a quarter of one team's roster.

No. 10: September 27, 1954

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    Calvin Jones of the Iowa Hawkeyes appears on the seventh issue of a brand new Sports Illustrated magazine.

    The issue contains an article entitled “The True Spirit of Notre Dame,” as well as a look back at the life and times of Pop Warner in “The Warner Legacy.” Also included is “Something for the Girls...” outlining “girls” tennis for what had to be a pretty small female audience at the time.

    Jones' cover photo is noteworthy for more than it being the first-ever SI college football cover. Jones, an African-American, is depicted at a time when most college football programs across the south still banned black players from participation—or even attending the university itself.

No. 9: November 12, 1956

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    The first appearance of the iconic winged helmet, Michigan's Tom Maentz and Ron Kramer appeared in a preview of the upcoming Michigan-Illinois football game.

    Still in an era where Sports Illustrated focused more on high-end sports like polo, horse racing, tennis and golf, college football begins to enter into the money equation of publishing. While the upper class wants to read about the latest goings-on in America's Cup yacht racing, the “Average Joe” can pick up a copy of SI at the corner news stand for 25 cents.

    Inside, readers will see ads for vodka, tobacco and countless ads for firearms. There's even a feature on Pheasant Hunting entitled “The Smile of a Happy Gun: Pheasant to Order.”

No. 8: May 19, 1980

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    Okay, this isn't specifically a college football cover, but it covers college athletics as a whole, and even though this cover and related article appeared nearly 33 years ago, we're still arguing about it today.

    “The Shame of American Education: The Student-Athlete Hoax” touches on a subject many still try to sweep under the rug. It's perhaps most evident in media-heavy events like National Signing Day or in postgame press conferences: the stark educational difference between a young man attending college to play football and a young man or woman attending college to get an education.

    Many college football players have difficultly responding to even basic questions from reporters these days, and many do so with broken sentences and optional grammar. While the academic elite cringe, the athletic departments turn a blind eye to the situation as they focus on more important things—like this month's balance sheet.

    It's not just the folks at Michigan or Notre Dame snickering at the academic “qualifications” of football players at Alabama or LSU. Nowadays, even the SEC admits it needs to change.

    This article is an indictment of the entire system that, if anything, has become worse since it first appeared more than three decades ago.

No. 7: November 11, 1985

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    We love this cover from almost three decades ago because it reminds us how far we've come yet how little things have changed.

    The cover asks “Who's No. 1 Now?” with both Florida and Penn State viable options. Most people see Penn State's unbeaten, untied record of 8-0 as edging out Florida's 7-0-1 (keeping in mind the SEC wasn't “all that” back in the mid '80s). But regardless of where you come down on the issue, there's something reassuring about knowing that we still have the same old arguments each and every season 28 years later.

    For the record, also like today, neither Florida nor Penn State finished the 1985 season as the No. 1 team in the land.  Penn State finished No. 3 in the final AP Poll with a record of 11-1 while Florida finished No. 5 with a record of 9-1-1.  Oklahoma was the final No. 1 team, winning the AP National Championship with a record of 11-1 with Michigan No. 2 at 10-1-1 and Tennessee at No. 4 with a record of 9-1-2.

No. 6: June 6, 2011

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    For our No. 6 cover, we've selected the cover from the sixth day of the sixth month of 2011; a cover that many Ohio State fans would love to forget.

    This issue features a story on the now-disgraced Jim Tressel and his cover-up of relatively minor infractions by a relatively small handful of Buckeyes football players. But, just like politics, it's not the crime, it's the cover-up...

    Tressel resigned in disgrace, and was later slapped with a pretty severe five-year show-cause penalty by the NCAA (meaning he cannot coach for at least five years without petitioning the NCAA first).

    The article goes into who knew what, when they knew it and why they didn't say anything, but the cover is remarkable for its stark reminder to the college football world that Tressel was the apparent mastermind of a cover-up while steadfastly maintaining his squeaky clean, statesman-like image.

    Little did we know exactly how much like a politician Tressel really was.

No. 5: November 26, 1956

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    This cover shows the USC marching band, behind which the Trojan faithful hold up placards that foreshadow things to come in college football.

    “HI TV FANS” may have been a fun little gimmick thought up by some enterprising students in Los Angeles, but it also is a sign of things to come in college football. More than 60 years later, nearly every FBS game is televised in some manner, but back in 1956, television was still coming into its own as a medium for live sports coverage. In fact, this issue features a cartoonish diagram showing readers exactly how a game is broadcast, right down to where the press photographer stands in relation to the band and where the TV announcers sit in relation to radio announcers in the press box.

No. 4: November 2, 1964

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    Notre Dame is one of the most frequently featured college football teams on the cover of Sports Illustrated. On this cover, Notre Dame is seen bursting from the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium in still-familiar fashion with the headline “Notre Dame Returns to Power.”

    Remember that old saying about history repeating itself?

No. 3: August 15, 1966

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    We can't ignore an iconic cover of an iconic coach with an iconic saying from an article written by the coach himself.

    Alabama's Paul Bryant makes one of his many appearances on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the first part of his series entitled “I'll Tell You About Football.”

    If there's one person in history we would all like to tell us about football, it's probably Bear Bryant. And that's exactly what SI readers got in the fall of 1966.

No. 2: May 16, 1994

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    Our No. 2 pick for the best college football SI cover comes on the heels of an investigation at Florida State that resulted in a besmirched reputation for one of the nation's premiere programs. Florida State soon became the butt of jokes across the nation after allegations of cash and gifts from agents to FSU players came to light in the 1990s.

    FSU was referred to as “Free Shoes University” and Sports Illustrated, along with the rest of the sports world, began to question the validity of the Seminoles' 1993 national title.

    Say what you will about free shoes and the whether or not players should be allowed to receive these kinds of benefits—a debate which, incidentally, still rages today—but there's little doubt that a team's helmet under the headline “Tainted Title” can have a chilling effect on the program and college football as a whole. 

No. 1: June 12, 1995

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    Typically, you'd expect something great to appear in the No. 1 spot on any “best of” list. Unfortunately, our selection as the very best college football cover in Sports Illustrated history is a stark reminder of the negatives surrounding the college game, and in particular at the University of Miami.

    The article about the Hurricanes program, “Broken Beyond Repair,” is an open letter to the president of the university (then Ted Foote, II). The letter urges Mr. Foote to dismantle the football program, a national powerhouse program, in the hopes of salvaging the reputation of the university that was very much in danger.

    The move would not have been without precedent. In 1939, the University of Chicago, a member of the Big Ten, canceled its football program due to its perceived detrimental effects on academics. Mr. Foote's father-in-law, the president of the University of Arkansas, believed Chicago had made the right decision and applauded the move.

    Sports Illustrated even went so far as to call the Miami football program a “cancer devouring your institution.”

    That wasn't far off the mark. Miami, a private university in Coral Gables is surrounded by sprawling estates in gated communities populated by the wealthiest Floridians. But contrary to that setting, Miami was now the school which had a football team that showed up to bowl games dressed in fatigues, failed drug tests (that were swept under the rug), so-called “hundred dollar handshakes” with boosters and every other scourge college football had seen.

    The letter was a damning indictment of Miami, and the Hurricanes—again embroiled in an NCAA investigation—have never been able to really shake the stigma of being a “bad boy” program.

    Combine this epic opinion editorial by Alexander Wolff with the stark, pictureless, simple typeface cover stating “Why the University of Miami should drop football,” and it's easy to see why this Sports Illustrated cover wins the top spot on our list of best college football SI covers of all time.