Unique essence of college football evident in Class of 2008

NEW YORK -- They beamed and chatted with one another as if they were old friends. Pat Fitzgerald teased Lou Holtz that without the former Notre Dame coach's contribution to his career, they wouldn't have been chatting in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Thursday.

"If he had offered me a scholarship to Notre Dame," Fitzgerald said, "I wouldn't be here."

Fitzgerald, the pride of Carl Sandburg High in Orland Park, Ill., instead went to nearby Northwestern, where as a junior he won the Nagurski Award as the national defensive player of the year, made All-American and led the Wildcats to the Big Ten championship.

As a senior, he did it all again.

A dozen years later, Fitzgerald, approaching his third season as coach of his alma mater, stood with Holtz and former Syracuse quarterback Don McPherson, representing the 2008 class of 15 inductees to the College Football Hall of Fame. The marquee name among the inductees, former UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, is better known for the three Super Bowls he won in his 12-year career with the Dallas Cowboys.

Among the other players is one of Aikman's favorite targets in Dallas, tight end Jay Novacek of Wyoming.

"Aikman and Novacek won't know who I am," Fitzgerald said. "I was a free agent in the Cowboys camp. This is kind of neat."

Humility still oozes from Fitzgerald's every pore. The recognizable names among the players in this 2008 class -- Aikman and Novacek, plus Florida linebacker Wilber Marshall, Arizona State offensive lineman Randall McDaniel and Oklahoma State tailback Thurman Thomas -- loom large because of the arc of their NFL careers. Fitzgerald and McPherson might be more representative of the true nature of college football. It is a sport best known for its coaches. They are the names that remain the same. Players come and players go, and even the best ones are there for only a short time.

McPherson is 21 seasons removed from leading Syracuse to an undefeated record. As a senior, McPherson finished second in the 1987 Heisman vote to Notre Dame wide receiver Tim Brown, another in a series of misjudgments by that august electorate. Which is to say that, especially in those days, the voters decided in August who should win.

McPherson did well on the field. He has done good off of it, spending his career working with college athletes to reduce violence against women. He is now a philanthropic consultant.

His career as an adult has been performed largely in private. That is both the essence of college football and a problem for its Hall of Fame.

"To the people in Syracuse, I'm still 20 years old," McPherson said. "They have seen [Donovan] McNabb continue to play."

McPherson played briefly for the Philadelphia Eagles, the team McNabb has led for the past decade. McPherson is in the College Football Hall of Fame. McNabb, who didn't make first-team All-American, won't be.

The College Football Hall of Fame hasn't made the national footprint its counterparts in pro sports have. The pro halls of fame have elevated Cooperstown, Canton and Springfield into destination cities. The College Football Hall of Fame is located in South Bend, Ind., where it remains the sport's second most important institution in the city.

More important, if the Hall is to be true to the nature of the sport, it will continue to recognize players who played rarely in the NFL or not at all.

"Creating or holding onto an identity is not easy," said Steve Hatchell, the president of the National Football Foundation, which created and runs the Hall of Fame. "The game started in 1869. It's local in importance. Every school has its All-Americans. Every school has its great players. Every school has its stories. ... If you talk to today's players about the people we're putting into the Hall of Fame today, they don't remember any of them."

Hatchell believes the Hall of Fame can't sit in a building in South Bend or anywhere and wait for people to come see it. He wants to take portable exhibits to stadiums around the country throughout the fall. He wants to boost the Hall's online presence.

"It's our job to never have an offseason," Hatchell said. "It's our job to promote it all the time. That old business school saying, "Think global, act local"; if ever there was a phrase that applied to college football and the Hall of Fame, it's that phrase. We have to recognize that every school has great players, has great moments, and we have to capture that."

With this class, the Hall has selected 829 players and 178 coaches. That might sound like a lot, until you realize that over the course of 140 years, about 4.6 million men have played the game.

"There are 2,000 eligible first-team All-Americans," said Matt Sign, the chief operating officer of the foundation. "You can't ever get to them all. In a way, it's one of the most prestigious halls of fame. We only take 12 or 13 players a year. A lot of schools have a lot of deserving guys. The NFL has 32 teams. It's a little easier to balance."

Hatchell has urged the Honors Court, which selects the members of the Hall -- I have been a member since 2006 -- to recognize players who didn't make their names at the traditional powers. So it is that fans are celebrating on the Palouse (Washington State tailback Rueben Mayes) and in Charlottesville (Virginia offensive lineman Jim Dombrowski) and Lubbock (Texas Tech wide receiver Dave Parks).

They are celebrating in Syracuse and Evanston; in the six towns where Holtz won his 249 victories; in Baton Rouge, where LSU icon Billy Cannon personified grace, fell from grace and, after paying his debt to society, will go into the Hall of Fame 49 years after he won the Heisman Trophy.

Some peaked at age 21. Some did not. It is the curious burden of the College Football Hall of Fame to honor them all.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.