Once college football’s bowl season ends, most fans will consign the year’s ecstasy to newspaper clippings, souvenir programs, and ESPN Classic marathons. But for a certain class of rabid fan, that kind of small-scale tribute isn’t enough. These die-hard football fans hang their signed, numbered memories on the living room wall.
Most laymen know mass-marketed sports art through LeRoy Neiman, whose broad strokes and bold colors have adorned dentist offices and McDonald’s franchises for decades. Neiman’s bright, cheery paintings call for an appreciation of the essential magnificence of all athletes and athletics. College football art, however, doesn’t evoke the sport’s innate beauty or some ill-defined “thrill of the game.” In a sport that’s all about tradition, heritage, and heroes, the appropriate aesthetic is sober, reverent nostalgia. Like much religious art, college football paintings strive for realism that borders on photographic fidelity. Many of the most popular college football paintings are painstaking re-creations of iconic plays—the touchdown run or game-saving tackle that represents one of the few moments of pure bliss a fan will ever experience.
In the taxonomy of collectibles, a college football painting is closer to a silk-screened T-shirt than a Caravaggio. Unlike a T-shirt, a first-class football print carries both the validating aura of fine art and the cachet of exclusivity. Whether it’s billed as a lithograph, a serigraph, or a giclée, a college football painting is almost always sold as part of a “limited edition” of 50, 2,000, or 10,000. When an Alabama, LSU, or Notre Dame fan hangs a painting on the wall, he knows precisely how many fans are just as crazy as he is.
Click here for a slide show of artwork that has stirred college football fans—and frustrated college football widows—over the past three decades.