I grew up about 10 miles from the Rose Bowl. Every January 1 I would sit down and watch every bowl game, but the Rose Bowl always seemed special. The monsters of the Midwest would come into SoCal and contend with the best of the West, who was usually UCLA or USC. The granddaddy of them all seemed magical.
Now, the other bowl games were nice, but I could not shake the feeling that they were all cheap imitations. No other bowls had such a great relationship with two major conferences.
Now, I have previously argued that the Pac-10 should get out of the BCS, as it gives little to the Pac-10 that it did not have before joining in the BCS. At first glance, it appears that the BCS is biased against the Pac-10 not merely in the title game, but the entire system. A closer look at the history of the Rose Bowl and the bowl system actually yields a somewhat different result.
The Rose Bowl is the Granddaddy of them all due to its position as first bowl game. First played in 1902 when Stanford quit in the third quarter against Michigan, which resulted in the game not being played again until 1916.
The Rose Bowl set forth the model for all future bowl games: bring in two teams so that people will travel in the winter to your bowl site, hopefully with two powerful teams. The Rose Bowl succeeded in bringing top teams together during many years.
Post World War II, the officials of the Tournament of Roses began to get worried. As late as 1932, the Rose Bowl was the only major bowl game. Four more games (Orange, Sun, Sugar, and Cotton) developed during the next decade. But by 1946 bowl games suddenly appeared everywhere. 1946 had 36 bowl games, ten of which are considered major. Even other games also existed. Up to that time, the Rose Bowl worked to arrange the best team of the East to play the best team of the West.
With its control of the best teams challenged, the Tournament of Roses did what any good business would do. It contracted with its West Coast partner the Pacific Coast Conference(a predecessor of the Pac-10) and the Big 9 (soon to be the Big 10). Each conference agreed to send their conference champion to play in the Rose Bowl.
The two conferences also agreed that no other team from either conference would play in any other bowl games. In effect, the PCC and the Big 9 agreed to give up the opportunity the play in any other bowl games.
By prohibiting their other teams from playing in any other bowl games, the PCC and Big 9 created an all-or-nothing situation, with second place not even getting a set of steak knives. Win the conference and get the Rose Bowl. Otherwise, nothing at all. Winning the conference championship became all-important.
The Big 10 and Pac-10 (and its predecessors) greatly gained from the association with the Rose Bowl. Playing in the premier bowl game helped increased the prestige and position of these two conferences.
The PCC blew up in a pay-for-play scandal in 1958. While many colleges throughout the country treated their players as semi-pros, the PCC and Big 10 claimed to have higher standards and amateur athletics. The PCC eventually evolved into the Pac-8 in 1963 and the Pac-10 in 1978.
Finally, after the 1974 season, the Tournament of Roses agreed to allow the other Pac-8 and Big 10 schools to play in other bowl games. During the entire period from 1975 until the coming of the BCS, the Orange and the Sugar Bowls never invited a Pac-10 school to their bowl games.
During the pre-BCS era, only two Pac-10 schools received invitations from any of the top bowls—No. 9 UCLA went to the 1989 Cotton Bowl and No. 16 Arizona stayed at home for the 1994 Fiesta Bowl. Pac-10 schools had gone to the Fiesta Bowl prior to 1986, but only before the Fiesta had reached major status. Prior to the BCS, Pac-10 schools had little history with the top bowls.
Under the BCS, only two Pac-10 schools have received at-large bids to BCS bowls. USC has played in only two BCS championship games. The Pac-10 has the fewest BCS bowls bids of any of the six AQ conferences.
Now, the Big 10 schools never faced the same problem as the Pac-10 schools with the major bowls. The Big 10 represents the very reason for having bowl games—large schools from large, cold-weather states, full of people looking to avoid winter. A Penn State, Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan, or Illinois will never be passed over for a BCS bid if at all possible.
So, is there systemic bias against the Pac-10 in the current BCS system? Maybe.
Is the Pac-10 responsible in part for its own problems with the Sugar, Fiesta, and Orange Bowls? In many ways, yes. By agreeing to shut out the other bowls and locking in the Rose Bowl for so many years, the Pac 10 gave up the opportunity to create relationships with the other major bowls. Much of the so-called bias among the top bowls against the Pac-10 schools is self-inflicted.