A week ago, when the College Football Bowl Association launched the ad campaign “America’s Bowl – It’s Worth Keeping”, I scoffed at the effort and saw it as nothing more than a pathetic attempt to justify a poor system.
I didn’t blame them because no one would lose more by the bowl system withering away that many believe the adaptation of a playoff would cause, but that didn't change my opinion.
Then again, I took my mom’s advice and tried to see the other side.
Admittedly, it’s easy to hate on the current system. Haters, like yours truly, point to the fact college football is the only major sport that doesn’t have a playoff, has a bloated meaningless, in terms of the national championship, bowl schedule, and hands out bowls to, oh I don’t know, whoever wants to sponsor them.
Since the inaugural 1902 Rose Bowl, the bowl schedule has gone from five in 1940 to 35 this season. A tradition once reserved for New Year’s Day now stretches from Dec. 18th to Jan. 10th. Bowl expansion has gone so far that over half the teams in the FBS play in a bowl game every season.
It if seems like a little much for an unsatisfying finish, it’s because it is.
Still, there was still that lingering thought in the back of my head. When I talk to many fans about their programs they often mention obscure bowls as the most important games of their programs.
The question was, “Why exactly?” And the answered is surprising.
So while I still favor a playoff for my own reasons as a fan, in an effort to not be completely hypocritical, I have to acknowledge there is some value to the current system whether we as fans like to admit it or not.
The "U" dynasty built momentum from the bowl system
In Manhattan, Kansas, Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder has won 148 games in his time at K-State, won the AP National Coach of Year in 1998 and resurrected the worst program in the history of college football into a consistent winner.
The game old school Kansas State fans talk about most next to the Wildcats 2003 Big 12 Championship: The 1993 Copper Bowl.
Why? It was a coming out party.
“We were out there sending a message to the entire United States of America saying, ‘Kansas State is for real. We’re a top 20 team and we deserve to be there. If you’re not convinced after this game, then you’re not going to be convinced.,’” then senior center Quentin Neujahr said afterwards.
The game was in fact defining as Kansas State rolled to a 52-17 victory over Wyoming. The Wildcats would play in bowl games the next ten years starting a stretch where they won at least nine games in 10 of 11 seasons and were the tenth winningest college football program in the country over that span.
Recruits suddenly entered football complexes, no doubt financed in part by those bowls, with banners, trophies and pictures of smiling battle-scarred players lifting a trophy in unison. Recruits wanted to be a part of that and expectations only grew.
And Kansas State isn’t the only school that has used small bowls as concrete, building a foundation of a program.
“The day Utah football was officially on its way wasn’t when we beat Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl in 2005,” said former Utah coach Urban Meyer. “It was when we beat USC in the Las Vegas Bowl four years earlier. They still recruit off that game and they should.”
The “U” dynasty or the “greatest dynasty since Caesar” wasn’t built overnight either. It began with Peach Bowl victory in 1981, Miami’s first bowl in 14 years at the time, and parlayed into 1984 Orange Bowl and National Championship.
Boise State played in six “meaningless” bowls before beating Oklahoma in a classic 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
Forget the fact that some of these are now defunct bowl games. It was a championship of some kind for a fan base and program starving for something to celebrate and be proud of and once you’ve played in one bowl game, you only hunger for a better one.
Some say the bowl experience has expanded so much it rewards mediocrity and belittles the achievement.
But ask current Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson and he’ll give a different perspective.
“Only two teams play for a national championship,” Johnson said while coaching at Navy. “Did their players and coaches work harder than ours? Of course not. Bowls reward kids for winning seasons. Nobody gets rich by Navy going to the Poinsettia Bowl. But try to find a player, coach or fan who had a better time than we did at our first one in 2005. You can’t.”
It’s true that if the bowl system where replaced or withered away by a playoff that many smaller schools chances of competing in postseason play would shrink drastically. Not to mention the Vanderbilts and Dukes of the power conferences who once a century may be able to qualify for an often proposed 16-team playoff.
Caught up in the business of college athletics, it is easy to forget that many college athletes will no longer play their sport after college. For many athletes the chance to play in the bowl is the chance to play in a championship of some kind and experience the passion of a postseason atmosphere.
It doesn’t matter what the bowl is called, it’s a bowl of some kind and the chance to become a local legend.
In another one of my articles a bunch of East Carolina fans chimed in and took pride in the fact they had been to five bowl games in five years and had beaten teams like Texas Tech, Stanford and North Carolina State in their history.
Bowl games provide the few opportunities that Non-BCS teams get to play the bigger boys on a neutral field and the chance to play hotshot recruits and prove themselves is a championship of some sorts to them.
Alabama will still participate in the Capital One Bowl
Teams have turned down individual bowl games before. But it is rare that a team turns down bowl participation altogether even if they may be settling for a so-called “inferior" bowl.
While it may not be what they hoped for, a chance to play on national television, get a nice payout, an extra month of practice and for players to gain the experience and play more football is an opportunity that shouldn’t be passed up.
For seniors it may be a chance at redemption for a disappointing season and for underclassmen it is a chance to get postseason experience to build on for the future.
Regardless of what bowl it may be from the second everyone gets there to the time everyone leaves it’s all about more football, acquiring a trophy and taking in the spirit and pride of college athletics.
People in Memphis take a lot of pride in the Liberty Bowl
It’s hard to not agree with the fact that bowl party is getting overstretched and overblown.
However, during that ever closer to a month of bowling, countless fans, players, coaches, bands, cheerleaders and university officials will travel the country – and, at one time, trip to Canada – not to just celebrate the spirit of the college football, but take in the various charms native to their hosts.
You can do the Aloha in Hawaii. Take in the Florida rays at a number of the sunshine state’s bowls or even go skiing in the Idaho hills at the Humanitarian Bowl – in each case taking memories away that last a lifetime.
Over a billion dollars will be pumped into host cities’ economies and hundreds of millions of households will watch from their couches.
Sure, that same number of people will no doubt complain for a better system, but maybe they need to take in one of those so-called “meaningless” games in December and January and evaluate the impact it has, not just on the programs and players, but the fans and towns that participate in them.
For smaller towns a bowl game is a real source of pride, a chance for the smallest parts of the country to enjoy hosting a national event. The games also pump around, on average, 20 million in smaller host towns. In fact, close to 140 million is pumped into participating schools and over a billion into hosts economies.
For everyone involved, bowling isn’t just a casual ho-hum place on the calendar, it’s an event.