Bowls have a special something that playoffs can never match
Why momentum has absolutely nothing to do with bowl success
If QBs, RBs and WRs were eliminated, who would win the Heisman Trophy?
Bowl games taking a big monetary hit during recession
LOS ANGELES -- Apologies in advance, but this week's Mailbag veers from its traditional format a bit. It's not so much a Mailbag as it is Stewart Mandel Storytelling Hour. (Most of the e-mails I received were outdated at this point, anyway)
You see, I've been feeling a little nostalgic lately. About two weeks ago, the Big Ten Network finally showed up on my cable lineup in New York. There was no big announcement. It turns out they added it sometime in mid-December, and I stumbled upon it by accident. With an abundance of holiday downtime on my hands, I tuned in to a couple editions of the Big Ten's Greatest Games -- the 1995 (Penn State-Oregon) and '97 (Ohio State-Arizona State) Rose Bowls.
For three hours apiece, I was transported back to a more innocent time, to the days before the BCS entered our lexicon (and when Oregon wore far uglier uniforms than it does today). I was reminded how much simpler things were when we didn't spend weeks arguing over computer points and tiebreakers. The No. 2 Sun Devils came within a last-second David Boston touchdown catch of going undefeated, yet over the course of the game, the announcers spent barely a nanosecond discussing any hovering "controversy" because there was no "BCS Championship Game" from which ASU had been excluded. Both Bruce Snyder's Sun Devils and John Cooper's Buckeyes had reached their conference's ultimate goal -- the Rose Bowl -- and for 60 minutes they played like it, in a game every bit as intense as any subsequent title game.
Back here in soon-to-be-2009, the Rose Bowl, like its other postseason counterparts, is now perceived as a consolation prize. As has become a now-annual tradition, the regular season ended with much angst among fans and media alike about our present postseason model. However, if the bowl system is as wretched as people make it seem, someone's forgotten to tell the participants. Someone forgot to tell Arizona fans when they stormed the field after winning the Las Vegas Bowl; someone forgot to tell TCU and Boise State when they staged one of the best-played early bowl games in recent memory; and someone forgot to tell Pat White's dad as he joined fellow West Virginia fans in a rousing edition of Take Me Home following his son's epic performance in a nail-biting victory over North Carolina.
Meanwhile, a whole bunch of people have either forgotten, or never understood, the primary intent of bowl games: They're mini-vacations. (Admittedly, the near-annual addition of games in places like Birmingham and the preponderance of 6-6 teams does not help.) Yahoo's Dan Wetzel, whom I highly respect as a journalist but whom I happen to vehemently disagree with on this particular issue, recently wrote about bowl games' "outdated, overvalued worth to college football" and argued that, playoff or no playoff, the NCAA should "cut out the middle men by operating its own games in these same cities, a la the men's basketball tournament."
I love the NCAA tournament as much as anyone. It's our nation's most captivating sporting event. But it's also an entirely made-for-TV product. The stands at the opening-round sites are often half-empty. The Final Four is played in a dome where half the seats are so far from the court you wind up watching most of the game on the JumboTron. And it really doesn't matter whether you're in San Diego or San Antonio, Dallas or Detroit, because the NCAA's rigid adherence to uniformity (all drinks at courtside must be poured into matching Dasani Cups) ensures not a single ounce of local color or character dare ooze its way inside the arena.
You'll have to forgive me if I'm in no hurry to see the Fiesta Bowl turn into the "NCAA Southwest Regional."
Of course, columns like these get written every year around the same time, just as I get flooded with e-mails around the same time. Most people don't take as extreme a view as Wetzel -- they have no problem with bowl games in general; they just want to see them incorporated into a playoff. My favorites come from the people who complain about how "unfair" it is that teams from the North always wind up having to play teams from the South in their own backyards. "Make those teams come up North and play a bowl game in cold weather," they say.
These people ought to ask some Ohio State or Penn State players some time whether they consider having to spend one of the coldest parts of the year in Phoenix, L.A. or Miami "unfair." While you're at it, ask them if they wouldn't mind giving up their free stay at the Westin Diplomat or Century Plaza to spend an extra week in their dorm rooms.
I have no evidence to support this, but my guess is that the overwhelming majority of bowl critics have never had the experience of following their favorite team to a bowl. So before you join Wetzel (a proud UMass grad, incidentally) in accusing me, as a media member, of being a shill for the bowls, I feel I should probably tell the story of why I feel such an affinity toward such games -- the Rose Bowl in particular.
In 1995, I was a sophomore at Northwestern when the Wildcats, which hadn't posted a winning record in 25 years, inexplicably rose up to go 10-1 and earn their first Rose Bowl berth in 47 years. Those of you old enough to remember it don't need me to rehash the details. For those of you who weren't, I would describe the shock level as akin to Appalachian State beating Michigan -- if Appalachian State had completely stunk the year before and also gone on to beat Notre Dame, Penn State and Wisconsin.
Obviously, the excitement level on our previously apathetic campus soared with each mounting win, but when Michigan upset undefeated Ohio State over Thanksgiving weekend to send Northwestern to Pasadena -- things went to a whole other stratosphere. Suddenly, we were all on the phone with travel agents (this was pre-Expedia) trying to find flights to L.A. We lined up for hours in the biting cold to buy tickets and we bought up T-shirts faster than they could print them.