Breaking with tradition
Rose Bowl takes next step, hosts national championship
By Stewart Mandel, CNNSI.com
This year, the "Granddaddy of them All" is for all the marbles.
And all of college football is invited.
Since 1947, the Rose Bowl has been the exclusive domicile of the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions, for whom, until the recent formation of the Bowl Championship Series, there was no greater reward. The two conferences have been eligible to play in college football's national championship game for three seasons now, but neither league's team attained the necessary No. 1 or 2 ranking.
If that trend continues this year, there's going to be some new blood in Pasadena, Calif. As part of the agreement that formed the BCS, the Rose Bowl became a rotating host to the title game along with the Fiesta, Sugar and Orange bowls. This year is the Rose Bowl's turn.
"If neither a Big Ten or a Pac-10 team makes it, I think it's unfortunate," said Purdue's Joe Tiller, head coach of the Big Ten's most recent participant. "But in terms of the big picture, it's something that needed to be done so that college football could get as close to a consensus national championship as possible without entering into a playoff system. That's the sacrifice the two conferences had to make, and it IS a sacrifice, because giving up the Rose Bowl is huge."
Why so huge? Because more aura and pageantry surround college football's oldest bowl game than any other.
From its world-famous New Year's Day parade to the majestic backdrop of the San Gabriel mountains, the 100,368-seat bowl with its freshly-painted end zones, and a game that starts under sunny skies and ends in nightfall, the Rose Bowl has long been one of America's most celebrated sporting events. No more so than in the Midwest and on the West Coast, until now the only regions with teams that begin each year with Pasadena aspirations.
"Everything we did in conjunction with the Rose Bowl was special," said Gary Barnett, who led Northwestern to the 1996 Rose Bowl, its first in 47 years. "It seemed almost as though California was as into the Rose Bowl as the Midwest. Therefore, from the time we accepted the bid through traveling out to California through the game itself, it was as if we were dreaming. The day of the game, we rode the bus down into the arroyo with the sun shining and the tents and fans -- it was almost mystical."
"It's one of the reasons I went to play at USC, for the chance to play in the Rose Bowl," said Pat Haden, who quarterbacked the Trojans in three such games (1973-75). "It's a game I always watched no matter who was playing. You set your football alarm clock to go off on Jan. 1."
Playing during an era when it was the only postseason option available to Big Ten and Pac-10 teams, Haden still managed to win two national championships playing in the Rose Bowl. But there have been other times when the leagues' obligation to the game impeded their chances at the crown.
In 1994, when Penn State went 12-0 but couldn't rise above No. 1 Nebraska, which instead met a third-ranked Miami team in the Orange Bowl. Three years later, Michigan and Nebraska, both undefeated, shared the title rather than contesting each other.
With the fans' obsession for a true No. 1 growing stronger every year -- and with college football's powers-that-be sensing the potential financial bonanza of a national championship game -- it was only a matter of time before the Rose Bowl and its partners would need to part with tradition, if only once every four years.
Such a break from the norm is only part of a bigger movement as college football moves into the 21st century.
Some of the sport's more rudimentary traditions, like fight songs and tailgating, will never change. But elsewhere, schools with long-standing Native American mascots are facing mounting pressure from activists to scrap them. Cherished rivalries are going by the wayside as teams move from conference to conference. And the growing influence of television is rearing its head, with a handful of programs this year scheduling controversial Friday night games, raising the ire of high school football proponents.
Like those and other signs of the times, the Rose Bowl's new look will surely raise a mixture of opinions by the time it becomes a reality in January.
"I'm not a big fan of the Rose Bowl breaking its tradition of Big Ten vs. Pac-10," said Haden. "I liked the constancy of it. I guess I'm a traditionalist. If I still played tennis, I'd wear all white and play with a wooden racquet."
"It doesn't bother me," said former Ohio State star and Rose Bowl hero Archie Griffin, "because the agreement is still there for the Big Ten and Pac-10 to remain the main teams. And the fact that the Big Ten and Pac-10 have been occupants of the Rose Bowl for so long, all the other conferences and teams in the country are looking forward to the opportunity."
At the least, we know the following changes will take place for this year's game:
All of these, of course, are cosmetic compared with the actual matter of the teams involved. Maybe, Michigan and UCLA or Northwestern and Oregon will manage to go 11-0 and stage a semi-traditional Rose Bowl. More realistically, though, based on the preseason polls, there could be two Florida teams. Or an Oklahoma, a Tennessee or a Texas.
Of course, it's hard to imagine which would be stranger: one of those teams playing in the Rose Bowl, or a team like Wisconsin winning the Big Ten and going to the Sugar.
Finally, there's the possibility Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen is dreading: Arizona, which has never gone to the Rose Bowl, or Cal, absent for 51 years, finally wins the league but still can't go to Pasadena. In the Big Ten, Minnesota is working on a 40-year drought, Indiana 34.
"For the players on the team," said Hansen, "it would still be a very exciting thing, they would be champions of their conference and they'll have a wonderful major bowl game to play in. Since they themselves haven't played in the Rose Bowl, it won't be as much of a loss for them as some of the alumni who have been waiting since the last one.
"But if it is [Arizona or Cal] -- let's hope they're 1 or 2 in the nation."