Alabama's famed stand in the Sugar Bowl.
Walter Iooss Jr.
Jan. 1: The Greatest Day Of The Year
I was a New Year's Day vegetable, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. There was a time, not so long ago, when Jan. 1 meant one thing -- wall-to-wall, daylight-to-nightfall bowl games. And we're talking A-list bowls only -- the Cotton, the Rose, the Sugar and the Orange -- not the Capital One or the Outback or any of the other second-tier games that now litter what was once the greatest day of the college football year.
Until the BCS came along about a decade ago and trashed the tradition, fans could count on the first day of the year as college football's big finish, the day on which the best teams in the country matched up and the (mythical) national championship was decided. But it was much more than just that. It was also the annual renewal of our fandom, the day on which we reaffirmed our willingness to place watching sports above all other tasks, including showering, getting dressed, or interacting in any way with the outside world, except perhaps for the pizza delivery man.
If there had been video of my typical New Year's during the '70s and '80s, it would have shown sunshine turning to twilight giving way to nightfall as I sat slack-jawed at my home in Hempstead, New York, in front of the television, surrounded by junk food, slowly melting progressively deeper into my couch. I considered it a badge of honor, the ability to watch game after game until my eyes nearly glazed over. What other pursuit could be such a test of endurance and laziness all at the same time?
The day always began with the Cotton Bowl, matching the champion of the dear departed Southwest Conference, usually Texas, against some highly ranked at-large team. I can hear Pat Summerall's terse play-by-play even now. As that game wound down I switched channels to catch the beginning of the Rose Bowl on the West Coast, with the scene in Pasadena seeming so sparkly bright in the first quarter and bathed in the soft glow of evening by the fourth.
Then came the night games, the Sugar Bowl on ABC going up mostly head-to-head against the Orange Bowl on NBC. This represented the final stage of the challenge -- after watching roughly six straight hours of football, it was now necessary to essentially watch two more games simultaneously. I hopped back and forth between games and by the time it was over I felt like rinsing my bleary eyes in a bucket of Visine, but I also had that feeling of accomplishment, as if I'd run a marathon. OK, it was more as if I had watched a marathon, but it was an accomplishment nonetheless.
But turn on the TV on New Year's these days, and you're as likely to get the Gator or Citrus Bowl or somesuch, which is a little like getting a cover band when you're expecting the Rolling Stones. The Rose, Sugar and Orange Bowls, along with the Fiesta Bowl, have been sprinkled all over the first week of January, with one of them serving as the BCS championship game every year. The Sugar Bowl, for instance, has been played on Jan. 1 only once in the last six years, jumping around to Jan. 4 once and Jan. 3 and Jan. 2 twice in the other five. Want to watch it next year? Check your local listings.
In exchange for the old New Year's Day grandeur, we now have an official national championship game, but given that the title game hasn't settled the annual debates over who's really No. 1, that's hardly a fair trade. I would be willing to offer college football's power brokers a deal: I won't complain about the lack of a true playoff system if you'll give me back my old New Year's with the four big bowl games. And a pepperoni pizza.
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