John McKay, the USC coach who does not hoard his opinions even when they buck the party line, puts it this way: "The best teams in the country should play in the major bowls. It's that simple. I would always want us to send our champion to the Rose Bowl, but now here's UCLA [which USC defeated for the Rose Bowl bid]. UCLA is one of the better teams in the country. UCLA should be in a bowl. Michigan should be in a bowl. The money isn't everything. The kids don't get the money anyway and they make it all possible."
McKay says that, for the first time, there are indications his is not a minority opinion in the Pac 8. "More of our people are thinking less and less about pure dollars and cents," he says. "I believe the chances are good we'll amend that rule."
It is not as if there were no precedent. In 1948 the Pacific Coast Conference race ended in a tie between California and Oregon. California was voted into the Rose Bowl, and Oregon was allowed to go to the Cotton Bowl. At a recent Pac 8 meeting, though no formal vote was taken, there was a private unanimity—even to the extent that it included old conservative UCLA—on behalf of revision. If the Pac 8 goes, the Big Ten surely will follow suit.
Meanwhile, UCLA and Michigan staying home means other teams with lesser credentials are in major bowls, and that not only hurts the bowls but college football as a whole. Like it or not, the college game is in a struggle for TV ratings and prestige, and despite arguments that the colleges play a more explosive, more diversified game that is better coached, lovelier to look at and of greater redeeming social value, they are hurting themselves when they transmit less than their best into the living rooms of the nation, especially when they are going head to head with the NFL playoffs.
The country will be tuned in, for example, to an Orange Bowl game that offers unbeaten Penn State and Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti against Louisiana State, a tough, formidable and otherwise worthy opponent that just happens to be on a two-game losing streak. The losses came after the invitation date set up by the NCAA (this year the third Saturday in November). The Orange Bowl is not unhappy with LSU, but it is understandably unhappy with a selection process that forces bowls paying top dollar to tip their hands before all the cards are dealt.
This particular madness—the arbitrary establishment of premature invitation dates—has been going on for some time, and almost every year a major bowl matchup that had the pink glow of good health in November turns up a bag of bones at Christmas. Last year both Orange Bowl invitees—Notre Dame and Nebraska—lost their final games. The Cotton Bowl has seen its last four visiting teams (Notre Dame, Penn State, Alabama and, this year, Nebraska) lose final games after receiving bids to play the Southwest Conference champion. Compounding the mortification, three of those losses were shown on national television.
This year's Cotton Bowl is a strong enough match, pitting Texas, 8-2 and on a six-game winning streak, against Nebraska, 8-2-1. First-year Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne said he felt at a psychological disadvantage on being chosen with two games left to play (although the announcement was not made until a week later), because he was afraid of embarrassing the Cotton Bowl. He did, losing 27-0 to Oklahoma, a team that has further confused the bowl issue because it is presently the second best team in the country (to Alabama) and cannot go anywhere, being on probation. There seems no end to the pratfalls of the chosen few. Auburn and Missouri lost the rest of their games after clinching invitations to play in the Sun Bowl.
Orange and Gator Bowl sponsors are strong in their belief that an end of season invitation date would not only enhance the chances of more meaningful matchups but reduce the number of these post-invite lapses by the better teams. The Cotton Bowl's Wilbur Evans would go along with a later date, he says, but echoes a familiar plaint that the smaller bowls—always played before New Year's Day—need time to promote and distribute tickets.
The fact is that in most cases the minor bowls still wind up with dishes that are little more than season-extenders. Teams with four losses ( Georgia in the Peach, Missouri in the Sun, Florida in the Tangerine, Pittsburgh in the Fiesta) or even five (Auburn in the Sun) are hardly stellar attractions.
There are always more bowls than there are good teams to fill them. The reason the NCAA got into the bowl-certifying business to begin with was for that reason; by the late '40s postseason games were proliferating like Democrats. Several years there were more than 50 on the books, and Hardin-Simmons once played in three of them. Many were fly-by-nighters, inviting teams and then pooping out, leaving the teams stranded with no money to get home on. The NCAA is careful now with its bowl sanctions, but many that get approval are no more than exhibition games. Tom Hansen of the NCAA says that the heat his group takes over bowl invitations could well lead to the abolishment of all ground rules for signing teams. Coaches complain that the bowls harass them prematurely; the bowls complain that coaches harass them.