Woody Hayes says that the other night he dreamed Alabama was knocked off by Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl and his Ohio State team beat USC in the Rose and whisked the national championship from the paws of Bear Bryant. For Bryant that would be a nightmare, but no more frightening than those he has been having in bowl games lately. Barry Switzer of Oklahoma, on the other hand, is without a bowl to dream on, so he is busy trying to talk his way into heaven. Switzer's Oklahoma team—unbeaten, untied and, according to the NCAA, unclean—has a lingering case of the suspensions and again will not be bowling this year. Lest anyone forget the Sooners on election day, however, Switzer is offering a few words on his behalf.
"I saw the other undefeated team [ Alabama] on television," he said recently. "I think we're better." Naturally, Switzer would say that, not having to play Alabama or anyone else in the postseason, just as Bryant would naturally say, as he did, that a victory over Notre Dame in Miami will make Alabama 12-0, "and there ain't nobody else in that category." All Bear wants, of course, is his fifth national championship (instead of a seventh loss in his last eight bowl trips). Nothing partisan about that.
Then there is Bo Schembechler of Michigan. All Bo wants is justice, and for the Big Ten—and, while they're at it, the Pacific Eight—to change their outdated bowl policy and let the world know there are other teams worth seeing on New Year's Day besides Ohio State and USC. No use getting into it with Bo right now, however, because the irony crowds his throat. There are teams in major bowls that lost more games this year than Bo's teams have lost in the past three. The Wolverines have but two defeats and one tie in their last 33 games and have shared the Big Ten title three times. For this they can now look forward to a third straight year of curling up by the tube with, say, Texas Tech (6-4-1) and Vanderbilt (7-3-1) in the Peach Bowl, or Florida (8-3) and Nebraska (8-3) in the Sugar.
Thus, on this melancholy note, college football's upper crust begins another roundelay of bowl activity. There are two strong rematches—Ohio State vs. USC in the Rose ( Ohio State won last time 42-21), Alabama vs. Notre Dame in the Orange (Notre Dame won, 24-23, in the Sugar)—and a number of near misses. The match-ups are actually no worse than they have been in recent years, but therein lies the reason to be sad. They could be so much better.
With the possible exception of the NCAA's executive branch, everyone in college football knows by now the cracks in the bowl structure, and how seriously they undermine the game. Because of unrealistic guidelines—i.e., no legislated guidelines at all—the bowl selection process has broken down; as often as not the bowls have become a depository for damaged goods. Teams that should be in them are not. Teams selected prematurely often suffer a letdown, falling on their face masks in the last weeks of the season. Teams that finish strong and deserve a look get, instead, a lockout.
The complexion of bowl games has changed radically over the last decade. When the Rose Bowl was introduced in 1902 and even when it was reintroduced in 1916, there were no other bowls. When the Orange, Sugar and Cotton opened for business two decades later, there was still no competition from the pros, no television ratings and until 1936 no polls (except those taken before the games). The bowls were ends in themselves. A holiday reward for the teams. A chance for chambers of commerce to beat their breasts, and the local merchants to make a buck. Those were simpler times.
Now there is the specter of pro football. And network television, exerting big-money pressure ( ABC threw a quarter of a million dollars into the Sugar Bowl pot to get Alabama and Notre Dame last year). And a growing number of satellite bowls vying for teams and attention. The big bowls are no longer ends in themselves. They are a part of a whole, serving to stage climactic games that, in lieu of a playoff system, illuminate or eliminate potential national champions, give the rest of the best a chance to scoop up large quantities of money and prestige and, most important, provide a showcase for college football at the time of year when it is nose-to-nose with the pro playoffs.
However, college football television ratings were down 3% this year, and the bowls, which could help revive them, cannot do much reviving if they offer up a couple of teams on two-game losing streaks, or a team fresh off a 31-point shellacking. The bowls have engendered a cacophony of complaints. Coaches complain that the bowls jerk them around. The bowls complain that the coaches jerk them around. The NCAA executive branch maintains the lofty stance of an innocent bystander and complains that nobody understands it.
There is no doubt that the coaches—at least a chosen few—are controlling the match-ups, apart from those dictated by conference tie-ups. The way it works nowadays is a Bear Bryant, who can exert more jerk than most, gets on the phone to an Ara Parseghian and says, "Ara, let's take our act to the Orange Bowl," or words to that effect. The Orange Bowl says, sure, guys, we'd love to have you, and the other bowls have to muster, the quicker the better. There are no rules to prohibit this practice, which is the crux of the matter—there are no rules, period, for helping formulate the best possible bowl games. If there were, says Bryant, he would gladly get out of the bowl-pairing business. Bryant thinks everybody should be made to wait till the end of the season. Everybody.
When the word leaked out in early November that the Orange Bowl was locked up, the other bowls went to work. Almost a month of the season remained. The Nov. 9 weekend was catastrophic for early selectees. Florida, chosen for the Sugar Bowl, lost to Georgia. Penn State (Cotton) lost to North Carolina State. North Carolina (Sun) surrendered 54 points in a loss to Clemson (Clemson players said the bowl selection "fired 'em up"). And Vanderbilt (Peach) lost to Kentucky.