The best match of the bowl season now beginning, the one with a reasonable chance to amount to something, is, of course, the Orange Bowl in Miami on New Year's night pitting third-ranked Oklahoma, the Big Eight champion, against fifth-ranked Michigan, the first Big Ten team to test the competition outside of Pasadena since the Big Ten-Pacific Eight emancipation of last June. Michigan lost its way to the Orange Bowl with a come-from-ahead defeat at the hands of Rose Bowl-bound Ohio State, a process which, as we shall see, established the trend this year—the bowl game as consolation prize.
The second-best match was dropped from the sky into the lap of that grand-baby of all bowl games, the Fiesta—played for the fifth year in Tempe, Ariz. on Dec. 26, in case you were wondering who invited it to the party. The Fiesta offers sixth-ranked Nebraska and seventh-ranked Arizona State. What makes it shine particularly is that most of the other bowls allowed themselves to be dulled out by the NCAA-inspired bowl selection process, which is anything but inspirational yet is always, ipso facto, good for a few laughs. This year it outdid itself.
It would be nice to report that the good people of Tempe accomplished their coup (no other bowl except the Orange has two teams ranked as high) with guile and flair, and by offering Nebraska a pile of money. Neither was the case. The Fiesta Bowl is still small change ($210,000) compared with what a team takes home from, say, the Sugar Bowl ($500,000). Furthermore, Arizona's contributions to the art of public relations leave something to be desired. When Nebraska first indicated it would not accept a Fiesta bid, "concerned Arizona citizens," including a member of the Phoenix judiciary, sent the Nebraska team a package of 11 frozen chickens.
As for the Cornhuskers, they had no intention of putting Tempe on the map; they simply had no other place to go. After losing Orange Bowl rights to Oklahoma, Nebraska found itself locked out of every other major bowl. Seeking consolation of any sort, the Cornhuskers turned back to Tempe, but made no bones about their dissatisfaction. (Talk about public relations.) Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne and some Big Eight officials blamed Bear Bryant and the bowl committees for this travesty, Bryant for making another private deal to assure his Alabama team the best possible bowl setup—the implication being that choosing to play eighth-ranked Penn State was a cop-out—and the committees for knuckling under. Interestingly enough, nobody seemed overly concerned that Arizona State, 11-0 and spoiling for recognition, had a higher ranking than 15 other bowl teams, including UCLA in the Rose, Penn State in the Sugar, Georgia and Arkansas in the Cotton and Florida and Maryland in the Gator, and a record equaled only by Ohio State. Nobody made very much of that.
But certainly a few hard licks at the system were justified. The only trouble was that the dissenters were trying to string up the wrong gang. The football-playing members of the NCAA are the authors of this present madness. Never mind Bear Bryant, he only thinks he deserves the credit. The NCAA membership sets the ground rules, and the rules it sets are almost foolproof in being able to consistently dilute the significance of the bowls.
Here's the way it works:
Clinging to the fiction that it helps all bowls sell tickets and get publicity by allowing the rush for teams to begin early, the NCAA voted to set the third Saturday in November as pick-'em day, with three big weeks to go in the season. Bowl selectors—by nature a panicky bunch—dare not wait a minute past that day, unless they have conference tie-ups, because they are afraid of getting scooped. So they quickly sign up their choices, and immediately create an aura of negative-ness around the balance of the season. From that moment on, the question is not will the chosen teams win but will they avoid losing. The bowls hold their breath. So do the nominees. Sometimes they hold their throats.
From the 15th of November on, the following bowl teams rang up defeats: Michigan, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, USC, Texas, West Virginia, Kansas and Texas A&M. North Carolina State was tied, and Florida and Penn State were scared to death in games they should have lost. This is not to say these teams did not deserve bowl bids anyway, but just to point out how the system works. Meanwhile, by having to rush to trial, the bowls were forced to become consolation prizes. Michigan deserved its Orange Bowl bid, but it had to accept right after losing to Ohio State. Nebraska lost for the Fiesta Bowl berth; Texas got the Bluebonnet by losing to Texas A&M; Texas A&M made the Liberty by losing to Arkansas; Southern Cal rode into the Liberty on a four-game losing streak; Pittsburgh earned a spot opposite four-times-beaten Kansas in the Sun Bowl even though it lost three of its last five games. North Carolina State and West Virginia finished out of the Top 20 and in the Peach Bowl. Three bowls wound up in a ludicrous game of musical chairs with the Southwest Conference. While the Cotton waited for Arkansas to win (on the first Saturday of December, by the way), the Bluebonnet waited for the A&M-Texas loser, and then the Liberty acquired the A&M-Arkansas loser.
Inevitably, two or three deserving teams emerge at season's end with sparkling glass slippers and no bowls to dance in—this time 14th-ranked California, starring All-America Chuck Muncie, and 15th-ranked Arizona. Or wind up, as Nebraska did, in a pout over having to take leftovers.
Which brings us to Bear Bryant's role in all this. There is no doubt, first of all, that Bryant—with a little help from his coaching friends—has personally influenced bowl matches in the past, usually in finagling to win a national championship, the thing in life he covets most. There is no doubt, too, that he wanted no part of the Big Eight runner-up this year. Or the Southwest Conference runner-up. Or the Big Ten runner-up. On the night of the selections, the Sugar Bowl representative on the scene gave Bryant his choice, and Bryant chose Penn State, "without apologies," he said. "If the Big Eight wanted us so bad, why didn't they invite us?"