Last Saturday kicked off the 2018-19 College Football Bowl Season, a marathon of 39 bowl games over a period of 18 days, concluding with the College Football National Championship contest to be played at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Jan. 7, 2019.
The bowl extravaganza includes sites ranging from venerable Yankee Stadium in the east, to Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium in the west, to Detroit’s Ford Field in the north, to Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium in the south, and all points in between.
There’s even one down in Nassau in the Bahamas. So, how did the idea of bowl games originate, and how have they grown to have such an impact on college football in America?
During the late 1890’s, organizers of the Pasadena , California, Tournament of Roses sought ideas to bring more interest and participation to their annual New Year’s Day event, which at that time included foot races, tug-of-war contests, and greased-pig catching.
In 1901 the newly appointed president of the Tournament of Roses had the foresight to align the event with one of the up and coming American pastimes, college football.
Hence, in 1902, the Tournament of Roses Association sponsored the East-West football game, pairing teams from both ends of the country.
The initial game pitted Michigan against Stanford, with Michigan winning 49-0.
By 1916, the game was played annually and was renamed the Rose Bowl in 1923, when Pasadena’s newly constructed Rose Bowl Stadium became the host.
Thus, the term “bowl” is taken from the earliest of all bowl games, and the Rose Bowl has become the “granddaddy of them all”.
As the popularity of the Rose Bowl rose, other cities throughout the country realized the promotional and economic value of such post-season games. Prospective bowl sponsors sought warm weather climates to stage their games and, by 1940, California’s Rose Bowl was joined by the Sugar Bowl (Louisiana), Orange Bowl (Florida), Sun Bowl (Texas), and Cotton Bowl (Texas). Since commercial air travel was limited at that time, bowl games were scheduled on or around New Year’s Day to give fans ample time to travel via train or car to the game site after the conclusion of the regular football season in late November.
By the early 1950’s, there were only eight bowl games, all played on New Year’s Day. During the 1990s corporate sponsors enhanced the bowl system by paying for naming rights of each particular bowl. For example, what was once simply the Orange Bowl is now the Capital One Orange Bowl. The Cotton Bowl is now the Goodyear Cotton Bowl. Sponsors have latched onto the bowl system as an avenue for nationwide advertising, giving the bowl game organizers revenue to organize and manage the games.
Prior to 1992 most bowls had tie-in agreements with conferences when selecting matchups. For example, the Rose Bowl always paired the Pac-10 and Big 10 champions, the Sugar Bowl invited the SEC champion, the Cotton Bowl picked the Southwest Conference champion, and the Orange Bowl selected the Big 8 champion. Consequently, there were occasions when the top two ranked teams in the media polls were prevented from meeting each other in a bowl game because they were locked into different bowls. An example would be the 1969 season when both Penn State and Texas finished 11-0, with Texas defeating Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl and Penn State defeating Missouri in the Orange Bowl. Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, the sports media crowned Texas as the 1969 college football “mythical champion.”
President Richard Nixon even chimed in and named the Longhorns the de facto 1969 college football champions.
The slight stuck in Joe Paterno’s craw for years, as he considered the 1969 Lion squad one of his best teams.
As the years went by, fans clamored for college football to institute some type of playoff system to determine a true “National Champion” on the field of play, rather than by arbitrary voting by the media and coaches. Resistance to such a change came immediately from the bowl organizers who sensed a threat to the entrenched and lucrative bowl system. Proponents for a Division I football playoff developed different models through the 1990’s and into the 2000s in an attempt to settle on a playoff model that would meet both the needs of the bowl system and the true determination of a college football national champion.
The system which was created in 2014 and is in operation today is named the College Football Playoff(CFP), a post-season four-team elimination or “knockout” tournament. A 13-member committee of football savvy people studies and evaluates team results and records throughout the fall football season, finally selecting and seeding four teams to participate in the tournament. In the semi-final matchups, the No. 1 seed meets the No. 4 seed, and the No. 2 seed plays the No. 3 seed. The winners of these two games meet a week later in the CFP national championship contest.
In an effort to value long-standing bowl venues, the CFP rotates the semi-final games among six major bowl games, referred to as the “New Year’s Six” – Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton, Fiesta, and Peach. The semi-final games are played on the same day, two or three days prior to New Year’s Day.
Final CFP rankings are used to determine the participants of the “New Year’s Six” bowls not hosting a semi-final that particular year.
The 2018 CFP semi-finals are scheduled for Dec.29, with No. 1 Alabama meeting No. 4 Oklahoma in the Capital One Orange Bowl, and No. 2 Clemson playing No. 3 Notre Dame in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl.
The site of the CFP championship game is not a bowl game and is determined by bids from interested venues. As I mentioned at the top of the column, this year’s championship game will be staged in Santa Clara, California, in Jan. 7, 2019.
For sure, the bowl game idea has grown leaps and bounds since that inaugural Pasadena contest back 1902.
ABC and ESPN broadcast almost all of the games, including the entire “New Year’s six” slate. Such nationwide visibility and coverage of the bowl games would indicate that the bowl system is viable and important to college football. Teams and their fans look forward to an extra game and the opportunity to travel to the site of the bowl. It is not surprising that colleges vie for the chance to participate in a post-season bowl game.
I will conclude with an interesting story from the 1948 Cotton Bowl.
Penn State finished the 1947 campaign ranked No. 4 in the country and the Cotton Bowl in Dallas invited the Lions to square off against #3 SMU on New Year’s Day 1948. At that time, Dallas was still segregated and no black player had ever played in the Cotton Bowl. Penn State had two African-Americans on its roster, Wally Triplett and Dennie Hoggard. Nittany Lion coach Bob Higgins left the decision up to the team as to accepting or declining the Cotton Bowl invitation.
Reportedly, Lion team captain Steve Suhey said, “We are Penn State. We all go, or none of us go!”
Cotton Bowl officials relented and Penn State integrated the Cotton Bowl that New Year’s Day, the game ending in a 13-13 tie.
Happy Valley legend has it that Suhey’s remark back in 1947 led to the “We are Penn State” chant of today.
Mike Rendos is a former Keystone Central School District counselor, a current Central Mountain High School assistant athletic director, and a longtime PIAA sports official.