Column: Who Wins with College Bowl Games?

TV networks, coaches benefit – but not student athletes
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The college football bowl season has always been a little crazy – but most of that used to be fun crazy. Lately, though, it’s been turning bad crazy – and fast. Here’s why.

Michigan played in the first ever bowl game against Stanford on New Year’s Day in 1902. The Wolverines won, 49-0 – but didn’t play another bowl game for 46 years.

Pasadena didn’t host another game until 1916, and no other bowl games even existed until 1935, when the Sugar Bowl, the Orange Bowl, and the Sun Bowl all started, followed two years later by the Cotton Bowl. But the games were just glorified exhibitions, created to reward a few teams with a nice trip, and promote southern cities.

That started to change in 1948, when Michigan’s Fritz Crisler played matchmaker between the current Big Ten and the Pac-12, who started sending their league champions to play each other at the Rose Bowl every New Year’s Day. If you were second place, you only got to play in a bowl if your league champion repeated, because the university presidents didn’t want their teams to go to a bowl game two years in a row.

Bowl games were considered so insignificant that Notre Dame didn’t bother to go to any bowl games from 1926 until 1970 – and still won seven national titles during that stretch.

But when Michigan’s undefeated, fourth-ranked 1973 team tied top-ranked Ohio State, and was denied a trip to Pasadena by a vote of athletic directors, the Big Ten ended its 25-year-old ban, and let any team in the league go to any bowl game that would have them.

Since then the number of bowl games has more than tripled, from 11 to 35, and they’re spread out over a month. New Year’s Day used to be reserved for the four best bowl games, with a national title determined that day. This year not one college team played on New Year’s Day – the NFL took it over – but 24 teams played in the new year, well into the start of the semester for many schools.

On January 8 – January 8! – Northern Illinois played Arkansas State in the Bowl. How many things are wrong with that sentence? Is there anything right about it?

Then, the next day – scratch that – the next night, on Monday, Alabama played Louisiana State in the long-awaited national championship game. The game ended close to midnight. How many kids stayed up that late on a school night? Let’s hope none.

The bowl games were expanded to generate money – for the bowls and networks, mind you, not the schools, and certainly not the players. Dozens of teams lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and their students got little more than injuries. Many of the stadiums were half-filled, and the national title game got the lowest TV ratings in a decade. As one of my friends said, “It’s January ninth. We’ve already moved on.”

And now, of course, the fans and writers are calling for a playoff system. Yes, clearly, we need more games, all played by unpaid athletes who don’t get a cent more, win or lose, while their coaches can get millions in bonuses for a single bowl victory.

Do not ask for whom the buck tolls. It tolls for the adults, not the kids.

Why do we need a playoff? To determine a true national champion, we’re told. Will removing all doubt about who’s college football’s national champion really make our lives that much better? Back in 1997, one poll named Michigan the national champion, and the other named Nebraska. Neither team asked for a playoff to settle the issue, and both schools still claim the title. What’s so horrible about that?

Since then they changed to system to produce only one national champion each year. Has our happiness gone up accordingly?

We need fewer games, not more. The more they make college football mimic pro football, the more of a minor league it becomes, the less special it is.

The people who understand the actual appeal of college football the least, happen to be the very leaders who are changing it the most.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” 

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  1. By David Fitzpatrick
    January 13, 2012 at 10:40 am | permalink

    I think John U. Bacon could not be more wrong about RichRod, but he has hit the nail on the head here.

  2. By ScratchingmyHead
    January 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm | permalink

    Dr. Harry Edwards wrote about this very matter 35-40 years ago, only he limited his analysis to the exploitation of Black athletes. As Dave Brandon has assumed his role as AD at UM, you can see that he is slowly furthering the commercialization of sports (night games, outdoor hockey now NHL Hockey) at UM but ironically he must confer with the NCAA as to whether the school can give the athletes a throwback jersey that cost probably $65 while Brady Hoke gets a $160,000 bonus for his players winning the Sugar Bowl. Probably half of the parents of UM players will never get to see their kid play in the Big House while certain individuals who are affiliated with the program get front row seats and are invited to an all expense paid bowl game while making a minimum contribution to the program other that promoting and supporting the economic exploitation of these young people while providing political coverage and justification for its action. That’s their payoff. If an athlete’s parent or relative get support to attend a game that athlete can be cited for violations that will jeopardize their career. This system will eventually collapse under its own weight because these past series of bowls was the least watched in recent years. However, as one of my kids pointed out, the sports administrators and television execs are not aiming their efforts toward my generation, but because we are a sports crazed society where every parents think their kids is the next superstar, they are focusing on hooking the younger generation of soon to be washed out athletes. John U, I like your commentary and I would hope that at some point you do an investigative piece on the commercialization of the program by Dave Brandon. UM is a public University and must cooperate in any endeavor of the sort.

  3. January 13, 2012 at 3:14 pm | permalink

    Tradition, schmadition. The 1942 Rose Bowl was played in North Carolina. Alabama has won as many Rose Bowls as Indiana, Purdue, Northwestern, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Penn State combined.

    “On January 8 – January 8! – Northern Illinois played Arkansas State in the Bowl. How many things are wrong with that sentence? Is there anything right about it?”

    Aside from the date — and other than “tradition”, why should there be a magical January 1 cut-off? — how exactly is that objectionable? Why shouldn’t two conference champions meet in a post-season game? Is the “ Bowl” really more objectionable than “The Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio” or “The Rose Bowl Game presented by PlayStation 2″?

    Oh, and the Tournament of Roses’ “never on Sunday” policy was instituted in 1893 (“to avoid frightening horses tethered outside local churches and thus interfering with worship services”), nearly a decade before they held a football game to raise money for the parade. It’s a tradition!

  4. By Tom Brandt
    January 13, 2012 at 3:59 pm | permalink

    The commercialization of the program began long before Brandon arrived. Don Canham started it when he became the athletic director, and his successors have carried it on with the the tacit approval, if not active encouragement, of university presidents from Robben Fleming through to Mary Sue Coleman.

    I suppose one could make the case that commercialization actually began when Fielding H. Yost built Michigan Stadium.