Dick Heller at The Washington Times is the latest to join the choir singing about how there are, in his opinion, too many bowl games. For the life of me, I cannot understand this argument. The thinking goes like this: once upon a time, there were far fewer bowl games. Therefore, getting to a bowl game was a much bigger deal. Or as Heller says,
In bygone days, a bowl invitation was considered a nice reward for a team and school that had enjoyed a successful year — not merely a way to extend a pointless season and enrich an institution’s athletic coffers.
Maybe there’s a hint of truth to that. But so what? Does that mean it was better? I don’t think so. There is nothing wrong with having 32 bowl games. In fact, it’s a great thing.
Heller kicks off his column by recalling Maryland’s trip to the Peach Bowl in 1973, and the excitement it brought to the Terps’ program:
I remember how excited Maryland players and officials were in 1973, when the Peach Bowl crooked its corporate finger. There were only a handful of bowl games then, and Jerry Claiborne’s Terps had earned a spot with an 8-3 record. Moreover, the invitation reiterated that Maryland’s program was again respectable after nearly two decades in the dumps.
Yet towards the end of his piece, the Peach Bowl is one of the games that Heller proposes cutting:
Let’s do some arithmetic. There are 32 bowl games on the besotted 2007-08 football calendar and this season 58 Division I-A teams had winning records. So why not eliminate about 10 of the “classics” that nobody cares about except the cities, schools and corporate sponsors involved?
Unfortunately, this won’t happen, and you know the reasons: TV and money. All those ESPN outlets need something to show besides high-powered poker, even if nobody is watching. But do we really want the International, Capital One and Chick-fil-A affairs cluttering the holiday landscape?
Just about anyone who’s plugged into the world of college football knows that the Chick-fil-A Bowl is in fact the very same Peach Bowl about which Heller is reminiscing. The Peach Bowl entered into a corporate sponsorship with Chick-fil-A, and after being called the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl for a while, was renamed as the Chick-fil-A Bowl in 2006. It’s the same game. So why is that game acceptable in 1973, but not in 2007? I suspect that Heller just picked some corporate-sounding names that he felt he could easily ridicule. Furthering my suspicion is Heller’s inclusion of the Capital One Bowl on his hit list. The Capital One Bowl is, of course, the former Citrus Bowl. That contest started in 1947 as the Tangerine Bowl and is another old and prestigious bowl game. How could Heller use two of the most coveted bowls to make his point? How could he make such a mistake? My guess is that he isn’t really a college football fan.
How can anyone who wants fewer bowl games truly be a college football fan? Heller himself says that if it wasn’t for bowl games, we’d have “high-powered poker” on TV instead. Is that better than any college football game? Would poker be better than Navy’s last-minute scramble to come back against Utah in the Poinsettia Bowl? Would an American Gladiators rerun be better than Central Michigan and Purdue lighting up the scoreboard in the Motor City Bowl? Would another World’s Strongest Man competition be better than East Carolina’s improbable upset of Boise State as time ran out in the Hawaii Bowl? Would some random figure skating event be better than UCLA fighting back to get a chance to beat BYU, only to have the Cougars make a dramatic last-second field goal block to preserve the win? Would another episode of The Bronx is Burning be better than watching Howard Schnellenberger lead Florida Atlantic, a school that wasn’t even a full-fledged Division I-A member until 2005, to the first bowl win in the team’s history? Which one of these great stories would those endorsing bowl contraction deny us? These were all entertaining games that any college football fan could appreciate. Some people, though, would prefer that games like these never happen.
Cut the number of bowl games, and you hurt all the wrong people. You hurt the little guy like Florida Atlantic and Ball State who see any bowl game as a huge opportunity. You hurt a school like Navy, an independent who needs these games to get around conference affiliations that dominate higher-tier bowls. You hurt a school like Indiana, whose berth in the Insight Bowl represents the fulfillment of a dream to “play 13” as laid out by their late coach, Terry Hoeppner. You hurt a team like Boston College that has put together some very good seasons, yet gets shunned by higher-profile bowl games because their fans don’t travel very well. You hurt coaches, who use the extra practice time to teach their younger players. And that’s not all.
Heller says that nobody cares about these smaller bowl games except “the cities, schools and corporate sponsors involved.” What, like that isn’t enough? Who else is supposed to care? Does Heller think that unless he has some kind of a stake in the game, it shouldn’t exist? That seems just the slightest bit arrogant. The $20 million impact on San Diego businesses is reason enough for San Diego to put on its two bowl games. Jay Cicero, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, says that bowl fans have a greater economic effect than your average tourist.
Bowl visitors are fantastic. They’re all supporters of their schools. They’re willing to travel farther, stay a few more days, spend more money. So, yes, they have greater economic impact.
So what’s wrong with that? Is it worth getting rid of tens of millions of dollars to local businesses just for the sake of making things the way they used to be? It’s only easy to say “yes” if you don’t own a restaurant that goes without business over Christmas. In the real world, things like money actually matter.
It is true that going to a bowl game– any bowl game– was a bigger deal when there were fewer games to go to. But does anyone really think that the existence of the Emerald Bowl somehow diminishes the prestige of the Rose Bowl? Somehow I have a hard time imagining a coach saying, “Well we were hoping to get to the Sugar Bowl, but the GMAC Bowl is close enough!” Let’s look at it a different way. Navy has been to 5 straight bowl games, each of which would probably be a prime candidate for contraction in Heller’s mind. If Navy put it all together next year and got a bid to say, the Orange Bowl, do you think that it wouldn’t be a big deal? I mean, it’s just one more bowl game. There’s really nothing special about the Orange Bowl after you’ve been to a couple of Poinsettia Bowls, right? Yeah, right. I know that people want to guard against rewarding mediocrity, and I can understand that. Nobody likes the whole Little League, everyone-gets-a-trophy mentality. But that’s not what we have here. Mediocre teams aren’t going to the Orange Bowl. They’re going to less celebrated bowl games. The best teams still get rewarded with the best bowls. The prestige of the higher profile games hasn’t changed.
Heller goes on to misrepresent Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen:
The coach, who can spin with the best of them despite his ample girth, put it this way: “If we can finish 7-6 with all the stuff we’ve dealt with, it’d be a real tribute to our players and a real reward.”
Read my lips, Fridge: Balderdash! When Ralph and his assistants hit the recruiting trail, they’re unlikely to snare many blue-chippers by yowling “7-6!” or “Emerald Bowl!”
Cute, but that isn’t what Ralph said. Fridge didn’t say that the Emerald Bowl would be a boon to recruiting. Who’s doing the spinning here? All he said was that it would be nice for his players– not for himself– to be able to go out with a win after all they’ve had to deal with over the course of the season. Is that so hard to believe? I’m no expert on Maryland football, but that team suffered a lot of injuries this year and came under some pretty intense scrutiny from fans and the media. So yes, it would be a real reward to go out with a win after all that.
Perhaps the most offensive thing that Heller wrote– and I use “offensive” deliberately– is his description of smaller bowl games as “a way to extend a pointless season.” Pointless to whom? Grumpy columnists? It certainly isn’t pointless to the players. These players sacrifice their time and their bodies year-round for the opportunity to get onto the field. Try telling the seniors on these teams that their season, and that last bowl game, is “pointless.” How can anyone who has ever played any kind of organized sport not appreciate the desire to get onto the field one last time with your brothers? Cynics describe major college football as the NFL’s minor league, but that isn’t the truth. There are 32 teams in the NFL. There are 120 teams in I-A football. For the overwhelming majority of seniors, that bowl game is their last opportunity to suit up not only for their school, but for anyone. College athletes get four short years. Consider that most players don’t really see the field until their junior or senior year, and it gets even shorter. There is no such thing as a pointless game or a pointless season. College careers are too short to take any game for granted. Not only that, but bowl games are so much more than just the games themselves. The teams show up a week early, get treated like kings, get shown around town, get some serious swag, and basically get a key to the city. Players at the Poinsettia Bowl got PSPs. Other bowl games gave clothes, watches, iPods, sunglasses, XM radios, and more. Why would anyone want to take all this away from the players? It is supposed to be all about the players, right?
One of these “pointless” bowl games could be coming to Heller’s backyard next year if the DC Bowl Commission has its way. We will no doubt see another column then, as Heller will lament its creation for all the same reasons he listed here. But as you’re in your seat in either RFK or the new Nationals ballpark next year, watching the Mids take the field after you’ve spent a week around town with friends and classmates celebrating Navy football, you’ll know the truth. The truth is that bowl games are a great thing for those who get involved. If you don’t like them, don’t watch them. It isn’t that hard.
But it’s your loss.