Skip to main content
Original Issue


In their haste to get their dance cards filled, the panicky postseason game committees sent out invitations in early November, only to wind up with teams tarnished by undistinguished records

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 All Bo wants is justice, and for the Big Ten—and, while they're at it, the Pacific Eight—to change their outdated bowl policy and let the world know there are other teams worth seeing on New Year's Day besides Ohio State and USC.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.

Bowl teams floundered to the end of the season. Florida, Georgia (Tangerine), Texas Tech (Peach) and Oklahoma State (Fiesta) lost two of their last three. On the final Saturday, the Alabama-Notre Dame rematch was soured when the Irish were stunned by USC 55-24 on national television. Houston, headed for the Astro-Bluebonnet, was done in by Tulsa, headed nowhere. When it was all over, Georgia and Oklahoma State had lost five games, North Carolina and Texas Tech had lost four and 10 teams had lost three. The cumulative winning percentage of everyone involved is .745, the lowest since 1945.

Worse, the early commitment slammed the door on fast finishers, some of them new blood trying to get a reputation in a got-to-have-a-reputation world. Tulsa won its last seven in a row. Arizona won four straight and finished 9-2. Boston College won its last six, out-scoring opponents 270 to 27, and inspiring Holy Cross' Ed Doherty to say, "This is the best Boston College team in history, and it should be representing New England in some bowl." Arizona, like Tulsa, was ignored, and New England remains unrepresented.

It is no secret that NCAA officials have long favored a playoff system that included the bowls. They have been regularly rebuffed. Coaches object, conferences object, schools object. The bowls won't buy such a plan because it would be the death of them. ("What will we do those three or four years waiting for our turn for the championship game?" says William H. Nicholas of the Rose Bowl.) The NCAA's response has been to act abused and petulant, and to elevate itself above the problem.

Says Assistant Executive Director Tom Hansen: "We get sick and tired of people griping about early selection. If the bowls find themselves in chaos...they deserve what they are getting." Continuing this shortsighted assessment, Hansen says the reason "we had so much difficulty [in the past] enforcing bowl-bid legislation was that our membership didn't think [it] important enough to justify the imposition of penalties." Failing to observe a selection date, he says, "just doesn't equate with such violations as changing a player's transcript or giving him a free apartment."

Interestingly enough, Hansen does not say the NCAA cannot enforce a date. He says, in fact, "there would be no particular difficulty in enforcing one, if the NCAA membership wanted it."

In an obvious attempt to ward off future disappointments, the Orange Bowl next year will begin a tie-up with the Big Eight. At that time, its probation over, Oklahoma will be out of the doghouse. The Big Eight will have its champion in a bowl, and perhaps a runner-up or two in other postseason games.

No such salvation awaits Michigan. In recent non-action, the Pac-8 reaffirmed its will to do nothing about bringing its bowl policy into the last half of the 20th century. The Big Ten shuffles along similarly, adhering to what one Midwestern columnist describes as a "policy to constrain rapid advancement toward anything practical and intelligent."

The Rose Bowl's "exclusivity" clause (league runners-up are not allowed to go anywhere) does little to serve college football and, beyond the much trumpeted fact that the Rose pays more, does even less for those Big Ten and Pac-8 teams that are down the ladder of success. Exclusivity, so zealously guarded by bowl sponsors and NBC-TV, encourages a dubious status quo and continuing frustration among the also-rans.

Both leagues are top-heavy. USC is the only Pac-8 team of bowl caliber this year; Michigan and Ohio State have been the only Big Ten contenders the past three, although this year Michigan State came close. The weak got weaker. The Big Ten barely broke even in games outside the conference this fall (16-13-1), although that is an improvement over recent years. The Pac-8 was the only prestige conference that was a loser against outside competition (13-17-2). The Southeastern Conference, by contrast, won 40 and tied two of 50 out-of-league games, an .820 percentage. Eight of its 10 teams had winning records and seven are in bowl games. Much of the same is true of the Southwest Conference, where champion Baylor and also-rans Texas Tech and Texas (not to mention soon-to-be-member Houston) are all in bowls.

Big Ten and Pac-8 coaches who want change argue that exclusivity hurts their recruiting, their alumni support and their attendance. Bob Blackman of Illinois says he has had "kids tell me, 'I know your school may be a little better, but when I visited Ohio State every one of the guys I talked to had on a Rose Bowl ring.' If a kid goes to a Big Eight school, he has a 50-50 chance to go to a big bowl. In the Big Ten, he has a 10% chance."

Not even that. Michigan and Ohio State have been to the Rose Bowl eight straight years. In the Pac-8, where USC is making its seventh Rose appearance in nine years, schools outside California haven't made it in 10 years.

What keeps the Pac-8 and Big Ten in line, of course, is fear, fear that the Rose Bowl and NBC-TV will pull the plug if exclusivity is challenged. Overlooked in this argument is that the Rose Bowl never had a sellout until it tied in with the Big Ten. "If they throw us out," says Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham, "who would they get? Penn State?" It is unlikely NBC would be a party to such a state of affairs. Canham argues that 37% of the nation's television sets are in the Midwest.

"If bowls are worth having," says USC's John McKay, a practical man, "we should go to other bowls."

Certainly a team like Michigan deserves to play somewhere this New Year's weekend. And the fans deserve to see them. "You don't make decisions on dollars and cents alone," says Bo Schembechler. "You make decisions on what is best for the players."

And if you are the NCAA and responsible for the broader view, what is best for college football.


As the ragged file limps to the bowls, Oklahoma and Michigan can only watch and wish.