The Sugar Bowl has picked teams that showcased 23 national champion teams in its long history, more than any other postseason game.
But no other title will be awarded in New Orleans unless a multiplied king’s ransom is forked over to the new Lords of College Football.
In fact, despite its unmatched record in choosing games between the creme of the sport, the game between Oklahoma and Alabama may be the last one in which the Sugar Bowl even picks the participants for its own presentation.
Welcome to college football’s brave new world.
The times they are a-changing.
After one more game between the consensus No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country — the last game of a cluttered postseason field — we’ll have a four-team playoff system, with four semifinal berths subbing for what once were colorful exhibitions designed for nothing more than good football and luring tourists to what to them were exotic locations.
And instead of letting the chips fall where they may with the title being played for wherever the best two teams happen to fall, as it was in its heyday, now the venue will be bid on.
It all has evolved into a crass business deal.
Early vision faded
What would James H. Wagner, Fred Digby and Earnie Seiler think? Those enterprising men, far-sighted, hard-working and altruistic, were the driving forces in the Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls. In other words, the linchpins of what has become the game’s postseason — unique and the showcases of the sport.
The major football festivals known as “bowls’’ gave the sport panache, a holiday veneer to the worthy teams playing in what the athletes and fans perceived as faraway and romantic settings. And the founding pioneers provided a steady stage for the sport, and for their respective cities tons of exposure, immense civic pride to the communities where the bowls are anchored, billions of dollars in tourist business — not to mention billions of dollars to college football programs, which contributed mightily to the growth of college football.
Like everything 112 years old, postseason football has been changing for a while. Now it’s getting almost unrecognizable from the special achievement and holiday exhibitions bowls were for the better part of a century, when bowls were a reward for special seasons.
That’s gone by the wayside. Now instead of a city throwing its gates open, offering its hospitality, and putting on a first-class game between top-tier opponents — exhibitions, really, which is what bowls were intended to be — it’s much more of a money grab by the playoff commissioners. Tampa got the first playoff championship game by pledging $13 million. New Orleans came up with half that — about what it was paying for its BCS membership — and was an also-ran.
Now just call the major bowls system “Money Bowl.’’
The entire postseason seems different. While playing for No. 1 is still a major achievement, it’s no longer even an accomplishment to be invited to a bowl. Practically everybody plays in the postseason. (Does anybody really think there are 78 “special’’ teams out there to fill the 39 bowls, many with those cheesy sponsor names?)
Once was a badge of achievement to say a given school produced a “bowl team,’’ the sport has changed to where the description “bowl team’’ easily could just mean it is mediocre.
Original bowls sparkled
Football wasn’t the obsession at the turn of the 20th century when Wagner became president of the Tournament of Roses (then just a parade in the village of Pasadena (population 4,000) in 1901, as it is today. It was Wagner who suggested a football game between the best they could find.
They paired Fielding Yost’s Michigan Wolverines against Stanford. Michigan ran 111 plays and won 49-0 in a game cut short with most of the fourth quarter to go. The game netted nearly $4,000, which was even more than Wagner’s guarantee to the two schools.
During the 1930s, when football was becoming entrenched in the consciousness of the nation, other warm weather locations realized putting on a holiday festival around the popular sport was a way to draw visitors to their cities during what is generally a slow tourist time.
After a decade of labor, Digby, sports editor of a New Orleans paper, saw the fulfillment of his dream. A thousand miles away, so did Seiler.
On Jan. 1, 1935, when home-standing Tulane defeated Temple 20-14 before 22,206 fans in the first Sugar Bowl, Bucknell beat home-standing Miami 26-0 before 5,135 in the inaugural Orange Bowl.
Bowl popularity kept growing. On the first day of 1937, more than 200,000 fans attended football games.
The Associated Press ran a story noting the six holiday games and their attractiveness with the headline: “Bowl Grid Games Are Here to Stay.’’
A national champion evolves
Since the mid-1930s, the best teams in the country were generally selected not on the field but by the opinions of sportswriters, and coaches. It took the better part of five decades, but more and more fans started calling for a national champion everyone could agree on, instead of the cavalier manner they seemed to be being picked. A convergence of bowls and polls was on the horizon.
In an effort to pair the best two teams in the country, college football went through a series of formulas to do that. The Bowl Coalition (1992-1994) morphed into the Bowl Alliance (1995-97), and then the Bowl Championship Series (1998-2014) in which a series of computers were added to the “eye-test’’ of the AP and coaches polls, all mixed together.
From there, despite the two consensus best teams generally being paired, criticism seemed to come from every corner, mostly concerning schools from bottom-tier conferences that were being left out of the equation.
That led us to where we are today, with one more BCS champion to be crowned before the dawning of yet another new day — one with a motto of “Show Me the Money.’’