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Greased Pigs to Playoffs: The Evolution of College Bowl Games

December 30, 2015

Greased Pigs to Playoffs: The Evolution of College Bowl Games

By Bob D’Angelo, Smack Zone Cotributor

And to think, the college bowl system that has evolved over the last century got its start with participants chasing greased pigs.

It’s true. On January 1, 1890, members of the Valley Hunt Club paraded through the streets of Pasadena with flower-draped horse and buggies. It was the first Tournament of Roses parade, and soon after the pig chasing contests were introduced during ensuing years, officials found a better alternative to publicize the event.

Pigskins, college football style.

On New Year’s Day 1902, Michigan met Stanford at Tournament Park and cruised to a 49-0 victory. The college bowl system was born and would flourish until 1998, when the BCS system was implemented to determine a national champion. That has since been replaced by a four-team playoff, which will enter its second year in January.

It’s true, bowl games before 1998 rarely matched the top two teams in the nation; between 1936 and 1992 (when the first bowl coalition began), the top two teams met eight times out of 57 seasons. And the advent of the BCS meant that No. 1 faced No. 2 thanks to an intricate system of human opinion and computerized fact.

But there was something charming about the old bowl system. It was conceived as a reward for teams who excelled and won their conferences during the season. The bowls had locked-in conference ties. You knew the Rose Bowl would pit the winner of the Big Ten against the Pac-10 champion, and that one Sugar Bowl berth would be claimed by the Southeastern Conference titlist. The Orange Bowl normally featured the Big Eight champion, while the Cotton Bowl showcased the Southwest Conference winner.

It also was rewarding for the teams and conferences represented in bowl games. Before the BCS, bowl revenue was shared only by the conferences playing in the game. So, if the SEC had a strong year and six teams went to bowl games, that was a huge boost to that conference’s balance sheet.

Bowl games also were a huge financial lure for the cities that hosted them. Warm-weather venues were appealing to football teams and their fans, who longed for a mid-winter break from snow and bitter cold. Cities like Miami and New Orleans played up their warm, sunny climates to the hilt. Since the Orange Bowl had a tie-in with the Big Eight, that meant that schools from the upper Midwest would travel south in droves to fill up Miami’s hotels, eat at its restaurants and shop at its stores. It was a boon to the city’s economy, and bowl officials made sure the team (and its fans) had a great time.

Other warm-weather cities followed suit, like Tampa (Outback Bowl); El Paso, Texas (Sun Bowl); and Tempe, Arizona (Fiesta Bowl). Cuba even got into the act, hosting a game in Havana in 1937 between Auburn and Villanova in the appropriately named Bacardi Bowl.

Bowl games provided teams a chance to bond and enjoy a nice vacation. Certainly, some teams were still in the hunt for a national title, but many were not and were eager to have a good time. Bowling outings, trips to tourist attractions and photo opportunities were commonplace.

In December 1983, Iowa visited Jacksonville to face Florida in the Gator Bowl. The night before the game, Iowa hosted a dinner for players, fans, media and friends in the Jacksonville Coliseum. It was all the steak you can eat, and while no numbers were released, there was a lot of beef consumed that night.

Sometimes, teams take a bowl game too seriously. The 1987 Fiesta Bowl, which pitted No. 1 Miami vs. No. 2 Penn State, was hyped as the “Duel in the Desert.” On the flight to Arizona, Hurricanes players changed into military-style fatigues to play up the “war” element of the game.

The battle plan backfired, and Penn State won the game 14-10 to take the national title.

Bowl games have had some great names, like the Raisin Bowl in Fresno, California; Tampa’s Cigar Bowl; the Camellia Bowl in Lafayette, Louisiana; and an all-time favorite in Phoenix — the Salad Bowl.

The biggest weakness of bowl games were also a strength — the tie-in to conferences. Because of that, a No. 1 team from the Big Ten, for example, had to play in the Rose Bowl. And if No. 2 was not from the Pac-10, then a true, head-to-head national title game would not be played.

That has changed now with the four-team playoff system. There are no more mythical national champions.

But the bowl experience remains a strong one, a time for cities to show civic pride and tout their area.

No more greased pig chases, though. And that’s a shame.

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