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The Bowls: A Historical Perspective

Tuesday, January 21, 2014



[This story is part one of a series of stories which chronicle the evolution of college football's postseason. This series originally appeared in the Official Game Program for the 2014 Allstate Sugar Bowl.]


Part 1: The Bowls: A Historical Perspective
Part 2: The Father of the BCS
Part 3: Looking Back at the BCS
Part 4: The College Football Playoff and the Allstate Sugar Bowl

The Bowls: A Historical PerspectiveBump.

That's the sound of James H. Wagner, Fred Digby, and Earnie Seiler, all trying to sit up in their respective final resting places.

Those enterprising gentlemen, visionary, hard-working and altruistic, were the driving forces in the Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls. In other words, the linchpins of what has become college football's postseason.

For the better part of a century, the major football festivals known as "bowls'' gave the sport panaché, a holiday bonus where teams and fans could experience the excitement of a colorful and far away setting.

And what was the reward for the labor of Messrs Wagner, Digby and Seiler? A sturdy stage for the sport, immense civic pride to the communities where the bowls are anchored, billions of dollars in tourism business and billions of dollars to college football programs, all contributing mightily to the growth of the sport itself.

The color and pageantry of these Bowls represent the tradition - the lifeblood of the sport - as much as anything or anyone that lined up on a field.

Change, however, is now in the air.

All their work, all the tradition that has been built up in the 112 years since the first Rose Bowl was played, is being transformed as next year will welcome the College Football Playoff.


Bowl games have always been the signposts of college football history, the markers of where the game is, or was, at a particular point in time, and where it seemed to be going.

The game of football grew up with the bowls, and the postseason exhibitions - which is what they were intended to be for most of their existences - also grew exponentially with the growing popularity of the sport.

Wagner (pictured, left) was the source of the pageantry that became the hallmark of postseason college football. But even his contributions rested on the shoulders of Professor Charles Frederick Holder.

First things first. Holder, a Massachusetts-born naturalist, moved to California in 1885 for two reasons: the climate, and to teach zoology at the Throop College of Technology (now Cal Tech). In 1888, Holder, with newspaper clippings in hand telling of a great blizzard that hit New York, addressed the membership of the Valley Hunt Club of Pasadena.

"Gentlemen," Holder intoned, "I came from the East to this beautiful area for my health. I found it here. I also discovered happiness and beauty. In New York, people are buried in snow. Here our flowers are blooming and our oranges are about to bear. Let's have a festival and tell the world about our paradise."

That was the beginning of the Tournament of Roses, starting in 1890 with a promenade of horse-pulled buggies festooned with flowers winding its way through the quaint village. It went on to include foot races, bicycle races and even a tug of war.

To say this was the start of something big doesn't begin to do the phrase justice.

The parade drew exactly the kind of attention for which it was intended, quickly becoming a major California tourist draw. But the sports program was nothing more than a sideshow - until the dynamic Wagner became president of the Tournament of Roses Association in 1901 and added football to the list by pairing Fielding H. Yost's undefeated Michigan team against Stanford (pictured right).

At Tournament Park, a crowd of approximately 8,500 filled the stands as the Wolverines trounced the Cardinal, 49-0.

The game netted nearly $4,000, which was even more than Wagner's guarantee to the two schools, so financially his concept was a success. Artistically, however, it was anything but. Let's face it, Michigan's prowess, and/or Stanford's ineptness made for a pretty dull outing that wasn't going to have fans rushing out to buy tickets for another game.

Football was replaced by polo matches, chariot races and even ostrich races.  Problem was those events drew scant attention from the press in the East, which is where the Tournament of Roses wanted it most.

"We'd better go back to football," suggested Francis F. Rowland, who, with the help of President Lewis H. Turner, set up a committee to create a colossal football game - "So Pasadena can give the newspapermen from coast to coast something to write about."

In what could have been a disaster, played in wet and cold weather, in the permanent return of football of 1916, Washington State defeated Brown 14-0 before a crowd of 7,000. Nonetheless, the Rose Association actually lost $11,000 on that game.

Still, the organization made the astute decision that football had more combined appeal as a festival feature than any other sporting presentation.  Rose Bowl football was here to stay, and would become a major influence in the direction of college football.

During the 1930s, when football was entrenched in the consciousness of the nation, other warm-weather locations realized putting on a holiday festival featuring the popular sport was a way to draw visitors to their cities.

Earnie Seiler (left), the City of Miami's recreation director, and Fred Digby (right), a hard-working New Orleans sports editor, would pay attention to Pasadena's pioneering venture.  Seiler was the acknowledged ramrod of the Orange Bowl, and Digby, along with attorney Warren Miller, spearheaded a crusade to bring a similar holiday game to New Orleans.

Both had some starts and stops, even some minor games, before the big attractions took root in 1935, almost two decades after the Washington State-Brown game that cemented Rose Bowl football. But visionaries Digby and Seiler believed fervently that their creations could be successful.

On Jan. 1, 1935, Tulane defeated Temple 20-14 before 22,206 fans in the first Sugar Bowl, and Bucknell beat Miami 26-0 before 5,135 fans in the first Orange Bowl.

A year later, the Sun Bowl was started and, in 1937, the (now defunct) Bacardi Bowl and the first Cotton Bowls were played.

All told, more than 200,000 fans attended bowl games on that first day of 1937.

Ironically, the NCAA had just adopted a report saying postseason games and their commercialism had no place in college football.  But an Associated Press report noting the six holiday games and their attractiveness ran a story with the headline: "Bowl Grid Games Are Here to Stay."

In the following years, the popularity of postseason football was manifested in the growth of the stadiums in which they were played. The Orange Bowl expanded from 23,000 to 76,000; the Cotton Bowl grew from 45,000 to 67,000; the Sugar Bowl (right) ballooned from 23,000 to 80,000; and even the Rose Bowl went from 57,000 in 1921 to 92,542.

These football get-togethers were in high demand.

In the meantime, the NCAA continued to fume about the "wrongs" of college football, including bowl games. From the late '30s onward, there was a faction of the organization that opposed recruiting, financial aid for athletes - and bowls. The charges were manifested in a series of bills called "The Sanity Code." Its supporters thought bowls fostered crass commercialism and a win-at-all-costs mentality.

Ultimately, the Sanity Code was defeated, though a need was acknowledged for enforcement of the rules, hence the strengthening of NCAA regulations and the organization's ability to oversee them.

But bowl games remained on firm ground.

About the time bowls came into vogue, another bonding factor in the popularity of college football came to the fore: polls, which ranked the quality of programs across the country. Almost nothing was more intoxicating to the average fan of a given school than to see his team ranked among the sport's elite.

Of course, there had been polls almost from the beginning, but they were generally comprised of mathematical equations formulated by one or two men, or by word of mouth on the prowess of any given team. Actually seeing and evaluating teams was nearly impossible. All most pollsters could witness were teams in their own backyards - meaning they had very little credibility.

But, in 1936, Alan Gould, the Associated Press' national sports editor, changed everything. He invented the AP Poll and weekly polled sports editors of AP newspapers to determine the rankings.

He later said, "It was a case of thinking up ideas to develop interest and controversy. Papers wanted material to fill space between games. That's all I had in mind, something to keep the pot boiling...This was just another exercise in hoopla."

For a decade and a half, the AP was the definitive decree on football rankings . . .  until a new national news-gathering organization came on the scene: United Press International.

Leo Peterson, UPI's answer to Mr. Gould, countered the AP system with a poll voted upon by active football coaches. And unlike the AP, each section of the country would be represented with five voters apiece.

No sectional bias in our ballots was the message here.

For the next half-century, the Coaches' Poll, which went through several iterations, and the AP's Writers' Poll, offered their own rankings - and champions.

Here was the crux: while other polls often had differing views it didn't matter because few paid much attention. But the wire services were different. Everyone who read newspapers knew when there were opposing opinions, and there were plenty.  Eleven times between 1950 and 1997 the wire services touted different No. 1 teams at the end of the year.

It took some time, but as more and more fans started calling for a national champion everyone could agree on, a convergence of bowls and polls was on the horizon.

In an effort to pair the best two teams in the country, spurred in part by yet another split national championship with Miami (AP) and Washington (Coaches), college football went through a series of formulas to do just that. The Bowl Coalition (1992-1994) morphed into the Bowl Alliance (1995-97), in which another dual title between Michigan (AP) and Nebraska (Coaches) marred the experiment, and then the Bowl Championship Series (1998-2014), in which a series of computers were added to the "eye-tests" of the AP and Coaches polls.

The first two were flawed largely because the Pac-10, Big Ten and Rose Bowl were not part of the system, meaning the outcomes may not have been truly "national." So how did it work when the Rose Bowl components were solved?  Consider: for 57 years after the AP Poll was established, only nine times had No. 1 played No. 2 in the bowls. Once the BCS formula was in place, for 15 straight years, No. 1 and No. 2 played to settle the issue on the field - though arriving at the rankings could still be thorny.  In 2003, when the BCS formula had LSU No. 1 and Oklahoma No. 2, the AP had USC on top.

AP was so piqued that it was no longer the loudest voice on the subject, it pulled itself out of the BCS balloting.

From there, despite the fact the two consensus best teams were being paired, criticism seemed to mount from every corner, which led us to where we are today, with one more BCS champion to be crowned before the start of a four-team playoff system next year, when all eyes will be fixed on two semifinal games and a championship game that is being bid out to interested cities just like the NFL's Super Bowl.

From those humble and colorful beginnings in Pasadena, Miami and New Orleans to what is today a thriving, money-driven industry - postseason college football has come a long, long way. Wonder what Wagner, Seiler and Digby would think?


Story by Sugar Bowl historian Marty Mulé, an award-winning sportswriter who covered college football and the Sugar Bowl for the New Orleans Times-Picayune for 33 years.

 











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