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A Brief History of Bowl Games (Part IV)

In recent days, I have traced the history of college football bowl games from 1901 to 1968, from 1968 to 1995, and from 1995 to the present.  As a strong proponent of the bowl system, I see no fundamental problems underlying college football's postseason arrangement, but, even so, there are lessons to be learned from history that may help the sport to recognize and avoid potential pitfalls in the future.  

Our tendency as college football fans is to think of our own era as an unusually volatile period in which new bowl games rise and fall faster than we are able to follow.  Just last Wednesday, a new Space City-based postseason tilt was given permission to replace the Houston Bowl, marking "the fifth new game approved by the NCAA Postseason Football Licensing Subcommittee since the end of last season" and bringing to 32 the number of Division I-A bowl games.  This means that, in 2006, college football's postseason field will include 64 teams, just as the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament does.  

At this rate, it won't be long before this creepy-looking maniac is offering us advice on how to fill out our college football bowl brackets.

The addition of the Birmingham Bowl, the International Bowl, the New Mexico Bowl, and a pair of unnamed tilts (the successor to the Houston Bowl and the fifth B.C.S. game in Glendale, Ariz.) suggests that the situation is growing increasingly unstable and is on the road to becoming untenable.  Historically, however, the rapid creation and collapse of second-tier bowl games is not a novel phenomenon.  

Between the 1920 and 1950 college football seasons, 22 new bowl games were established . . . and 16 of them ceased to exist within short periods thereafter.  Of the 30 postseason tilts created in the first two-thirds of the 20th century, just eight continue to be played today.  Among the 32 college football contests slated to take place following the conclusion of the 2006 regular season, three-fourths of them debuted during my lifetime.  The bowl lineup has always been a work in progress hallmarked by fluidity as much as by tradition.  

The advent of named corporate sponsorship---culminating in the decision to rechristen the ninth-oldest present-day postseason outing, the Peach Bowl, "the Chick-fil-A Bowl"---is viewed as a recent infestation sullying the good name of the sport.  While it is true that company logos have become a bit too prominent and omnipresent in bowl games, title sponsors also are not new to college football in the broader sense of the term.  

The Cotton Bowl has historic ties to the Cotton Council.  The Rose Bowl blossomed out of the Tournament of Roses, but football originally was very much secondary to the celebration of California flora.  The eventual success of Pasadena's postseason event inspired the Greater Miami Athletic Association to turn the Orange Bowl into the site of a Palm Festival whose theme was "Have a Green Christmas in Miami."  Although early bowl games' names tended to be unobtrusive references to the contests' host sites and the surrounding regions' staple crops, the tie between local business interests and postseason outings was always there.  

I'm shocked at the rise of crass commercialism in college football in recent years!  By the way, did you catch that 1907 Bacardi Bowl between L.S.U. and Havana University?

When it comes to college bowl games, therefore, it is fair to claim that, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  The problems inherent in the sport's postseason are not fundamentally different today from those the game encountered in the 1930s, but the tradition of these games dates back to the turn of the 20th century.  Put another way, a person born on the day the first Rose Bowl was played would have qualified for Social Security retirement benefits before the first Super Bowl was played.  

Since bowl games are too deeply ingrained in college football to be cast aside at this late date, then, what must the sport do to preserve the integrity of its postseason?  It seems to me that four changes are needed . . . but, since I have been warned recently about going on too long in a single posting, I will opt for a cliffhanger ending and save my remedial suggestions for tomorrow.

To be continued. . . .

Go 'Dawgs!