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Every Rose Has Its Thorn: Tom Hansen Charts the Course Back to the Future

Tom Hansen, the commissioner of the Pac-10, was unequivocal in his declaration: "Our presidents have no interest whatsoever in a plus-one model---none. It's a little annoying that my colleagues continue to float this idea as though it has merit. If they continue to push it, and try to push us into a corner . . ."

The unspoken threat hovering at the end of that unfinished sentence did not remain unspoken for long. Asked if the Pac-10 would turn its back on the B.C.S. and restore the old order whereby the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions annually met in the Rose Bowl, Hansen replied, "Yes, no question."

Naturally, Hansen's firm stand provoked responses, from the favorable to the unfavorable to the constructively critical. Among those whose views were aired was Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel, whose writing is typified by ignorance, laziness, and willful outrageousness.

Stewart Mandel deserves to be taken about as seriously as Howie Mandel. Actually, that's unfair to Howie, who at least has the role of Dr. Wayne Fiscus on his resume.

True to form, Mandel offered the following attempted animadversions against the Pac-10 commissioner:

Pac-10 commissioner Thomas C. Hansen . . . is what you might call an "ultra-traditionalist." . . . He's been around long enough to remember when only the conference's champion went to a bowl game and nobody really cared about the "true" national champion.

From his comments over the past few years, one gets the impression he'd gladly return to those days in a heartbeat.

Some of Mandel's nonsense already has been debunked by Senator Blutarsky, but I'd like to go a bit beyond that and state that what Mandel intends as insults are, in fact, to Hansen's credit.

What is not to Hansen's credit, however, is that danged song.

A "plus-one" game is a bad idea. League tie-ins that send particular conference champions to specific bowl games are a good thing. Conference championships do matter more than national titles.

This heritage of college football bowl games is deeply ingrained in the fabric of the sport itself. This is why, although the Pac-10 and the S.E.C. often disagree with one another, the two leagues are in one accord upon this issue.

The problem with college football isn't that it contains too few of the elements of a playoff; the problem is that it contains too many. Ultra-traditionalists like Tom Hansen and me agree that a return to the sport's historic bowl tie-ins would be for the best. As I have stated consistently, I would rather go back to spending New Year's Day enjoying numerous games that mattered on their own merits because they pitted top teams against one another, any one of which might have an effect, directly or indirectly, upon the national championship.

One such glorious year was 1983, when No. 1 Nebraska lost to No. 5 Miami by one point in the Orange Bowl, No. 2 Texas lost to No. 7 Georgia by one point in the Cotton Bowl, and No. 3 Auburn beat No. 8 Michigan by two points in the Sugar Bowl. Another such season came in 2003, when, despite the best efforts of the Bowl Championship Series to upset the old order, the historic and right outcome came to pass.

No. 1-ranked Pac-10 champion Southern California met No. 4-ranked Big Ten champion Michigan in the Rose Bowl. No. 2-ranked S.E.C. champion Louisiana State met No. 3-ranked Big 12 runner-up Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. The fans got to watch two good games and, afterwards, the voters decided. In each instance, more than one postseason clash mattered because contests throughout the season carried consequences in a way they simply do not in the sports that playoff proponents wish to emulate in spite of those sports' shortcomings along those lines.

83-78 in the regular season. World champions. Something's wrong with this picture.

In a posting linked to above (the "unfavorable" response to Hansen's remarks), my colleague TH from Carolina March noted: "It was only in 1947 that the game became a Pac-10 Big-10 affair. But that's the tradition everybody waxes rhapsodic about."

That statement is true as far as it goes, but it only goes so far. On New Year's Day 1902, the first Rose Bowl pitted current Pac-10 member Stanford against Michigan, which already was in its sixth season of play in the Big Ten. Aside from aberrational appearances by Mare Island during the war years of 1917 and 1918, every subsequent Rose Bowl prior to the 2001 season featured one of the 10 teams that now comprise the West Coast B.C.S. conference.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that an historic practice that began in the first year of the 20th century and continued uninterrupted, but for two years during which special circumstances arose due to a world war, until the first year of the 21st century qualifies as a tradition. (The 1942 Rose Bowl, played in Durham, N.C., between second-ranked Duke and 12th-ranked Oregon State, likewise represents a one-time deviation from the norm due to wartime travel restrictions, but this no more undermines the Pasadena-based tradition than the post-Hurricane Katrina relocation of the Sugar Bowl to Atlanta tainted the heritage of the postseason contest in New Orleans.)

Although East Coast powers from the Ivy League frequently showed up in early Rose Bowls, as did Southern squads from the 1920s through the 1940s, the periodic involvement of the Big Ten was present from the outset, as Ohio State made its first appearance in the Granddaddy of 'Em All following the 1920 campaign and current Big Ten member Penn State made the westward trek at the end of the 1922 season.

I believe Joe Paterno was in his seventh year as the head coach of the Nittany Lions at that point.

Admittedly, I'd be appreciative if the Rose Bowl went back to inviting Southern squads with regularity. Alabama made six postseason trips to Pasadena between the 1925 and 1945 seasons. Southeastern Conference charter members Georgia Tech, Tennessee, and Tulane all appeared in the Tournament of Roses, too, as did my alma mater, as well.

I'd love to see Georgia return to the Rose Bowl, where the Bulldogs won their first consensus national title on New Year's Day 1943. That, though, is a selfish desire which cannot be fulfilled, in any case . . . not as long as the "double-hosting" model (read: precursor to the "plus-one" model) segregates the so-called "B.C.S. Championship Game" from the Fiesta, Orange, Rose, and Sugar Bowls.

What we can have, however, is the Sugar Bowl. The formal arrangement whereby the S.E.C. champion annually traveled to the Superdome did not go into effect until the 1976 season, when Georgia became the first Southeastern Conference squad to take New Orleans up on its offer. That does not mean, however, that the ties between the league and the bowl game in the Big Easy do not run deep.

In the year following the founding of the S.E.C., conference champion Tulane took on Pop Warner's previously unbeaten Temple team in a hometown game in the Pelican State. L.S.U. played in three of the first four Sugar Bowls; Johnny Vaught took eight of his Ole Miss teams to the game before any formal tie-in ever existed; Georgia's Sugar Bowl legacy dates back to the Bulldogs' national championship 1946 season.

Last year, Michigan fans found themselves in the bizarre position of being disappointed at the prospect of playing Southern California in the Rose Bowl. Think about that for a minute. Michigan playing Southern California in the Rose Bowl epitomizes college football. If our tinkering with the system has produced a state of affairs in which a team finds itself dejected by the attainment of its historic goal, then matters have gotten too far afield already.

Do you think Bo was ever disappointed about having to spend New Year's Day in Pasadena?

Stewart Mandel believes Tom Hansen wants to turn back the clock. Regarding a subject of rather greater importance even than college football, C.S. Lewis answered this charge:

First, as to putting the clock back. Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? But I would rather get away from that whole idea of clocks. We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when doing arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.

Tom Hansen is right. Between a full-blown playoff and the B.C.S., I'll take the B.C.S. . . . in exactly the same way that, between grief and nothing, William Faulkner would take grief. That, though, was Faulkner at his most dour, and I prefer Faulkner at his most sanguine, in Stockholm, where he said:
I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

I decline to accept the end of college football. The sportswriter's, the blogger's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help college football endure by lifting its heart, by reminding it of the tradition and heritage which have been the glory of its past. Tom Hansen's voice need not merely be the record of the game, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help it endure and prevail.

Go 'Dawgs!