If members of the Missouri football team were worried about missing out on the festivities that Dec. 25 offers, they can rest easy.
The Tigers were forced to leave the comforts of home on Christmas Day in order to get to Shreveport, La. for their Independence Bowl match with South Carolina.
But they might have walked right into perhaps the one American institution more hyped and commercialized than the Christmas season: the college football bowl season.
While the controversial Bowl Championship Series system and the sometimes-ridiculous names given to various bowl games (i.e. - Chic-fil-A Peach Bowl) have usually garnered the most attention when discussing the college football postseason, the atmosphere surrounding the bowl games — a cacophony of activities, events and meet-and-greets — have seemed to take on a life of their own in recent years.
Take the Independence Bowl, for example. Here is what was scheduled for the Missouri football team between its arrival in Shreveport and Friday’s game against South Carolina: The team will take home a bundle of goodies (items include apparel, a commemorative game ball, a bowl ring and a $220 gift card to Circuit City), visit a children’s hospital and an air force base, enjoy countless free meals, and retire each evening to some of the city’s finest hotel accommodations.
All this for a team that finished the regular season a rather mediocre 6-5 and whose “big” wins came against a lowly Nebraska team and a struggling Iowa State squad.
Such is the nature of the new college football bowl, where the outcomes of games have become seemingly overshadowed by the hoopla and the build-up surrounding the contests, and where even the bottom-feeders of the college football world can be treated like kings for a week in December so long as they manage to win at least one more game than they lose.
This holiday season, television viewers across the country can tune into to see each and every one of the 28 Division I-A bowl games. Fans of the sport will receive countless updates from various sports Web sites, and will be showered with bowl preview and analysis before the games even begin.
In other words, what was once a sacred privilege, bestowed upon only the most deserving of football teams, has morphed into a week-long affair where the most interesting storylines aren’t necessarily found on the gridiron.
“You see the bowl week, the ESPN highlights, and it’s obviously built up a lot more,” says Missouri wide receivers coach Andy Hill, who experienced his first bowl game as a freshman on the Missouri team that lost to Purdue in the 1980 Liberty Bowl. “And I think with the BCS, it’s a good build up, and I think a lot of people still like to see bowl games…But it does seem like there’s a lot more hype.”
While there are still those, such as Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who believe that the basic gist of the bowl game atmosphere has remained constant over the past few decades. Many feel the college football bowl system (and the hype surrounding it) has gone changed throughout the years. Since the 1986-87 college football season, the number of bowl games has increased from 17 to 28, meaning that 56 (or nearly half of Division I-A teams) will qualify for a bowl each year. This season, ESPN and the four major networks will air each of the 28 games, from the Texas-Southern California Rose Bowl showdown on Jan. 4 all the way down to the Dec. 20 New Orleans Bowl meeting between Southern Mississippi and Arkansas State.
For the major players in college football, teams like Texas, Miami, Notre Dame, and Penn State, the bowl season offers a final opportunity to move up a spot or two in the final Top 25 poll. But for teams not blessed with the success of the country’s top programs, the bowl week experience has almost turned into a week-long, all-expense paid vacation.
Almost as soon as Missouri arrived in Shreveport this week, players and coaches were given individual baskets of gifts from Independence Bowl officials, a show of gratitude from the Shreveport brass. And this practice is certainly not unique to the Independence Bowl.
Gifts from various bowls have ranged from clothing – sweatsuits, T-shirts and shoes – to watches, luggage, and home entertainment products. In 2003, Missouri players received portable DVD players, and last season, members of the national champion University of Southern California football team were christened with TiVo systems before going on to defeat Oklahoma 55-19 in the Orange Bowl.
In some cases, players have even had a hand in deciding what the bowl week gifts would be most appropriate.
“I remember a couple of years ago, and my memory is a little funky on some of this,” says Bruce Feldman, who covers college football for ESPN The Magazine. “But Miami had won the Big East quite a bit, and their players got together and they almost kind of voted on what they wanted. They didn’t want Big East (championship) rings because they thought they were going to get national championship rings. They were like ‘Yeah, we don’t want that’. So I don’t know if they awarded (the players) DVD players or what it was, but it was something that, at the time, seemed like a pretty good perk.”
Stories like these have become commonplace. Tales of massive team feasts or certain players’ eating exploits, like the time the Pittsburgh football team allegedly ate a collective 700 pounds of steak during one bowl-week binge are often recalled with more precision than on-the-field exploits.
Many point to the growing media market as the reason for the heightened importance surrounding bowl games. With the emergence of ESPN, talk radio, and the Internet over the past few decades, the forum for sports discussion has bloomed.
At the same time, the increased hype surrounding bowl games could be explained as a byproduct of the games’ importance. With the inception of the BCS in 1996, final rankings have been done at the conclusion of the bowl schedule. That makes the games, at least for teams with a shot at a Top 25 ranking, a more important objective. In an era in which bowl trophies and BCS rankings are dangled in front of potential recruits, many teams have ditched the laid-back approach for a shot at gaining some extra prominence for their program.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who played on the University of Florida team that lost to Missouri in the 1965 Cotton Bowl before going on to win a national titles as coach of the Gators, is one of these people.
“There is more importance on the games since they started voting on them,” Spurrier said. “In the old days, you played your season and if you were lucky, you were invited to a bowl game. It was just tough luck if you were not invited. It has changed a lot. The games now are more important since they vote on the Top 25 after the bowl games.”
Some argue, though, that the increased number of college football bowl games has diminished the prominence of reaching the postseason. This season, 13 bowl teams finished the regular season with 6-5 records, the worst record (technically) that a team can post and still qualify for a bowl.
“When I was a real little kid, growing up in the 70s, you’d see these games that were on Dec. 26 and Dec. 22, and it was a big deal because it was football on a Tuesday night or football on a Thursday night,” Feldman says. “And in some sense now, because of ESPN and just because of the way things are, you can watch football any night of the week. And I think that the luster of that has kind of worn off a little bit. Some of it has been jaded a little bit with all the bowl games.”
Two weeks ago, as Missouri players filed off the field following a low-key Friday afternoon practice, how and why the team arrived at that point, and commercialized storm it was about to walk into didn’t appear important. For a group of Missouri players that, in 2005, experienced the death of a teammate, played most of the season under a coach who many figured would be handed a pink slip at the conclusion of the season, and barely remained bowl eligible after dropping three of their last four games, maybe a vacation is exactly what was in order.
“For me, it’s just being there, being in that atmosphere,” said junior receiver Brad Ekwerekwu. “Knowing there’s a good team out there. The hype of a bowl game, you know, playing on national TV while everyone else is at home, that’s pretty amazing.”