For nearly a half-century, roughly from the early 1960s until just recently, the best time of year for a serious fan of college football was always the bowl season.
Why? Simple. We didn't have playoffs at the major-college level, but at least we had the array of postseason bowls that gave us many meaningful, scrumptious matchups, often between teams that otherwise would never meet.
And in most cases, the games truly provided a motivational climax for the participants, along with thousands of their fans. Air Force, for example, relished the challenge of facing Texas in the 1985 Bluebonnet, Virginia Tech in the 1984 Independence and Ohio State in the 1990 Liberty bowls. And as longtime AFA followers recall, the Falcons won all three.
But many other bowl games created instant memories, mainly because they meant so much to the players, coaches and fans. I remember covering Colorado State in the 1994 Holiday Bowl against Michigan, and even though CSU lost the game (24-14) at San Diego, just having the chance to play one of the nation's elite programs was a fulfilling experience.
Alas, it's usually not that way anymore. Some say it's because we have far too many bowls, creating a glut of games that cheapen their overall significance. Others believe the cost of fans traveling to bowls has become so inflated that nobody wants to go, and the vast expanses of empty seats in bowl stadiums have become an embarrassment.
If you ask me, there's another factor. Time after time in today's world, the chaos of coaching turnover and frantic musical chairs of coaches changing jobs has rendered many bowls useless, or at best afterthoughts.
Let's examine just a few examples in the just-completed bowl season, and how one school can start a snowball effect.
Southern Cal, before its bowl in Las Vegas against Fresno State, informed interim coach Ed Orgeron (who had replaced Lane Kiffin during the season) that he wouldn't get the permanent job, so he left. USC named another interim coach, hired Steve Sarkisian away from Washington, and still won its bowl. But the media focus was on the coaching carousel.
Washington, meanwhile, hired Chris Pedersen from Boise State, leaving Boise with an interim coach for its bowl loss to Oregon State. Boise hired Bryan Harsin of Arkansas State, which then played its third straight bowl with an interim coach.
The other big story in December was Mack Brown retiring at Texas, and who might replace him. Those rumors touched at least three other prominent coaches and their schools, putting a damper on their bowl excitement. It's not a coincidence that Art Briles and Baylor lost the Fiesta Bowl, David Shaw and Stanford lost the Rose Bowl, and Mike Gundy and Oklahoma State lost the Cotton Bowl.
In the end, Texas snapped up Louisville's Charlie Strong — but not until after Louisville's impressive bowl win over Miami.
We also have seen an increase in teams losing players for their bowls over academic issues, usually because they quit going to classes after the regular season without the daily routine of closer supervision.
With the advent next year of a four-team playoff, several games will be more significant because they'll lead to a more legitimate national champion. But there's still the annual problem of coaches starting games of musical chairs, and all the non-playoff bowls having trouble filling seats.
There's not an easy answer, because schools can't afford to wait in filling coaching vacancies during the critical recruiting time. The solution might be a larger playoff field and fewer bowls, because then the postseason would carry meaning (like the NFL playoffs) and coaches would be less likely to bolt for their next job until the games are done.
But anything like that would be several more years away, which leaves us stuck with a lot of bowl games that mean less and less, while the stable programs with entrenched coaches take advantage — such as Michigan State, Oklahoma, Missouri and Central Florida, all bowl winners.
Maybe the playoffs will lead to something better. We can only hope.
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