' ' Cinema Romantico: The Great Bowl Game Robbery

Saturday, December 09, 2023

The Great Bowl Game Robbery

When people think of garish green jackets, they tend to think of the ones worn by champions of The Masters golf tournament in Augusta, GA. People may not know, however, that the committee members in charge of the Cotton Bowl, the 88-year college football postseason contest in Dallas, Texas wear green jackets too. They wear green jackets like Fiesta Bowl officials wear yellow jackets and Orange Bowl officials wear, well, obviously, making them look like Century 21 agents for college football, selling their own games to teams and conferences. Indeed, if bowl game representatives attending games throughout the year is ostensibly defined as scouting, as the former Fiesta Bowl chairman Bruce Skinner once noted, it is really about sales. That is why bowl games, to quote college football’s great evangelist slash critic Dan Jenkins, are “certainly American,” or more specifically, “museum-quality specimens,” to quote the esteemed Charlie Pierce, “of a kind of lost American ballyhoo.” The goal of bowl games was never really to create the most deserving matchups, only the most appealing, as much about commerce as competition. This became even more acute when the majority of bowls stopped being civic events and exclusively, for all intents and purposes, began functioning as television shows; the jacketed salesmen and saleswomen were thinking of what program would bring the most eyeballs to TV. This is why a pedantic 6-4-1 Notre Dame earned a bid to the 1995 Fiesta Bowl. This is why an 11-1 Kansas State team a breath away from playing for the national championship then got shunted by all the big bowls in 1998; nobody in Manhattan (NY) wanted to watch a team from Manhattan (KS).

The final 4-team college football playoff before it expands to 12 entrants for next season was announced last Sunday. The field included undefeated Michigan and Washington, though undefeated Florida State was eschewed for one-loss Texas and Alabama. From a general perspective, it might seem surprising. After all, FSU was a gridiron powerhouse in the 80s and 90s, and at times in the twenty-tens, last winning a championship in 2014. Even so, this public research university in Tallahassee is a Johnny-come-lately where backroom pigskin politics are concerned, and especially compared to such good ol’ programs like Texas and Alabama. And that is what this playoff committee’s ultimate decision suggests, equating 12-0 Florida State with, say, 12-0 1975 Arizona State, or 12-0 1998 Tulane, good teams, nice teams, sweet teams with sweet stories, but not worthy of sitting at the adult table. Maybe it was a kind of cronyism, or maybe it was that FSU had appeared significantly diminished on offense since losing their starting quarterback to injury, causing nightmares of them being routed in the playoff and viewers changing, ye gods, the channel.

Unlike some of my faux colleagues, I can’t quite see this as one of the black & white scenes from “JFK,” meaning that I can’t quite see it in conspiratorial terms, committee members fielding secret phone calls from ESPN executives about who to put in and who to leave out. (Or maybe that’s just because ex-Nebraska Cornhusker Will Shields was on the committee and my blind loyalty to the team prevents me from casting aspersions on the 1992 Outland Trophy winner.) I tend to think the committee probably was seeking what they perceived rightly or wrongly as the best matchups rather than the right ones, and that just happened to dovetail with the aim of so many glad handing bowl officials of yore. That’s why when ESPN would show shots over the weekend of playoff committee members watching games from lavish individual recliners, I kept imagining them sporting garish (carnation pink?) blazers of their own, pushing through one more sale, insisting that Michigan v Alabama would be so much shinier and exciting than Michigan v Florida State. And I confess, like George Costanza going for the ’89 LeBaron in lieu of the Consumer-tested ’89 Volvo in spite of himself, I happily drove Michigan v Alabama right off the lot.

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