- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
“There are too many bowl games!”
“These are just exhibition games with participation trophies!”
“Tulsa is playing Old Dominion on the Monday before Christmas at 2:30 in the afternoon on teal turf? What a waste of everyone’s time!”
Bah freaking humbowl, er, ‘bug!
For real, I don’t get it. I don’t get the bowl hatred. I never have. If you really love college football, and I do, then why wouldn’t you want more college football?
You don’t want to watch? Don’t watch. The holidays are plenty full of Hallmark movies and daytime talk show reruns. Me? No offense to Candace Cameron Bure and Dr. Phil, but I was watching football.
Spoiler alert: Candace is totally going to quit her job at the New York ad agency and move back home to marry the carpenter. Another spoiler alert: Phil McGraw wasn’t watching his own show on Monday, Dec. 20. He was watching that game on the teal turf, the Myrtle Beach Bowl, because his beloved Tulsa Golden Hurricane, whom he played for 50 years ago, was earning its seventh win after starting the season 1-4. It was a team packed with fifth-, sixth- and even a seventh-year player, all of whom cried and danced and celebrated their Myrtle Beach victory like they’d won the Rose Bowl.
“Every bit of this matters!” head coach Philip Montgomery exclaimed as his players enveloped him in an 80-man group hug.
You don’t think these games matter? Then you didn’t pay attention a year ago, when so many teams were so exhausted after a year of COVID-caused isolation, confusion and stress, but still made the trips to the postseason games that invited them. There on that same Myrtle Beach Bowl field one year ago, North Texas head coach Seth Littrell walked off that turf with his Mean Green team and the granite-jawed Oklahoman had tears in his eyes.
“We came here for those guys,” he said, pointing to the players on his virus-depleted roster who had just lost to Appalachian State. “The seniors, the guys who are probably wearing a football uniform for the last time in their lives. Been playing this game since they could walk, and this is it. Win or lose, they’ll remember this for the rest of their lives.”
That night, heck every night after every so-called meaningless bowl game, I think about a conversation I had in May 2014 at, of all places, the Indy 500. I noticed a very large ring on the finger of a sponsor sales rep. His name was Brandon Mosely and he told me the ring was from the 2007 Insight Bowl, played in Tempe, Arizona. He was a junior safety at Indiana and that season’s goal was to “play 13.” The Hoosiers had come one win short of qualifying for a bowl in 2006, when IU head coach Terry Hoeppner was diagnosed with brain tumor. He died June 19, 2007 and the team he left behind pledged to make the postseason in his memory.
Indiana lost the Insight Bowl to Oklahoma State. It didn’t matter. “We played 13,” Mosley said as he let me hold his ring. “People like to say these games don’t matter. But they do.”
Damn right they do. They matter because your favorite team gets a few more practices in before winter. As College Football Hall of Famer LaVell Edwards once put it as he walked me into the lobby of BYU’s football facility and pointed to the very long row of trophies earned at Holiday Bowls, Freedom Bowls and Copper Bowls: “These things might as well be made of rebar because that’s what we used to build this program.”
They matter because they are games where the score is kept and someone will be the winner and someone will be the loser, and anyone worth their gridiron salt wants to be the winner of the game and not the loser.
Did you see Kentucky’s DeAndre Square after the interception that iced the Wildcats’ Citrus Bowl win over Iowa? Did you see how he held that football like a baby and wept as teammate Carrington Valentine joined him on their knees at midfield. Square had left the game with an injury but was inspired to return to action when he saw former teammate Chris Oats. In the 2019 Citrus Bowl, Oats recovered a late fumble to seal the victory over Penn State, but the following year suffered a stroke at the age of 20. Square saw Oats on the UK sideline in his wheelchair, and the senior decided to play some more. After clinching the victory, just as Oats did to win the same bowl game three years earlier, Square ran to his brother and embraced him.
A player wants to opt out and not play his final college game before the NFL draft? Cool, kid, don’t play. I get it. I don’t necessarily like it. The players I’ve talked to who were at the leading edge of the opt-out wave when it first appeared five years ago have expressed some regret over it. Not a lot, but a little. As we get older, we all catch ourselves wishing for one more chance to rep the alma mater, to pull on the jersey and ride the bus with our teammates one more time. Call it “Glory Days” or “Uncle Rico’s Lament,” whatever. The college team experience is different from the NFL. It just is.
When a guy elects to sit out that last game, he’s making what he believes is the best decision for his future. I understand it. I respect it. But the critics need to stop acting like it’s an indictment on the entire bowl system. And when Matt Corral, who chose to play for Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl and was lauded for it, goes down with an ankle sprain, don’t act like that’s some broader, sweeping statement. It’s not.
Some play, some don’t. That’s OK, but I don’t for the life of me understand why every holiday season produces so many Grinches who seem to want less football.
I suppose it would make some sense that the pre-New Year’s games don’t matter to the people who never played in them or attended them or really had to pay much attention to them. The college football one-percenters. I don’t get mad at those national analysts in our business who never had to play in a Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, New Era Pinstripe Bowl or Duke’s Mayo Bowl. Bless their hearts. They just don’t know any better.
I do. When I was a little guy, when there were half as many bowls as there are now, my brother and I would line the hallway with sticky notes of bowls, matchups and kickoff times, separated by day, so that when we got up each morning we’d know what games to watch. We kept a basket of footballs in the TV room and if you were watching with us, you’d better tuck one into the crook of your arm because if you got loose with it, someone was going to knock it to the floor. Mom never fumbled.
My father was a college football official and worked two dozen postseason games. Our family went to all of them. Rose, Orange, Gator and Fiesta as well as Motor City, Belk and Sega Las Vegas. Thing was, the smaller games were more fun. The big games had the hype and the stakes, but the “meaningless” games had the best off-site activities for the teams. They had the best pep rallies. And, so many times, they also had the best games.
You know what I’m talking about. Players getting ride-alongs in NASCAR stock cars. Coaches getting dunked with mayonnaise, Cheez-Its and Frosted Flakes. Funky TD dances. Big man scoop-and-scores. Over-the-top trophies.
Above all else, bowl season is fun. These days, why would anyone try to step on the hose that provides the fun? Anyone who spends their entire bowl season complaining about bowl season is the opposite of fun.
So, Mr. Scrooge, one year from now when the bowls return, do us a favor and don’t. Stay in your office counting beans and yelling at kids from the window. We have football to watch.
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