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The Quest for a Champion: Part 1.5 A B1G Detour and the Rise of the Bowl Game

As we continue our look at how the race to claim a National Championship has shaped College Football into the wonderful madness that it is today, we take a short detour to discuss the B1G, Bowls, and the Granddaddy of them All. By digging into this history a little bit, we will have a better understanding of the larger picture as we move forward.

Kevork Djansezian
"In New York, people are buried in snow. Here our flowers are blooming and our oranges are about to bear. Let's hold a festival to tell the world about our paradise." - Prof. Charles F. Holder*

In 1890, the small town of Pasadena, California would be introduced to an event that would give birth to one of the most game changing pieces in all of College Football. However, funny enough, it had nothing to do with football at the time. In an effort to boost tourism for the area, the idea was pushed forward to members of the Pasadena Valley Hunt Club by Charles F. Holder and Dr. Frederick Rowland. The 'Tournament of Roses' was proposed as a great way to get those buried-in-snow Easterners, not wholly unlike Mr. Holder himself once was, from the cold wintry busyness of New York to the serenity and beauty that was Pasadena. While I cannot fathom the planning it took in 1890 to get from New York to Pasadena, the idea was genius. After all, for those of us in the Midwest who have suffered through the dead of Winter with only the hopes of sunshine and beaches, is there anything better sounding than sunshine and flowers? No, there is not. [Note: Minnesotans and Canadians who claim sunshine is for wimps can kindly stop raising their hands. Sunshine trumps snow. I'm sorry. There will not be discussion on this topic.]

That very first Rose Bowl attracted five thousand or so, and featured prominently a parade with flower covered carriages, foot races, polo matches, and tug-of-war. It could be considered a success at the time, but it was just in its infancy and the organizers wanted more. As the event grew it added more and more features. This went on to even include ostrich races, which honestly, sounds like a reason to go to Pasadena in and of itself. Even so, the organizers started to realize the potential of the event and wanted to become the New Years destination. In 1902, newly elected Tournament of Roses President James Wagner - a fan of College Football - staged what would be the first Rose Bowl, except it wasn't called that. No, it would be called the Tournament East-West Football game and would be framed as a way to have the best West Coast team take on the best of the East, basically known as anyone not on the West Coast. In that first game, Michigan was guaranteed $3500 to cover their expenses for showing up. Fielding Yost's boys did that and more, beating Stanford to a pulp. In fact, to put it mildly, the game wasn't even as close as the 49-0 score shows. While there aren't exactly full play-by-play videos of the game, various historical websites and books say Stanford quit the game in the middle of the fourth quarter. Organizers were so impressed with this outcome that they decided to not have this event again until 1915 and instead had more Ostrich Races.

It would not be until 1923 that this would finally come to be known as the Rose Bowl and the rest, as you say, is history. The Rose Bowl tradition would give birth to the importance of the Bowl Game in all of College Football. In 1935, the Orange, Sugar, and Sun bowls were christened, and two years later, the Cotton Bowl would begin inviting teams from all over with the lure of money, exposure, and a trip to a beautiful destination. These new end of the season matchups would become the goal of teams across the nation, and cemented the Bowl Tradition in College Football's identity.

Each Bowl organizer worked hard to sell their newly minted radio, and later television, exposure to the teams that would bring in the most fans and interest. Ticket sales gave way to bigger stadiums, which gave way to more sponsorships, which eventually gave way to bigger possibilities of payout. Bowl Games became an instant catapult to notoriety for schools and conferences gaining legitimacy and fans nationwide, not to mention the money that they would receive just for playing. And so, while we can see clearly that the game lent itself to the stage, the stage - and really the money - was always the driver.

The Quest for a Champion: The Introduction Road to the Coalition

The B1G Bowl History

With much thanks to all of our readers here at Off Tackle Empire, I have done a lot more research on the Big Ten and their arrangement with bowls. While it is easy to laugh off the pitiful numbers of bowl appearances - and more precisely the number of bowl wins - that the Big Ten has had in history, context is everything and context here makes a lot more sense of the mess. Specifically, the more you understand the Big Ten's ties to the Rose Bowl, the more you can understand the disconnect between its fans and the rest of College Football. Sure, many may call it conservative or traditionalist, but I am finding that it is much deeper than that. In fact, it goes to the very identity of the Big Ten. Changing that DNA is not something that happens overnight. This point is important to remember going forward through this entire series.

With that said, the Big Ten's bowl history really gets started in 1946. While the Big Ten, or the Big Nine as they were at the time, had participated in the Rose Bowl at many times previous to this date, an official deal was ironed out to play against what would become known as the Pac 8 that year. Both conferences were pro-integration, believed in amateurism, and seemed to truly be a good fit for all involved and so they decided to make an exclusivity deal. There were a couple of stipulations the conferences imposed on their members in this deal, however. 1) Neither conference would allow a team to go to the Rose Bowl two years in a row and 2) Neither conference would allow conference teams to go to any other bowl except the Rose Bowl. Now, as noted previously, bowls were definitely growing in both frequency and hype, but it's not like it was today. With no more than around 11 bowls up until the 70s, the Big Ten wasn't exactly keeping all of its teams from frequenting any and every bowl, but it was a hindrance and the lack of repeat appearances kept a lot of talented teams out of the hunt.

In 1972, the Big Ten got rid of the repeat appearance rule, and in 1975 the ridiculous rule forbidding teams from accepting bids elsewhere was abolished. For what it's worth, there is a strong argument that talented Big Ten teams missed out on playing the best there were to that point. While Nebraska fans, me included, would like to spout off about Ohio State's 1970 National Title, the reality is that they played who they played due to the agreements in place and the National Championship was arbitrarily decided by about a million publications (estimate). Even so, the very growth of the Big Ten nationally was tied to the Rose Bowl and its popularity. Regardless of how many bowl games there were, the chance to play in the biggest game each year was still the crown jewel of the College Football world. It allowed the best teams in the Midwest a chance to show off. It was a chance to be broadcast everywhere with no competition from other games. It was also a chance to get humbled on occasion, but the exposure alone was always worth it.

And this is Where We're Going Next

I wanted to take this short diversion into bowls, and specifically the history of the Big Ten's affiliation with the Rose Bowl, so that when we tackle the Bowl Coalition and the Bowl Alliance next week, there would be some firmer understanding of where everything fits in. After all, on paper it seems somewhat absurd that the Rose Bowl - and by default the Big Ten and Pac 10/12 - wouldn't have wanted in on the money and exposure both of those solutions offered. With everyone else firmly on board, it seems crazy to think that anyone would want to hold tight to a tradition and a stadium that is starting to just feel old.

However, think back through everything we've talked about today. From the beginning, the Big Ten has been a part of the Rose Bowl. Not just as a participant, but as a partner. The game that grew to be a phenomenon helped create the cachet the Big Ten would feed off of throughout the years. Great games would be played, strategic marketing partnerships would be forged, and identity would be created. In fact, that identity would be so ingrained into both the game and its participants that its traditions would become so sacrosanct to everyone involved. This alone would be enough for most, but this also ignores the haul of cash everyone received. Simply put, the Rose Bowl - the very game that gave us Bowls that would be an important part of the National Championship discussion later - was too important to give up.

As we move forward, we will take a deeper look at the Bowl Coalition, Bowl Alliance, BCS, and CFP. Each one of these entities had financial motives at the forefront, but played off this idea that Bowls alone could or could not capture a 'true' National Champion. Fan interest in determining a champion among the larger body of schools would give carte blanche to those making the decisions a blank check of sorts. We can agree that these were, and still are, great reasons to have things like a BCS or a Playoff, we can also understand that none of those options alone have ever been enough reason for the Rose Bowl and its participants to flake out of that identity. The returns never outweighed the benefits. A real National Champion? More money? Better locations? Not for the Big Ten. Regardless of how you see them as a conference, understanding that relationship means you at least get where they are coming from and it's a legitimate position.

And that's where we'll leave the story today. Next week we will pick this back up and start running through the politics that made a National Championship race a one-game event and see the fan interest that equaled dollar signs for the powers that be. For many of you, this will all start to feel a lot more normal.

*Quote via