As we head into our first college-football-less weekend since the dog days of summer, I have had time to ponder the complaint that there are too many bowls.
Of course, that’s true—if you attach a standard to bowl-worthy-ness. I used to do that. But now, I’ve come around. If people like to watch silly bowls, and players and coaches like to play and coach in them, who am I to argue?
I only watch the ones I find interesting, anyway.
If I want to tune in to the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl from Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 17 because I’m a fan of the outstanding Toledo Rocket Marching Band, or simply to see why Toledo is a one-point favorite over Appalachian State, well, that’s my business.
Actually, I’m going to be busy that day. But I’m planning to tape it.
That got me thinking. . . how many bowl games have I covered?
I came up with a list of 30. Which is not bad, considering that I was only bowl-eligible, as a full-time sportswriter, for 28 years.
And that’s pretty impressive considering that I was covering the Blackhawks for five of those years, so I wasn’t bowl-eligible. We were in Calgary once during the Grey Cup. There was a horse in the hotel lobby. But there would have been hell to pay if I’d gone to gone to Canadian football instead of Blackhawks hockey.
And when you consider that for 19 years, my primary college beat was Illinois, which only went to six bowls in those 19 years, it’s downright astounding.
How did I do this?
The magic of the multiple-bowl season.
In 1984, for example, my first bowl year, I covered the Freedom, Aloha and Cotton bowls. In a span of six days, I saw Iowa’s Chuck Long shoot it out with Texas, Gerry Faust’s Notre Dame bump into SMU right before SMU ceased to exist as we know it. And then I saw Doug Flutie and Boston College tangle with Houston, followed by snow in Dallas.
I’m still bitter that Hawaii was sandwiched in between Anaheim and Dallas. Phil Hersh, my Chicago Tribune friend and rival, was smart enough to build in Honolulu vacation days. But otherwise, it was a great trip.
Just don’t ask me who won those games.
What I do remember is Robert Markus, my Chicago Tribune friend and rival, dictating his story from the Freedom Bowl press box in Anaheim. Because his word processor had gotten wet in monsoon-like Southern California.
I remember the impressionable press-box youth in Anaheim giving him a standing ovation afterward.
I remember Gerry Faust being impressed that I had been sent all the way to Honolulu to cover a game. And pointing out to him that, after all, he was there, too.
And I remember ringing in the New Year with Mike Conklin, another Chicago Tribune friend and rival, at a country bar with a genuine dirt floor, somewhere in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area.
That started my personal bowl-mania. Which, unofficially, includes six Rose Bowls, five Fiesta Bowls, five Orange Bowls, four Sugar Bowls, two Cotton Bowls and eight solo bowls—the Freedom, Aloha, Citrus, Micronpc.com, Alamo, Outback, Texas and Fight Hunger bowls.
I say “unofficially’’ because two of the Orange Bowls came at the end of the same wonderful 2012 season: In the official Orange Bowl, Florida State smoked Northern Illinois 31-10. And in the national-championship nightcap, six days later, Alabama took apart Notre Dame 42-14. That’s a combined 73-24, if you’re keeping score at home.
But two weeks in Ft. Lauderdale is two weeks in Ft. Lauderdale. And you’re not keeping score at home. In Chicago. In December and January.
As I compiled the list, I was surprised to see that many Rose Bowls. My longtime employer, the Chicago Sun-Times, has been more of a bantam-weight sports section, lacking the resources of its competition, the World’s Greatest Newspaper, aka the Chicago Tribune.
But the Bright One, as the Sun-Times was known in a long-ago ad campaign, was able to bob and weave with a smaller staff, which suited me fine.
That 1984 triple-header, back in the day when newspapers actually made significant money, was not my only triple play.
I had two near the end of my run, when the Sun-Times was a lean but eager operation.
In 2010, I saw Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase out-duel Baylor’s RG3 at the Texas Bowl while a lightning storm rocked the heavens outside the Houston Texans’ stadium. And then TCU shocked the Badgers and J.J. Watt (and me) 21-19 in the Rose Bowl. And then Cam Newton helped Auburn snuff the Oregon Ducks 22-19. What I remember most about that game was bumping into chief referee Bill LeMonnier at the airport on the way home, and being humbled that he knew who I was. He even volunteered an explanation of a controversial decision.
My final triple-play bowl season was in 2011, Kraft Fight Hunger to Rose to Sugar, which could be an ironic dietary comment on post-season nutrition.
The Kraft Fight Hunger was a misunderstood bowl. The name was often ridiculed—it has since changed to Foster Farms—but it did donate money to feed the hungry. And it had great snacks.
The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl also was played at the San Francisco Giants’ ballpark, which was very cool. We stayed in and enjoyed San Francisco. I even accompanied the Illini and UCLA on their tour of Alcatraz, spending most of the time getting to know new Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas and his wife, Jeni—while we toured maximum-security accommodations.
That Illinois job did not go well for him. He seemed very sharp and personable in a one-on-one setting. But how ironic that tour of The Rock seems now.
Because Thomas had just fired Ron Zook after what I had dubbed “the six-of-one, half-a-dozen-of-the-other season” in which Illinois finished 6-6 after a 6-0 start, the game was an angst-filled experience. Interim coach Vic Koenning guided Illinois to an improbable win. On the field afterward, one of the other assistants went out of his way to jog past me and my Chicago Tribune friend and rival Shannon Ryan to mutter a profanity-laced comment. I believe it was something about the assistants not creating a “@#$)&” distraction by contesting a severance deal in which they were being @#*$!-ed.
Anyway, we were startled because we didn’t really know that assistant.
From there, I went to, ho-hum, another Wisconsin Rose Bowl—oh, how I would have enjoyed a Badger Rose Bowl back in the 4-7 days—and that Alabama-LSU rematch in the national-championship Sugar Bowl. The highlight of that game was chatting with D.J. Welter, an LSU freshman linebacker who was the nephew of my Wisconsin roommate, Duke Welter, whose brother had moved at some point to Louisiana from the Land of Cheese.
I could prattle on about the 1987 Cotton Bowl—which featured the pre-game sparring between Texas A&M’s Jackie Sherrill and Notre Dame’s Lou Holtz, and the $5 tuxedo rental for the black-tie media New Year’s Eve media gala. Or the fire that chased us out of the Italian restaurant that my Chicago Tribune friend and rival Andy Bagnato had led us to before the 1988 Fiesta Bowl.
But this is still a lot of yarns for $19.95 a year.
The point of all this: “The bigger the bowl game’’ does not necessarily mean “the better the bowl game.’’
As legendary Michigan State coach George Perles used to say, “Bowl games are like ham. I never had a bad piece of ham.’’