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BIG-TIME BOWLING : Postseason Bidding Threat Rocks College Football Tradition

November 12, 1986|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

The traditional bowl-meisters, those happy-go-lucky guys with produce and flora embroidered on their lapels, are in a cold-sweat panic these days. Not so happy or lucky, you can be sure.

Seems that some of the nontraditional bowl-meisters, similarly happy-go-lucky guys except they have corporate logos on their lapels and fresh cash in their pockets, mean to crash their party, turning tradition into a complicated auction.

Sunkist Fiesta Bowl? Penn State and Miami for No. 1, top-of-the-heap, king-of-the-hill in the Mazda Gator Bowl? On New Year's Day? For highest bid? Is this how college football is to determine its national champion? Is this where? In an automobile showroom? Surrounded by orange crates? Two teams playing for top billing or top dollar, which?

Oh, the commercialization of it all! The crassness of it!

The . . . the . . . prostitution of it all, sputtered execs from two major bowls.

It's come to this, all right, the new era of postseason play, where anyone's in for a (million) dollar, causing apoplexy among the men in bright blazers, the guys who used to own the day without having to bid for it.

Oh, it's bad, all right. Said one executive from a third bowl, commenting on the possibility of a championship game going to the highest bidder, and taking it only a bit better: "You ain't supposed to be getting into no bidding war, hoss. It ain't a cattle auction."

It didn't used to be, give him that.

It is fair, perhaps necessary, to say what, exactly, college football bowl games are these days. Or what they ever were. We're here to tell you. Hoss, they were tradition. That's what they were.

Four bowls, one so old it's called the granddaddy of them all, carved up Jan. 1 with utmost respect for television ratings and revenue. Enough for everybody. Did it just about forever.

And with their New Year's Day exclusivity, a nation of grown men gathered like sated slugs before a TV, guaranteeing a nonstop audience, these four bowls--Rose, Sugar, Cotton and Orange--dominated postseason football.

Their tie-ups with all the major conferences assured both a regional interest to help fill up the stands (Dallas folks to watch the Southwest Conference team in the Cotton Bowl) and a conference rivalry to rivet the out-of-town viewers (Midwest folks to watch their Big Ten representative die in the Rose Bowl).

The games, you can be sure, didn't always match the Nos. 1 and 2 teams. Still, the four bowls have produced all but two of the national champions since the Associated Press adopted its post-bowl poll. More than that, the four were consistent attractions. They were tradition, hoss.

Whatever else it was, it was also sort of automatic. The Southeastern Conference champion went to the Sugar Bowl, the Big Eight champion went to the Orange Bowl. And so on. It was orderly. There was some limited dickering for opponents but, as pay-outs--except for the Rose Bowl, high above the fray, but locked into a non-negotiable team selection with two conferences--were all in line with each other, nothing real competitive.

That's what bowl games were. But look at what's happened here, hoss. A couple of independent teams, schools with no automatic bowl affiliation, rise to Nos. 1 and 3, and everything goes up for grabs. Kind of a freaky deal.

Unbeaten Penn State always was a free agent. And top-ranked Miami, unofficially tied to the Orange Bowl, became just as free when it developed that the Hurricanes might have to play Oklahoma again to stay in the home bowl. Who needs it?

So you have two teams, the only two teams in the country that can go absolutely anywhere, to settle this hash.

That and the fact that the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl--it used to be the plain old Fiesta Bowl--which has long since had a New Year's Day OK, now gets a sponsor that wouldn't mind a national championship game, and all of a sudden all bets are off. It, along with the Citrus Bowl and perhaps the Gator Bowl, all without conference affiliations, has announced it is willing to negotiate for what looks like a national championship game between Penn State and Miami. Hello, tradition. Uh, how much will that be?

Here's how it works: The Fiesta Bowl, which seemingly used to restrict itself to Arizona State, has said it will match any bowl in the rush to land a game between Nos. 1 and 2. So Penn State dropped a notch this week, the idea of a national championship game remains.

With Sunkist as its deep-pockets sponsor, the Fiesta suddenly has the money to do it, at least on a once-in-a-lifetime basis. Whereas it gave Michigan and Nebraska about $1.18 million each last year--and was set to pay its teams $1.25 million this season--it is now willing to pay Miami and Penn State as much as $2.6 million each, topping even the Orange Bowl--where Miami might ordinarily go--pay-out of $2.4 million a team.

Oh, so you can buy into this deal? Now we get it. Bowl games are about business .

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