The Fiesta Bowl acquired its ambition later in life. When it started, back in 1971, nobody had much in mind except finding a place for the hometown team to play. In fact, many trace the bowl's origins to 1968, when hated Arizona was picked ahead of Arizona State to play in the Sun Bowl and the university president, Homer Durham, bitterly suggested: "Maybe we should start our own bowl."
That was as big as anybody thought back then. And when they finally did start a bowl, there was no noticeable improvement on the original ambition. Arizona State played in 5 of the first 7 Fiesta Bowls. It was strictly a civic enterprise, college football's block party, and a pretty small block at that.
But look at it now. With this season's game between No. 1-ranked Notre Dame and No. 3 West Virginia, the Fiesta Bowl has landed the national championship game in 2 of the last 3 years. It's a big boy now.
It pays teams rates comparable to the four traditional bowls. It attracts comparable TV audiences. NBC's prime-time broadcast of the 1987 Fiesta Bowl game remains the record audience for a bowl. And teams listen when the men in the bright yellow blazers come calling.
In short, it is now considered among the Rose, Cotton, Sugar and Orange, the traditional sugar daddies in college football. After only 18 years, it certainly is not in their league in terms of tradition. But in that short time the Fiesta Bowl has become every bit as important.
"They're right there," said Athletic Director Jim Tarman of Penn State, whose team has played in 4 Fiesta Bowls. "They're every bit as big as the other ones."
Traditionally there have been the four New Year's Day bowls, the elite, with a large underclass struggling beneath them. Most of these bowls, chamber of commerce get-togethers really, compete for what ranked--or even winning--teams are available, offering various levels of recompense, from $500,000 to $1 million per team; exposure, Raycom to ESPN, and hospitality.
For a long time, the Fiesta was part of this swelling underclass, another minor bowl struggling for National Collegiate Athletic Assn. certification and a decent matchup and a good crowd and a few tourist dollars on the side. Just 10 years ago, the Fiesta was lumped with the Holiday, Gator and Liberty bowls, just a notch above the Independence, Citrus and Peach.
At that time, the Rose Bowl, which now pays $6.1 million, was paying teams $2-plus million, the Cotton $1.5 million. The Fiesta dangled a pay-out of $342,000 a team.
This season, the Fiesta Bowl pay-out of $2.5 million is the equal of the Cotton's and not far down from the Sugar's and Orange's at $2.75 and $2.8 million, respectively. And it has long since doubled that of its presumed peers.
The Fiesta Bowl has become enough of an attraction that NBC, which has broadcast the Fiesta the last 10 years, was willing to let its expensive Rose Bowl contract go to ABC and challenge its old bread-and-butter game. In 1989, for the first time, the Fiesta will go head to head with "the granddaddy of them all" and few doubt who the ratings winner will be.
How did this happen? How did the Fiesta cut itself from the herd of minor league bowls, a regional attraction at best, and come to threaten the big four, a national presence?
With luck and the kind of fresh ideas that may only be possible in a new city with a new institution.
The luck came through when the Fiesta Bowl needed it most, in the beginning when none of the organizers knew what they were doing. There had been other halfhearted attempts at beginning a bowl, "disastrous attempts," recalls Tom Fridena, later a Fiesta Bowl president, who was on the scene at first as a volunteer. "Salad and Copper, whatever. Never got off the ground. Tried to start something called the Goulash Bowl."
The Fiesta Bowl didn't have much more promise, except that Arizona State, the point of the whole thing, happened to have a pretty good team at that time.
To get its NCAA certification, the Fiesta Bowl came to an agreement with the Western Athletic Conference. The Fiesta people were not told to do so, but they believed it was an unspoken condition. Anyway, that was no problem, as long as Arizona State won the conference title, which it often did.
Said Executive Director Bruce Skinner: "The fact that ASU played in 5 of the first 7 had something to do with where we are today. One, it was easy to sell tickets, which is often a problem with a young bowl. Two, ASU was getting ranked in the top 10, giving us the kind of team the younger bowls never have. We started out having good respectable teams, and good ticket sales.
"A lot of the younger bowls are plagued by having to invite teams because they'll sell tickets. So compared to other start-up bowls, ours was easy."