PASADENA — Thursday's Rose Bowl between top-ranked Michigan and Washington State is a terrific event for college football, but it poses a problem for those of us who have long lobbied in favor of continuing to use bowls and polls to determine No. 1, as opposed to a playoff.
A game such as this should be the ultimate argument against junking the bowls and resorting to a sterile, made-for-TV playoff, which could never compare to the grandeur, tradition and sheer spectacle of a Rose Bowl with a national championship on the line.
And yet, the Rose Bowl as we know it will cease to exist after Thursday, and the anti-playoff movement is responsible.
That wasn't supposed to happen.
Thus, there is a sad tinge to a day that should be all smiles and touchdowns for those of us in the pro-bowls lobby.
Not that the Rose Bowl is being scrapped or ruined, because that's not the case; the casual fan probably won't even notice much difference, if any.
But the game is changing some of its format and selling some of its soul. Its decision-makers had no choice, really, and that's a shame.
Starting next year, the Rose Bowl will become the fourth member of the "super alliance" of bowls, which, for those not in the football know, is a new creature being used to determine the national champion.
Three other major bowls -- the Sugar, Orange and Fiesta -- had gotten together and agreed to rotate a game pitting the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the polls, doing the best they could to guarantee that a clear winner was delivered to the public every year.
The Rose Bowl had resisted joining, preferring to continue in the same orbit it had followed since 1946, matching the winners of the Big Ten and Pac-10 conferences.
The Rose was one of the last events in all of sports, not just college football, that seemed to care about its traditions; it had used the same kickoff time (5 p.m. EST), same name (no corporate sponsor), same format and same stadium since the Truman presidency, refusing to bow to TV's whims.
Joining the super alliance means the Rose will get a national title game in 2002, but it will be played at night on Jan. 3. So much for the game ending at dusk at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains -- the best setting in sports, period.
And if Big Ten or Pac-10 teams are ranked among the nation's top two in any other year (the alliance contract is for seven years), they will play in the championship game at the Fiesta, Sugar or Orange, instead of in the Rose Bowl.
So much for the strong, regional tradition of Big Ten and Pac-10 teams beginning drills in August dreaming about going to Pasadena more than winning a national title.
"I hate to see that tradition end," Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr said. "It's going to end and we have to go on, but, from my perspective, it's going to be a sad day when it isn't the Big Ten and Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl."
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney said, "We did not believe the bowl system could stay unchanged. So the Rose Bowl tradition will exist in a modified way and we traded off for a healthier bowl system. Not everyone is happy with it, but we think it's the best for us and for college football."
The necessity of the Rose's inclusion in the super alliance was made obvious this year, as No. 1 Michigan and No. 2 Nebraska both went undefeated and landed in different bowls played on different days on different coasts. If both win, the national championship will be decided by a beauty contest -- a poll vote -- instead of a game.
That will lead to the usual, whining cry for a playoff system, which arises every time there is even a touch of cloudiness to the championship picture.
Me, I love the cloudiness, the gray area, the debate that ensues. There's nothing better than watching angry alumni swell up like toads as they argue the championship merits of their alma mater.
That's better than some silly 'ol playoff any day.
But I also recognize the need to make the national championship as clear as possible as often as possible -- the failure to do that would give way to a playoff, no doubt -- and the biggest loophole in the current system will close when the Rose Bowl joins the super alliance next year.
The damage to the Rose Bowl's traditions is unfortunate -- sad, really -- but what was the alternative?
"This is probably the best thing for the Rose, Big Ten and Pac-10 in the long run, because we are all opposed to a playoff system," said Pac-10 Commissioner Tom Hansen. "We want to make the new alliance as effective and widely accepted as possible. But at the same time, we realize we are jeopardizing a wonderful tradition."
That, they are. ABC, a partner in the alliance, has the right to demand that a bowl have a "presenting" sponsor, which means that "The Rose Bowl, presented by Kitty Litter" (or whatever) is coming soon.
It all hurts, really, if you care about preserving the few grand traditions left in sports that haven't sold out to television.
Ah, well. That war was over a long time ago, and we lost, so there's no use getting too worked up.
Let's just call this a day for cheers and tears as the Rose Bowl as we know it goes out in style, with the year's best bowl game, a final remembrance of an era in which tradition actually mattered.