MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher (left) unveiled a Camellia Bowl partnership Monday. (Dave Reginek/Getty Images)
By Martin Rickman
When Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said during the conference's media day on July 23 that there would be bowl partnership news coming in the next "30 to 90 days," he underestimated his own timetable. The MAC announced on Monday that it's partnering with the newly created Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., for a six-year deal beginning in 2014, along with the Sun Belt Conference.
The bowl is owned by ESPN and will be played at the Crampton Bowl, which has seen an influx of renovations in recent years.
SI.com had a chance to catch up with Steinbrecher on Monday afternoon. He offered a glimpse of what to expect from the bowl game and the conference as a whole:
SI: Walk us through how the game materialized. Was this in the works for a while, or did the opportunity recently present itself?
JS: It was in the works, and we didn’t know how quickly it would come together. But it did come together pretty quickly, and part of it is you have a city that was very aggressive. I really commend the mayor and the civic leaders here for getting behind this event. It started years ago when they had the foresight to do some work on the Crampton Bowl and put that in the type of shape we need it to be in. The things they’re doing in the development of the downtown of the city, with the entertainment district, the hotels and the Riverfront Area, all of that is really impressive.
ESPN, when they were brought into it, jumped on board really quickly and saw the value of the event and got involved really deeply. We got [former Troy athletic director and former Alabama senior associate AD] Johnny Williams involved as a director, which only increased my confidence in making this event work. You put all those things together and it started moving.
Something that was meaningful for me, as I got down here in the city, and I hadn’t spent enough time thinking about it until then, but one of the things you want to set around a bowl game is it needs to be more than a football game. There needs to be more around it. We’re here in the bedrock, the cornerstone of the civil rights movement, with the Rosa Parks Museum, the Civil Rights Memorial, the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where Dr. King preached. We’re going to be able to build that into the bowl experience and have something that’s meaningful here. I really like that, and I think we can do something special here.
SI: Bringing the Sun Belt in as a partner, was that something the conference was planning to do from the get-go? Or did that come along later in the process?
JS: I think we were both in conversation as a bowl that was a possibility, and as it got going, we relished the chance to be here. It’s really good we have one of the conferences that is right smack in the middle of their geography. That really helps and is critical to the bowl success when there is only one conference that has to travel at length. Plus the history of this city in supporting games, like the long history of the Blue-Gray Game. It’s neat that even though this isn’t an All-Star game, we still have that North-South thing going.
SI: The MAC and Sun Belt have reputations as coaching cradles in the North and South, respectively. How do you think that will impact the future of this bowl?
JS: Certainly, we’ve both been on the uptick in the last three to five years with success on the field and teams we’re beating in the nonconference. Plus the number of bowl games we’re going to. And our coaches. You look at our coaches, especially in the MAC, they have some success and they have the opportunity to go somewhere else. Here in the state of Alabama, something that resonates with us is you have coach [Nick] Saban up the road who is a Kent State grad, he played there, and his first coaching job was at the University of Toledo. I think both of us have very good products and we’re going to look forward to having some really competitive bowl games.
SI: This is another bowl game the MAC is aligned with that's owned by ESPN. What's the biggest benefit of having the WWL backing the MAC in bowl partnerships?
JS: It certainly brings a sense of stability and financial strength to the event. We like partnering with ESPN. They’ve been good partners of our conference, and they probably view us as good partners. When we have a chance to build on that, that’s great. For the bowl itself, the fact we have multiple games [The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and this one] with them provides us flexibility to move teams around and things like that.
SI: I have to believe the bowl schedule still isn’t completely set. This isn’t it for the MAC, right?
JS: Correct. We’ll go to at least four primaries, and we may do a fifth. We’ll see. And probably one or more backup agreements as well. We have to balance our primaries and grow them. Our success on the field has shown we can support more games. To go in four and five would be a step in the right direction, while at the same time making sure we can help contribute to the system in case there are system openings as well.
SI: Has the Camellia Bowl's spot in the conference's postseason pecking order been decided yet? Or are you waiting to finalize the other partnerships?
JS: That’s being finalized. I think we’re going to set it up in such a way that there’s flexibility. It won’t surprise me if one year we have a No. 1 or No. 2 selection here, and another year a No. 3 or No. 4 selection. We’ll have to mix and match based on what our opponent has here and what is going on in some of the other bowl games. We’re trying to build as much flexibility as we can because if we get the matchups right, that will be the key thing so we can build competitive games up and down the system.
SI: Do you have any insight into how the name of this bowl came about? I have to admit, I was kind of crossing my fingers hoping it’d be called the Biscuits Bowl.
[Laughs] It will be called the Camellia Bowl. It will not surprise me to have a title sponsor linked to it, whether it’s the Camellia Bowl Presented By Whomever, but the Camellia Bowl will be part of the name.