Vince Dooley made it to 22 bowl games as a coach and player, but he'll never forget the first time he received a gift from one of them. Auburn was preparing to face Texas Tech in the 1954 Gator Bowl, and the senior quarterback waited anxiously to receive his presents: a watch and a jacket that proved memorable for all the wrong reasons.
"They must have gone and found the cheapest watch in the world," Dooley recalled. "Within one month after we got back the crystals all fell off of every watch.
"The jacket came down to our knees with the biggest Gator Bowl emblem I have ever seen, it must have been 12-inch letters. We felt like we were walking around with a neon sign."
Clearly, Dooley played in the wrong era.
Bowl gifts have evolved into an exercise in excess. This season, Alamo Bowl participants Arizona and Oklahoma State will receive an Xbox, Kicker headphones and an iPod; Alabama and Michigan State will be going on a Best Buy shopping spree courtesy of the Capital One Bowl; and Liberty Bowl participants Georgia and UCF will receive a package that includes an iPod, a watch and Nike shoes, sandals and sunglasses. At least five bowls are giving players Best Buy gift cards.
Given how scandals involving players receiving extra benefits have cast a dark cloud over college football, the practice of bowl gifts may seem hypocritical to outsiders. But it's all done by the book and within a tight dollar restriction. The NCAA rule states that players can receive $500 from event management (i.e. the bowls) and another $350 from their institution for participating in a postseason event. Each team is allowed to receive a maximum of 125 gifts, enough for every player and member of the coaching staff. Players are not permitted to sell their presents or turn their gift cards into cash.
"We've encouraged that they have some kind of memento," said Dennis Pope, the director of championships for the NCAA. "These are all key mementos; it's not cash. ... There's a distinction between an outright dollar value given to them and a redeemable gift certificate."
The NCAA implemented an original limit of $100 in 1971, then raised it to $200 in 1975. In the years prior to the cap, the Cotton Bowl
"I know some people got around the cap by giving a nice watch in those days by buying a couple hundred of them," said former Florida Citrus Bowl executive director Chuck Rohe, who remembers the early restrictions limiting his game's packages to a watch, shirt and jacket or sweater.
The NCAA increased the limit to $300 in 1982, $350 in 2004 and pushed it up to the current amount of $500 one year later. With a sizable budget in place, the challenge for bowls lies in giving gifts that create buzz, incorporate the bowl logo and bowl partner brands and, most importantly, please the players.
"You want the kids to say 'Oh, I'm going to the Chick-fil-A Bowl. I'm going to get a good gift bag,'" said Derek Martin, the bowl's vice president of events. "You want them talking like that."
Generating that reaction usually means giving electronics, which remain the king of swag with 20 bowls featuring an electronic item or a gift card for an electronics store. Some games dare to venture elsewhere, and the results can be hit or miss. Recently, players have received engraved PING putters (2002 Fiesta), throw-back jerseys bearing the bowl's color scheme (2003 Alamo) and $300 custom-fitted Nocona cowboy boots (2008 Texas). But for the past 35 years, few gifts have been as perplexing as what the Sun Bowl has given out: a hair dryer.
Yep. A hair dryer.
"I thought it was a little strange," said former South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe, who played in the bowl in 2007. "But I just gave it to my mom."
It's only one item in a package that this year includes a gift suite, a watch and apparel, but the hair dryer has long been the Sun Bowl's signature gift. It's a byproduct of its relationship with Helen of Troy, a hair dryer maker which owns the game's former title sponsor, Brut. According to the Sun Bowl, Helen of Troy has donated more than 6,500 hair dryers to support the game.
While the Sun Bowl adheres to tradition, at the Chick-fil-A Bowl the act of gift-giving has evolved into a customer-service driven experience.
Weeks after Florida State and South Carolina play in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 31 and leave town with their swag (which includes a $250 Best Buy gift card and Fossil watch), Martin will travel to their campuses to gauge their reactions to their time in Atlanta.
This is what makes the Chick-fil-A Bowl's process unique. After initially sending players and staff online and paper surveys, Martin will hit the road to dig a little deeper. He will talk to at least two players from each class, asking them what the Chick-fil-A Bowl can do to better the experience for future teams, and it's a bet that he'll hear one all-too-common response.
"They'd like to have five $100 bills," Martin said laughing. "But a lot of them back up and go 'Give us one keepsake and then give us the rest in money.'"
Ultimately, Martin has gleaned from his many conversations that players want flexibility.
In past years the bowl gave iPods and Xboxes, but many players already owned the items. "We decided we would just let them buy what they want to buy," Martin said. They've looked into a gift suite in a hotel -- players would pick an item or items based on a points system -- and considered an in-store shopping spree, but they've settled on giving gift cards because "You can go out and buy your gift anywhere," Martin said. "It might sound impersonal, but we've listened to the players and that's what they want."
It's all part of creating a lasting bowl experience. Bowls like the Chick-fil-A realize they're not the national championship game; their place is to be a celebration of a successful season, and they treat it as such.
"It's a reward for the players, is how we look at it," said Matt Garvey, the Chick-fil-A Bowl's vice president of communications. "Everything we do during the different bowl week events ... is meant to be about them and for them and give them that reward."
From cameras to watches, rings to sunglasses, 'tis the season of giving, and nobody gives quite like the bowls.