If ever there was a bowl game made in heaven, or in that portion of it occupied by angels of the American Broadcasting Company, it is Alabama vs. Notre Dame this New Year's Eve in the sweet Sugar. It is a game too broad to be contained in a mere 60 minutes or a 22-inch screen, almost too important just to play. Such a game must be waged. It is a contest of teams loaded with football tradition; Alabama, No. 1, against Notre Dame, No. 3, and both coached by men so famous they are as identifiable by their first names (Ara, Bear) as by their last (Parseghian, Bryant). What is more, the feeling persists on both sides that these are the best two teams these successful coaches ever had.
In all their travels down various glory roads, Alabama and Notre Dame have never met before. It can be assumed that they have itched for the chance. The coaches themselves helped arrange the match, by telephone. Alabama is the bowlingest team in college football history, with 26 previous appearances. Notre Dame is the winningest, with a .774 percentage. The game is a Sugar Bowl scoop, and it is the last to be played in rickety old Tulane Stadium, which next year will yield to a $162 million Superdome, but this is immaterial to the participants. They would play it on a washboard in downtown Salt Lake City if need be. The pleasures of New Orleans will be wasted on such as these. They will not even show until the weekend of the game. "This is business," says Bryant.
The business, of course, is winning the national championship. Nothing else matters to either side at this point. Had they wanted more money and more fun, they would have opted for the Orange Bowl. Here are questions that will be answered: Can Alabama's quick-striking Wishbone outdo Notre Dame's multi-faceted offense? Probably. Is Bear Bryant's third team really better than his first? Almost. Will the pros learn anything from watching Notre Dame's 461-yards-a-game offense, or Alabama's 366-yards-a-game rushing attack? Will Bryant really use 70 men? Will Janet get to New Orleans? (From one of many such ads in the Notre Dame student newspaper: "Need riders from Evansville to New Orleans. Call Janet.")
To these can be added the answer to this important question: Can bowl games provide the format for the emergence of a clear-cut national champion? The answer, obviously, is yes.
The 81,000 who watch the game in person and the estimated 45 million who catch ABC-TV's electronic rendition will indeed be seeing a classic match, worthy of a national championship. Two tough, resilient, quick-striking, amazingly deep, astoundingly versatile teams of size and speed, each one burning to atone for losses in last year's bowl games. (Alabama, incidentally, has not won a postseason game since the Sugar Bowl following its 1966 season, being 0-5-1 since.) But due to some serious and self-perpetuating flaws in the present bowl format, a game such as this year's is a freak. Enjoy it while you can.
There are some other good pairings this year, but as has become the rule instead of the exception, the over-all bowl lineup is not nearly as attractive as it should be. No one would expect to match the caliber of Notre Dame-Alabama in every major bowl, but because present bowl policies are such a patchwork of unmanageable rules and dated covenants, the college game offers, instead, a jangling medley of bruised giants (teams) and pinched egos (bowl sponsors). The stiff upper lips make notably painful smiles on New Year's Day.
The Rose Bowl has no reason to be ashamed of USC (9-1-1 and ranked seventh) against Ohio State (9-0-1 and fourth), a game that poses some exciting questions of its own: Have the dashing Trojans come all the way back to last season's national championship form? Is Woody Hayes, that noted non-dasher, about to let his Ohio State quarterback throw a forward pass? But the game has been clouded by the predictable and justifiable furor following Ohio State's 10-10 season-ending tie with Michigan. The cloud was not just from the exhaust of Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler's outrage at being voted down but because Michigan deserved better than a notification that it would be staying home New Year's. Michigan, like Ohio State, finished undefeated, and was ranked fifth. It deserved to go somewhere.
Schembechler said he would have indeed accepted another invitation, but he knew he could not. The Rose Bowl's arrangement with the Big Ten and Pacific Eight has an understanding of "exclusivity." Exclusivity in this instance means the Rose Bowl pays the champions of the Pac 8 and Big Ten to play and the rest of the teams in the two leagues not to. Through the years this policy has been defended all around on the grounds that the Rose Bowl should not be diluted by member teams going elsewhere, and that it is very nice to get something ($110,000 to $140,000) for nothing if you are an also-ran. All teams share in the Rose Bowl's granddaddy-of-all-pots, which amounted to $2.46 million after expenses last year (compared with the Orange Bowl's $1.1 million, which was roughly $200,000 more than the Cotton Bowl and $300,000 more than the Sugar Bowl shared with their competing teams).
But lately there have been those even less impulsive than Bo Schembechler who have reached the heretical conclusion that money has not bought happy fans, influenced recruits or appeased alumni. At one time Big Ten members could say smugly that they got more for sitting home than five Big Eight teams got for playing in bowls other than the Rose. Now they are realizing what they said: that while they were sitting home, unexposed, five Big Eight teams were off making hay and improving their lot in ways other than financial. While the Big Eight grew stronger from top to bottom, the Big Ten grew top heavy on the "exclusivity" of Michigan and Ohio State.
John McKay, the USC coach who does not hoard his opinions even when they buck the party line, puts it this way: "The best teams in the country should play in the major bowls. It's that simple. I would always want us to send our champion to the Rose Bowl, but now here's UCLA [which USC defeated for the Rose Bowl bid]. UCLA is one of the better teams in the country. UCLA should be in a bowl. Michigan should be in a bowl. The money isn't everything. The kids don't get the money anyway and they make it all possible."
McKay says that, for the first time, there are indications his is not a minority opinion in the Pac 8. "More of our people are thinking less and less about pure dollars and cents," he says. "I believe the chances are good we'll amend that rule."
It is not as if there were no precedent. In 1948 the Pacific Coast Conference race ended in a tie between California and Oregon. California was voted into the Rose Bowl, and Oregon was allowed to go to the Cotton Bowl. At a recent Pac 8 meeting, though no formal vote was taken, there was a private unanimity—even to the extent that it included old conservative UCLA—on behalf of revision. If the Pac 8 goes, the Big Ten surely will follow suit.
Meanwhile, UCLA and Michigan staying home means other teams with lesser credentials are in major bowls, and that not only hurts the bowls but college football as a whole. Like it or not, the college game is in a struggle for TV ratings and prestige, and despite arguments that the colleges play a more explosive, more diversified game that is better coached, lovelier to look at and of greater redeeming social value, they are hurting themselves when they transmit less than their best into the living rooms of the nation, especially when they are going head to head with the NFL playoffs.
The country will be tuned in, for example, to an Orange Bowl game that offers unbeaten Penn State and Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti against Louisiana State, a tough, formidable and otherwise worthy opponent that just happens to be on a two-game losing streak. The losses came after the invitation date set up by the NCAA (this year the third Saturday in November). The Orange Bowl is not unhappy with LSU, but it is understandably unhappy with a selection process that forces bowls paying top dollar to tip their hands before all the cards are dealt.
This particular madness—the arbitrary establishment of premature invitation dates—has been going on for some time, and almost every year a major bowl matchup that had the pink glow of good health in November turns up a bag of bones at Christmas. Last year both Orange Bowl invitees—Notre Dame and Nebraska—lost their final games. The Cotton Bowl has seen its last four visiting teams (Notre Dame, Penn State, Alabama and, this year, Nebraska) lose final games after receiving bids to play the Southwest Conference champion. Compounding the mortification, three of those losses were shown on national television.
This year's Cotton Bowl is a strong enough match, pitting Texas, 8-2 and on a six-game winning streak, against Nebraska, 8-2-1. First-year Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne said he felt at a psychological disadvantage on being chosen with two games left to play (although the announcement was not made until a week later), because he was afraid of embarrassing the Cotton Bowl. He did, losing 27-0 to Oklahoma, a team that has further confused the bowl issue because it is presently the second best team in the country (to Alabama) and cannot go anywhere, being on probation. There seems no end to the pratfalls of the chosen few. Auburn and Missouri lost the rest of their games after clinching invitations to play in the Sun Bowl.
Orange and Gator Bowl sponsors are strong in their belief that an end of season invitation date would not only enhance the chances of more meaningful matchups but reduce the number of these post-invite lapses by the better teams. The Cotton Bowl's Wilbur Evans would go along with a later date, he says, but echoes a familiar plaint that the smaller bowls—always played before New Year's Day—need time to promote and distribute tickets.
The fact is that in most cases the minor bowls still wind up with dishes that are little more than season-extenders. Teams with four losses (Georgia in the Peach, Missouri in the Sun, Florida in the Tangerine, Pittsburgh in the Fiesta) or even five (Auburn in the Sun) are hardly stellar attractions.
There are always more bowls than there are good teams to fill them. The reason the NCAA got into the bowl-certifying business to begin with was for that reason; by the late '40s postseason games were proliferating like Democrats. Several years there were more than 50 on the books, and Hardin-Simmons once played in three of them. Many were fly-by-nighters, inviting teams and then pooping out, leaving the teams stranded with no money to get home on. The NCAA is careful now with its bowl sanctions, but many that get approval are no more than exhibition games. Tom Hansen of the NCAA says that the heat his group takes over bowl invitations could well lead to the abolishment of all ground rules for signing teams. Coaches complain that the bowls harass them prematurely; the bowls complain that coaches harass them.
As it now stands, says Hansen, the rule on invitations is "completely unenforceable," and would be just as unenforceable if it were moved back to the last Saturday of the season. He decries the practice of coaches getting together privately to make matches, and the obvious rule-bending of the consenting parties. This year the Cotton Bowl bid was sealed a week before the deadline, which was six p.m. Nov. 17. At four that afternoon the Cotton Bowl representative stood up in the Nebraska dressing room and said, "If it were six o'clock this is what I'd say," and delivered the invitation. "Now," he continued, "if it were six, what would you say to me?" Nebraska said yes.
If the NCAA abdicates its role as mediator, however, the results would be chaos. Without restrictions, bowls would be scrambling for teams by the middle of the season. Realizing what is at stake—namely, the good health of college football—it does not seem so difficult a task for the NCAA to police an invitation date mutually satisfactory to bowls and colleges. Despite everything, the tendency in intercollegiate athletics is still to kiss and tell, and a bowl that violates a mutually agreed-on policy could, say, lose its sanction, and a team that accepts an invitation prior to the date could be banned from bowl participation for three years.
The major bowls offer, with the polls, and in the absence of a formal playoff, the only forum available for deciding a national championship. A game like Alabama-Notre Dame is a rarity; in the history of bowl competition there have been only eight previous matchups of unbeaten, untied teams. The polls are here to stay, stimulating interest not only before and after the season but sustaining it from week to week. They have a mystique all their own. Whole communities get excited when the local team cracks the top 20. Newspapers run banner headlines.
Parseghian and Penn State's Joe Paterno, among others, would prefer that the national championship be decided by a playoff. Unfortunately, no one has devised a system that would effectively work in the bowls. Bowl sponsors, naturally, are unanimously opposed to any lessening of their product. The Rose Bowl's Lathrop Leishman says, for example, he would "in no way want to be part of a system where we might end up as a semifinal game or worse."
The inequities of a playoff are plain enough to coaches like McKay and Bryant, who like the polls and favor the bowls. For one thing, says McKay, "We've already got enough games. The longer the season, the more susceptible we are to injuries. An injured team proves nothing." Neither would academicians buy another month of excuses from classes, he says.
But the main factor against playoff proposals is that there is no parity among leagues. The elite of college football does not drift around as it does in basketball, where it takes only three or four outstanding players to get a program into contention. It takes at least five times that in football. Conferences establish strength over a long period of time and the power is unequally distributed. Every team in the Big Eight can beat the best in the Ivy; every team in the Pac 8 can beat the champion of the Southern, etc., etc. Those patterns will not change overnight.
The bowls, for the present at least, are the best (and most profitable) answer; the bowls, together with every big athletic budget's favorite ally, the television tube. Like it or not, the bowls are in lock-step with the TV networks, the source of their greatest income, the leverage for their prestige. There is nothing wrong with this, and concessions that have been made (staggering the games so they do not conflict; switching the Orange and now the Sugar and Gator Bowls to night) have been in order. The networks shell out accordingly.
There is concern now, however, that ABC may have too much to say in the matter. Its clout, if not exercised, is nevertheless real. The changing of the Alabama-LSU game from Nov. 10 to a Nov. 22 television spot prematurely forced the Orange Bowl's hand on LSU. The Alabama-Notre Dame signing for what Chris Schenkel, in his enthusiasm, called "our Sugar Bowl" (not an inaccurate prejudice) smacked of an ABC maneuver. Orange Bowl President Bill Fields says there was feeling at the time that such was the case. Might ABC offer as bait possible TV games next fall (NCAA policy allows a team to play as many as five regular-season games in two years)? Fields admits there was no evidence of tampering.
All agree, rather, that sports-oriented ABC has been especially good for college football. It is also true that the network has a responsibility to scrupulously guard itself against manipulating schedules or bowl games, and therefore ratings. Outrage is always just a breath away. One newsman was so exercised by the possibility that matches were being made outside NCAA jurisdiction that he called the NCAA office in Kansas City and charged, "The only reason you people haven't done anything about it is that you're afraid of Bear Bryant!"
Coaches, administrators, the NCAA, the TV networks, the bowls—they're really in this thing together. They have a chance to make the bowls the showcase of college football, the most meaningful way to top off a season, even to determine a national champion. Certainly the bowls do not have to preside over their own demise. One bowl official said recently, "If we keep getting dumped on, some of us might not think it too awful to offer our services to the pros." It is not impossible, not in The Era of the No-Show, when a pro fan would just as soon sit at home with his TV, that a Sugar Bowl, say, would take into its auspices the NFC championship game, and the Orange Bowl the AFC. Complete with all the pageantry.
"This day, this bowl weekend, belongs to college football," says Earnie Seiler of the Orange Bowl. "The colleges better guard it with their lives."