If you count the parades—and there is hardly any way to avoid them—there were roughly 14 hours of television devoted to the phenomenon known as the bowl game on New Year's Day 1979. And this particular telethon was only the most visible tip of an iceberg of 15 nationally televised bowls stretching back into December.
The electronic feast had started with a Dec. 2 appetizer consisting of ABC's brave little telecast of the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, in which Wittenberg was pitted against Baldwin-Wallace to decide the championship of the NCAA's Division III (Baldwin-Wallace won 24-10). The game probably drew about as many viewers as a TV Sunrise Semester lecture on molecular physics, but it did offer a chance for small colleges to get some big-time exposure. However, it was the other bowl games and the surrounding hoopla that provided the most interesting side effects.
When Arkansas and UCLA met in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 25 in Tempe, Ariz., NBC producer Mike Weisman hung a live microphone on Arkansas Coach Lou Holtz, and for much of the game Holtz called plays and instructed his players with the nation eavesdropping. The miking of Holtz proved to be an entertaining sidelight. NBC had also asked to wire up Terry Donahue, the UCLA coach, but Donahue said no; he was worried about the ripeness of his language during games. Donahue was right to worry. No sooner had an NBC sideline correspondent sidled up to ask a question about strategy (Donahue had agreed to submit to questions during the game), than an official called a penalty against UCLA, and Donahue let fly with an old barnyard epithet. Oddly enough, the NBC switchboard was all but silent, which may be more attributable to Donahue's clean-cut, youthful charm than to any national trend toward tolerance of football coaches' excesses.
Wiring coaches for sound is a) a fascinating added attraction, or b) a bit of a bore, depending upon whether one would rather listen to a coach on the sideline or watch a football game. But unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon one's point of view), it can only be done during this rather unreal season of the bowl games, the NCAA having outlawed the gimmick during regular-season play.
January 15, 1979
But all of this, even the wretched explosion of Woody Hayes, was merely preliminary to the inanities of New Year's Day. First came the big parades. The Cotton Bowl parade began in Dallas at the ungodly hour of 9 a.m., and the Rose Bowl parade came 1½ hours later, which was 8:30 a.m. in Pasadena. Watching a bowl-game parade is a little bit like watching a blend of the Miss Teenage America Pageant and The Gong Show. There is a point where tastelessness becomes so overwhelming that, instead of being offensive, it becomes hilarious. How else could one react when Dallas commentator Larry (Dallas) Hagman declared boldly, "They're marching right together there," and Judy (The Waltons) Norton-Taylor gushed, "I love the way they do that—left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot."
In Pasadena, NBC commentator Bryant Gumbel showed the usual penetrating insight when he said to Bruce Jenner, "Bruce, lots of nice things have happened to you because of sports." Jenner, who will do almost anything on TV and is the hands-down winner of the Hard Core Olympic Opportunist of the Decade award, grinned and said, "Sports is a good, clean way for a young person to get out there in life." Other points of interest during the parades included a 30-foot bicycle pedaled by a dozen fez-wearing Shriners, who must have been sober; a huge float made of roses formed to depict a pack of 25-foot dogs dashing toward a 40-foot fire hydrant; and a float full of college homecoming princesses that prompted another commentator to say idly, "I wonder if they pick them with peas and mattresses."
The New Year's bowl games themselves—one after another on top of another—consumed about 10 hours. For those who tried to take it all in, it ultimately became a blurred channel-switching kaleidoscope of teams, names, numbers and far too much nattering by announcers. Although ABC missed the Sugar Bowl kickoff because of a commercial, its coverage was first-class, nicely punctuated with sideline closeups of Alabama's monumental old Bear Bryant looking like a refugee from Mount Rushmore, and Penn State's Joe Paterno, ever grimmer as the game went on. Keith Jackson and Frank Broyles offered sensible, low-key and articulate commentary. On NBC, on the other hand, O. J. Simpson, usually a paragon of charm and good sense, was too effervescent in his loyalty to USC, his old school. He finally became so bubbly that he was virtually incomprehensible.
As usual, the Orange Bowl ceremonies offered a mind-numbing satire of all the excesses ever committed in the name of patriotism, school spirit, sportsmanship, clean living, prayer, motherhood and fatherhood, brotherhood, sisterhood and the priesthood, all of which insist that each and every football game ever played is probably a deep and significant religious experience for everyone involved. In a day generally lacking in humor, the Orange Bowl foofaraw offered a laugh or two.
A noteworthy addition to television coverage was offered by ABC after the Sugar Bowl. The network ran two minutes of videotape portraits of every person involved in the telecast, from the producer on down, including that most consistent, most essential and invisible group in all of TV sports: the cameramen. While only their mothers may have applauded, it was still a nice touch.