Nearly 60 years ago, back in 1958 when the LSU Chinese Bandits, the Go Team and the White Team won their first national championship and the Baltimore Colts won the NFL championship in the league’s first sudden death overtime, the game was a little different. There were only 12 NFL teams back then and it was common for players to play both on offense and defense. All-pro quarterback Sammy Baugh also played defensive back and punted.
George Blanda was a quarterback who played an astounding 27 years and who completed 1,911 passes for 236 touchdowns before the NFL evolved into the current pass-oriented game. He also made 335 of 639 field goal attempts and 943 extra points—again before soccer-style kickers revolutionized the kicking game.
Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Lou Groza was the league’s first preeminent place kicker. A Baltimore kicker, Bert Rechicar, also played on the offensive line and for years held the NFL record for the longest field goal of 54 years until it was broken by New Orleans Saints kicker Tom Dempsey’s 63-yarder against Detroit in old Tulane Stadium.
There were no multi-million contracts for mediocre players or for the stars, for that matter. John Unitas laid floor tile in the off-season and Colts punter David Lee worked in a Ruston bank. Times were tough and the players tougher and playoff money was a motivation for players who needed the money.
The old-school players had nothing but contempt for the kicking specialist. Detroit Lion Alex Karras once described how players beat each other’s brains out until finally, on fourth down, “they send in some little guy about five-foot-six who can’t speak English (he was referring to Garo Yepremian) and he comes into the huddle in his clean uniform and says, ‘I’m going to keek a touchdown.’”
Football in those days was played on grass and some of the fields, like Yankee Stadium doubled as baseball fields. Sometimes during games, plays were run on the dirt infield. There was no artificial turf and no instant replay to slow the game down. There was no such thing as face mask penalties because… well, helmets had no face masks to protect teeth, eyes and noses. Remember that classic photo of Y.A. Tittle on his knees in Yankee Stadium with blood running down his face?
Later, players like Dion Sanders would take themselves out of the game because of something called turf toe.
All of which brings me to my point. Back then, there were only five football bowl games—the Rose, Cotton, Orange, Sugar and to a lesser extent, the Tangerine (if memory serves, the Liberty Bowl in Memphis was one of the first of the new wave of games). When teams were chosen for one of those bowls, it meant something. It actually mattered. They had stellar seasons.
Besides, there were only three networks back then and the third, ABC was generally left out as CBS and NBC grabbed the bowls.
In 1969, LSU, coached by Charles McClendon, put together an outstanding 9-1 record, losing by only three points to Archie Manning and Ole Miss. McClendon jockeyed for a trip to Dallas and the Cotton Bowl to play number-one Texas. But when Notre Dame (8-1-1) decided to end a 45-year moratorium on playing in bowls, it was the Fighting Irish who went to Dallas and LSU spent New Year’s at home, smarting from an idiotic snub.
That would never happen today. Not with the proliferation of meaningless bowl games now scattered across the horizon.
At last count there were no fewer than 40 bowl games. If a team wins six games, it is considered “bowl eligible.” And sometimes a team doesn’t even have to break even to go bowling.
As Mike Tyson would say, it’s ludicrous. Bowl games have become the equivalent of the participation trophy. Show up, stay off probation, beat up on six hapless opponents and you get to play in some half-empty stadium in a televised game called by a couple of second rate announcers who know nothing—and care less—about the teams other than what they read a few days before the game and who, when the game gets out of control, resort to meaningless blather that has nothing to do with the game.
Finally, announcers, out of sheer boredom, begin to talk of how such and such player will be “playing on Sundays next year,” or “will shine at the next level.”
A cursory check of the bowl lineup reveals that there will be 20 teams in those 40 bowls who failed to achieve a winning record. That’s half the teams playing, folks and some of ‘em are paired against each other. Even worse, only 17 of those 20 teams won the requisite six game. The other three, two with 5-7 records and one with a 6-7 record, must’ve won a conference championship game or were selected when the selection committee just flat ran out of eligible teams.
I mean, do you really want to spend three hours watching Miami of Ohio (6-6) play Mississippi State (5-7) in something called the St. Petersburg Bowl?
How about Army (6-5) vs. North Texas State (5-7) in the Heart of Dallas Bowl? Death by Boredom Bowl would be more like it.
Here’s a real thriller match-up that’s certain to leave you breathless: North Carolina State (6-6) vs. Vanderbilt (6-6) in Shreveport’s Independence Bowl.
At least, Middle Tennessee State (8-4) will take a winning record when it goes up against Hawaii (5-7) in the prestigious Hawaii Bowl.
And be sure to check all those games out for all the people in the stands disguised as empty seats. Of course, the networks make every effort to keep the cameras off the stands in those games.
Crowd cheering? More likely if you listen closely, you may actually pick up snippets of individual conversations in the stands.
I’m sorry, folks, but a team without a winning record does not deserve to be in a bowl game. Bowl games are supposed to be a reward for an outstanding season—for actually accomplishing something. Sadly, though, they’ve become TV filler (like the cream in a Twinkie) for the glut of networks or simply a vehicle for corporate sponsorship.
And don’t even get me started on all those corporate-sponsored bowl games. Some of those are difficult to say with a straight face.
There’s the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise with Idaho (8-4) pitted against Colorado State (7-5). (You want your potato fully loaded?)
And there is the Dollar General Bowl in Mobile between Ohio (8-5) and Troy (9-3). (I wonder if tickets to that heart-stopper really are just a dollar.)
The Independence Bowl was once the Poulan Weed Eater Bowl, if you can believe that. That lasted for six years until the sponsors got weary of its being called the “Weedwhacker Bowl.”
This bowl season, we will be treated to (or have been in the past) the Nokia Sugar Bowl (now the Allstate Sugar Bowl), the Belk Bowl, the Foster Farms Bowl, the Russell Athletic Bowl, the Taxslayer Bowl, the Outback Bowl, the Quick Lane Bowl, the GoDaddy.com Bowl, the Bacardi Bowl, the Meineke Car Care Bowl, the uDrove Humanitarian Bowl, the Salad Bowl (seriously), the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl (officials wore all white uniforms under Little Caesar orange and white vests—no striped zebra uniforms for these guys), the Chick-Fil-A Bowl (at least no one was required to dress like those black and white cows in Chick-Fil-A’s TV ads), and the Olive Garden Bowl.
With only 80 of the 128 Division I NCAA football teams playing in those 40 games this year (not counting, of course the three national championship playoff games involving Alabama, Michigan State, Oklahoma and Clemson), there’s bound to be an opening for at least one more corporate-sponsored bowl game.
And I’ve got just the name and sponsor:
The Kohler Toilet Bowl to be played in Flushing New York.