2017...
TGS SPECIAL REPORT: BOWL KICKOFF...AND SNUBS TO REMEMBER
by Bruce Mmarshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


This week marks the first of four TGS issues that will cover all of the upcoming bowl action leading up to the BCS title game between Alabama and Notre Dame on January 7. The long and meandering road to Sun Life Stadium begins this Saturday in Albuquerque and Boise; our coverage of the New Mexico and Famous Idaho Potato Bowls, plus the next five postseason battles, can be found in this week’s College Analysis.

Although we rarely see qualified teams miss out on bowl action as we do in college hoops when the list of aggrieved sides that don’t receive invitations to the Big Dance is invariably a long one each March, we did note a couple of entries who were conspicuous by their absence from this year’s bowl lineup. Conference dynamics might have had something to do with both 8-4 Middle Tennessee and 9-3 La Tech being surprisingly omitted from the postseason mix; in the Blue Raiders’ case, some believe its Sun Belt Conference, which MTSU recently announced it would soon bolt for Conference USA, made little effort to help Rick Stockstill’s team find a date for the prom, promoting Western Kentucky (beaten this season by the Blue Raiders and owning a worse W-L record) instead for a spot in the Little Caesar’s Bowl. As for La Tech, its plight could partly be blamed upon the WAC’s lack of bowl tie-ins, which forced the Bulldogs to scurry as an “at-large” entry. Tech still had a firm invitation from the nearby Independence Bowl in Shreveport, but AD Bruce Van de Velde balked, apparently not keen to face just-down-I-20 neighbor UL-Monroe, which had accepted a bid as the opponent. Van De Velde was hoping La Tech would get invited to the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year’s Day at the Cotton Bowl, to oppose Purdue, but Northern Illinois’ surprise inclusion into the BCS knocked Oklahoma out of one of those at-large spots and kicked every Big 12 bowl qualifier down a rung on the postseason ladder. Thus, what appeared to be an opening the Big 12 might not fill in Dallas suddenly became Oklahoma State’s destination.

Meanwhile, the Independence chose not to wait for Van De Velde’s answer and invited Frank Solich’s Ohio U instead. Which left 9-3 La Tech with nowhere to go in the postseason. Although many suspected in-demand HC Sonny Dykes was going to be on the move from Tech regardless, any remote chance he might have considered sticking around Ruston was scotched by the bowl invitation fumble. Sonny left for the opening at Cal within a few days, completing a rotten football week at La Tech, which can only console itself by its upcoming move to Conference USA, which usually has plenty of lower-tier bowl assignments for its members.

But talk of any bowl-eligible team missing the postseason entirely doesn’t really move us, because we at TGS vividly remember an era when lots of quality teams couldn’t, or wouldn’t, participate in bowls. And it often had nothing to do with NCAA probation, either. We recalled some of those times last week when noting the days when the Big Ten and old PCC/AAWU/Pac-8 wouldn’t allow a team other than their conference champion play in a bowl. In the 50s, both leagues also had “no repeat” Rose Bowl edicts, which kept a lot of great teams (such as Red Sanders’ undefeated 1954 UCLA team, which was denied a national title showdown in the Rose Bowl with Woody Hayes’ Ohio State, which ended up splitting the national crown in the polls with the Bruins). While the West Coast eventually repealed its “no repeat” rule, the Big 10 kept it through the 1971 season. Several powerhouse sides, including Duffy Daugherty’s 1966 Michigan State Spartans, whose only blemish was the storied 10-10 tie vs. Notre Dame, as well as Woody Hayes’ 1969 Ohio State, knew they were ineligible to compete in bowls from the starts of those seasons. Countless powerful reps from the Big Ten and AAWU/Pac-8 were also barred from the postseason because they didn’t win their league; last week we recalled some of the memorable Michigan and UCLA teams in particular that were denied in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

TGS has also been around long enough to remember perhaps the most famous of all bowl snubs, courtesy of none other than Ohio State, which as 1961 Big Ten champ (at 8-0-1 and ranked second in the country) simply rejected an invitation to the Rose Bowl. Huh?

There were some awkward dynamics in 1961, including the fact the Big Ten’s contract with the Rose Bowl was expiring. The Pasadena folks, however, knew that a new deal was in the works with the conference and invited the league champ Buckeyes anyway. Hard as it is for modern-day fans to believe, in those days there was real indignation within the OSU faculty and administration regarding the emphasis the school had placed on football. Those sorts had smoldered for years at academics seemingly being placed second behind “King Football” in Columbus. And, having their chance to make a stand, the faculty council astonishingly voted 28-25 to reject the Rose Bowl bid!

As could be expected, the students on campus and countless fans and boosters didn’t take kindly to the news. Trouble in the streets began immediately after the Columbus Dispatch vindictively printed the name, address, and amount of reimbursed out-of-state travel each “no” voter had received the previous year. Hayes, of all people, proved a calming influence, as his pleas to the angry masses helped quell the potential student riots that had begun to spill into Columbus streets, commandeering a few street cars before order was restored. One of the protestors was none other than a senior student and basketball player named Bob Knight, whose classmate John Havlicek was also miffed by the developments.

Stunned, the Pasadena connections instead invited Big Ten runner-up Minnesota, which became the first team from the conference to play in Pasadena in back-to-back years. But since there wasn’t an official contract between the Big Ten and Pasadena for that short period of time, and Ohio State had rejected the bid, the Gophers were allowed to return to Pasadena for a second straight year. And it allowed Minnesota to redeem itself after losing as the nation’s top-ranked team the previous year vs. Jim Owens’ Washington Huskies. Facing a less-threatening UCLA team coached by Bill Barnes and still using the single-wing offense, Murray Warmath’s Minnesota rolled, 21-3, behind the play of exciting QB Sandy Stephens.

In the ‘60s, and indeed into the mid ‘80s, there wasn’t nearly the same structure to the bowl system, which in those days was a free-for-all and when only few postseason games had conference tie-ins. On occasion, worthy teams could be overlooked. Although we hardly recall anything as egregious as Pitt’s fourth-ranked, 9-1 team, of 1963, coached by John Michelosen, which finished as the fourth-ranked team in the land, being bypassed altogether. Remember, there weren’t as many bowl games in those days, and a bowl such as the Sun could invite a 4-6 SMU just because it was the only team to have beaten Roger Staubach’s Navy during the regular season. The Panthers, however, were also impacted by postponing their final regular-season game vs. Penn State for two full weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22; Pitt’s finale vs. Penn State wouldn’t be played until December 7. By that time, all of the bowl promoters had committed their spots, and the Panthers, amazingly, had to stay home for the holidays.

But the all-timer of bowl snubs, and also bowl intrigue, during the TGS era since we began publishing in 1957, came in 1969. And, fittingly, the main characters in the storyline involved an SEC team (in this case LSU) and, you guessed it, Notre Dame.

Hard as it is to believe, the Irish used to shun the postseason entirely, adhering to a strict no-bowl policy. The Domers once went 44 years without accepting bowl bids until finally relenting after the 1969 regular season. Really!

Much like the recent “should we or shouldn’t we join a conference?” debate in South Bend, similar discussions regarding the Notre Dame bowl policy began to heat up in the ’60s. For reasons that can only be understood through the lens of hubris and hypocrisy (long staples of the Fighting Irish), Notre Dame avoided bowls for decades, according to many, to simply stand out from among the rest of the college gridiron world, and not be regarded as a dreaded “football factory” as were so many rival institutions. This from a school that received more benefit and notoriety from the gridiron than any other. Travel concerns and impingement upon the academic progress of the football players were always outwardly cited as other reasons for Notre Dame not to partake.

(We have always been humored by a quote from Notre Dame’s then-AD Moose Krause, who, after the Domers accepted a bid to play Texas in the January 1, 1970 Cotton Bowl, stated that the modern convenience of air travel was one of the reasons the Irish decided to reverse course on the no-bowl policy. Which, predictably, moved several wags to comment that while Notre Dame invented the glamour of college football, it took the Irish almost 45 years to discover the airplane.)

Financial realities, however, became too hard for the school to continue ignoring in the late ’60s. That’s when HC Ara Parseghian, a fervent proponent of breaking the bowl ban since his hiring in 1964, was gathering enough support from the Board of Regents, which then included a number of football-minded laymen, to overturn the school’s decades-long bowl ban.

For Parseghian, the benefits were obvious. Especially more recognition for his squad and program from the expected TV ratings bonanza, not to mention more chance to recruit in specific areas of the country.

For the school, the benefits were more practical. In a word, money.

The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, then-President of Notre Dame and a longtime hardliner regarding the non-bowl participation, suddenly began to change his tune when noting that fund-raising could use a boost. “Let’s think about it,” Hesburgh finally said about bowl participation in the summer of ’69, lending hope to the legions of Domers and subway alums who had long been clamoring for the Irish to accept postseason invitations.

On the field, Notre Dame fielded another strong team in 1969, led by emerging jr. QB Joe Theismann, but an early-season 28-22 loss at Mike Phipps-led Purdue, and a 14-14 midseason draw at home vs. Southern Cal, eliminated the Irish from serious national title discussion. Still, Notre Dame was a top ten team and figured to command a high-profile bowl bid if it reversed course on its postseason hiatus. By late October of that year, both the athletic and alumni boards had sent recommendations to Hesburgh that endorsed the bowl idea.

Bowl committees, however, were understandably skeptical, having dealt with Notre Dame’s bowl rumor mill in the past. These were also the days before most of the major bowls had contractually-guaranteed spots with conferences. Aside from the Rose Bowl, which pitted the Big Ten and Pac-8 champs, and the Cotton Bowl, which saved one spot for the champion of the Southwest Conference, bowl selection was a free-for-all in those days. With numerous Big Eight and SEC power teams, plus independent Penn State, very much free-agents in the selection process of the day, the big bowls were reluctant to save a spot for the Irish until the South Bend bunch gave a formal okay for its participation.

The Orange Bowl, which in mid-November of ’69 was still not sure Notre Dame was serious, might have been able to land the Irish had developments unfolded in a different manner. Parseghian was said to have preferred the Miami locale because of the desirable trip to Florida, night-time TV audience on NBC, and extra exposure with the Eastern press corps. But Joe Paterno’s then-unbeaten Penn State was not playing the will-we-or-won’t-we game as was Notre Dame; the undefeated Nittany Lions were into the bowl fray with both feet, and had indeed made quite an impression in Miami the previous year with an exciting 15-14 win over Pepper Rodgers’ Kansas Jayhawks in the Orange. The Miami connections knew they would have a hot commodity if they could land Penn State, which at that time seemed a safer bet than gambling on Notre Dame eventually breaking from its no-bowl policy in time for New Year’s night.

It’s worth remembering that by mid-November of 1969, top-ranked Ohio State, which would be ineligible for the Rose Bowl due to the Big Ten no-repeat rule of the day, was expected to make the national title debate a moot point as long as it finished the regular season unbeaten. And it was decision time for many bowls before the conclusion of the regular season. Paterno, not thinking a national title would be on the line for his fourth-ranked squad against either number two Texas or number three Arkansas (who still had a showdown planned for early December) in the Cotton, instead put a Miami or Dallas vote to his players, who overwhelmingly preferred the former. (It was said that many black members of the Penn State team had no interest whatsoever in a New Year’s trip to Dallas, considered much more hostile territory for minorities in those days, and overwhelmingly approved sunny Miami.) Paterno thus told the Orange Bowl he would accept its bid. After an unbeaten Tennessee squad fell from favored status in mid-November when losing 38-0 to Ole Miss and Archie Manning, removing the Vols from top-tier consideration, and while Notre Dame continued to ponder, the Orange instead set up a tasty matchup between Penn State and Dan Devine’s one-loss, Big 8 champ Missouri.

Then, however, the college football world was turned inside-out by Ohio State’s subsequent 24-12 loss to Bo Schembechler’s first Michigan squad on November 22. The co-chairman of the Cotton Bowl selection committee, Field Scovell, would then have a number one team (the winner of the Texas-Arkansas showdown in two weeks) in Dallas. Paterno, having instead enlisted with the Orange before the Michigan upset of Ohio State, would forever lament missing a chance to play for the chance at number one vs. the Longhorns or Razorbacks. Meanwhile, the Irish began to stir a bit more, warming to the idea of playing the highest-rated team possible in a bowl with a conference tie-in as opposed to one with a commercial sponsor.

Scovell, who still had a rugged, functional, and workmanlike 9-1 LSU team on the string for the Cotton, was initially skeptical when receiving a call from a well-placed Notre Dame connection that the Irish were seriously interested in a bowl. And as events unfolded in late November, the fit for the Irish in the Cotton became obvious. Soon, Scovell was consumed by the thought that Notre Dame would break its self-imposed bowl ban in his Cotton, against a number one Texas or Arkansas.

“When you hear you’ve got a real chance to get Notre Dame for the first time in 45 years,” Scovell said in a Sports Illustrated piece at the time, “you don’t care about anything else.”

Scovell and Southwest Conference executive director Wilbur Evans then embarked upon a painstaking trek to South Bend, overcoming a blizzard, missing flight connections, and eventually hovering above South Bend, unable to land for hours, before finally touching down. Unable to wait, Scovell rushed to a pay phone to call Notre Dame’s Father Edmund Joyce, the school’s executive vice president, who had been a proponent of the bowl.

“You have nothing to worry about,” Joyce assured Scovell, and presto, the Notre Dame self-imposed bowl exile was history.

(As a byproduct of Notre Dame’s belated entry into the 1969 bowl fray, that aforementioned 9-1 LSU team, only three points removed from an unbeaten regular season and ranked 8th in the polls, went without a bowl invitation! The Sugar Bowl, believing LSU was Cotton-bound, had invited Archie Manning’s Ole Miss, the only side to beat the Bayou Bengals that season, to face the loser of the Texas-Arkansas game, which turned out to be the Razorbacks. Ole Miss won the game, 27-22).

Of course, in typical Fighting Irish fashion, the school announced at the time that it was making a “one-time exception” to participate in the Cotton, but every reasonable observer knew that was so much hooey. Once getting a taste of the postseason, Notre Dame would return. The Irish, losing a last-minute 21-17 verdict to top-ranked Texas in that Cotton Bowl, would return to Dallas the next season as well and earn sweet revenge vs. another Longhorn national title-hopeful in a 24-11 Irish upset, one of Parseghian’s finest hours.

Now, no one thinks twice about Notre Dame and bowls. And it doesn’t faze us too much to see teams such as Middle Tennessee and La Tech miss out on bowl action; we’ve seen much better sides sit home for the holidays!


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