When I was a freshman in high school, I had one goal for my winter break. I wanted to watch at least one quarter of each bowl game played that season. The games meant something to me and I was making a commitment to make sure I was able to watch at least a portion of each one. Making the task somewhat easier than it would be today was the fact that there weren’t 35 bowl games in 1993. However, New Year’s Day was still the official end of Bowl Season so there were quite a few games on that day. That and I was fighting with two younger brothers who didn’t necessarily share my goal and had other things they wanted to watch.
No, I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, why do you ask?
The games were meaningful. They were larger-than-life in the way that things your passionate about in high school take on added significance. I loved the bowl games and the pageantry that went along with them. Seeing teams from different conferences and different styles clash on a neutral field to see who was better was the highlight of my sports year. At least, I thought they were meaningful.
In reality they were probably just as meaningless as they are today. And make no mistake, they are meaningless exhibitions played to line the pockets of the men and women who run the bowl games. Sure, teams (and as a result, their conferences) get a payout for playing in a bowl. But after you subtract mandatory ticket sales, expensive hotel rooms and other expenses associated with reaching a bowl, there’s rarely, if ever, any actual financial benefit to playing in the game.
Aside from tradition, there’s literally no point in the current postseason associated with “big time” college football. It’s the only sport sponsored by the NCAA that turns its postseason over to outside entities that have no interest in determining a champion, but instead have nothing but a profit motive for the games. Aside from the BCS Championship game, teams aren’t selected for bowls based on their records or how deserving they are. No, they’re selected based on how many tickets they can sell and how much cold hard cash those fans can bring in. If your team “travels well,” you may get picked to go to a more prestigious game even if your record isn’t as good as that of another team in your conference that has a smaller fan base.
Even coaches, who spend their careers getting kids to buy in to their program with words like “unity” or “family” know bowl games are a charade. Otherwise, so many of them wouldn’t leave their team for a better job before the end of their season. Fans rightly rip Bobby Petrino for leaving the Atlanta Falcons with three games left in their regular season to take a college job and should rip Bobby Knight for retiring mid-season from Texas Tech for no other reason than to have his son take over the job. Players who quit on their team are derided. Coaches who quit on their team after the regular season but before the bowl games are greeted with a “meh, whatever.”
Take Western Kentucky’s Willie Taggart. After leading the team to its first bowl spot in team history, did he stick around to finish out the season? Nope. Less than a week after leading his alma mater to the Little Caesar’s Bowl (joke all you want, a bowl’s a bowl), he’s jumping ship for the University of South Florida that went 3-9 this season. I’m sure the job comes with a significant pay raise and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone for wanting to change jobs. But don’t spend all season telling your players that they’re family and you’re there for them and then leave before the biggest game in the schools FBS history. If the game were truly important, Taggart would still be at WKU to finish out his now-former team’s season. (I’ll leave it to WKU fans to debate if the Little Caesar’s Bowl is more or less meaningful than the three 1-AA National Championship games the Hilltoppers have played in.)
I’ll still probably watch some of the bowl games (though this year’s slate is decidedly uninspiring, even if the teams actually had an incentive to play.) But I won’t make the mistake of believing there’s any importance beyond ratings and tickets sold. For actual meaningful football, there’s the playoffs in the FCS (formerly, and still to me, 1-AA), Division II and Division III playoffs.