Out here, we love to spend the holidays debating the validity of bowl games. There are too many. They cost too much. Their financial structures are wonky. Would-be future NFL stars shouldn’t waste their time or risk their bodies playing in them. We should be replacing all these games with ones that matter, like an expanded College Football Playoff, right?! Argh!
But that’s what we do out here, where none of us actually suit up for games. Those who do indeed hold down a roster spot, they don’t care about any of our cantankerous bowl season back and forth.
They’re too busy having fun.
You don’t think that Alabama and Georgia were having fun on Monday night? Of course, they were. We all were. Well, OK, maybe not Dawg Nation after the last play of the game. But up until then, the fellas in black and red had the same look on their faces they did a few years back when their birthday parties were throwing down at Chuck E. Cheese.
“These two games have been business trips, there’s no doubt about that,” UGA running back Sony Michel said at championship media day of Georgia’s semifinal and the championship game. “But we have tried to make sure we’ve taken time to really enjoy the experience. Especially out in California before the Rose Bowl.”
“OK, maybe not Nick,” Michel said of backfield mate Nick Chubb, smiling slyly. “Did you see his viral video?”
We’ll get to that in a minute. Before that, let’s check in on the teams who were enduring the burden of laboring through the smaller bowls that don’t mean much to many. Like the poor tortured souls of Wake Forest and Texas A&M, forced to spend their Christmas holiday in Charlotte for the Belk Bowl, where they were strong-armed into a shopping spree at the game’s namesake department store and then marched into miserable activities such as practicing pit stops at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and riding shotgun at 170 mph-plus with the professional stock car racers at the Richard Petty Driving Experience.
— Wake Forest Football (@WakeFB) December 27, 2017
“I think after all of this I might quit football and become a NASCAR racer!” Wake Forest head football coach Dave Clawson half-joked, adorned in a firesuit and helmet at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. In years past, some Belk Bowl participants chose to sit out the racecar ride, fearing a crash that might alter their NFL draft status. None of this year’s Demon Deacons or Texas A&M Aggies bailed.
“Naw, man,” Texas A&M wide receiver Christian Kirk said. “We all did like Ricky Bobby. We wanna go fast!”
In a span of just a few weeks, players flew through a lifetime’s worth of bucket list activities. Just, you know, without the bucket. Unless you count the buckets used to catch all the oyster shells, chicken wing bones and empty hot sauce bottles leftover from the team meals-turned-eating contests. And there are a lot, hosted everywhere from the party rooms of America’s most famous barbecue joints to the decks of aircraft carriers.
A tradition dating back to 1956, the Bulldogs and Sooners take part in the 62nd annual Lawry’s Beef Bowl.
There were other kinds of competitions, too. Like, did you see TCU throwing down on some Chris Stapleton in the Alamo Bowl talent show with Stanford? With Gary Patterson whistling and six-stringing?
— TCU Football (@TCUFootball) December 27, 2017
Or perhaps you saw the Longhorns doing a very Texas-like thing and setting a Texas Bowl record for cattle pinning.
— Demarco (LuLu) Boyd™ (@demarco_boyd) December 24, 2017
OK, well maybe you saw the Horned Frogs and Cardinal arriving in San Antonio like conquering heroes? I mean, if conquering heroes were allowed to arrive via neon riverboat …
— Stanford Football (@StanfordFball) December 27, 2017
Or maybe you saw Purdue hanging out with Kay Corleone on the ferry to Alcatraz? Perhaps she was en route to see Michael doing hard time while the Boilermakers were en route to the Foster Farms Bowl?
— Foster Farms Bowl (@FosterFarmsBowl) December 24, 2017
“People forget what a bowl bid really is,” says Stanford head coach David Shaw, who’s trip to San Antonio was the Cardinal’s seventh postseason appearance in seven seasons on his watch. “It’s a reward for a season. And even if you don’t make it to the Rose Bowl or the playoff, it’s still a reward. You are there to win, but it’s also fun. Fun is okay, you know? No team is ever the same year to year. Come January, the guys on this roster might not ever been in the same room at the same time ever again. This is this team’s last chance to be together, and that’s not just about playing their last game. These are their last experiences together.”
A couple of decades from now, ask the members of the FIU football team about their amazing climb from the depths of college football’s Bottom 10 to their invitation to participate in the 2017 Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl and chances are they won’t be able to recall many details from the game. But they’ll be able to remember with great detail the dramatic victory of backup center Shane McGough in the week’s other big event, a race atop those Bad Boy Mowers.
Florida International center Shane McGough competes in a lawn mower race at a local amusement park before his team’s Gasparilla Bowl matchup against Temple.
“These guys have gotten watches and gifts and all kinds of stuff,” head coach Butch Davis said. “But even though we didn’t win the trophy for the game (FIU lost to Temple) Shane got the trophy for the lawn mower race and I think that’s all anyone is going to remember!”
While Georgia was in Pasadena for their CFP semifinal game, perhaps you heard the stories about the team’s last Rose Bowl trip. Whenever anyone who knew anything about that 1942 visit to the Granddaddy of Them All was about the game, did they give us details about the 9-0 win over UCLA? Eventually, yes. But only after tales of visiting Paramount Studios and meeting Bob Hope, Spencer Tracy, Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth. And oh yeah, the train ride out there that went across the desert and provided a bunch of kids from the deep south with their first peek at the Rockies.
“These kids, they are almost exclusively from the Midwest and from a lot of tiny town you’ve never heard of,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said prior to his team’s matchup with Boston College on the frozen tundra of Yankee Stadium in the Pinstripe Bowl. The Hawkeyes and Golden Eagles took in the entire Manhattan Christmas experience, but also rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, experienced the beautiful silence of the 9/11 Memorial and, like most bowl teams no matter what game they’re playing, visited local children’s hospitals. Continued the coach: “We go into living rooms and promise parents we’re going to take their sons and broaden their horizons. Well, here we are.”
Football teams are able to broaden their horizons because bowl directors broadened their vision of what a bowl experience should be. Not so long ago, providing teams with a place to practice, some logoed jewelry, a fancy dinner and a purse to (maybe) cover expenses was considered plenty. But as the number of bowl games swelled, those on the lower tiers of the postseason food chain devised ways to make their event standout from the crowd. “We know we aren’t the Rose Bowl,” Belk Bowl director Will Webb admitted one year ago. “But our immediate goal was to never be the game where the team gets the bid and says, ‘Oh man, why would we want to go there?’ We wanted to have the reputation of being a destination. ‘Hey man, if you ever get a chance to be in the Belk Bowl, do it. We were there last year and it was great.'”
Those bowls embraced social media with open windbreaker-dressed arms, creating an “anything you can do I can do better” gamesmanship of posting photos and videos of team events that lasts throughout the holidays. The creative efforts of those newer, smaller, sometimes short-lived games created upward pressure for the old standbys to do the same.
“When you get into a giant bowl, it’s a business trip, there’s no doubt about it,” says Patterson, who has led TCU to 16 bowls, ranging from the Rose to the GalleryFurniture.com Bowl. “But the teams — and the games — have learned that it is also okay to have fun, too.”
Fun, as in getting to see some NBA action.
— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) December 27, 2017
Fun, as in fish bowling inside the world’s largest Bass Pro Shops.
— AutoZoneLibertyBowl (@AZOLibertyBowl) December 26, 2017
Fun, as in playing football on the beach while it’s 34 degrees with a foot of snow on the ground back home in Michigan.
Cesar Ruiz carries the ball???? pic.twitter.com/GG8P0kaTPQ
— angelique (@chengelis) December 30, 2017
And fun, as in going to Disneyland and buckling up for its newest big ride, Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout. Heads up, this is the video that Michel wanted to make sure you’ve seen. Watch Nick Chubb’s face. It’s the perfect representation of most players’ bowl experiences.
Initially, they aren’t sure if it’s really that fun. Then they realize, why yes … yes, it is!