As I sit and write this it is now less than 48 hours until the college football bowl season kicks off, and I am as happy as can be. My joy does not derive from my college teams being in contention for the National Championship. Neither of my two favorite teams will play in the Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Orange or Fiesta Bowls. Neither are ranked in the top 25, although San Diego State University was last listed at 36, which is not so bad when you consider there are 128 colleges in that division. Instead, they will play in the New Mexico Bowl and the Hawai’i Bowl.
I have heard several radio personalities in the sports world putting down those bowls as meaningless and something that nobody will watch. In my humble opinion, those personalities are a little star-struck with the NFL minor league which is the Power 5 conferences and, not to put too fine a point on it, there is a little bootlicking going on there. These bowls mean as much to the student athletes from New Mexico as they do to the sort-of student athletes of Alabama, and I would like to explain why that is the case.
The hot shot four and five star recruits coming out of the South or Southern California and elsewhere know that they are going to play in bowl games somewhere. They are highly recruited, already stars and personalities before they are 18 years old. There is actually little skill involved in finding these players; the only artistry required is in drawing them to play at USC instead of Oregon or LSU. The requirement of being able to function in a polysyllabic world will keep them from places like Stanford but I will not cry for that school; they are doing all right.
The skill in recruiting athletes comes once the low hanging fruit has been picked. A good coach will survey the field and find the players who are not yet at their peak. He or she must choose the quarterback or offensive tackle or wide receiver who is overlooked by Ohio State but will be hitting his stride in his sophomore or junior year. These players want very much to play in a bowl too, although it is less of an automatic thing for them, and they will consider which mid-major coherence school to play for based in part on what their track record is in getting to a bowl.
That is where the importance of these bowls comes into play. San Diego State University is going to it’s sixth bowl appearance in a row. The coach, Rocky Long, can work with his team during the off season to court the obvious future stars but also focus in the athletes who will be coming into their own two or three years down the road. “Come play at SDSU, and there is a very high likelihood of a bowl appearance in your future.” To the kid passed up by Washington or Nebraska or Utah, that is a powerful inducement.
Consider the case of the University of New Mexico. Five years ago the football coach at that school was a – well – he wasn’t very good. In three years I believe that he won three games, and in one of those years he won two if I’m not mistaken. When he was finally fired Bob Davie agreed to take over the football program. In the last several years Coach Davie has assiduously courted the talent in New Mexico and nearby states and has each year put together a better team. Now, at last, the record for 2015 is 7 wins and 5 losses, which qualifies them for a bowl appearance against the University of Arizona in less than 48 hours.
What does this “meaningless” bowl mean to the UNM program? Several things. One, the talking heads may not be watching it (they actually will be; it’s their job), but the recruiters for NFL teams certainly will be. They, too, are always on the lookout for somebody who can be drafted in the last three or four rounds who demonstrates the potential to be molded into a first rate player at the pro level. Two, when Coach Davie goes out this spring and speaks to potential recruits he can point to that bowl game and say “Come to UNM and you will be ahead of the 64 teams that did not make a bowl appearance, or however many there is. Coach Davie’s job will be a lot easier than will be the coach’s from Wyoming or Kentucky or any other school who will be sitting at home watching TV this bowl season.
So I will tee up the TV on Saturday, December 19, and watch the little bowls with glee. It is there that the sleeper stars will be who will dazzle the NFL in the future, as well as the journeyman players who will do the dirty work in the trenches grinding out victories for the home team. And if you hear anybody say that these bowls are meaningless, know for a fact that you are looking at somebody who does not know squat about football.