The Pepperoni Bowl

Welcome, sports fans, to my annual NCAA college football rant.  With the exception of the Army/Navy game, the college football season is over and the postseason is only two weeks away.  On Saturday, December 17, the college bowl season will kick off with the New Mexico Lobos and the Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners facing each other and the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque.  After that will come the Hawai’i Bowl, the Las Vegas Bowl, the Raycom, AutoNation Cure, the Poinsettia and the Famous Potato Bowl’s, among others.  I call these the “Pepperoni Bowls,” for no good reason other than to poke a little fun at their averageness.  But don’t let that lead you to believe that I look down on those bowls.  In fact, quite to the contrary, I love those bowls.  In fact, I love them much better than the Snob Bowls that will be played later in the season.

There are many equally good reasons for my affection for those bowls, but the primus inter pares is that I love the kids who are playing in them.  With the exception of a few of the Power Five teams who have fallen upon hard times, you will see teams from North Carolina Central, Grambling, Appalachian State, Toledo, San Diego State, Houston, Univ. of Central Florida and Arkansas State, among a host of others, lining up on the field for what is one of the biggest days in their athletic lives.  These kids will play their guts out on that field, and for that I salute them.  This is what they signed up for.  The kid from Arkansas State knew that he would never play for a national championship, but he put his heart on the line every single day during the season in order to be chosen to represent the Sun Belt Conference.  And when Arkansas State lost to FCS opponent Central Arkansas and started out 0-4, their season looked like it was over, and over badly.  Instead, they rallied, put away one challenger after another and fought their way into their Pepperoni Bowl.  Do you think that those kids are one iota less pumped than someone from Alabama who has been a stud all his life, who’s path to the NFL is already in sight, and who’s academic performance is, well, not part of the conversation?

I have already heard the snot-nosed talking heads chattering about how we should do away with the Pepperoni Bowls and go to a 16 team playoff scheme for college football.  I really wonder why they are saying that.  It isn’t like any of those sycophants are going to be sitting in the stands while the Pepperoni Bowls are being played.  They will be in New York, or Los Angeles, or licking boots on some sideline in Columbus, Seattle, Tuscaloosa, or wherever the hell Clemson is.  Those worthy members of the chattering class won’t be in the stands watching the Pepperoni Bowls, and those stands will probably not be filled with fans either.

What will be in those stands however will be scouts from the Cleveland Browns, the San Francisco 49ers, the New York Jets, San Diego Chargers, and a lot of other NFL teams that truly suck and are looking for bargains to be found and drafted in the late rounds.  You know, the Dak Prescotts and people like that who come up to the bigs out of the Pepperoni Outlands and make a monumental impact on NFL teams’ performance?  A few scouts for the Seattles and New Englands and Dallas’ and Detroits will be there too.  How do you think that they stay on the top?

So that’s it.  A short speech for me, as it turns out.  I am as excited as I can be to be entering this wonderful time of the year.  Talented, motivated, gut-busting athletes will take this opportunity to show off their skills.  Fans may not fill the stands, but they will fill chairs in front rooms, sports bars and man caves, and they will watch and cheer for these blue collar kids who are saying “I can do this too.”  This, to me, is when it really counts, and I cannot say enough or be prouder of these kids who answer the puerile blathering of the talking heads by pouring their blood, sweat and hearts out onto the fields of the Pepperoni Bowls.  I’ll watch them over the Chosen Ones any day of the week.

Let’s Go Bowling

I have heard it repeatedly on the sports talk shows:  We are drowning in meaningless bowl games at the end of the college football season.  Nobody attends most of these bowls.  Some of the bowls even feature teams with records of five wins and seven losses.  Blah, Blah, Blah.  Part of this, I think, represents the need of talking heads to have something to say.  A chattering class with nothing to chatter about soon leads to unemployment and the need to do something productive.  But I believe that there is more to this than merely adding fluff to an already-fluffy job.  There is an agenda, I think, and I wish to propose my explanation of it.

College football right now is basically a minor league for the National Football League.  Major League Baseball must maintain a wide-ranging system of minor leagues in cities ranging in size from Oklahoma City to Salem, Oregon.  Probably, some funds from the major league teams are expended upon maintaining those minor league teams, but it is hoped that crown attendance and perhaps some advertising on broadcasts of the games will generate funds to make the minors in some degree self-supporting.  This situation does not exist in professional football.  The college football teams are, as far as I know, financially independent of the NFL, while providing the pool of talent from which the professional teams will draw their new players as old players retire or are broken beyond repair.

Right now, the vast majority of the really good players coming out of high school go to a rather limited pool of colleges.  You know all of the names:  Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, USC, Oregon, etc.  Out of 128 colleges represented in Division I football I count 25 that would be considered legitimate contenders for a national championship, and since 1998 only eleven schools have claimed the eighteen titles.  I think that it’s safe to say that the game is pretty well rigged for an aspiring high school athlete to be easily drawn to one of the football factories that those schools have become.

This makes things very cozy for a lot of people.  The schools themselves earn vast amounts of money from their football programs, and after spending a few million on their coaches and a few million more on their facilities, they have an enormous amount of money left over since they do not have to pay their players.  “Their compensation is their degree” we are told, but a great many of those degrees are as useless as a rubber blowtorch and everybody from the janitor to the college president knows it.  If an independently-administered testing program was instituted to evaluate the basic knowledge of reading, writing, math and physical sciences and the results of those tests factored in in the process of declaring a national championship I strongly believe that the we would see a far different outcome.

And this is very cozy for the NFL teams.  How many scouts must one team support to keep an eye on eleven, or twenty-five or thirty teams?  A heck of a lot fewer than it takes to keep an eye on sixty four.  If all of the four and five star recruits are to be found in ten or fifteen stadiums, that takes much of the hard work out of recruiting.  We blow our horns and sing praises to the Ducks and Trojans and Gators and Tide, and then sit back to pick the low hanging fruit to populate our pro teams.  What could be easier?

The multiplicity of the bowl games makes all of this much harder to do.  This year marked the sixth year in a row that San Diego State worked its way into a bowl game.  The effect that this has on SDSU’s recruiting efforts is striking.  A kid in San Diego or perhaps the Los Angeles metroplex previously had to play for one of the big teams in the PAC 12, or perhaps meander out east to Alabama or Tennessee or Michigan in order to be seen by the scouts, and could only hope to play in front of family and friends if he was so fortunate as to be recruited by USC or UCLA.  Alternately, he might go to Oregon or Washington or some other PAC 12 team if some visibility to family was valued, or venture to the more far-flung schools if visibility to scouts was higher on the agenda.

Now, the coaches of SDSU can say “Come to our school and you are very likely to be on local and regional television and play in a bowl game.  The opportunity to be seen by scouts AND family is geometrically increased and the good high school player is now more likely to think about staying hope.  “Nobody watches the little bowls” the talking heads say, but they are wrong.  The scouts are watching those bowls and so are the high school kids who and wondering where they will go next year or the year after.  So too, apparently, a host of ordinary college football fans like myself watching those games, since the networks would not be broadcasting them if people were not watching them.

Far from being insignificant, those small bowls are perhaps the most significant innovation in the recent history of college sports.  The utter domination of college football by the Big Dozen or Two is threatened at it’s core by the exposure that a good player can get playing at his home college, and you can expect the people currently on top of the NCAA football dog pile to do everything that they can to keep it that way, and that includes their mascots in the media to trash the threat of the small bowls at every turn.  I hope with all of my heart that they fail at this.

Time To Go Bowling

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.