No argument about college football is ever new. As the bowl system perpetually expands, the common refrain from people who don’t like football is that college football’s postseason has been diluted.
The bowl system’s expansion became exponential around the 1990s, but long before then, people were complaining about it — whether that means media members, coaches, academics, or bowl execs.
Before the bowl system even expanded beyond The Grandaddy Of Them All, people were whining. When it did expand, pushback was immediate.
The Rose Bowl was established in 1902, played annually starting in 1916. It was the only consistent bowl game until 1934, although there were a few off-and-ons here and there. By New Year’s Day 1938, there were officially five bowl games: Cotton, Orange, Rose, Sugar, and Sun.
Even when there was only one game, however, some were against the postseason spectacle.
Nebraska lost a head coach in 1915 because it refused to pay for his team to accept a Rose Bowl invite — expenses were a common objection by teams at the time. Pasadena wasn’t exactly an easy place to get to for Eastern teams.
Colgate, Dartmouth, Tulane, and Yale turned down invites to the 1925 season’s (soon-to-be legendary) Rose Bowl for reasons ranging from academics to competitive inequality.
“The commercial exploiting of any form of college athletics through intersectional contests and championships is reprehensible,” wrote the authors of the Carnegie report, a 1929 academic assessment of college sports. “Such interests as are involved in the California Tournaments of Roses can work only injury to college athletics. [...] The dangers to individual athletes that national, intersectional, or regional competitions breed arise from the exploiting of teams to increase gate receipts and the undue publicity lavished upon them.”
In 1930, the American Football Coaches Association announced a resolution that “post season games be kept a minimum and that the best interest of football are against charity games,” such as the Rose Bowl.
Before that in 1930, a Dayton Daily News story reported on a growing feeling within the sport that the game prolonged the season needlessly.
Dartmouth rejected a Rose Bowl invite in 1937, wanting no part in a “cleverly designed and efficiently run publicity stunt for Southern California,” with school president Ernest Martin Hopkins saying, “It is the post-season factor that precludes us.”
When bowl games began to increase, it was too much for Minnesota coach Bernie Bierman. While protesting the Big Ten’s ban against sending its own teams to bowl games, Biermen said in 1937, “This matter of bowl games is getting beyond control, however. If it keeps up, there will be so many of them it will be a joke.”
Days later, on Dec. 30, famed sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote “I’m not in agreement with the general verdict that we have too many bowl games. Why not? Football isn’t that serious, the players want the trip — the diversion.”
Following the five games on New Year’s Day ‘38, The Cincinnati Enquirer ran this cartoon on the front page of its sports section showing the winners of that day’s bowl games surrounding a character who ate too many things out of bowls — get it?
And in late 1938, sports editors gathered for a UPI sports poll to voice their opinions about the future of the sport. The dissent was strong, with only 26 percent approving of the amount of bowl games, although one editor admitted it was good for business.
-They are okay if we don’t get any more.
-Personally, I dislike the hypocrisy connected with the games, but they do help liven up the sport pages during the dull holiday season.
-Two or three are all right, but too many of them cheapen the sport.
Another non-starter, per a majority of the editors? A postseason playoff. Even though many editors thought it was a good idea, they felt it was impossible to pull off. One editor had an oddly prescient critique of the idea:
By the late 1940s, there actually were way too many bowl games, as far as the NCAA was concerned.
The bowl system had as many as 14 official bowls by this point, though there were also as many as 50 other college football contests that were called bowls.
The Junior Rose Bowl, for instance, pitted JUCOs against each other in Pasadena. Bowls like the Salad, Grape, Glass, Corn, Iodine, Optimist, Petroleum, Refrigerator, and Cigar were short-lived. They grabbed teams that are now in Division II, Division III, or defunct. The NCAA lumps all of them as “unsanctioned,” but that doesn’t mean they’re insignificant.
The most famous of these was the Orange Blossom Classic, which featured the best two HBCU teams at a time when the sport wasn’t integrated. It was played in stadiums that were typically “blacks only,” but when the game settled in its longtime home in the Orange Bowl in 1947, it was the first time black people sat in the stadium’s stands. Its modern successor is the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta.
The bowl debate raged within the NCAA. Maine coach Tad Weiman — head of the AFCA — led a crusade against bowls, which he felt they were merely building profits for commercial entities. Looking back decades later, maybe he was onto something.
In 1949, the NCAA prohibited its 243 member schools from scheduling future postseason games after January 1950, in order to study how much money schools were making. Many bowls had payouts as low as 40 percent of the gross receipts to the competing schools, supporting Weiman’s gripes. The report was delivered by the chair of the “bowl problem” committee.
Still, those who supported the wide-ranging bowl system had a point about its merits for smaller programs.
Unsanctioned games would continue throughout the ‘50s, but the official bowl system would hold fairly static between seven and nine through 1966, due to a moratorium by the NCAA.
From the 1970s to today, television has created the glut of bowls.
By New Year’s Day 1973, the major national title selectors were finally waiting until after the bowls to crown their national champions. That shift in the postseason’s significance inched us toward the Playoff we have today (and yeah, people were still proposing a playoff at the time).
The bowl system was at 11 games — too much, per Gator Bowl executive director George Olsen.
Despite what decision makers said, fans liked them. A 1977 story in the The Tampa Times cited a poll by its readers in which only 31.6 percent of those surveyed said there were too many bowl games.
Bowl expansion continued gradually through the 1980s. By 1980 there were 15 bowls, and by 1997, there were 20.
By the mid-80s, the NCAA had rules that guaranteed participants at least 37.5 percent of the gross revenue made by their bowls.
A 1982 story quoted Cotton Bowl boss Jim Brock, who worried, “we’ll have a game every hour on the hour. I’m totally opposed [to the number of bowls] and will continue to fight it.” Texas coach Fred Akers said there were “a couple too many” in 1984. And here’s a column by Sugar Bowl president Mickey Holmes in 1989:
Why has the number of bowl games doubled since ‘97? The answer lies in that 1977 reader poll.
Weiman was right about college football’s postseason propping up commercial entities. What he couldn’t know was that that entity would be ESPN’s December programming schedule. The four-letter network can justify the bloated system because people like watching football.
ESPN needs to fill slots. It broadcasts almost all of the 40-ish bowl games we have in most modern seasons, and outright owns 14 of them through a subsidiary called ESPN Events. The company has a monopoly on the sport’s postseason, and data shows that if you put football in front of us, we’ll watch it.
Every bowl game was in the top five in sports for the day save for one and all of them made the top 15 on cable overall. 2.5 million viewers for a football game between Troy and Ohio! That’s just a ridiculously good number for those two teams in that bowl game.
The only other sports programs to make cable’s top 10 during the same period? Two were NFL games and NFL related programming for Monday Night Football on ESPN and Thursday Night Football on NFL Network. Another was the Kentucky-Louisville college basketball rivalry game.
The NCAA’s latest moratorium on bowl season expansion lifts in 2020, with the Myrtle Beach Bowl among those already raring to join.
If bowl expansion still bothers you that much, then I’m not quite sure what to tell you.
Your argument isn’t new, and the system’s going to continue to expand anyway. Maybe try just sitting and enjoying the games with the rest of us?