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The weird Granddaddy: How the Rose set six strange standards for all bowl games

Why are bowl games called “bowl games?” The answer to that and several other questions go back to the Rose Bowl.

Roes Parade float, 1951. Photo by Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

I’m going to assume you know that the Rose Bowl’s called “The Granddaddy of Them All” because it was the first college football bowl game. (That first game was not particularly interesting, proving that even the nicest grandfathers make mistakes in their youth.)

But the Rose Bowl didn’t just start the concept of postseason games. It gave future bowl games a set of standard operating procedures, whether it meant to or not. These are six of the biggest.

1. Calling them “bowl games”

Technically, the first Rose Bowl wasn’t a Rose Bowl because there wasn’t a Rose Bowl yet. If you find that sentence perplexing, let me walk you through it.

That 1902 Michigan stomping of Stanford was called “the Tournament East–West football game,” which is a delightful video-game-that-doesn’t-have-a-deal-with-the-league-it-portrays name. The building known as the Rose Bowl didn’t open until October 1922, and it got its name shortly before the January 1, 1923 game between USC and Penn State.

Monrovia Daily News, December 15, 1922

A new shorthand emerged for the East-West football game: people just called it “the Rose Bowl game,” because it was the game played at the Rose Bowl. That got copied by postseason games that came later; the Orange Bowl game was played in Miami for over two decades before the stadium name changed to match it, and the Sugar Bowl’s never been played in a venue literally known as the Sugar Bowl. (The Cotton Bowl had the decency to name the game and the stadium at the same time.)

Had it been the Rose Stadium or the Rose Amphitheater, we might be spending December talking about ticket prices to the Orange Stadium or trying to remember what the Cotton Amphitheater tie-ins are.

This all gets very silly when you learn the original stadium wasn’t a bowl-like oval. It was a horseshoe.

Los Angeles Public Library

Why did they call this giant letter U the Rose Bowl? Because the architect was influenced by the Yale Bowl in Connecticut, which opened eight years before the Rose Bowl as the first football venue with seating completely surrounding the playing field like a bowl.

So, to recap: they’re called bowl games because Yale’s stadium inspired an architect to design a horseshoe in California.

2. The whole horticulture thing

You probably know that the Rose part of the name comes from the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade, first organized in 1890 by the Valley Hunt Club. According to the official parade history, Club member Professor Charles F. Holder said this at one of the meetings when the parade idea began:

In New York, people are buried in snow. Here our flowers are blooming and our oranges are about to bear. Let’s hold a festival to tell the world about our paradise.

Said festival included people festooning their carriages and horses with garlands of roses. (Of note: most of Pasadena is in USDA hardiness Zone 10a, which is also well-suited for tropical milkweed, mask flowers, and impatiens. Had these fancy folks picked different flowers for their decor, we could be talking about the legacy of the Impatiens Bowl.)

Again, the entire point of this parade was to make cousins and friends back East feel stupid for living in cold, gray, depressing places where nothing nice grew in winter. The bowls that followed the Rose largely mimicked that — the Orange, Cotton, and Sugar all adhered to the agriculture thing, as did lots of former games like the Bluebonnet, Cherry, and Pineapple.

And then there’s the Sun Bowl, which started in 1936. Frankly, I think they took it a step too far by changing the state flag of Arizona as well, as seen here and definitely not doctored by me.

The point is, the original wasn’t some agriculture marketing thing. The rose was not the state flower. California just wanted to make New Yorkers feel bad, and other states decided they were on board with that, too.

3. New Year’s adjacency

Because the Rose Bowl was created as a side spectacle to a parade that was already very successful, the responsible parties have always put the parade first. That’s why it’s held on January 1 every year (unless New Year’s is on a Sunday, because the parade might spook church horses — this was the actual reasoning from the first time the calendar lined up this way).

It’s sort of like having a bowl game attached to your birthday. You’d be annoyed if you had to move your celebration just to accommodate the College Football Playoff, right?

This was fine when the Rose Bowl was the only bowl game. Then other bowls started popping up. In 1937, the Cotton and Bacardi joined the Rose, Orange, Sugar, and Sun as postseason exhibitions, all played on January 1. By 1946, there were 12 New Year’s Day bowls, and bowl season had its gravitational center.

If the Rose Parade had been organized as an Easter celebration, we might have bowl season where spring games sit now.

4. Selection controversy

When football returned to the Rose Parade festivities in 1916, Washington State got the invite thanks to its 6-0 record and wins over Oregon and Oregon Agricultural. (Washington was 7-0, but the two didn’t play each other). A totally reasonable choice for a Pacific representative.

The other invite went to Brown, who was ... 5-3-1. One of those losses was to Harvard, who finished 8-1. Another was to Syracuse, who went 9-1-2. Curious! But maybe the organizers were just rusty.

Let’s jump ahead to the 1923 game, the first held at the Rose Bowl proper. The Pacific invite was first extended to undefeated Cal. The student body, however, voted to decline (this was not particularly rare), and the conference decided to let its members vote on who would get the bid. Here’s how that shook out.

The Los Angeles Times, December 6, 1922

I mean, good on Idaho for trying to force sense into the proceedings.

That’s all pretty tame compared to the other selection. When Penn State got the invitation, they were 5-0 and had outscored their opponents 166-13. There was only one problem: said invitation came in October, when Penn State still had five games left on the schedule. The Nittany Lions went 1-3-1 to close the regular season, but they still got the trip to Pasadena over, among others, 7-0 Iowa and 8-0-1 Vanderbilt.

Perhaps seeking to avoid a similar embarrassment for the 1924 game, the Rose Bowl tried a new tactic: they just let the Pacific representative, Washington, pick who they wanted to play. (The Huskies went with Navy but only managed a 14-14 tie.)

Think of every time you’ve been pissed that your team got the Outback Bowl instead of the Citrus Bowl or the Sun Bowl instead of the Gator Bowl. Recall all the BCS Championships you were sure had jilted the true #2 from a chance. Look back on the moments where you booed the Playoff committee for failing at what seemed like a simple job. There were only one set of footprints on the beach of your life on these occasions, because you were riding on the shoulders of your Rose Bowl ancestors.

So what do you do when setting up a “best West team vs. best East team” proves to be a huge pain in the ass? You move on to your next bowl innovation.

5. Conference tie-ins

Toward the end of the 1946 season, the Pacific Coast Conference (today’s Pac-12) and the Big Nine (today’s Big Ten) announced something fairly revolutionary. They’d signed a five-year agreement to send their champions to play each other in the Rose Bowl, starting on January 1, 1947.

Most bowl games at that point had one conference tie, often informal. The Sugar usually took an SEC team, the Cotton usually picked one team from the Southwest Conference, and the Sun got someone from the Texas or Border Conferences. The Rose Bowl had done this as well, guaranteeing a spot to the Pacific Coast Conference for decades.

But locking in both spots changed the entire tenor of what bowls were, and it had an immediate effect on a team that wasn’t in either the Pacific Coast or the Big Nine: Army.

Army had the returning Heisman Trophy winner, fullback Doc Blanchard. Army finished the year 9-0-1, with wins over three of the top fifteen teams in the nation and a tie against final AP number one Notre Dame. Army hadn’t ever been to the Rose Bowl and UCLA, the PCC champ that year, wanted them to get the spot.

None of this changed the fact that Army, not being a member of the Big Nine, was ineligible to claim the Big Nine title. So 7-2 Illinois got the trip instead, and the Rose Bowl’s dual conference streak continued all the way until January 3, 2002, when the game hosted Nebraska and Miami in the BCS Championship.

Many bowls held out from locking in two conferences for a while, but now nearly all of them are locked into a predictable system that robs bowl season of its full potential. Good job, Rose Bowl.

6. Build-a-bowl

If you’d like to start a bowl game, you can basically follow the same blueprint the Rose Bowl did in 1902. Find a venue, find two teams that want to play, sell some tickets, and you’re pretty much good.

Okay, technically the NCAA does have to certify your bowl, and you’ll have to show them you have the financial backing to actually pay out the conferences and teams. But the particulars — which conferences, what venue, roughly what date, who airs your bowl on television, who sponsors it, what it’s called — are basically up to you.

There’s a joke here about how shocking it is that the NCAA’s happy to sit off to the side and collect their cut without actually doing any of the work, except it actually is a little shocking, given how much money the Association makes off the postseason tournament it does own outright: March Madness.

Imagine just starting up your own March Madness in April and insisting it’s the biggest basketball tournament of them all until everyone agrees with you. That’s basically what the Rose Bowl did.