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Four hours is all we need

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Most of the time, the Rose Bowl is a cog in the machine it created. And then one afternoon each year, it’s a dream made real.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty photo. Banner Society illustration

1. The Rose Bowl is where we have been.

I was a skeptic about the Rose Bowl until I saw the grass.

Okay, edit: Until I felt the grass, as in looking down and seeing it and for no conscious reason taking off my shoes and socks and putting my feet onto it. It is a deep shade of verdant green, cool to the touch, as densely arranged as the hair on a bear’s hide but as soft as the belly of a cat.

I walked around on it like an idiot for a minute, because everyone who goes to California for the first time gets that urge at one point. You’ll look up at a mountain hanging out over a city, smell eucalyptus through an open car window, or listen to sea lions begging for bait off a pier. The idea of why people would ever go to California was translated through the soles of my feet at the Rose Bowl, and also by the unearthly sensation of walking out of a climate-controlled hotel and out into the street where the air outside did not feel like it was trying to crush you or cook you sous-vide. (I’m from the South. The air is there to suffocate you.)

If the Rose Bowl means something more to me, it’s all in the personal understanding of why this was a brass ring in the first place — not just for college football, but as a symbol of the larger things the Rose Bowl represented. There was a time in America when football was its sport. It spread to the West and the South just like everything else, heading for warm places where almost anyone could get a job, buy a house with an orange tree in the backyard, and drive a car the size of an aircraft carrier down to the edge of an ocean in the afternoon.

Bowl games were little beacons for that vision. In the dead of winter, the sport went on vacations there — to Florida, to Texas, and if you were very good, to California — all largely on the dime of people selling that mirage. They didn’t matter, initially. The rankings and championships all finalized in early December, and teams lucky enough to make bowl games played them as exhibitions and treated them accordingly.

I mean, Bob Devaney and Bear Bryant terrified their underlings, sure. But come bowl season, there are photos of them trading hats at team dinners in images so relaxed I can smell the bourbon coming off the screen. Bowl games were part of some larger endless vacation. For the teams, there were dinners, parades, and city boosters paying for the whole thing in the background, selling the next century of warm weather and endless prosperity.

On January 1, color TV images of college football games beamed back to Midwesterners and Northeasterners drinking bad coffee in their freezing living rooms. Someone watching the immortal, glorious sunset against the San Gabriels had to look and think: Why am I here, and not there? The Rose Bowl wasn’t just the place teams went when they were very, very good. It was a little piece of a whole life anyone could have simply by having the will to go.

And when you got there, it would smell, feel, taste, and sound better than you could have imagined. It would live up to the fantasy.

2. The Rose Bowl is where we are.

It’s kind of a stolen thing now, in a lot of ways. The formerly local Rose Bowl is a formal interstate commerce operation now, part of a corporate arrangement yielding lucrative returns for its partners — the schools operating tax-sheltered semipro football teams under the umbrella of nonprofit universities, its sponsors, and the television networks cramming money into the till so feverishly that the games themselves can view the people in the stands as pleasant afterthoughts.

It’s been franchised, too, or at least imitated with wildly varying levels of success. Like another California innovation — the fast-food franchise — the Rose Bowl was the original location of a business later boasting as many as 41 locations serving the college football market. Some barely cling to life on the fringes, existing only as fronts for ESPN’s need for programming. Some are full-blown Rose facsimiles that are their own civic institutions, like the Orange and the Sugar. The Fiesta Bowl had its own corporate fraud scandal that landed a CEO in jail. There isn’t a more American success story than that.

Its actual importance as a football game, once set for all of eternity as the showcase for the Pac-12 and the Big Ten’s best, no matter what the rest of the country did, now depends on factors it can’t always control. Some years it gets Playoff games. When that happens, the Rose Bowl still glows like football Valhalla and serves as an out-of-time arena for spine-tingling drama like nothing else — the 2018 Oklahoma-Georgia game that threatened to burn the scoreboard down, for instance. Some years, thanks to the contracts and big money floating 8,000 miles above everyone’s heads, it hosts Oregon and Wisconsin teams with multiple losses each.

It is a good game, but it is not the game anymore. It doesn’t sit alone at the left edge of the country anymore. Like California and Florida and all the other places that used college football as a signal to attract newcomers looking for something else, the Rose Bowl is now crowded shoulder to shoulder, literally and figuratively. The Rose Bowl is surrounded by the city springing up around it and hemmed in by its endless codes, with parking limited to a 1950s-sized lot around the stadium and narrow streets. Overflow tailgating is begrudgingly permitted on an adjacent, city-owned golf course.

The first game that started as an invitation to all is now another irritant for locals who have a tiny piece of the California dream, and would like to keep it as quiet as possible. The country moved to the West and South, with college football following the interstates to warmer weather. It all worked — a little too well, as anyone who’s ever spent two grinding hours driving the highway up in coagulating traffic to Pasadena knows.

3. The Rose Bowl is where we are going.

The Rose Bowl is, like each of us, a thing controlled in part by distant and huge sums of money. This thing that was an exhibition became an operation. This operation became an institution. This institution is now part of a system.

To be part of the current bowl system, it takes the teams it is given, rather than the historic East-West matchup it favored for nearly a century. Its ratings are tracked and monitored as a commodity, because that is what the game and everything surrounding it are now — things not just to be sold, but optimized for maximum profit. That even goes for the Rose Bowl’s title, something its organizers put off selling as long as possible before caving to hypercapitalism. Since 1999, the game has had a sponsor, though the game’s bosses insist on the Rose Bowl’s name coming first, with the company getting second billing as a “presenting sponsor.”

The Rose Bowl is as threatened as everyone else by things it can’t control. The business of keeping it open is more fickle than it ever has been, or at least as fluid. The Pac-12, which views the stadium as a home field for UCLA and the conference’s most consistent partner, is struggling to compete in a sport where talent and resources skew heavily to the Southeastern part of the country. The game’s other major partner, the Big Ten, has had its own struggles with postseason competition, something the Tournament of Roses has to care about now more than ever, because the game is now the Tournament’s prime television property. (This is relatively new. For years, the Rose Parade outpaced the game in total audience.)

The money has its own demands that come without consideration for people, tradition, or sometimes even reality. And reality, all by itself, has enough demands to make on the Rose Bowl already. In 2009, wildfires in the Angeles National Forest got close enough to make UCLA consider canceling games at the stadium. The Raymond Fault, like every other fault in California, could decide to go at any time and shake the place to its foundations.

It’s nothing personal, but the flip side of the deal California and every other warm place in America make with their residents is that they will, from time to time, try to kill you with earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, fires, tornadoes, and occasionally the extremely aggressive wildlife.

It’s still real, though, or at least fits a definition of real, mortgaged to the hilt and indebted to parties far away for things it will by contract continue to owe for years to come. There is still a game, and sometimes a breathtaking one at that. Vince Young trotted into the corner of the end zone in 2006 to beat the Trojans. Saquon Barkley and Sam Darnold went off for massive totals in 2017’s barnburner between USC and Penn State. Even its disasters can be classics: Jameis Winston flailing backwards and fumbling against Oregon in the 2015 edition, or Christian McCaffrey singlehandedly decimating Iowa in the 2016 game.

The stadium still has the warmth of the ROSE BOWL sign in red and green, something straight out of Southern California’s highway-fueled past of endless neon signs and shops shaped like the products they sold. No one’s messing with the fringe of trees around the stadium or the looming profile of the San Gabriel Mountains. At game time, it’ll feel like 60 degrees or so, and when the sun sets, the whole place will glow until the sun finally dips into the Pacific. Keith Jackson will call the game. He died days after the 2018 Rose Bowl, but he’ll make it to this year’s all the same.

The grass is still there, too. It comes from the same place every year: Palm Desert, California, a town of around 40,000 out in the Coachella Valley. It’s trucked in before the game every year, and comes in a shade of green particularly suited for showing up beautifully on television. The thing about where the Rose Bowl is going is that it will be a production, the rights to the whole thing sold and resold again to people who will only see the grass as a line on a spreadsheet. Yesterday’s escape will be tomorrow’s crowded, oversold obligation. There will be absolutely nowhere for anyone to park.

But some of it won’t or can’t change, or that’s the hope at least. That even if the grass is half a lie, it will still feel on your feet like a home you never knew. Not one you own, mind you, because it was bought and sold before you ever got there. The feeling doesn’t have to last forever. Four hours on January 1 every year would be more than enough.