IN AN ANNOUNCEMENT that the football world met with a yawn, the Freedom Bowl was put on a one-year suspension by the NCAA last week. For a recruiting violation. It didn't recruit enough sponsors.
The deal is this: Either the Freedom Bowl comes up with more money by 1996 or downtown Anaheim will be without a bowl game on a permanent basis.The prospects are not bright, since it's no secret that the whole of Orange County - of which Anaheim Stadium is the epicenter - is going through an economic downturn. The county is considering bankruptcy and the Rams have already left. The city of Anaheim is so cash poor it's ticketing little kids jaywalking across Katella Avenue to get to the Magic Kingdom.
The Freedom Bowl is the least of Orange County's concerns right now. The bowl's salvation could very likely wind up hinging on whether any outside interests come to the rescue, which is where the college football fans in Utah - and more specifically, fans of the University of Utah and Brigham Young University - come into the picture. If anybody should want to save the Freedom Bowl, it should be the Cougars and the Utes.
The Freedom Bowl has been very, very good to both of them. Of the 11 Freedom Bowls played since the game went into business in 1984, a Utah team has been involved more than a third of the time. With two appearances each, Utah and BYU are tied for the all-time Freedom Bowl appearance lead with USC and Washington. But whereas the Huskies and the Trojans, especially, practically had to be gagged and bound to get them there, the Cougars and Utes - lured by nothing more than Free Disneyland Tickets! - always came of their own free will and choice. Somehow, intuitively, instinctively, they knew memorable things would happen in the stadium adorned with a halo.
It was in the Freedom Bowl that BYU discovered Ty Detmer. It was in the Freedom Bowl that Utah was able to showcase Luther Ellis and Mike McCoy and Cal Beck. It was in the Freedom Bowl that Utah staged its own version of the Miracle Bowl. It was at the Freedom Bowl that it never snowed.
And who can forget that moment in the 1986 Freedom Bowl, when Patti Edwards, the wife of the BYU coach and a columnist at the time for the Provo Herald, asked UCLA coach Terry Donahue in the postgame press conference if he thought it was necessary to throw than final halfback pass for a touchdown WHEN HIS TEAM WAS ALREADY AHEAD BY TWO TOUCHDOWNS!
The game has been a mother lode of lore for Utahns. The Freedom Bowl has had color. The Freedom Bowl has had pizzaz. The Freedom Bowl has had controversy. The Freedom Bowl has had sensational finishes.
There was Detmer's coming out in the 1988 game, BYU versus Colorado, when the sophomore from Texas entered the game in the second half and threw a touchdown pass and set up two fourth-quarter field goals by Jason Chaffetz in a come-from-behind 20-17 win that effectively jump-started the Detmer Heisman Trophy Express. There was Utah's come-from-behind 16-13 win over Arizona just last December, set up by Beck's terrific last-minute punt return. The entire state of Arizona still has a nervous twitch because of that one. And there was even Utah's 21-0 second-half pummeling of USC in the 1993 Freedom Bowl, when McCoy and Jamal Anderson and Ellis played like All-Americans. Unfortunately, USC had taken a 28-0 lead by halftime.
As far as the Utah schools are concerned, the Freedom Bowl has lived up to its name. It's given them the freedom to show off. And they have not been alone. Other schools, too, have enjoyed the forum. There have been impressive uprisings on a regular basis, topped by Fresno State's 24-7 win over USC in the '92 game, when the few USC students who drove across town to Anaheim - waving signs that said, "My Maid Goes To Fresno" - realized they were the ones out of their league. After that game, Trent Dilfer was a first-round draft choice.
The Freedom Bowl has been a spread-the-wealth bowl all right. It has not discriminated. It's turned Utah coach Ron McBride into something of a cult hero in his old hometown. They've even started writing stories in the Los Angeles Times about McBride's old roughneck days in the 'hood. And they're spelling his name right.
But now the bowl itself is in trouble. Utah and BYU might want to consider doing a telethon. And Fresno might want to join in. Without this bowl, they could be home for the holidays - shoveling snow. It's something to think about.