“Cowboys and Indians disappear, dying off or transforming themselves by tortuous degrees into something quite different. The originals are nearly gone and will soon be lost forever in the overwhelming crowd. Legendary enemies, their ghosts ride away together — buddies at last — into the mythic sunset of the West.”
Edward Abbey wrote these words in “Desert Solitaire,” describing the final days of the American West as the world left it behind. Technology and culture and the inexorable march of time took those who were capable of adapting and made them something unrecognizable, and left those unable to change as relics of history, extinct but for myth and legend. He wrote those words late in the 1950s, a time when American society was completing its transformation from its pre-war iteration into something distinctly recognizable as our own present-day society, because he saw that a moment in history was coming to a close, and felt the need to note down what was being lost.
We don’t often think of history as taking place before our eyes. Even the events that seem to indicate a seismic shift are almost never singular instances, but rather the final thrust of years of life making subtle pushes that went unnoticed until the change was too far down the road to be halted. So it is with the recent announcement that the Rose Bowl has agreed to give up its 2 p.m. Pacific Standard Time kickoff on New Year’s Day (or Jan. 2 if New Year’s Day fell on Sunday), a 107-year annual tradition, in exchange for inclusion in the cornucopia promised by the expanded College Football Playoff.
The first Rose Bowl game was held in 1902. Michigan was beating Stanford 49-0 by the time Stanford quit the game at some point in the third quarter. It was then held for the second time in 1916, beginning a tradition that lasted unbroken until the present day. The original games had a more general standard of a team from the East playing a team from the West, but the current tradition of the Pac-12 and Big Ten conference champions being selected to play in the game was slowly formalized after World War II, becoming codified by 1963. This arrangement continued until the creation of the BCS, the beginning of the end for the tradition.
At first, it seemed not had much changed with the advent of the BCS, or Bowl Championship Series. The game was still played every New Year’s Day, and still had the Pac-12 and Big Ten champs, but the cracks in the foundation began to show. If the Pac-12 or Big Ten champ was selected to play in the new BCS national championship game, the Rose Bowl would have to select a different team. They did what they could to preserve the conference matchups, but were sometimes unable to select another team from the conference which was not participating, and occasionally served as the national championship game site.
In 2002, the game did not pair a Pac-12 and Big Ten team for the first time since 1946, and didn’t pair a West team with an East team for the first time ever. This turn of events happened a few more times over the following decade, until the BCS itself was deemed outdated and supplanted by a method of determining the national champion more in line with modern sensibilities: the College Football Playoff (which, surprise, surprise, allowed for two extra games in the process, increasing the monetary value of the format significantly).
Through all of this, the Rose Bowl soldiered on. After all, if world wars weren’t enough to bring the tradition to a halt, a few television executives with some extra zeros in their eyes shouldn’t even be worth noticing. This time, however, the changes to the Rose Bowl were set a little more firmly in stone. It would now serve as a semifinal game every three years, and had no control over the teams that would play in those years, but would have its traditional matchup in the off years. The formal net had tightened once more, as the Rose Bowl was now the Rose Bowl only two-thirds of the time. However, the most significant change was not written in any contract, nor negotiated at any table. Instead, it was a change in sentiment from the sport as a whole. “The Granddaddy of Them All,” which had once been watched on 40% of all the televisions in America, would now play second fiddle.
And so we come to the most recent announcement, the final nail in the coffin of the New Year’s Day bowl game. The Rose Bowl has lost complete control over the game, from the teams that play to the time it will be played. This will instead be determined by a committee which cares not a whit for what made the Rose Bowl special.
Perhaps it was inevitable, a necessary step to save the game from irrelevancy. After all, you might think, a game called the Rose Bowl will still be played every year, and it’s hard to continue a tradition of East vs. West when conferences are no longer organized by geography. But it’s the Rose Bowl in name only, a zombie game played in the cavernous ruins of a once-proud tradition, which exists to fatten the pockets of TV networks and as a stepping stone on the path towards something else. It will be devoid of the charm which comprised its essence.
The egalitarian promise of the playoff will draw comparisons to March Madness, but these are a mirage. For many teams that make the field of 68, just being there is the crowning accomplishment of their season. Win or lose, they made it.
The playoff, with its smaller size, will not have this same quality. Making it is not a dream, but a requirement. If you don’t make it, you can’t play for the title, but if you do make it, it’s only the first step to bigger dreams. Additionally, while rounds of March Madness are institutions, the games that comprise the rounds are not. This is the future of the Rose Bowl, a small part of a middle round in a playoff which doesn’t value the game for what it is, but wants to siphon all its value to the benefit of the playoff as a whole. It will still be called the Rose Bowl, of course, the name blasted out in the advertisements that will run from the beginning of December until the quarterfinals, but a season ending in the hills of Southern California will no longer be a dream. If your season ends here, you will have failed to win the championship, and that is all that will be remembered.
This transformation by tortuous degree into something quite different is not unique to the Rose Bowl. Without the same level of tradition to give them pause, the other New Year’s Six bowls all succumbed to the black hole of playoff money long ago, and were nothing more than a rubber stamp for expansion. Bowl season itself has been mutilated from a fitting reward of a team’s hard work over the season into a series of meaningless exhibition games, where players routinely sit out (unless it’s the oh-so-special playoff) to protect precious draft stock. Schools change conferences at the expiration of every contract, cleaving venerable rivalries without a second thought in the search for pastures made greener by ever larger revenue-sharing deals.
Once the expanded playoff takes effect, the college football season will now span 17 games, the same number of games that are played in the NFL regular season. It is an unintentional coincidence which reveals the trajectory of the sport. The playoff promises inclusivity in size, but neglects to mention what that will mean for the sport. If every team can make the playoff, then the playoff becomes the main goal.
But at the end of the day, college football isn’t about the national championship, or winning the playoff. It’s a Civil War in Oregon, and “The band is out on the field!” in California, and “The Game with The Team Up North and The Team Down South.” It’s a Border War between Kansas and Missouri and an Egg Bowl in Mississippi and Bedlam in Oklahoma. It’s an Iron Bowl in Alabama and a Brawl of the Wild in Montana. It’s 100,000 screaming fans wearing white in Happy Valley and 90,000 chomping fans wearing blue in The Swamp. It’s a Duel in the Desert of Arizona, and a Holy War in Utah, and some “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” in Georgia. It’s Army-Navy as the country looks on, and The Game, where Harvard and Yale roll back the clock to a time when they were, in fact, the only game that mattered.
It’s all of this, and uncountable more traditions on top. Marching bands and tailgates, school spirit and brotherhood. It’s about teams fighting to earn a single extra game with each other. This is what makes college football special, and it is fading as the eyes of all involved are clouded with dollar signs.
After all, the greatest game of college football ever played wasn’t for a national title, but for pride. It was between a juggernaut from Oklahoma and an upstart from Boise, on a clear Arizona evening in January 2007.
Should Boise State have had the chance to play for the national championship? Many thought and still think so, and the announcers almost missed the final play because they were too busy debating the merits of a playoff that would have included Boise State. A more fitting synecdoche of the entire playoff debacle is not possible, because as the announcers went back and forth on a playoff, Ian Johnson took the handoff in a trick Statue of Liberty play and walked, untouched, into history.
This year will be the final Rose Bowl. Next year it’s a semifinal for the College Football Playoff, and after that the expansion happens and the curtains close for good on one of America’s grandest traditions. In the end, however, we got to watch it unfold for more than 100 years. Nothing lasts forever, so perhaps the best we could have ever hoped for was a long run and some good football, which the Rose Bowl certainly delivered. When you sit down to watch the final edition this year, keep that in mind. The fourth quarter will begin, the mountains will start to glow as twilight sets in, and Utah and Penn State will march out onto the field and carry the Rose Bowl, like the cowboys and indians before it, into the mythic sunset of the West.
Randy Quarles is a first-year student at the University of Chicago Law School. More importantly, he is a lifelong Utes fan.