Nuts About Bowls
Defending the Bowl Experience

 

January 2, 2009

I chose to ignore the scrooges of the football holiday season and attended one of these derided meaningless mediocrities, the Emerald Bowl.

 

The Emerald Bowl’s name comes from its corporate sponsor, Diamond Foods’ Emerald Nuts. Hence the game is usually known as the Nut Bowl. Though it’s no Poulan Weed-Eater Bowl nor the Meinake Car Care Bowl, the Nut Bowl’s name gives some credence to its not-so-lofty stature in the greater college football landscape. Still, there aren’t many chances to watch my California Golden Bears (and this would be my last for 8 months) and the Cal vs Miami matchup featured two good programs with several NFL caliber talents on each side so I decided to attend. In the holiday spirit (and knowing that I was buying tickets through Miami so I’d be unlikely to be able to stand, go crazy, and generally make a total ass of myself all game) I brought my dad with me.

 

[As an aside, I’d like to thank the Emerald Nuts people for not going completely overboard with their corporate branding during the game. They had two mascots present, including one whose torso was a big nut with a crown on top, making it the King Nut in tight. They handed out some product samples before the game, had their name plastered in a bunch of locations, and ran a few old ads on the jumbotron but the advertising was kept at a reasonable level. A few years ago I attended the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl and I left wanting to buy a boat and the mother of all harpoons to wipe out the planet’s whale population. The PacLife whale got more screen time than Aaron Rodgers during the game. It was ridiculous. “We hope you’re enjoying the Pacific Life – whale - Holiday Bowl, brought to you by Pacific Life. Pacific Life, blah blah corporate slogan. Whale. Pacific Life will now allow the continuation of the Pacific – whale - Life Holiday – whale - Bowl, sponsored by Pacific Life, after one more commercial message brought to you by Pacific Life about Pacific Life. Whale.” I’m going to go try to gene splice some radioactive plankton.]

 

As expected, it was a pretty good game where both teams showed why they were good enough to make a decent bowl game and not good enough to reach an elite postseason destination. For Miami that meant young talent making plays that showed potential and inexperience, mediocre play along both lines, and some of the worst clock management I’ve seen since Donovan McNabb decided to milk the clock trailing by two scores in the waning moments of the Super Bowl a few years ago. Cal showed its elite defense, abysmal kickoff unit and generally shaky special teams, ever-worsening passing game, and a spectacular running game led by running back Jahvid Best, Draddy Award (aka “the academic Heisman”) winner center Alex Mack, and bulldozing fullback Will Ta’ufo’ou. Cal ended up winning on a sack and forced fumble by senior linebacker Zack Follett and a circle of life touchdown pass from maligned senior quarterback Nate Longshore to freshman tight end Anthony Miller, whose first college reception was the last pass of Longshore’s long, sometimes glorious and record-setting, at times derided and reviled career. It took Nate five years, but he finally threw a game winning touchdown in the closing minutes of a game.

 

But the closeness of the game is not my point here. Instead the focus is on whether these middle of the pack bowls are worth preserving, and I contend from my experiences that they are.

 

A bowl game is a destination, an event worthy of college football. Indeed, most major college football regular season games are mini-events themselves, with a week of anticipation followed by a day planned entirely around the game (pre-game travel, tailgating, the game itself, post-game celebrating or commiserating, more tailgating, and heading home). At some schools, you don’t need reunions when you have college football Saturdays. Bowl games take this up several notches. Players and fans descend upon a host city. Even with the Nut Bowl being one traffic-ensnarled bridge ride away from Berkeley, this largely held up. For example, each team was taken on a tour of Alcatraz (Cal players went as a sightseeing experience, Miami players because they wanted to feel more at home). Few, if any, players had ever been before. It’s amazing how little one has for sightseeing when you have to be a fulltime student, go to near daily practices, and fill your down time with building (or rehabilitating) your body. [Note: in the cases of football factories such as USC, Oklahoma, etc, replace going to class with going to booster for salary collection purposes while accompanied by University provided clothing-challenged hostess.] Cal fans got to hang out in San Francisco before and after the game, a rare thing for most despite the proximity to Berkeley. Miami fans who traveled with their team got to see one of the premier destinations in the world, even if they did have to leave a balmy beach for strangely frigid San Francisco.

 

Because they are events with at least a few weeks of buildup, bowl games offer fan bases that normally have no interaction (and often fan bases from different parts of the country) to interact extensively. Only big time season opening out of conference games have this same element. Cal and Miami hadn’t played in nearly two decades. The Emerald Bowl allowed Californians and Floridians to mingle (in person and online) and learn about each other’s teams and traditions. Personally I knew that Miami’s Donald Duck reject of a mascot was an ibis, but had no idea that an ibis was the last bird to take cover before a hurricane and the first to emerge after one. I still don’t know why they didn’t make their Ibis suit looks like an Ibis and not like a duck, but did learn that they give their band the strange moniker of “The Band of the Hour.” Bowl games are social and educational opportunities.

 

Bowls are a reward for players, coaches, administrators, and fans. They are the first time all year that enjoying themselves and just being in the game are almost as important as winning the game. Normally, games are all business for the players and coaches. They are there to win, period. Any savoring the moment is done after the fact and often has to be put off even then as there is another game to prepare for. Going into the bowl game, everyone involved can enjoy the fact that they made it to a bowl game and take in everything associated with the bowl knowing that there is no next game to worry about. Sure, winning is important if only because you don’t become a high level athlete or coach without being very competitive. But for the rest of your life you’ll know that you made it to that bowl game (or, if you’re a fan, got to follow your team there). Arizona went to the meaningless Las Vegas Bowl this year, but it was the Wildcats’ first bowl in a decade. Even if they had lost their players and fans would’ve had a blast. You can’t say that even about the NCAA tournament. With the tournament you’re selected on Sunday and can be eliminated as soon as the following Thursday. If you win, you have another game in two days. Of 65 teams invited, only one goes home happy. Fans can’t really enjoy the simple fact that their team made it because of the importance of winning that game to make it to the next round. Earning a bowl berth is an achievement, a destination at the end of a long season’s road; a playoff berth is a milestone, an important marker on a road with an unknown length.

 

As the final seconds ticked off at the Phone Booth (insert whatever the telephone company name du jour happens to be) I surveyed the scene. Most of the few thousand Miami fans were disappointed but heading out for a night in The City. Most of the forty thousand Cal fans in attendance stuck around to celebrate with the team for at least a few minutes. Cal players were giddily galloping across the field, bounding from one section of Cal fans to the next in celebratory ecstasy. Cal’s seniors took in the warm glow of the victory in front of their home fans in their final collegiate game (and for some, the final game of their lives). Coach Jeff Tedford took to the improvised stage to receive the Nut Bowl championship trophy, one that strangely weighs more than some Cal coeds. Cal senior linebacker Zack Follett, who had just fulfilled a childhood dream by playing on the Giants’ home field (he grew up a Giants fan), went up to receive his game defensive MVP trophy and make a startled acceptance speech to thank (and unintentionally confuse) the fans.

 

Between Tedford and Follett’s appearances came Cal’s sophomore running back Jahvid Best, who was called up to receive the offensive MVP trophy. Best had just turned in another mesmerizing performance and carried Cal’s offense that night as he had much of the season. He was asked to comment on the growing Heisman hype he was receiving for next season. Jahvid replied that he’d rather talk about the national championship he and his Golden Bear teammates planned to win next year. The crowd erupted. Heisman trophies and BCS crystal footballs danced in Cal fans’ heads. Next year couldn’t come soon enough. A good but flawed team had finished a solid yet sometimes frustrating season. They had been sent to a meaningless late December bowl game, the type that playoff proponents will tell you is part of the current unnecessary bowl excess. Yet walking into that San Francisco night, wearing four layers of Cal gear to stay warm, I felt content with the season past and excited about what was to come. The players, coaches, and fans left the stadium happy, nostalgic, and excited. With a playoff system, only one school gets that kind of happy ending, and a team of Cal’s caliber gets quietly sent home after a frustrating mugging in the 2nd round of a 65 team tournament. In the bowl system, half the teams invited have a championship to celebrate and everyone gets memories and experiences that are the backbone of collegiate athletics.

 

Happy holidays, and GO BEARS!  

 


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