Why the Rose Bowl stands alone in college football

This image is a derivative of Rose Bowl, 1963 by uwdigitalcollections (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Australians interested in American college football might ask themselves, “If I could go to one college football game to get the 'ultimate college football experience', what would that game be?”

One could answer that question in many different ways. If you want an important game, go to a College Football Playoff national championship game.

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If you want an emotional game, go to Auburn-Alabama, one of the nastiest, most bitter rivalries in the sport.

If you want a mixture of tradition and emotion, go to Army-Navy in the middle of December. Two service academies playing on a national stage – when no other college football games are being played – is a unique American sports classic.

Those are all very good choices. I am not here to argue against them.

I am here to argue for another game. It occurs on January 1 of every year – or January 2 when January 1 is an NFL Sunday in the United States. The kickoff time is (almost) always the same: Just after 2 pm local time in Pasadena, California - or 9am Australian Eastern time.

I am talking, of course, about the Rose Bowl, nicknamed “The Granddaddy Of Them All” or just “The Granddaddy.” This game was the first bowl game ever. 

It debuted in 1902. Michigan annihilated Stanford, turning the game into a bust. For 14 years, the game wasn’t held, but it was birthed back into existence in 1916 ,and has been with us ever since. 

In January of 1942, days after the Pearl Harbor attack, there were fears of Japan attacking the Pacific Coast of the United States, so the game was moved to the East Coast in Durham, North Carolina, but other than that one time, the Rose Bowl has made a home in Southern California on New Year’s Day.

The Rose Bowl – yes, more than the NFL's Super Bowl – is the aesthetic height and ideal of the big football game in America. The 2pm start in Southern California is cherished, because it keeps the Rose Bowl’s aura as the game which starts in a crisp sunshine and ends in a dramatic dusk.

The Rose Bowl is to American football what Centre Court Wimbledon is to tennis and either Fenway Park or Wrigley Field are to baseball. The Rose Bowl is the cathedral of college football, the stadium with the deepest imprint on the American sports imagination.

The entire concept of a bowl game didn’t exist before the Rose Bowl came into being.

The setting, in the Arroyo Seco, nestled in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, is iconic in a way no other football stadium can match. The daytime start also means that American kids can watch the game well before bedtime. The other major sporting events in the country - with the exception of the Super Bowl - usually occur at night (NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals, World Series, NCAA basketball championship game, College Football Playoff National Championship Game).

The Rose Bowl is also that rare thing in modern college football at the end of the 2010s and the beginning of the 2020s: a game multiple regions of the country care about.

In the evolution of college football, the culture of the sport created powerful and meaningful associations between bowl games and individual regions of the country. The Cotton Bowl was cherished by people in the state of Texas because the champion of the Southwest Conference played in the Cotton Bowl game until the SWC ceased to exist in 1996. The Orange Bowl was cherished by people in the Central Plains region of the United States, because the heartland-based Big Eight Conference put its champion in the Orange Bowl. The Sugar Bowl was treasured in the Deep South because the Southeastern Conference champion used to go to the Sugar Bowl.

The Rose Bowl – since the 1946 season – has established a relationship not with one conference, but two. In 1946, the conferences were called the Pacific Coast Conference and the Western Conference. Today, they are called the Pac-12 and the Big Ten.

When the Rose Bowl hosts a College Football Playoff semifinal under the current postseason structure, the Pac-12-versus-Big-Ten arrangement is broken. This was also the case when the Rose Bowl hosted a Bowl Championship Series national championship game in the 2001 and 2005 seasons, or when a Big Ten or Pac-12 team qualified for a national title game hosted by a bowl OTHER than the Rose.

Example: In the 2002 season, whose bowl games were played in January of 2003, Ohio State of the Big Ten qualified for the BCS championship game in the Fiesta Bowl against Miami. This left Oklahoma of the Big 12 to take the place of the Big Ten champion in the 2003 Rose Bowl game versus Washington State. Wazzu (as the school is nicknamed) represented the Pac-12 at the time, when the league was called the Pac-10.

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However, in the years when the Rose Bowl doesn’t get a non-traditional matchup in order to accommodate the semifinal or national championship bowl games, 'The Granddaddy' continues to bring together the best teams from the Pac-12 and Big Ten. This upcoming 2020 Rose Bowl has the Pac-12 champion Oregon Ducks, and the Big Ten’s No. 2 selection, the Wisconsin Badgers. Wisconsin is representing the Big Ten because the Big Ten champion, Ohio State, qualified for the College Football Playoff semifinals and faced Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl.

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The fact that the Rose Bowl gathers teams from two conferences (not just one) on a longstanding basis has created a deeper cultural relationship with fans. USC is a giant in the Pac-12. The Trojans might be the one football program from the Pac-12 which will sometimes view the Rose Bowl as a disappointment, because it will often mean the school isn’t in the national title game or the playoff semifinals. Ohio State is the equivalent example from the Big Ten.

However, for most fan bases in the Pac-12 and Big Ten Conferences, making the journey to the Rose Bowl is the height of achievement and success. For Big Ten fans – coming from the bone-chilling cold of the Midwestern United States in late December and early January to soak up Southern California sun – making the pilgrimage to the Rose Bowl is an experience of a lifetime.

In so many ways, there is nothing quite like the Rose Bowl, for reasons which go far beyond just the two teams playing a game of football. 

If you make one trip to America to see a college football game, I recommend “The Granddaddy.”

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Matt Zemek

Matt has written professionally about US College Football since 2000, and has blogged about professional Tennis since 2014. He wants the Australian Open to play Thursday night Women's Semi-Finals, and Friday evening Men's Semi-Finals. Contribute to his Patreon for exclusive content here.

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