• Jonathan Brannan

HOW THE ROSE BOWL ALMOST KILLED THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL BOWL SEASON

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

This article was originally published on January 2nd, 2019.


Last Christmas, Craig Johnson, the mayor of a Chicago suburb came up with an idea that might have seemed a little strange.

After watching “bowl game, after bowl game.” He noticed that all of those games were named after businesses. These businesses paying to have their names attached to game titles.

Johnson thought, why couldn't he do that? What if his government in Elk Grove Village paid to attach its marketing slogan, “Makers Wanted,” to the name of a bowl game?

The goal would be to attract manufacturers to the suburb's industrial park, which is next to Chicago's O’Hare International Airport.

Johnson would end up sponsoring the Bahamas Bowl. Credit: utrockets.com

Makers Wanted

This year we saw the first 'Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl' in Nassau. On December 21st (8-4) Florida International beat (7-5) Toledo, 35-32 live on ESPN.

The bowl title sponsorship cost his village $300,000. However, Johnson estimated it already has received millions of dollars’ worth of publicity. Highlighting how even the lowest viewed bowl game still holds huge value for businesses.


In 2017, schools and conferences earned a collective $561 million, in bowl payouts.


The NCAA recently approved a possible expansion to as many as 86 teams, in 44 postseason games. This 2020 expansion would see an even larger payout for schools and huge value for businesses.

To understand how we got here, we should look at a time before college football was the well-oiled business it is today.

Tournament of Roses


In the early 1900's college football was a bit of a mess. In 1901 for example Michigan, Harvard, and Yale, all won the national title. While teams such as Penn played fifteen games, while other teams like Texas A&M only played five.


That was until the Tournament of Roses Association decided they wanted to change things.


The city of Pasadena was looking to boost its tourism industry and they needed a draw. What they decided on was, the first of its kind, East vs. West college football game.

Originally starting in 1890, the Pasadena Tournament of Roses, was developed when some new members of Pasadena’s Valley Hunt Club wanted bragging rights over East Coast establishments.


“In New York, people are buried in snow,” said Professor Charles F. Holder at a club meeting. “Here, our flowers are blooming, and our oranges are about to bear. Let's hold a festival to tell the world about our paradise.”


From 1890-1901, the Tournament of Roses was celebrated each New Year's Day with a parade, along with athletic events ranging from polo and tug-of-war to foot races and greased-pig catching.


In 1902, Tournament of Roses Association would invite two teams from each region to participate in their new East vs. West game.


For the East, the association chose Michigan. That season they were 10-0, scoring a combined points total of 501-0.


In the West, the logical choice would have been the undefeated Cal Bears. Leading to a game between two undefeated juggernauts.


However, logic can sometimes escape out of the window when making big decisions. Therefore, the association would actually pick Stanford, as the West's representative. A team that had a record of 3 wins, 1 loss, and 2 ties.

First place winner in 1890. Credit: tournamentofroses.com

The Embarrassment


On January 1st, 1902, eight thousand people witnessed as Michigan took the field against Stanford, for the inaugural East vs. West game.


It is important to note that the rules back then were not the same as today. Touchdowns and field goals both counted as 5 points. A first down was made by going 5 yards in 3 downs, and forward passes where illegal.


Soon after kickoff, one of the Stanford players made a show of courage that became part of Rose Bowl lore. William Roosevelt, the second cousin of President Teddy Roosevelt, told captain R.S. Fisher "Something has broken in my leg!"


"Stay with it," responded Fisher.


"You bet I will," replied Roosevelt.


Roosevelt would continue for a further 15 minutes leaving the game with a broken leg and fractured ribs.


The first quarter came to a close with both teams deadlocked at 0-0. Stanford missing two field-goal attempts.


However, the Michigan pressure began to prove too much, as they would go on to score 49 unanswered points.

The embarrassment became too much that Stanford captain R.S Fisher, went to the Wolverines' bench, asking for the game to be ended, with 8 minutes still to be played. Michigan captain Hugh White granted Fisher his wish for mercy.

Stanford and Michigan competing in the first East vs. West game. Credit: mercurynews.com

Experimental Events


Due to the non-competitiveness of the contest, along with stampeding which happened as the crowd tried to enter the stadium, football fell out of favor with the Tournament of Roses Association.


They would choose to cancel the following year's game. Instead, choosing to experiment with chariot racing.


The years that proceeded would see the association get weirder with their event decisions, as they expanded into ostrich races.


In 1913, an unlucky ostrich rider named Melville Bush drew a particularly spirited bird. "Bush was thrown from his mount in front of the judge's stand, and in attempting to capture the runaway bird was kicked 20 feet across the racecourse," one newspaper recounted. "The ostrich . . . became peeved and took the aggressive, causing hundreds of spectators . . . to climb fences in the immediate vicinity of the track.”

Bush would survive, but the ostrich racing era did not. Tournament organizers looked for a similarly exciting, but less dangerous. Leading to a race between a camel and an elephant.


Nothing however seemed to work in terms of attracting a paying audience. Thirteen years after the original game, tournament organizers wisely decided to go back to football. As they invited the Brown Bruins to faced off against Washington State. Now ever since 1916, the afternoon activity has always been football. Giving birth to the modern era of the college football bowl game and the opportunity for the Bahamas Bowl to succeed.