The below article originally published in the June issue of Arkansas Money & Politics
When it comes to big-time college sports, Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas rarely operate on a level playing field. The Razorback athletic department pulls in nearly seven times more total revenue than the ASU Red Wolves.
There is one place Arkansas’ largest sports programs stand on equal ground: each school’s head football coach has a contract demanding the same amount of money for cutting out early. If the Hogs’ Bret Bielema had decided to break his six-year contract last year — his first on the job — he would have owed the U of A $3 million. Three million is also what the Red Wolves’ new coach Blake Anderson would pay to leave ASU during his first year. This symmetry is all the more striking because Bielema’s and Anderson’s salaries aren’t even close: Bielema makes $3.2 million a year, Anderson makes $700,000.
Conversely, if they leave at the behest of the schools, the coaches can look to pocket some walking-away money.
It’s all a matter of strategy and context, a common game played by universities across the country. Still, fans can be certain of one thing: in the world of coaches’ contracts, terms for parting ways matter every bit as much as the salary.
In the biggest conferences, a $3 million buyout provision isn’t all that large. In a conference as relatively small as ASU’s Sun Belt, though, this kind of number is almost certainly unprecedented — much like the situation in which ASU football finds itself on the whole.
“When you’ve gone through what we’ve gone through the last few years,” ASU athletic director Terry Mohajir said, “you learn a little bit.”
Since 2010, ASU has hired four different coaches. The first — Hugh Freeze — had a first-year buyout of $225,000. For his successors, that figure jumped to $700,000, then to $1.75 million, and now to $3 million. Where it ends, nobody knows.
Decades ago, things were simpler. Major college football coaches typically signed one-year contracts, which would roll over to the next year if they did a good job. Things started changing in the 1980s with the advent of bigger broadcast deals and the proliferation of cable sports programming. As multi-year contracts prevailed in the late 1980s and 1990s, “the institutions began looking for a commitment from the coach,” U of A athletic director Jeff Long said. At first, “it was really a one-way street and now it’s evolved into a two-way street on the contractual buyout terms.”
In business terms, the institution is looking for security after investing in a risky asset — the head football coach — that can either add or lose a great amount of revenue. Perversely, either one makes the coach more likely to leave. A chronically underwhelming coach is likely to be fired by the school, while star performers are lured away by institutions with more elite programs.
Buyout contracts therefore typically work in two ways. If a university fires the head coach “at its convenience,” legalese often translated to “too many games were lost,” the school usually gives the coach a ton of money to go away. Bielema, for instance, would be paid $12.8 million if he were fired in this context in his first three seasons. For Anderson, the number is $3 million if he’s let go in his first year. The University of Central Arkansas’ Steve Campbell would be paid $7,000 a month for the remainder of his contract ending Dec. 31, 2017, if he were fired; and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s Monte Coleman would get his annual base salary of $150,000 paid to him over 18 months.
In the 21st century, major college coaches’ salaries — and attendant buyouts — have grown hand-in-hand.
USA Today just released the most up to date financial reports for all 230 Division I athletic programs in the nation. In terms of total revenue, the University of Arkansas sits 14 spots from the top. Ten spots from the bottom you’ll find the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff (the nation’s largest intra-university system disparity). In between sit three other Arkansas schools.
I’ll break down these numbers later, but for now, let’s simply celebrate in the splattering of them on the wall.
Take what you will:
No. 14 nationally ($99.77 million revenue)
No. 131 ($16.28 million revenue)
No. 194 ($10.77 million revenue)
No. 220 ($7.1 million)
(PS – Notice how the total revenue plummeted from 2010 to 2011. That’s what an NCAA Tournament appearance and win will do for you.)
How about you, cherished reader? Any numbers jump out as significant or worth extra scrutiny?
When it comes to big-time college sports, Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas rarely operate on a level playing field. The Hogs attract more fans, play in a bigger conference, get more national exposure and make more money. The UA’s athletic department pulls in nearly seven times more total revenue than Arkansas States’.
But there’s one place the state of Arkansas’ largest sports programs stand on equal ground. Each school’s head football coach has a contract demanding the same amount of money for cutting out early. If the Hogs’ Bret Bielema had decided to break his six-year contract last year – his first on the job – then he would have owed the UA $3 million. Three million is also the price the Red Wolves’ Blake Anderson would have to pay if he left ASU during his first year. This equality is all the more striking because Bielema and Anderson’s salaries aren’t even close to being in the same neighborhood: Bielema makes $3.2 million a year to Anderson’s $700,000.
How these schools got to this particular $3 million figure is part coincidence, part strategy, and all a matter of context. In the biggest conferences, a $3 million “buyout” provision isn’t all that high. Not with the likes of Louisville’s Bobby Petrino walking around with a $10 million buyout. In a conference as relatively small as the Sun Belt, though, a number like this is unprecedented – much like the situation in which ASU football finds itself on the whole. “When you’ve gone through what we’ve gone through the last few years,” ASU athletic director Terry Mohajir says, “you learn a little bit.”
Since 2010, ASU has hired four separate head coaches. The first of those – Hugh Freeze – had a first-year buyout of $225, 000. For succeeding coaches, that figure jumped to $700,000 , then to $1.75 million, and now to $3 million. Where it ends, nobody knows.
Still, fans can be certain of one thing for sure: in the world of coaches’ contracts, terms for parting ways matter every bit as much as the salary figures themselves.
Decades ago, things were simpler. Major college football coaches signed one-year contracts for amounts that didn’t always make them their state’s highest paid public employee. If they did a good job, the contract rolled over to the next year. But things started changing in the 1980s with the advent of bigger broadcast deals and the proliferation of cable sports programming. The best coaches started going to the richest schools which were also offering higher-paying, multi-year deals. But as multi-year contracts prevailed in the late 1980s and 1990s, “the institutions began looking for a commitment from the coach,” Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long said. At first, “it was really a one-way street and now it’s evolved into a two-way street on the contractual buyout terms.”
Look at it in business terms: The institution is looking for security after investing in a risky asset – the head coach – that can add or lose a great amount of revenue. Too much of one of the other – for all programs but the very top ones – make the coach more likely to leave. That departure not only means a loss in investments until that point, but likely a substantial cut future returns, too.
For more, read the rest of my article as it originally published in Arkansas Money & Politics Magazine.
It’s on Page 27 of this digital version.
The great outdoors, design, football.
A decade ago, the typical college athletics administrator likely concerns himself only with the last of these.
Not anymore. These worlds are colliding with unprecedented frequency as self-marketing matters more and more in college football. Across the nation, programs are jazzing up their facilities and uniforms in an effort to attract recruits, media coverage and donations. Ambitious programs are realizing more variation – in color, shade, design – is better.
Two trends have emerged, one piggybacking on the other.
The first trend entailed marketing an array of different uniforms designs and colors that went beyond a program’s traditional road color and home white. Oregon football kicked this off in 2006 by unveiling a dizzying array of pant, jersey and helmet combinations. Merchandise sales soared as Oregon became one of the nation’s hottest programs.
Around 2011, an offshoot trend emerged where designs of jerseys and playing surfaces incorporate local, geophysical flavor. Here, heritage – natural or man-made – meets the all-important “buzz” factor.
Oregon basketball, one of the first to get into the act, superimposed onto its new court silhouette images of the state’s native fir tree. Other programs have made similar moves. Palm tree images now frame the courts of Long Beach and Florida International universities.
Wyoming football last year unveiled a new artificial turf with a depiction of the state’s Teton Range in both end zones. The lettering “7220 feet” is on both sidelines, marking the stadium’s record-setting elevation above sea level.
Even older, more established programs have gone down a similar, though more subtle, path.
Programs are also using man-made objects to promote their brands. Take Maryland, which in 2011 launched a “state pride” initiative that put the design of its distinctive state flag (the nation’s only one to feature British heraldic banners) on Terrapin football helmets and end zones.
Indiana went the same flag-based route with one its new football helmet variants.
So, should Arkansas join the movement?
Without a doubt.
Our state has far too much iconic imagery to stand on the sidelines and not take advantage. Why, for instance, should the Hogs settle for white helmets and black jerseys when there are so many more interesting, Arkansas-specific designs that could be used?
We’re the Natural State. It’s high time those playing our best football programs know it.
I’ve shared some ways already on Sporting Life Arkansas - including a diamond Razorback helmet – but below are some others that would work for any program in the state even thought I highlight Arkansas and Arkansas State.
1. According to a Washington, Ark. newspaper article in 1841, the Bowie knife was originally invented not by frontiersman extraordinaire Jim Bowie but by craftsman James Black. It became known as one of the most dangerous big knives in the region, just as Bielema’s Hogs aim to become of the most feared teams in the SEC. Use a a small silhouette or outline of this knife somewhere on the uniform, perhaps down the side of the legs. Make the blade diamond-like for extra points.
2. Arkansas’ Buffalo River was the first National River to be designated in the United States and along with the Hogs is one of north Arkansas’ prime attractions. It’s time they join forces. Why not incorporate an image representing running water onto the perimeter of the field at Reynolds Razorback Stadium?
3. The Red Wolves and now the Razorbacks have a thing going with mostly-black unis, we know. Tough guy and all that. But so many other programs do that, too. Why not separate yourself from the pack by incorporating colors from the most visually stunning bird native to the state? In the hands of a skilled designer, adding flecks of color from the scissor-tailed flycatcher onto the dark background would be a sure-thing eyecatcher.
The above is an update of an article that originally ran in Sync magazine in summer 2013.
Next week, we’ll learn whether the Fritz Pollard Alliance’s proposal to ban the N word in the NFL passed. The rule, which would cost teams 15 yards per violation, will be taken under further review by NFL owners at their annual meeting in Florida starting Monday.
The name “Fritz Pollard” has been leveraged by a non-profit organization to push for a change that Fritz Pollard himself might have not supported.But there’s some evidence Pollard, who in the 1920s became the first black NFL quarterback and coach (as well as the first black to play in the Rose Bowl), was O.K. with the word when it was used in non-hateful ways or in artistic endeavors. This runs counter to the beliefs of current leaders of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, who believe the word should be banned regardless where and how it’s used in the NFL work place. “We want this word to be policed from the parking lot to the equipment room to the locker room,” chairman John Wooten told CBS Sports. “Secretaries, PR people, whoever, we want it eliminated completely and want it policed everywhere.”
Harry Carson, another Fritz Pollard Alliance leader, told SI.com that those who use the n-word as a sign of solidarity have “have no sense of history.” He added: “I find it very disheartening that in our society today we’re having a debate about the n-words being used as a term of endearment.”
Carson isn’t altogether accurate here. That’s why a closer look at the world in which Fritz Pollard lived is merited.
Nearly a century ago, a black Yale student used the N word in way that evokes how it’s used among many blacks today. The student, William Ashby, attended a Brown game at Yale to watch the much hyped Fritz Pollard play for the visiting Brown team. As the game got underway, Pollard – as usual – was pelted with racist taunts by the home side’s white fans. N words rained down on him. Opponents tried to maim him. But also, like usual, Pollard started dominating – and then a curious thing happened during one of his punt returns, according to Pollard’s biography. While Pollard ran, Yale students yelled “Catch that nigger. Kill that nigger” while Ashby – who was sitting with other African-Americans on the Brown side – jumped up and yelled “Run, nigger, run. Go, Fritz, go.”
This appears to be evidence – which I will bear out – that the word was not always used in a derogatory way at the beginning of the 20th century. It appears blacks sometimes used the word in a positive way among themselves, as happens now. I don’t have direct evidence of Pollard using the N word himself but have found a few facts that make it less likely he was troubled by blacks who used it. In 1933, he played a significant role in a movie as controversial in large segments of black culture then as Wooten’s proposal is now. The movie was “Emperor Jones,” a story about an ambitious Pullman porter based on a Eugene O’Neill play. It starred former NFL player Paul Robeson, a college friend of Pollard’s whom he served as a personal assistant and trainer. Pollard played a bit part on screen as a pianist.
The movie was controversial among many whites because it starred a black man. But it was divisive among many writers in black newspaper circles because it made extensive use of the N word, quoting verbatim from the O’Neill play. Black columnists encouraged readers to boycott the movie. If Pollard despised the casual use of the N word in entertainment, as Wooten does, I don’t think Pollard would have been involved with the project.
There are so many Arkansans who play Division I football. You know this, on a gut level. What you don’t know – on any level – is the name of every single last one of those Arkansans. That ends now.
So come, brother, and let the waters below sate your parched mind:
The below stats are current as of fall 2013. I have listed the most recent 2014 signees at the bottom.
ARKANSASHereARKANSAS STATEHereCENTRAL ARKANSAS
Tyler Colquitt – LB 5-10 235 Pulaski Academy
Toney Hawkins – QB 6-1 185 Morrilton
Will Jones – OT 6-4 300 Parkers Chapel
Curtis Parker – OG 6-2 280 North Little Rock
Dalvin Simmons – DE 6-2 220 LR Central
Josiah Wymer – TE 6-4 262 Springdale
PLAYER POS. HT. WT. SCHOOL
Josh Frazier – DT 6-3 330 Springdale Har-Ber
Devohn Lindsey – WR 6-2 198 North Little Rock
Tyrone Carter – WR 6-2 175 Rayville, La./Arkansas Baptist JC
Isaac Jackson – QB 6-2 210 FS Southside
Jake Snyder – OT 6-3 270 Wynne
Ty Mullens# – DL 6-1 220 Smackover
Jarvis Cooper – DL/LB 6-2 245 West Memphis
Daryl Coburn – DT 6-1 325 LR Central
Deion Holliman – WR 5-9 165 Camden Fairview
Colby Isbell – DE 6-2 240 Rogers Heritage
Austin McGehee – PK/P 6-0 200 Pine Bluff
Jabe Burgess* – QB 6-2 200 Greenwood
Jordan Dennis – ATH 6-1 175 Fayetteville
Isaac Johnson – OT 6-6 275 Springdale Har-Ber
Tim Quickel – LB 6-1 200 North Little Rock
Zack Wary – LB 6-4 215 Rogers
#Walk on *Enrolled NOTE – Most players listed for Lyon are signees
Kavin Alexander DB 5’10 190 North Little Rock HS (North Little Rock, AR)
Lawrence Berry WR 5’11 170 Parkview HS (Little Rock, AR)
Kyron Lawson DL 6’6 230 Mills HS (Little Rock, AR)
Patrick Rowland WR 5’10 165 Parkview HS (Little Rock, AR)
Heading into this Sunday’s Super Bowl, there appears to be three players with Arkansas ties on the rosters of the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. The one who will likely play the biggest role in the game itself is Clinton McDaniel, a Jacksonville native/pass rusher extraordinaire who specializes in collapsing the pocket on third downs. Learn more about him in my Sporting Life Arkansas profile here.
Offensive lineman Alvin Bailey also looks to get some burn in the big game. The former Razorback left school early last spring, went undrafted, but has carved out a nice niche for himself in Seattle. He threw a key block in the NFC Championship game to spring running back Marshawn Lynch for a 40-yard touchdown run. Those points proved to be the winning margin in a game which finished 23-17.
“I’m having the time of a lifetime,” Bailey told The Oklahoman’s Berry Tramel.
He’s made no starts. But Bailey played about a dozen snaps in the NFC Championship Game as an extra lineman. And he cleared out 49er safety Donte Whitner, allowing Lynch to score and put the Seahawks in control.
Bailey said leaving Arkansas wasn’t just a good decision, “it was a great decision.”
“I thought I was going to get drafted. Things didn’t work out that way. But I made it to the Seahawks, we’re in the Super Bowl now. I don’t regret anything.”
Btw, here’s a nice KARK interview with Bailey’s gargantuan uncle, who’s livin’ large in Little Rock and is the main reason Bailey chose to attend Arkansas in the first place.
Jackson hardly looked like a future pro during his two seasons as Razorback quarterback in 2002 and 2003. He had plenty “physical tools,” sure, but so does every other QB who starts at least one game in the SEC. What he lacked was the maturity to put it all together, and the patience to see it through in Fayetteville. Ten years after he transferred to Alabama State, he becomes the most unlikely former Razorback quarterback to be on a Super Bowl roster only a couple years after becoming the most unlikely ex Hog to throw for 3,000 yards in the NFL.
To me, it doesn’t matter that he likely won’t play a snap. Or that in the last week he has inspired such headlines as “Tarvaris Jackson’s Super Bowl Preparation is Sad and Boring.” But laugh not. Appreciate how amazing it is he’s almost been in the League for a full decade at QB, given how uninspiring his UA days were. It would be like time traveling to the NFL circa 2022 only to find Brandon Mitchell there as a savvy backup QB to Rafe Peavey in the Cowboy’s long-awaited return to the Super Bowl.
— Russell Wilson (@DangeRussWilson) December 30, 2013
The Left Overs
None of the following guys with Arkansas college ties are on the rosters for Denver or Seattle. But don’t discount the part they played earlier in the season sharpening their teammates for the long haul.
1. Ross Rasner – Ras-Nasty sure could deliver a hit in his Hog days in 2009-2012, whether on special teams, as linebacker or safety. He wasn’t the most technically sound decleater we’ve ever seen on the Hill, so it wasn’t a surprise when he went unpicked in the 2013 Draft. Still, there was some cause for optimism when Denver signed Rasner as a free agent last spring and brought him to camp. Even if rookie stuff like this was happening:
Unfortunately, in the end, the burden of beating out veteran safeties like Quentin Jammer and Mike Adams for a final roster spot was too much to bear. Rasner was cut on August 31, 2013. He hasn’t yet resigned with another team, but if you think this is a man feeling down on his luck, these swag-tastic Instagram updates will have you thinking otherwise:
2. Sean McGrath
The 6-5, 247-pound McGrath is one of the most physically imposing college players to come out of Clark County, Ark. since Cowboys great Cliff Harris. While Harris played for Ouachita Baptist University, McGrath played in 2010 and 2011 for Henderson State after transferring from Eastern Illinois.
The Illinois native found the culture change tough at first, as he shared with ESPNW:
After two seasons as an EIU Panther, McGrath was dismissed for a violation of team rules… He got some help finding his next step from his assistant coach at EIU, Jeff Hoover, who would die in a car accident just a few months later.
“I was fortunate,” McGrath said of getting a second chance. “The late Jeff Hoover hooked me up with Coach [Scott] Maxfield down at Henderson State U, and bada-bing, bada-boom, I’m in the Bible Belt. Arkadelphia, Arkansas.”
Sounds made up, but it’s a real place. There were, of course, a few growing pains for McGrath, who adjusted to the South while sitting out the 2009 season.
“It’s a different place,” he said. “When I first got down there I didn’t know what a dry county was. Needless to say we had to get that changed. Political process went into effect and, you know. Let’s just say it was wet when we left.”
By 2010 the students of Henderson State were getting their buzz on and McGrath was back on track, catching 55 passes for 565 yards and four touchdowns. He was injured for much of his senior year and went undrafted, but he refused to give up on his dream to go pro.
Last year, McGrath played as a tight end on Seattle’s practice squad for four months before finally being called up. McGrath played well and improved over the offseason. By last spring, he’d worked his way into being the Seahawks’ second-string tight end , and sent some Seattle sports opinionators into a caffeinated craze along the way. One blogger even imagined McGrath’s role in the waning minutes of a (then) hypothetical Super Bowl:
Wilson snaps the ball. Broncos linebacker Von Miller reads the run coming his way, and attacks the line. Oddly, he finds himself moving backwards despite his legs churning forwards. Seahawks tight end Sean McGrath is walking him back off the line. It starts slowly, but McGrath gains momentum and has completely overpowered Miller by this point. Miller is a full five yards beyond the line of scrimmage when McGrath assassinates his dignity. [emphasis mine] He is no longer moving backwards because McGrath has planted him on his back.
McGrath was cut by Seattle on August 31, but soon picked up Kansas City. He ended up starting nine games for the Chiefs, tallying 26 receptions for 302 yards and 2 touchdowns. And he would never, ever, think of assassinating the dignity of a good locker room interview:
Keep this man away from the “Discovery Channel”!
I wish there was adult version of the discovery zone
— Sean P McGrath (@Spmcgrath123) December 10, 2013
3. Ty Powell
Seattle head coach Pete Carroll loves his linebacker/safeties fast, physical, big and snarling. That’s why he chose the 6’2″, 248-pound Powell in the seventh round, with the 231 overall pick, in the 2013 Draft. Powell had been plenty impressive at Harding University, where he was ranked the 17th best outside linebacker in the nation (inc. Division I) after a 2012 season that included 12 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and four blocked kicks [This, btw, may be a single season Arkansas college football record. Perhaps Hog Dan Skipper will break it...]
Powell says in the below video he believed he could have gone as high as the third or fourth round, so when he dropped to seventh he was left with a bit of a “chip on my shoulder”:
If Powell had a chip on his shoulder then, you know he had a veritable tortilla shell on the shoulder after being waived by the Seahawks this past September. Buffalo snapped the linebacker up the following month, though, and Powell finished with nine tackles in the the last four games of the season.
When Auburn barely fell 34-31 to Florida State on Monday night in a showdown for the national title, it didn’t just lose a game. It lost a shot at securing status as the greatest one-season turnaround in major American team sports history. Auburn was within three points of completing a U-turn which, in terms of winning percentage and postseason results, had never before been seen on this scale.
That said, these Tigers still went from 3-9 to 12-2 and a No. 2 ranking. That in itself is still historic and ranks at the top of all-time turnarounds in major college football. But, when it comes to all-time bounce backs, a few examples in pro basketball and football still take the cake. The St. Louis Rams, for instance, overcame 300-1 odds heading into the 1999 season to win the 2000 Super Bowl. In fact, looking at the official odds at the start of the season has provided fodder for some of the best “comebacks” and “turnarounds” recorded in recent time. One may click here for more on NFL betting this postseason and ask themselves if anything indicates a franchise turnaround.
Unquestionably, those ’99 Rams and these ’13 Tigers are all-timers. Here are eight more:
10. Hawaii (college football)
1998: 0-12 (12.4 points per game / 35.2 points against per game)
1999: 9-4 (28.5 points per game / 26.8 points against per game)
Like at Auburn, an offensive guru turned the Rainbow Warrior program around.
When June Jones arrived as Hawaii’s head coach, he faced a team which was suffering through an 18-game losing streak and could not pass the ball to the Pacific Ocean. Within a fall, he had the offense humming and led Hawaii to the Oahu Bowl, where it beat Oregon State 23-17.
“He actually came in and gave us a system,” former Hawaii quarterback Dan Robinson told the Montgomery Advisor. “We started the exact same players as the season before when we went 0-12. He gave us a system and taught us how to believe in that system. The season before, every week, we’d run a different offense.”
9. Kansas City Wizards (pro soccer)
1999: 8-24 (24 goals scored total / 53 goals scored against total)
2000: 16-9*-7 (47 goals scored total / 29 goals scored against total)
In 1999, the team had a talented roster – including two-time World Cup starters Tony Meola and Alexi Lalas – but could not put it together. Of course, it’s never a good sign when a defender (Lalas) is your third-leading scorer for a season. Putting points on the board was not a problem for KC the following season, thanks to the vastly improved play of midfielder Chris Henderson and his Danish friend and MLS newcomer Miklos Molnar. What’s now Sporting Kansas City won its first MLS Supporters’ Shield, beating the Chicago Fire 1-0.
*Eight draws, along with 16 wins and seven losses. This was the first season MLS games were allowed to finish in ties.
8. New England Patriots (pro football)
2000: 5-11 (17.2 points per game / 21.1 points against per game)
2001: 11-5 (23.2 points per game / 17.0 points against per game)
It’s hard to imagine the Patriots slogging through a losing season under Bill Belichick. That’s because it hasn’t happened since 2000, when he start reorganizing everything in his first season as head coach in Foxboro. He certainly laid a good foundation, which was unexpectedly helped in the second game of the following season when the Patriots were blessed by the “fortune” of having their 29-year-old franchise quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, go down with a sheared blood vessel in his chest. Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick in 2000, stepped in to replace him and proceeded to lead New England to an 11-3 record as starter. With the help of three clutch Adam Vinatieri field goals, the Patriots won the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
College football fans have a love/hate relationship with democracy; no where is this more obvious than when talk turns to the sport’s postseason. Most fans like that starting next year the national champion will be crowned through a playoff system instead of through final BCS rankings. Some think the tourney should include eight teams instead of four, but on the whole they agree that a playoff system is more egalitarian and just than the current format which has left a few undefeated teams out of the title game.
So, yes, widening the path to the national title game = good. But widening the path to any postseason bowl? Not so cool. In 2006, the NCAA opened the floodgates on the number of programs eligible for the postseason by allowing programs with .500 records in. A winning record was no longer required to go bowling. This change was necessary. Otherwise, the openings reserved for the surging number of bowl games – now 35 – could not have been filled.
The result, of course, has been the lampooning of a profusion of horrendously mediocre football neither you, me nor Aunt Wilma have the time to care about. Competitions like the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, played ten days ago between Colorado State and Washington State, are supposed to count for something. But, in reality, they are not so much sporting events to pay serious attention to as soothing background television during the sometimes heated holiday season. When the turkey’s burning, or the dog just bit off baby doll’s head, a Gildan New Mexico Bowl functions as the visual equivalent of Muzak.
The current bowl system gets flak for giving afterlives to scores of 6-6 teams. But the field wasn’t necessarily more selective in previous decades. Indeed, on December 31, 1963, a team with a record-low four wins played in the Sun Bowl. That would be SMU, which was invited to play Oregon in the El Paso, Texas bowl despite a 4-6 record. “I’ll admit we did feel funny about it at first,” former SMU head coach Hayden Fry told the Dallas Morning News. “But we got to thinking, there’s no rules and regulations about records of bowl teams.” It also helped that SMU had earlier in the 1963 season knocked off fourth-ranked Navy and had an athletic director, Matty Bell, who was close friends with Mike Brumbelow, an influential El Paso businessman and leading figure in Sun Bowl operations.
This SMU team was the second of at least five major college football teams which have been invited to a bowl game despite having a losing regular season record. Not that the Mustangs were ashamed. “From the players’ standpoint, this is about the best bowl trip in the country,” Fry said in Dallas on December, 1963. “They have horse racing, bullfights, a nice luncheon, and a New Year’s Eve party in Jaurez, and we fly them back here New Year’s Day early enough that they can see the other bowl games if they want to. The players get watches, and SMU gets money in the bank. What could be better than that?”
Hold it right there, Hayden. I’ll tell you what could be better than that. How about a list of the worst major college football teams to be invited to a bowl game?