PASADENA — For college football fans of a certain age or fans from a certain part of the country, the Rose Bowl holds special significance.
It was college football’s first postseason game. Back when bowl games could be counted on two hands, the Rose Bowl was the greatest prize.
For fans in the Midwest or the North, the Rose Bowl was a brief escape from winter, even if they were watching on television.
The next generation, though, probably views the Rose Bowl with more cynicism. It’s now one of 39 bowl games. Tradition is tossed out a little more readily than it once was, even the Big Ten and Pac-12’s grip on the Granddaddy of them All.
You can't even watch the game with a TV antenna. It's on basic cable now.
As the bowl system gave way to the BCS and now the College Football Playoff, the Rose Bowl is having an identity crisis the other bowls have not.
During the BCS era, the game hosted a Big Ten and Pac-12 team 10 times in 16 years and not necessarily champions of the respective leagues.
At one point, the game and conferences were so gripped by the tradition, the Rose Bowl invited a 13th-ranked, three-loss Illinois team simply because it could. That team lost 49-17 to USC.
The game invited TCU for the 2011 game only because the BCS contract required it to. The Frogs defeated the Big Ten champion Wisconsin 21-19.
And now in the first year of the playoff, the Rose Bowl is encountering the unthinkable. Florida State is returning tickets. The Rose Bowl wasn’t a sellout in the days before the game.
Chris Fowler, ESPN’s venerable play-by-play broadcaster, isn’t quite sure what kind of game he’s calling on Jan. 1
“This is a different-feeling game, and we’re wrestling with that as a production,” Fowler told Athlon Sports. “Do you present it as ‘the Rose Bowl’ and how much do you focus on that fact that is the first semifinal game staged at the Rose Bowl.
“It’s going to feel unlike any other Rose Bowl that’s ever been played. When it’s over, there’s confetti and a trophy, but very quickly the winning team will begin to look forward to an even bigger game in 11 days.”
The Rose Bowl isn’t what it once was. This is good.
As a child in Cookeville, Tenn., Mack Brown watched the Rose Bowl with his family. As a coach at Tulane, North Carolina and Texas, he thought he’d never have a chance to coach there.
No matter, he thought, the Rose Bowl was all hype.
Then Texas went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 2005 as the Longhorns replaced the Pac-10 champion USC who were playing for a BCS title in the Orange Bowl.
Before the game, Brown called former USC coach John Robinson to ask about the game.
“He said it’s the coolest thing in the world,” Brown said. “Not many coaches get to do it. Not many players get to play in the Rose Bowl. (He said) ‘I want you to walk out there pregame and look out there in those rolling hills and the sun’s going down and I want you to say ‘this is really cool.’ Then go coach to win the game.’ He was right.”
If a Tennessee-born coach at Texas can go to the Rose Bowl and marvel in it, then the Rose Bowl will survive, even if the game isn’t a sellout in 2015.
The idea of a Big Ten champion facing a Pac-12 champion in the Rose Bowl is all but gone. Moments like last seasons, when Michigan State reached its first Rose Bowl since 1987 and won its first game in Pasadena since then, will be exceedingly rare in the new system.
Big Ten and Pac-12 teams stating season goals of reaching the Rose Bowl won’t have the same ring. In two out of three years, the game will be a consolation prize.
In the playoff, the Rose Bowl will host a national semifinal once every three years. In the other two years, the Rose Bowl will have a Big Ten and Pac-12 team by contract, but one or both of the conference champions from those leagues likely will be in the Playoff.
“If you grew up with it you miss seeing that Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup,” said Kirk Herbstreit, who will be Fowler’s broadcast partner for the Rose Bowl. “If you’re a traditionalist, to get to that playoff, you had to give up a little bit. You lose some of the tradition but you open up the doors for others to appreciate what the bowl game is.”
The idea of a team returning tickets to the Rose Bowl is surprising, but not every team is Florida State or Oregon.
The Seminoles were in Pasadena just last season for the final BCS title game. It’s tough to blame fans who aren’t interested or able to make back-to-back trips to the Rose Bowl. Or if they’d rather hold out for the national championship game in Dallas.
The Ducks have been here three times since the 2009 season.
SEC fans might react to a Rose Bowl semifinal with more enthusiasm. Or Notre Dame fans. Or Baylor fans. Or Boise State fans.
Conference contracts can change. Sunsets can’t.
Four of the New Year’s Six bowl games — the Fiesta, Sugar, Peach and Cotton — are played in domes. One of the exceptions, the Orange Bowl, is played in a sterile, enclosed NFL stadium.
That leaves the Rose Bowl as the only major college football bowl game that stands as a tourist destination unto itself.
“I’ve always said the setting is like a Hollywood set,” Fowler said. “The field is immaculate, something about the quality of the light, the way the stadium sits below the San Gabriel Mountains. It lends itself to great drama.”
Rick Neuheisel calls himself a Rose Bowl enthusiast. He played in the game twice for UCLA. He went once as an assistant with Bruins. He went a fourth time as a head coach for Washington.
Perhaps inadvertently, he gets to the crux of why the end of one tradition for the Rose Bowl may ultimately a positive for college football.
The game is no longer the exclusive destination of Big Ten and Pac-12 teams and hasn't been for nearly 20 years. It’s open to everyone. The pool of teams that can play in the Rose Bowl is wider, and therefore more the experience is more unique.
And every three years, the drama, by virtue of being a playoff game, will be magnified.
“I think it’s cool when one of those (nontraditional) teams gets to come, they finally get it and why the Big Ten and Pac-12 have held such a tight grip on it,” Neuheisel said. “You don’t want to give that experience up for anything.”