by Alex Langer
The 103rd Tournament of Roses Game was played on January 2 this year. The game is known by many names, from simply “the Rose Bowl,” to the more correct “the Rose Bowl Game,” the nickname “the granddaddy of them all,” or the technical term, “the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual.” Regardless of its name, the Rose Bowl is and has been one of the biggest games in college football since the first “East-West” game in 1902. The game pits the Pac-12 and the Big Ten against each other every year on New Year’s Day, except for years like this year, when New Year’s Day is a Sunday. At least it used to. The oldest postseason football game in America has become part of the newest attempt at crowning a champion. Because of that, one of the oldest traditions in college football is often set aside in the endless pursuit of crowning a champion. What began as a way of bringing tourists to warm, sunny, Southern California, has turned into part of an attempt to find an ultimate champion out of 128 eligible teams.
The Rose Bowl Parade began in 1890 as part of an effort to tout the mild winter climate of Southern California. In 1902, the committee in charge of the Rose Bowl event decided to showcase college football as part of the festivities. The first Rose Bowl Game was the first postseason college football game of any kind in the United States. Before 1902, when a team finished their regular season, however long that was, that was it. The exhibition game presented at the Rose Bowl was the first so-called postseason game of its kind. The inaugural game paired Stanford University, an unaffiliated team, against the University of Michigan Wolverines, of the Western Conference. In that first game, Michigan destroyed Stanford, 49-0, with fullback Neil Snow scoring five touchdowns, still a Rose Bowl record. The game was so one-sided, and Michigan was so dominant, that the Rose Bowl organizers ditched football as the main entertainment and decided to host Roman-style chariot racing in the Rose Bowl Stadium. Inspired by Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the organizers felt that chariot racing would bring in more crowds than mediocre football. Football didn’t come back to Pasadena until 1916.
Since 1916, the Rose Bowl Game has been played annually in Pasadena, with the exception of a 1942 game that took place in Durham, North Carolina, as a precaution against Japanese attacks on the West Coast. The success of the Rose Bowl Game through World War I inspired other warm-weather cities to host their own postseason football, leading to the bowl season that college football revolves around now. Even the bowl game moniker came from the Rose Bowl’s distinct shape. (Technically, the Rose Bowl venue was modeled off the Yale football stadium, also in the shape of a bowl, but the popularity of the Rose Bowl made it famous). Before 1946 the game, then still primarily an exhibition game meant to increase tourism to Southern California, pitted a team (not necessarily the champion) from the Pacific Coast Conference (better known today as the Pac-12) against whatever team from the East that it could bring over.
After World War II, the Rose Bowl Game signed an exclusive agreement with the PCC and the Big Nine (which is now the Big Ten) to meet their two best teams in the Rose Bowl Game. Why those two leagues? It was primarily because of their shared attitudes towards integration. No Southeastern Conference school had a black athlete until 1966. Meanwhile, PCC schools were integrated as early as 1939, when Jackie Robinson was one of four black athletes to play for UCLA. From 1946 until the BCS era, the Rose Bowl Game hosted the champions of the Pac-8 (or 10 or 12) and the Big Nine (now Ten, though it has twelve members).
For those of us who attended a school in either of those conferences, the Rose Bowl invitation stood as the end goal of every season. Since 1946, the Rose Bowl game was the reward for a conference championship. Those of us who attended the University of Arizona, the only member of the old Pac-10-before it expanded to include Colorado and Utah-to never play in the game, do not know (and may never know) that joy. Since the BCS era (now the CFP era) began in 1998, however, it feels like the Rose Bowl has lost its luster. Once, in 2002, the Rose Bowl paired Miami with Nebraska to determine the national championship, leaving both conferences out. This was because under the BCS contract, the Rose Bowl would host the BCS National Championship Game every four years, ditching the Pac-10/12-Big Ten tradition. In 2002 the game was between Miami and Nebraska, in 2006 it was between Texas and USC, and 2010 it was Alabama and Texas. Even though in 2010 there was a normal Rose Bowl Game, that games featured second-tier teams compared to the National Championship held at the Rose Bowl almost a week later. The BCS also gave the Rose Bowl selection committee the ability to opt out of the traditional format and invite an at-large team, if they felt that either the Pac-12 or Big Ten team was not an attractive option.
More recently, the addition of the rotating national semifinals means that two out of every three years, it is likely that one of the conference champions will play in a semifinal game instead of the Rose Bowl. In the first year of the CFP, Big Ten champions Ohio State played in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama instead of in the Rose Bowl against the Pac-12 champions Oregon. Furthermore, the CFP rotates their semifinal games between six bowls, making sure that every three years the Rose Bowl Game is a national semifinal site, and thus part of the larger decisions made in that system. In 2016, Big Ten champion Michigan State played in the Cotton Bowl in the playoff, leaving Iowa to play in the Rose Bowl. Arguably, this was a better decision than allowing an at-large bid to an at-large team (say, Notre Dame), though still not an ideal situation. This year, Pac-12 champions Washington played in the Peach Bowl, leaving USC, which didn’t win the Pac-12 South division, as Rose Bowl participants (and victors).
The Rose Bowl Game represents college football at its most hallowed; full of tradition and legacy, full of old powerhouse programs and college football greatness. It was only natural that the game became part of the various attempts to crown a champion in college football. Perhaps this focus has taken a little away from the allure of the Rose Bowl. If the third best team in the Pac-12 at the end of the regular season can represent the conference at the Rose Bowl, does it still have the same impact on fans? Probably. But I will find the game a little bittersweet to watch every time it does not feature the best of the Big Ten or the Pac-12. It was the first postseason college football game, in one of the first famous stadiums in America. It gave us the tradition of warm-weather cities using exhibition football as a means to bring in tourist revenue (taken to a logical extreme with the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, AL), and even served as the originator for the “bowl” game. Ironically, the Rose Bowl Game, which innovated the college football postseason, is too steeped in specific tradition to fit in well with the current model, which can not and should not be tied to the regional history of the Rose Bowl. Given how important the Pac-12/Big Ten connections are to the Rose Bowl, I suggest that the CFP committee, whenever possible, give the Rose Bowl that geographic matchup when they get the chance. This year, the Rose Bowl Game was not a part of the CFP, but if it had been, I would have loved to see a Washington-Ohio State matchup, even though they were ranked four and three. It may not be the letter of the law, but in the tradition-soaked world of college football, sometimes the spirit of the sport should come first.
 Amusingly, in 2015 the Rose Bowl’s official name was the “College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern.”