Today my beloved (and much undeserving) Wisconsin Badgers play in the Rose Bowl, which as you all know means it's sports post time. But this is maybe more broadly interesting than me just talking Badgers.
This afternoon's game features a classic match-up: old teams from the former Big and Pac Tens. Even odds say it's going to be the last one. Thanks to the abomination that is the BCS, we've had the minor atrocities of Texas and Florida schools playing in the game. There's one more year under the current rules, and that means about a 45% chance that it will be marred by interlopers next year. After that, college football goes to a mini-playoff system and although the Rose Bowl is trying to protect the traditional conference rivalry, but the point is now moot.
For one thing, there's no Big Ten and Pac Ten to protect. We've moved to conference gigantism, and now Rutgers and Utah are part of the these conferences. Beyond that, the bowls are now very much financial institutions, not sites of college football tradition, and whether the game at hand is the George Foreman Grill Fiesta Bowl or the Rose Bowl Game Sponsored by Oscar Meyer Hot Dogs matters not a whit to anyone.
Back in 1993, while a grad student at Wisconsin, I spent my $36 on season tickets and joined the students in welcoming Barry Alvarez onto the hallowed turf at Camp Randall Stadium with a obsequious bow and the chant of "Barry, Barry, Barry." At mid-season, we were 6-1 with visits from Ohio State and Michigan upcoming in the Camp. I remember that October day when Michigan came, and the ecstatic waves of joy roiling the tailgaters as they waved massive effigies of Wolverine players (leading to a dangerous moment, but that's a different post). As the game wore on, the chants began: Rose Bowl, Rose Bowl. They continued through the Ohio State game, which was a tie, securing our trip to Pasadena.
I relate this tired history because I experienced the potency of the old Rose Bowl, when the game itself was everything. National Championships were important, but in those days before the BCS, Big and Pac Ten teams won them at the Rose Bowl. There was a symmetry and elegance to the arrangement, and it depended on this tight limitation about which teams could play.
College football has evolved beyond those quaint days. Now conferences are merely vehicles for eyes on TV and post-season jockeying position. They are no longer entities of place. The remaining traditions will all come down to games like the Iron Bowl and Civil War between old rivals. The Rose Bowl that became a multi-decade institution from 1944 to 2001 is gone. Maybe by the end of today's game, maybe in one year. So today I will watch partly to bask in the warmth of the last embers of an old tradition.