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Gans: Tradition always rules Rose Bowl (Jan. 29)

Sam Gans | Monday, January 28, 2013

Editor’s note: This is the second in a 10-part series discussing the best event in sports. In this installment, Sam Gans argues for the Rose Bowl.

When people debate the best events in sports, they usually think of events that determine a champion.

But the greatest event in sports normally does not.

The Rose Bowl defines college football. Not just because of the game itself, though it is normally one of the top matchups of the entire season too. But there is so much more beyond the game that makes the college football experience. The pageantry, the bands, the tradition – that is what distinguishes college football from every other sport on the planet, most of which also have supreme athletic feats but do not have the “intangibles” NCAA football does.

And the Rose Bowl epitomizes all of those intangibles.

It is the oldest bowl game in college football, with its first contest in 1902, and it set the stage for the bowl system that has defined NCAA football for a century. “The Granddaddy of Them All” has been played every year since 1916, and all of its games have taken place in Pasadena, Calif., except for the 1942 Rose Bowl, played at Duke in the wake of Pearl Harbor.

It is a place where college football powerhouses have emerged. Notre Dame won its first national championship in the 1924 season, which concluded with a 27-10 Rose Bowl win over Stanford on Jan. 1, 1925. It was also Notre Dame’s first bowl game, and the only one in which the Irish participated until the 1970s. Just one year later, Alabama won its first national championship with a victory in Pasadena in its first bowl game, defeating Washington 20-19. Those two games were more than 75 years ago, and yet, as you may recall (or might be trying to forget), those two programs played a pretty important game against each other earlier this month and are still among the elite.

Other top football programs, including Ohio State, USC and Michigan have played in numerous Rose Bowls, raising the game’s prestige as the game itself raised those programs’ prestige. And arguably the greatest game of all-time was the 2006 Rose Bowl, when Vince Young and Texas managed to topple the “unbeatable” 2005 Trojans.

But it is more than just a football game. The Rose Bowl’s typical place on Jan. 1 marks it as the top matchup on an unofficial college football holiday. (Sometimes, the game is played on Jan. 2 when the New Year falls on a Sunday – the NFL is still king in American sports.) But the official New Year’s Day holiday for many people is defined by the Rose Parade, broadcasted nationwide, which is a morning spectacle consisting of floats and bands, including those of the two schools participating in the game.

Watching the Rose Bowl takes one back to a simpler time, much like entering Notre Dame Stadium does. Unfortunately, the Rose Bowl fell into the contemporary trap and added a video board in 2011, but one still gets a feeling of history watching the Rose Bowl and seeing the sun setting over the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance.

There is, I should admit, some bias from nostalgia. Growing up in the Midwest as a fan of a Big Ten school, participating in the game that traditionally pits the Big Ten champion versus the Pac-12 champion was always seen as the pinnacle of a great season.

But even if not a fan of a Big Ten or Pac-12 school, the possibility of a fan’s team playing in the Rose Bowl, if the Big Ten or Pac-12 champion participates in the national championship and a spot opens, provides chills. And the television ratings show the Rose Bowl is huge and meaningful beyond the Midwest and West Coast.

The easiest argument against the Rose Bowl as the best event in all of sports is that it’s not even the best event in its own sport. How could it be when the BCS National Championship Game exists? But there’s a difference between “game” and “event.” The national championship consists of the two best teams, but it doesn’t have the same tradition – after all, the BCS didn’t emerge until 1998 – as the Rose Bowl, the same pageantry, the same consistency in site location or the same feeling of “pureness.”

So that’s why, even if it’s not the biggest game in college football each year, it will always be the biggest event in college football.

And that’s also why it’s the best event in all of sports.

Contact Sam Gans at sgans@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.