D.C.'s New Bowl Game Was Worthy of Its Players

Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe holds the trophy for winning Saturday's first EagleBank Bowl.
Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe holds the trophy for winning Saturday's first EagleBank Bowl. (By Nick Wass -- Associated Press)
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By John Feinstein
Monday, December 22, 2008

One of the easiest things to do in the jock world is to make fun of bowl games such as the one played Saturday at RFK Stadium.

The inaugural EagleBank Bowl -- no relation in any way, shape or form to the inaugural that will take place here in Washington next month -- was the first of no fewer than 34 bowl games that will take place this college football season. Only one of those games -- the national championship game on Jan. 8 between Oklahoma and Florida -- has "meaning" in that an actual champion will be crowned.

The rest, in truth, are just exhibition games ranging in tradition and importance from the Rose Bowl, which will be played for the 95th time in Pasadena, Calif., on New Year's Day between national powers Penn State and Southern California with close to 100,000 in attendance to, well, the EagleBank Bowl between Navy and Wake Forest which drew 28,777 shivering fans for an 11 a.m. kickoff (because of TV scheduling) in a rickety old stadium that's more about memories these days than anything else.

Sports Illustrated mockingly referred to the game as the "hallowed EagleBank Bowl," and noted that the four-bowl lineup for Saturday, which included eight teams that combined to lose 38 games during the regular season (including two 6-6 teams) "should be required viewing for those against a D-1 playoff."

Actually, the folks at Sports Illustrated, like a lot of people, miss the point entirely. Oh, sure, there should absolutely be a playoff for college football's national championship instead of the ludicrous Bowl Championship Series format, which allows computers, coaches and ex-jocks to pick two teams to play one game for the national championship as opposed to holding a tournament like the ones held in every division of college football and every other sport at every level of college sports.

But going to a tournament format would not and should not affect the status of games like the EagleBank Bowl or any of the other so-called second-tier bowls that exist specifically to reward teams such as Navy and Wake Forest, both of which finished 8-5 after Wake's 29-19 victory on Saturday.

A championship tournament in football would include somewhere between eight and 16 of the 119 teams that play in Division 1-A or, as it is formally known, the Bowl Sub-Division. Navy is never going to be invited to such a tournament. In fact, a lot of teams among the 119 have no realistic chance to play in a tournament or in one of the five so-called Bowl Championship Series games that are at the top of the current bowl pecking order.

A team such as Navy, which won eight games during the regular season and almost beat Notre Dame for a second straight year, deserves some kind of reward for its accomplishments. This year, that reward was the EagleBank Bowl. In the five seasons before this one, Navy had qualified for bowls in San Diego (twice), Houston, San Francisco and Charlotte.

Winning the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, which is awarded each year to the team that has the best record in games played between Army, Navy and Air Force is always Navy's No. 1 goal, and the Midshipmen have achieved that goal six straight seasons. But the No. 2 goal is qualifying for a bowl game.

"It means a lot for our seniors to be able to say they won the CIC four years in a row," Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "But it also means a lot to say they went to a bowl all four of those years, too."

What's more, if Houston and Albuquerque and Fort Worth and Birmingham and Detroit and Toronto and Nashville -- among many others -- can host bowls, why can't the nation's capital host one? Sure, the weather can be dicey, and it would have been nice if the Lerner family, the D.C. government and bowl organizers had been able to make an agreement to play the game in Nationals Park, but RFK, dowager that it is, isn't a bad venue at all. It is worth noting that Saturday's inaugural outdrew two of the other three bowls played that day and will probably outdraw several more before the bowl season is over.

The game itself was competitive and emotional for both teams, especially the seniors, knowing this was their last day as college football players. The fact that they spent that day in a game they earned the right to play, after a week of seeing the sights of Washington, can be only a good thing.

Earlier this season, Navy brought back the members of its 1978 Holiday Bowl team for a 30th-anniversary celebration. Someday it will do the same for the members of the 2008 EagleBank Bowl team.

On that day the players will fondly remember the bowl game that capped off that season. Here's to many more of them for Navy and for Washington.

John Feinstein is a Post contributor and author. His most recent book is "Living on the Black -- Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Unforgettable Season."

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