Michael Wilbon: An Old Habit Was Sadly Kicked on New Year's Day

Southern Cal quarterback Mark Sanchez, left, celebrated with wide receiver Damian Williams after the Trojans' win over Penn State in a lackluster Rose Bowl matchup.
Southern Cal quarterback Mark Sanchez, left, celebrated with wide receiver Damian Williams after the Trojans' win over Penn State in a lackluster Rose Bowl matchup. (By Mark J. Terrill -- Associated Press)
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By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, January 3, 2009


I'd never taken a long walk on New Year's Day, never been bargain hunting on New Year's Day, never been to a beach on New Year's Day.

I've never been to church, never been to a restaurant, never been to a friend's house. Never, not once in 39 years of single life, did I ever have a date on New Year's Day. Never, not once in 11 years of married life, have I ever taken my wife to dinner on New Year's Day.

One thing and only one thing has mattered for every single New Year's Day of my entire life: bowl games. Didn't matter who was playing; I watched bowl games. Almost everybody I knew has watched bowl games. Started at noon, maybe 11 a.m., ended at midnight or thereabout. Either I watched on TV or covered them for this newspaper for a total of, oh, 42, 43 years, something like that.

Until Thursday.

Sometime around 2 p.m. on New Year's Day 2009, after watching the first two periods of the NHL's Winter Classic outdoors at Chicago's Wrigley Field, I announced that I was leaving the house to take a drive. My wife, astounded, said: "You've never left the house on New Year's Day in the whole time I've known you. Is there something wrong with you?"

Well, yeah, something was seriously wrong. The bowl games, for the first time in my life, didn't matter. The people who run college football had succeeded, finally, in killing New Year's Day. Instead of college playoff games commanding our attention, we were left with a bunch of BCS exhibitions that meant absolutely nothing. I didn't know what games were being played at what times, nor in several cases, what day. Not until I sat down and started typing these words did I know that the Fiesta Bowl, played right here in Arizona where I'm spending the first week of this new year, will be played Monday. I'm now guessing -- seriously, this is a total guess -- the Sugar Bowl was to be played last night. The Cotton Bowl, I'm told, has been moved out of the early New Year's Day slot to the day after.

Why? The Cotton Bowl hasn't been a game of consequence for years.

The Orange Bowl, the only game played in prime time on New Year's Day, featured two teams not ranked in the top 10. The Rose Bowl, as we all suspected going in, was a total non-contest. It's fine for Penn State to play Southern California; it just should have been a 1 vs. 8 quarterfinal game in the national college football playoff. As is, the "Granddaddy of Them All" amounted to an exhibition, too. I watched 20 minutes, max.

Initially, I figured it was just me, but it wasn't. Every guy I called who traditionally has his butt bolted to the sofa in front of the TV for a dozen hours on New Year's Day had essentially the same story. They watched a little, then checked out, found other stuff to do. Or they watched the NHL game at Wrigley. Or the bowl game was on in the background while they answered e-mail. Seems the folks entrusted to oversee college football have so worried themselves into a tizzy over the sacredness of the regular season they've now let the postseason go straight to Hades.

And with no NFL games, with no NBA games, New Year's Day as a sporting tradition has gone south as well. The Orange Bowl couldn't hold me for 10 minutes. And while it's a function of the economy more than what's happening with college football, it was impossible not to repeatedly notice, with every camera shot of the stands, how empty Dolphin Stadium was. Then again, Virginia Tech-Cincinnati is hardly one of those matchups that forces people to run to the nearest ticket broker.

Because there's no playoff and only a BCS championship game Jan. 8, the implicit message is that nothing leading up to that matters, not even New Year's Day games. We're told by the BCS that Oklahoma and Florida are the two best teams in the country, so why watch USC if it has no chance? Why watch Alabama play Utah (another perfect No. 1 vs. No. 8 playoff matchup) if the Crimson Tide has no chance to finish No. 1?

New Year's Day 2009 was such an enormous disappointment that I'm now hoping President-elect Barack Obama wasn't teasing when he said he might just throw his weight around to pressure the powers-that-be into staging a playoff.

As it was, we had one fairly lousy game in the Orange Bowl on Thursday night, unopposed. No Sugar Bowl to click over to check on. I called one of my best friends -- J.A. Adande, who writes for ESPN.com -- to ask him when the Fiesta Bowl would be played. "It's not tomorrow?" he asked. No. When told it will be played Monday, he howled. When I filed this column, I had no idea of the teams in the Fiesta Bowl, an event I've covered five or six times, and excitedly.

This is the big problem for the bowl people, whether or not they ever want to acknowledge it: Sports, for me, are vocation and avocation. Same for Adande. And if we don't know who's playing and when, it's not a good thing for the bowls.

Those of you who like the BCS system are probably asking why playoff proponents think these bowl games matter less now than they did 25 years ago. Fair question. But the answer is easy. We're a culture now that expects, at the end of any competitive process, to have a winner declared in the arena. "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" even get that. Arguing it out isn't good enough anymore in sports. We don't want to be told Florida and/or Oklahoma are better than USC; we expect the Gators and/or Sooners to prove it.

So, by the way, do the Gators and Sooners.

Used to be, I actually climbed in bed relatively early on New Year's Eve because I got up early to be ready for the very first bowl game. I knew it was a long day and I'd need my energy. Now, at least I know I can stay out as late as I want on New Year's Eve because the lousy state of affairs in college football has made New Year's Day the perfect time to catch up on my sleep.

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