TED WILLIAMS, ARGUABLY the greatest ever hitter of baseballs, had a batting average of .406 in 1941. He was congratulated for doing something -- hitting .400 for an entire season -- that nobody else has done from that year to this. Mr. Williams turned away most of the praise with the question, "What's so great about doing your job successfully only four out of 10 times? I don't know many jobs where you would be praised for that kind of performance."
While underestimating the immense difficulty of his own craft, the Grand Batter did have a point. We tend to insist on a better than .500 season for people like pilots, say, or surgeons or plumbers or, God help us all, baggage handlers. More wins than losses is the minimal demand. Football coaches used to be in that same clan. But that once-precarious profession may have been exempted by the proliferation of post-season bown games. Now consider this: the day may not be too far off when we actually have more bowl games than we have college football teams to play in them.
It ws not so long ago that if the Old Alma Mater won the conference football championship, the students and alums might hope for an invitation to one of the bowl games: Rose, Sugar, Cotton or Orange. The bowl game meant a lot of things: a trip to a warm place in the middle of winter, some extra money for old Normal Tech State (both in gate revenues and increased alumni gifts) and a longer and better contract for the football coach, whose recruiting duties were made easier by the bowl appearance.
In the last 25 years, however, nothing except the fast-food industry has grown as much. Not even backpacking. This month, besides the original four, the following bowl games are scheduled: the Garden State Bowl, the Holiday Bowl, the Liberty Bowl, the Tangerine Bowl, the Sun Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, the Hall of Fame Bowl, the Peach Bowl, The Bluebonnet Bowl, the Palm Bowl, the Independence Bowl, the Gator Bowl and the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. Two college football teams are required for each of these games and the attendant festivals and parades, and there are not enough conference champions or runners-up to fill the bowls.
Take the Big Ten, where they play football -- and not touch. Ohio State, minus the legendary Woody Hayes, won the league championship and the invitation to the Rose Bowl that goes with it. There on New Year's Day Ohio State will meet the University of Southern California, the cmapions of the Pacific Ten conference. But Big Ten fans do not have to put all their hopes in Ohio State's backfield, because Indiana has already won the Holiday Bowl and Purdue is in the Bluebonnet Bowl and Michigan will appear in the Gator Bowl. PAC Ten partisans may be a little discouraged after their representatives, California and Arizona, both lost in the Garden State Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl, respectively. (Washington U. did salvage some conference honor by beating Texas in the Sun Bowl.) Out of these two conferences, eight teams of a total of 20 are playing in bowl games between semesters. The demand for teams (of the supply of bowls) has increased so dramatically that even the Atlantic Coast Conference -- a group more celebrated for its basketball than for its football -- sent Clemson, North Carolina and Wake Forest (yes, Wake Forest) all to post-season "classics." And how about Missouri and Louisiana State universities?
Well, both teams finished their regular seasons with traditionally unsparkling records: six wins and five losses each. Missouri can be seen in the Hall of Fame Bowl against South Carolina. LSU broke Wake Forest's bubble in the Tangerine Bowl over this past weekend. If Missouri were to lose to South Carolina, their season's record would be made up of as many defeats as victories, but the coach could rebut any expected criticism with: "What do you mean a mediocre season? We went to a bowl, didn't we?"