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by | Special to CBSSports.com

Bashing shouldn't cover the whole bowl scene

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GREENSBORO, Ga. -- It has become very fashionable to bash the bowl system of college football.

Yes, the system has brought a lot of criticism on itself.

It is a system that is entrenched in maintaining the status quo and, in that pursuit, is prone to excesses. When people see the over-the-top practices of the Fiesta Bowl; when they see teams and the schools they represent eating thousands of tickets and actually LOSING money on a multi-million dollar game; when they see what they feel is a less than satisfactory conclusion to the best regular season in all of sport, they blame the bowls.

Nick Saban watches his shot in his round of the Chick-fil-A Bowl Challenge. (AP)  
Nick Saban watches his shot in his round of the Chick-fil-A Bowl Challenge. (AP)  
A caller to my radio show said Wednesday that he dislikes the bowl system because, in his words, the average fan feels so connected to the game during the regular season. Then those same fans feel disconnected because the postseason is outsourced to a bunch of guys wearing pastel blazers.

In the minds of many football fans, the bowl system is the single biggest impediment between them and what they want: An NFL-style tournament to determine college football's national championship. It is, they feel, an antiquated concept that no longer has a place in the world of Twitter and Facebook.

I get all of that.

But I also get that Nick Saban would respectfully disagree. The Alabama head coach is pretty busy right now with the cleanup and recovery effort in Tuscaloosa, which was devastated last Wednesday by a series of tornadoes. The damage, he told me, "is beyond anything I can comprehend or begin to describe. The task ahead is enormous."

But this week Saban left Tuscaloosa to come to a resort located between Atlanta and Augusta to keep a commitment to play in the Chick-fil-A Bowl Challenge, a celebrity golf tournament that raises money for academic scholarships and charities.

Saban was torn about whether or not to come here given what is going on in Tuscaloosa and throughout Alabama. But his wife, Terry, convinced him to attend. She stayed behind to help the hundreds who are still in shelters and may be there for a long time to come.

"This is the only one of these I play in because of the work that they do," Saban said.

A dozen college football coaches, including South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, Tennessee's Derek Dooley, Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer and Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson, participate in this event. They are paired with an alumnus of their school and compete for a purse of $415,000 in scholarship money. In the four-year history of this event it has raised over $2 million for scholarships and charities.

And yes, we're talking about coaches here so there is a competitive aspect involved.

When this event began four years ago the coaches were paired with a graduate who has some name recognition. Spurrier, for example, was paired with Darius Rucker, the former front man for Hootie and the Blowfish. They finished sixth and earned $12,000 in scholarship money. Spurrier went recruiting, as good coaches do, and brought in former Gamecocks All-American Sterling Sharpe as his new partner. In the next three tournaments the Spurrier-Sharpe team finished first, first, and third, earning $290,000 for the general scholarship fund at South Carolina.

"Coaches are competitive people. Nothing wrong with that," said Georgia Tech's Johnson, who played with former Yellow Jacket basketball player Jon Barry and won this year's event at 11-under par.

Saban played with former Alabama punter Chris Mohr and before the round conceded it was going to be hard to concentrate on golf. He and wife Terry visited a shelter last week filled with people who had lost their homes and every possession they had.

"I met a man with only one leg who had worked three years to get a truck that would allow him to drive. And now it's gone," Saban said. "Once you see it and understand what one of these storms can do, it changes you forever. I know I will never be the same and I don't think Tuscaloosa will ever be the same.

"What I've learned, and what I hope everyone learns, is to not take these weather threats casually," Saban said. "I am guilty of hearing tornado warnings and not being as aware as I should. You kind of get numb about it after a long time. You can't do that."

As it turned out, Saban made the right decision to come here. Before he walked onto the first tee he called Terry to deliver some news: The organizers of this event had held a special auction to help with the disaster relief in Tuscaloosa and other parts of Alabama. They presented Nick's Kids, the foundation created by Nick and Terry Saban, with a check for $70,000.

"She started crying because this is an emotional time for everybody," Saban said. "Trust me when I tell you that the money is going to help a lot of people who have absolutely nothing. I can't tell you how grateful we are."

So the point is this: There are times when certain bowl games deserved to be criticized. But, like all things in life, let's not paint with too broad a brush. Some of the bowls, like the Chick-fil-A, are doing big things to help people in need. And they deserve credit for it.

Personal note: This is the second straight column where I have dealt with the disaster in Tuscaloosa and throughout the South. For that I beg your indulgence because, as Gregg Doyel wrote so beautifully, these stories tend to quickly pass from the front page as we move on to the next big thing. But after the media leaves town, there is still so much work to be done and so many people who are in dire need of help. There are a lot of ways to help, but one way is to make a donation to the American Red Cross at www.redcross.org. I hope you will consider it.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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