Another beautiful, compelling Rose Bowl faces uncertainty in playoff era

Peavy (USATSI)
The largest Rose Bowl crowd of the BCS era watches Michigan State take an emotional victory. (USATSI)

PASADENA, Calif. -- Fou Fonoti sat in front of his locker at the very back of Michigan State's lockerroom drinking it all in. The dancing, the yelling, the crying, the joy of a once-in-a-generation Rose Bowl win.

The first in more than a quarter-century for the Spartans.

“I want to enjoy, every minute, every second,” said the Michigan fifth-year senior right tackle. “I wanted to sit here and take my own panoramic view. I don't want to rush this moment. This is one moment I'll never get back.”

Fonoti might have been speaking for college football. On a 78-degree cloudless New Year's Day that could have inspired an art movement, beauty going forward was in the eyes of the BCS commissioners.

We may never get this moment back. For those of us who love the Rose Bowl, the end of the 100th game kicked off a departure.

Next year -- and for four of the next 12 years -- the Rose Bowl becomes a national semifinal game in the new playoff. The grand old game will not retain its end-all status that it retained for more than a century, even through the BCS years.

It will be -- as some have clinically termed the semis -- a play-through.

Keith Jackson just cringed.

The largest Rose Bowl game crowd of the BCS era Wednesday watched Michigan State's longing take on Stanford's strong-arming. They watched a former walk-on linebacker, Kyler Elsworth, make the defensive play of the game for the Spartans. They watched Mark Dantonio reach the pinnacle of his career and crack a smile. (Two huge events.) They watched Fonoti, who grew up 20 minutes from here, play in the first Rose Bowl he never saw.

“There were roses," Fonoti said of his knowledge of the game growing up. "That's all I knew about it.”

Instead, Fonoti took a recruiting trip to East Lansing, fell in love with the snow and played his way back to the Granddaddy. There were more compelling stories in this compelling game. Next year there are genuine concerns about whether one of the most famous events in American sports will even sell out.

“It's an unknown,” said Bill Hancock, College Football Playoff executive director. “We think the semifinals will be nearly what the championship game is.”

This is not news. It is an issue the commissioners wrangled with when they were deciding on a playoff. Traditions were going to die, or at least be altered.

The Rose Bowl game ended its BCS affiliation getting its traditional conference champion matchup in 10 of the last 16 years. The last BCS title game will be played here in five days.

That ratio may diminish in the playoff era. A Big Ten or Pac-12 champion in the top four for the playoff will be replaced in the Rose by another team from those conferences. But as we've learned from such occurrences in the BCS era, they won't be the best teams in Pasadena.

The commissioners didn't want to impact the regular season with a playoff. But already fans are having to make financial choices on conference championship games. Do they take the risk that State U. will win and go to a major bowl/playoff?

Or roll the checkbook, er, dice and save up for the championship game?

Adding a level of semifinals, forces that additional financial choice. The same goes here where the founding fathers established the Tournament of Roses parts of two centuries ago as a civic endeavor to show off the area.

The Big Ten champion coming from the wintry Midwest became a beloved tradition. When Miami and Nebraska played here in the 2002 game, it broke more than a half-century long string of Big Ten vs. Pac-8/10 games.

Two years later Oklahoma and Washington State drew less than 87,000 in the Rose -- almost six thousand less than capacity.

A national semifinal could be so far afield of the traditional Big Ten-Pac-12 game that attendance could be an issue.

Baylor vs. Missouri anyone?

“To me, if different conferences come here so much the better,” Hancock said. “It exposes more people to the magic of the Rose Bowl.”

The Rose went into the BCS with trepidation 16 years ago. It has come out the other end retaining most of its glory. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott admitted before Wednesday's game that when the playoff idea germinated, “it was a tough swallow.”

But the Rose and the Pac-12 and Big Ten really had no choice. They could have struck out on their own but that would have assured mutual destruction. The three entities wouldn't have been part of the playoff. What was left of a playoff wouldn't have had any credibility without the three.

So they all swallowed hard knowing that the Rose's end-all status might take another hit. The first three championship sites have been awarded to Dallas, Phoenix and Tampa Bay. There is not perceptible movement on Los Angeles even bidding for the next opening following the 2017 season -- and beyond.

That may or may not be because the city fathers want the next big football events in town to be an NFL team followed by a Super Bowl.

What we're left with is an event that burrows its way into your heart. Long-time sportswriter Art Spander was recognized in the press box for attending his 61st Rose Bowl. Sixty. First. In the run-up to this game, Michigan State AD Mark Hollis remarked that the Rose Bowl is like “the Final Four times 1,000.”

This from a man who has been paying his basketball coach Tom Izzo almost $4 million per year to get to a few of those Final Fours over the years.

Former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr once famously said he'd rather win a Rose Bowl than a national championship. No one at Michigan or around the Big Ten blinked.

The BCS commissioners have done what most of the free world wanted them to do, establish that playoff. No one said it was going to be easy and it certainly isn't going to be perfect.

Wednesday's scene won't be the last here but it will be missed. Giddy Spartans doing snow angels in the confetti on the scarred Rose Bowl turf. Souvenir stands looking like they had been stripped by green vultures. All that was left was Stanford gear.

This one was special and not only because the long-suffering little brother Spartans finally got back here and finally won.

Fonoti had 28 friends and relatives watching him inside the stadium and countless others waiting for him in the parking lot tailgating, without tickets.

"You watch all these Michigan State people walk around, they're in heaven,” Hancock said. “I'm so happy that the Rose Bowl will be part of the college football playoff because it's an icon and it will remain an icon.”

As he sat in the back of the lockerroom, how that icon will look going forward was briefly explained to Fonoti.

“That's what the BCS is going to become, huh?" he said. "That just shows that each year is going to become tougher and tougher."

For players and fans and the Granddaddy.

“You don't set aside 100 [Rose Bowl] games, you just don't set those aside,” Hancock said. “In many ways college football is the Rose Bowl, and you don't want to diminish that.”

 
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