Technology trumps Rose Bowl tradition

Computers help keep Cal out of its first Rose Bowl since 1959--long before technology became so prevalent. Photo: No roses for Cal Golden Bears

Jeff Pelline Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jeff Pelline is editor of CNET News.com. Jeff promises to buy a Toyota Prius once hybrid cars are allowed in the carpool lane with solo drivers.
Jeff Pelline
4 min read
I hate computers.

At least when it comes to college football. On Sunday, a computer decided that my alma mater was unfit for its first trip to the Rose Bowl in 46 years, despite what many humans said.

This year my favorite college football team, Cal, was battling Texas to play in the Rose Bowl. College coaches, in their poll, placed the University of California Golden Bears fourth in the country, and the University of Texas Longhorns fifth. Sports writers also ranked Cal fourth and Texas fifth. But that wasn't enough: Nowadays computer polls decide who wins.

And the computers chose the Longhorns. So despite being ranked ahead of Texas for weeks--even in the computer-based Bowl Championship Series ranking--and suffering its only loss of the season to No. 1-ranked USC, Cal lost out in its run for the roses on Sunday night.

So much for progress.

The last time Cal played in the Rose Bowl, in 1959 against Iowa, the world was a simpler place: A Pac 10 team (then the Pacific Coast Conference) played a Big 10 team. This year's matchup would have been a "classic" Rose Bowl, a football tradition dating back to 1902.

As the Wikipedia reminds us: "In its early years (except during the first world war), the game always featured a team (not necessarily the conference champion) from the Pacific Coast Conference, as well as a team invited from further east." This year, Cal was a runner-up to the USC Trojans in the Pac 10, although the Golden Bears almost beat the Trojans earlier this season.

But just like my hometown of Pasadena has changed ("the little old lady from Pasadena" now hangs out at the Starbucks in "Old" Town), the Rose Bowl--aka "The Granddaddy of Them All"--has changed. "Since 2002, with the creation of the Bowl Championship Series system, team selection for the Rose Bowl is now tied into the other three BCS Bowls, although in any given year the Rose Bowl still attempts, if possible, to maintain the traditional Pac 10-Big 10 format."

Ha! This year Texas makes its first trip to the Rose Bowl, and the Pac 10 is shut out all together. What happened? According to the Bowl Championship Series Web site, "The BCS was established to determine the national champion for college football while maintaining and enhancing the bowl system that's nearly 100 years old." Translation: Money and television has changed college football, just like all sports.

Even Texas feels bad for Cal. "I really feel sorry for Cal," Texas coach Mack Brown told sportswriters on Sunday. "The system doesn't work; we understand that...We will keep at this system (to) where teams like Cal will be playing in the BCS."

The ESPN message boards were more blunt: "Cal got screwed!" one read.

In fairness, Cal didn't exactly awe the nation this weekend when it needed a big win. Although Cal beat Southern Mississippi (an unranked team) on Saturday night, it didn't trounce them. The San Jose Mercury News called the win a "sluggish victory." And in defense of the BCS rankings, the results do incorporate the votes of humans: coaches, as well as sports writers. This weekend, the margin between Cal and Texas narrowed in the human polls.

For Cal, the booby prize is a trip to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, against another Texas team, the Texas Tech Red Raiders. Texas Tech has a 7-4 record and isn't even ranked among the top 20 college teams.

As for me, I had already plunked down a $300 deposit in hopes of seeing Cal play in the Rose Bowl, figuring it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (I also graduated from Northwestern University, another college football dropout.) Now my family has a choice, the Cal Alumni Association said in an e-mail Sunday night: get most of the $300 refunded, or attend the "exciting" Holiday Bowl. No offense, but we're going to eat the $15 "processing fee" and join our friends in Pasadena for the Rose Parade--the oldest part of the Tournament of Roses tradition, dating back to 1890.

So far, the Rose Parade hasn't changed that much, but this year's grand marshal will be Mickey Mouse--not a human. And Disney owns the rights to the BCS games through the ABC television network.

We'll listen to the Holiday Bowl on the radio.

What do you think of using computer-based rankings to decide the champions of college football? Share your thoughts.