SAN FRANCISCO AND PASADENA, CALIF. — In a place where 15 minutes of fame often seems far too long and burger joints can be cherished icons of a distant past, 55 years of history carries a kinetic force. And for 55 years, New Year's Day football in Pasadena, Calif., had been an almost sacred event.
For the past five decades, a college team and its pale-faced fans would ride out of the snowy Midwest like the Mongol hordes. Wolverines and Badgers and Hawkeyes and Buckeyes, weatherbeaten and stout as the football they played, came to the Rose Bowl and the tourist-bright sky of California - as foreign to them as the glitzy West Coast game, inspired by the golden arms of their quarterbacks.
Borne on the rose petals of the morning's parade, it was the greatest spectacle of the bowl calendar, "The Granddaddy of Them All."
For the second year running, though, that tradition will not happen here, because of college football's controversial system for choosing a national champion: the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). And on New Year's Day, for the second year running, this picturesque stadium beneath the sun-crowned ridges of the San Gabriel Mountains will be at the center of the debate over whether the BCS is a flawed success or an utter failure.
"We've always heard that we can't have a playoff because it takes away from tradition," says Trev Alberts, an analyst for ESPN. "Now, The BCS has taken away what bowls mean, and the Rose Bowl is the most extreme example."
Indeed, since its introduction in 1999, the BCS has been about as popular as holiday fruitcake. It was created in part to quell calls for a college-football playoff, which critics say would run too long and destroy the bowl's substantial clout.
To do this, it aims to ensure a true national champion every year by setting up a title game between the top two teams in the country. The game cycles among the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar, and Orange Bowls. Elsewhere, bowls continue their traditional rivalries.
Yet during the past two years in particular, cracks have appeared, and the Rose Bowl has taken the brunt of the controversy.
No one is arguing that Wednesday's game between Oklahoma and Washington State won't be a good one. Many, however, argue that it isn't the right one.
Chris Bavolack has heard it. After his Iowa Hawkeyes finished as cochampions of the Big 10, the Midwestern conference that has long sent its teams to Pasadena, a trip to the Rose Bowl seemed assured.
Cochampions Ohio State, after all, were headed to the Fiesta Bowl - this year's national title game - as the No. 2 team in the nation. Iowa, then, was the logical replacement to face Pac-10 champion Washington State.
After the Hawkeyes final game, players spilled across the field holding roses. Some 3,000 alumni bought Rose Bowl travel packages from Mr. Bavolack at the university's alumni association.
"People were saying even if we had gotten invited to the Fiesta Bowl, they weren't interested," he says. "It was the Rose Bowl or nothing."
But when the BCS announced its bowl bids, the "or nothing" crowd had to reconsider. Using a fine-print clause in the BCS agreement, the Orange Bowl scooped up Iowa and Pac-10 runner-up Southern California (USC) to set up what many are calling the "Rose Bowl East."
Bavolack says only 2,000 alumni switched to take the Orange Bowl tour; 1,000 dropped out entirely.
Rose Bowl officials, meanwhile, who were reluctant to join the BCS system in the first place, are struggling to veil their frustration. After the Rose Bowl chief said he would be "severely disappointed" not to get Iowa, officials have taken a softer stance, though not without edge.
"We understand that there is a lot of traditional local interest in that [Big 10 vs. Pac-10] matchup, but the BCS rules didn't allow that to happen," says Nancy Atkinson of the Tournament of Roses.
For some Pasadena locals, last year used up all the patience they had.
As host of the 2002 BCS title game, the Rose Bowl was already under fire for abandoning its longtime Big 10 vs. Pac-10 matchup for the first time since Alabama beat USC in 1946.
Moreover, with the national championship game on Jan. 3, the Tournament of Roses parade awkwardly happened two days earlier.
Then, to top it all off, the BCS's computer rankings put Nebraska as No. 2, despite the fact that it had lost its last game 62-36 and didn't even win its conference. The game was cast off as a farce, and Nebraska was crushed.
That things didn't return this year to the way they had been since the end of World War II is a travesty to some. Mention the Rose Bowl East and El Niño, which has cast a stormy specter over the Tournament of Roses, and it seems too much to bear.
"I like the old way," says John Callaghan, a professor at the USC, "the traditional way."