Rose Bowl offers Spartan-Trojan rematch; picking a champion
Part of the appeal of bowl games is the opportunity they provide for teams to face new or rarely-played opponents. Occasionally, however, bowls wind up as rematches of regular-season games. This can happen either because the organizers opt to go this route, as occurred when Oklahoma and Nebraska met in the 1979 Orange Bowl, or because a bowl's formula makes it inevitable, as is the case with the upcoming Rose Bowl. The folks in Pasadena are locked into pitting the Big Ten and Pac-10 conference champions, which this time means that season-opening opponents Michigan State and Southern Cal will confront one another again on New Year's Day.
There's a sense of freshness about this rematch, though, partly because nearly four months will have passed between the time they last met on Labor Day evening and Jan. 1. Michigan State won the nationally televised Sept. 7 game in East Lansing, 27-13, but Southern Cal, under new coach Larry Smith, didn't really hit its stride until mid-season.
Both teams are better now, and given the different locale and the Big Ten's traditional difficulties in Pasadena, it's very hard to predict what might happen. Ignore the Spartans' earlier victory and higher ranking and rate this one a ``toss-up.''
The Trojans, of course, don't lack for incentive, since they dedicated themselves to getting to the Rose Bowl for a hoped-for second chance at Michigan State.
By succeeding, the teams have set the stage for only the fifth Tournament of Roses rematch. Previously there have been two sweeps, Iowa beating Oregon State twice during the 1956 season and UCLA turning the trick against Michigan in 1982. A pair of split-decisions both involved UCLA, which upset Michigan State to conclude its 1965 campaign and Ohio State at the tail end of the '75 season.
Southern Cal has to feel confident about turning the tables this time, not only because USC has won 17 of its last 18 meetings with Big Ten opponents, but also because of the Pac 10's success in recent Rose Bowls, which rivals the the National League's dominance in baseball's All-Star Game.
The West Coast team has won with such regularity (16 times in the last 18 years) that many speculative reasons have been put forth. Perhaps the most extensive attempt to list possible explanations was carried in the preseason issue of Inside Sports magazine. The theories attributed the Big Ten's struggles to:
The myriad distractions found in Calfornia
The former conservatism of Big Ten offenses
The Rose Bowl's natural grass field
The weather, both in the Midwest, where freezing temperatures discourage outdoor practices, and in California, where beautiful days make it difficult to concentrate on football
Too much time away from home
And the Ohio State-Michigan theory, which claims that whenever one of these teams goes to the Rose Bowl, it experiences emotional burnout after playing its rival in the final regular-season game.
The bottom line is that the Big Ten teams don't seem to believe in themselves - at least not for a full 60 minutes. This has, of course, become the chief hurdle, and the one that could most challenge Michigan State in its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1966.
One person who hopes he's on the right sideline this time is the Trojan head coach. Smith visited the Rose Bowl twice before, following the 1969 and '71 seasons, as an assistant under Bo Schembechler at Michigan. The Wolverines lost both times.
Michigan State coach George Perles was also an assistant on a team that played in Pasadena's Rose Bowl stadium, but the team was the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the game was Super Bowl XIV in 1980. The Steelers beat the Los Angeles Rams to capture their fourth title in six years, a record partly credited to the vaunted Steel Curtain defense coached by Perles.
When George accepted the job at his alma mater after the 1982 season, he predicted the Spartans would go to the Rose Bowl within five years. This is his fifth year and everything is right on schedule, including the development of rock-ribbed defense, which has led the nation by yielding just 61.5 rushing yards a game. Make coaches teachers
Each year firings, forced resignations, or other personnel manipulations appear to make the coaching profession a less secure and attractive livelihood. Coaches at big-time schools, of course, are handsomely compensated, as was clear when Ohio State agreed to a $471,000 settlement with ousted mentor Earle Bruce, whose income sweeteners included TV and equipment contracts.
Money, however, often only further distorts the win-or-else atmosphere that permeates today's coaching environment. In a survey conducted by University of Cincinnati researchers, college coaches around the country overwhelmingly said that they should be offered the possibility of earning tenure as college coaches.
Some currently gain tenure as faculty members, but not as coaches, which seems to underline one of the greatest flaws in the way major-college programs operate, which is as virtually autonomous groups. Coaches are coaches, period, but if the system were changed to require them to assume some teaching duties, their value as educators would enhance their security and help redefine their roles in the college community. Consensus champions not unusual
Those who argue for a major-college playoff may be surprised to learn that identifying the country's best team appears to be a relatively easy job - at least once the bowls are over.
For the past eight years there has been unanimity among the groups that traditionally confer national champion status - the wire service polls (both AP and UPI), the Football Writers' Association of America (FWAA), and the National Football Foundation.
There has been agreement, in fact, on 11 of the last 12 champions. The only exception during this period occurred at the end of the 1978 season, when Alabama was a 3-awards-to-1 winner over Oklahoma in a split decision.
The selection of a top team has been simplified by waiting until after the bowls, when a few key matchups can place everything into clearer focus. In 1954, the FWAA became the first group to wait until the New Year's Day results were in before choosing a national champion. The other groups eventually followed suit, with UPI last adopting this procedure in 1974.
It has become such standard operating procedure that few question it anymore, yet including bowl results does have its down side.
For one, it amplifies the pressure on the players, who once could look forward to bowls as a fun reward for a good season.
Then, too, the most significant bowls occur so long after the regular season has ended, they almost deserve to be considered as one-game seasons unto themselves. Teams that have improved steadily can go flat in the absence of game action, while others actually put the long pre-bowl rest and preparation period to their advantage.
A prime example of teams losing their edge occurred in the early 1950s, when three teams that won national championships in pre-bowl wire service tabulations, lost in the postseason - Oklahoma in '50, Tennessee in '52, and Maryland in '54.