Leading me to ask… why not Vanderbilt?
The Rose Bowl, of course, is the self-proclaimed "Granddaddy" of all bowl games. Played first in 1902, the Rose pre-dates by 33 years the two next-oldest bowls, the Sugar and Orange.
For the past 56 years, the Rose has pitted the Big Ten champ against the Pacific-Ten champ, meaning we have grown very accustomed to watching someone like Michigan take on someone like UCLA about 4 p.m.on New Year's Day on ABC.
But don't ever underestimate the NCAA's proclivity to monkey with tradition (particularly if there are dollar signs involved). The college football gods have decreed that the 2002 Rose Bowl (played at the end of the 2001 season) will be the National Championship game. It will be moved off New Year's Day, to January 3 in prime time.
The nation's top two teams, according to those omniscient BCS computers, get to go. Winner takes home the coveted Sears Trophy.
How has this come to pass, you ask? The short answer is that Rose Bowl officials were not content to sit idly by and play second fiddle to the Orange, Sugar and Fiesta Bowls, which had been rotating as hosts for the championship game. The Rose crashed the Bowl Alliance and won the right to host the biggie every fourth year. Its first chance comes next January.
That means EVERY team in the BCS-- yes, even little Vanderbilt-- has a chance to go to Pasadena this year. All we have to do, I figure, is win all our games.
ANY 12-0 team coming from the SEC would almost certainly be a shoo-in to be #1 or #2 in the polls, no matter who else was ranked. So there you have it.
"Are you on drugs?" I can hear you asking. "We haven't been to ANY bowl in 19 years, and only 3 in history… why even tantalize us with a thought like that?" Two reasons.
First, ya gotta have a dream. (Somehow, I just can't shake this image of Dr. Gee in the Tournament of Roses parade.)
Second, as college football historians can tell you, the idea of a Southern team in the Rose is by no means unprecedented. If that happens, it will be a sweet throwback that will bring a smile to some old-timers' faces.
Since 1945, the Rose Bowl has been Big Ten-vs.-Pac Ten. But pre-'45, Southern teams regularly graced the Rose Bowl: Alabama has played in six, Tennessee two, Georgia and Georgia Tech one apiece. Even Duke and Tulane made appearances in the 1930's.
Which brings to mind an obscure bit of Vanderbilt history. Did you know… Vanderbilt almost went to the Rose Bowl once? Yes, honest! I said almost.
Coach Ray Morrison's 1937 Commodores were 7-1 going into their Thanksgiving-weekend finale against the 8-0 Alabama Crimson Tide. To the winner would go an invitation to the Rose Bowl to play the Cal-Berkeley Golden Bears.
The 1937 Commodores, captained by senior center Carl Hinkle, were aptly referred to as the "Iron Men". They had suffered a loss to Georgia Tech, but had conference wins over Kentucky, LSU (by virtue of the hidden ball play), Sewanee and Tennessee. A Vandy win would also mean a share of the SEC title, while a loss would give the title to Frank Thomas' Crimson Tide outright.
The whole city of Nashville, it seemed, turned out to watch. Vandy led late, 7-6, but Alabama scored a late field goal and took home a 9-7 victory.
Bye-bye, Pasadena. To make it worse, there were no consolation bowls in those days. (And you thought the loss to Kentucky in 1999 was tough to swallow!) The '37 loss has to rank as Vanderbilt's most crushing ever, because of what was at stake.
SEC historians have pointed out the historical importance of the '37 Vandy-Bama game. Up until '37, Vanderbilt was considered a Southern football power-- but over the subsequent 63 years, the Commodores would make it to bowls only 3 times. Alabama, on the other hand, subsequently became a Southern powerhouse, going to 45 bowls, winning 17 SEC titles and 6 national titles over the ensuing years.
How might history have been different if that field goal had missed? We'll never know.
The loss was the final game for Vanderbilt's incomparable Carl Hinkle. A relentless blocker with movie-star good looks, Hinkle played all 60 minutes in seven of Vanderbilt's games in '37. He would be named All-American. He would serve his country brilliantly in World War II and become a decorated Army commander. He would be named a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, as well as Vanderbilt's player of the century.
But he would never get to play in the Rose Bowl.
One day, perhaps, Vanderbilt will get back to the Rose Bowl, though you and I may not live to see it. But when and if it ever happens, we should all pause… and raise a glass to the splendid memory of Carl Hinkle and the Iron Men of '37. They were soooo close to Pasadena… yet so far.