Small bowl games are still a big deal

— -- Before we get started, a story.

On Dec. 25, 2001, USC and Utah were going through their pregame routine for the SEGA Sports Las Vegas Bowl. Somewhere within the catacombs of Sam Boyd Stadium, the seven-man officiating crew was getting dressed. They weren't totally happy. It was an ACC crew and they were nearly 2,000 miles from home on Christmas Day. It was also an experienced crew. Many in this crew had worked Rose and Orange Bowls and now they were in a contest half-named after a video game. They hadn't even been allowed to enjoy Vegas itself, forced to stay in Henderson, a suburb, because no one wanted the referees anywhere near a casino. "When I got the call with my bowl assignment, I immediately asked which resort we'd be staying in," recalls side judge Jerry McGee. "The answer was the Hampton Inn."

As the crew started unpacking their duffels there was a knock at the door. Standing on the other side were two statuesque women with bags of their own and giant headdresses in hand. They were Vegas showgirls, sent to participate in the pregame and halftime festivities.

"Excuse me, guys," one said. "They forgot to assign us a dressing room. Do you mind if we get changed in here?"

"Suddenly," McGee recalls. "We weren't complaining anymore."

(Full disclosure, McGee is the author's father. He loves telling this story.)

On Saturday morning, when ball leaves tee just past 11 a.m. ET in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, the 2014-15 college bowl season will officially be underway, a slate of 39 games played over 25 days. During that time, fans and media will participate in another annual college football tradition -- complaining about the existence of all those games.

People will say that, with the dawning of the College Football Playoff, the lesser-known corporate logoed games don't matter. People will say the names are dumb. People will say the existence of many of the games represents nothing more than blatant money grabs and furthering the "everyone gets a trophy" mentality. They will point to the Robertsons at the 50-yard line of the Duck Commander Independence Bowl (formerly the Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl) and say, "Really?"

Those observations aren't wrong. But here's another very accurate statement about those smaller games, one that those who have played in them know to be true. They are also fun. In a lot of cases, even more fun than the headliner bowls. And the stories are almost always better. Former Clemson head coach Danny Ford, saved his '79 Peach Bowl team from the Baylor Bear. George Foreman gave the Connecticut Huskies cooking tips for the George Foreman Grill on the sideline of the 2007 Meineke Car Care Bowl.

"We've played in the biggest bowl games they have and some that aren't as big," Georgia head coach Mark Richt explained during a recent trip to Charlotte to promote the Dawgs' Dec. 30 Belk Bowl showdown with Louisville. It will be his 14th bowl game with UGA, a list that includes nine New Years' Day games mixed in with a Music City, Independence, and Liberty. "Everyone wants to play in the biggest games, but playing anywhere is a reward to the kids. It really is. Over the years you learn to appreciate that more and make sure you enjoy it more. You know, it's OK to have fun."

Before we continue, a story.

In 1980, the bowl season was just starting to explore the idea of expansion. For decades the postseason had been centered on New Year's weekend and the big four bowls of Cotton, Sugar, Orange and Rose. But by 1980 the list of bowl games was up to 15, reaching all the way back to mid-December. One of those early games was San Diego's Holiday Bowl, being played for just the third time and on Dec. 19. BYU had played in all three, facing Navy and Indiana in the first two editions. This year's opponent was a little tougher and they wanted to make sure the Cougars knew it.

When it came time for the pregame luncheon for the two teams -- standard operating procedure at most bowl games -- the massive and mighty SMU Mustangs purposely arrived late, ensuring that they could put on a cold-stare muscle parade for BYU, who had already arrived and taken their seats.

"I think at some level it startled many of us. There was sort of a hush in the room," BYU wide receiver Ryan Tibbitts recalls in his new book about the game, "Hail Mary." "It so happened that the NFL's San Diego Chargers were hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers the following Monday night in San Diego Stadium. Coach [LaVell] Edwards, who can always come up with a funny comment to break the tension, stood up, grabbed the microphone and said, 'I'm sorry, you must have the wrong hotel. The Steelers' hotel is the next street over.'"

"Those Holiday Bowl trophies might as well be made out of rebar."

Those were the words of LaVell Edwards during a conversation about bowl games for an ESPN The Magazine feature in 2009. He stood alongside a line of Holiday Bowl trophies, including the ones for that 1980 comeback win over SMU and the one added four years later, a win over Michigan that led to a national championship.

Before BYU, Florida State and Miami became national names, they had to dine on the bowl table scraps left over after the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world had gobbled up the big games. In 1940 there were five bowls. By 1980 there were 15, by 1990 there were 25. Until the bowl pool finally started to grow past the original Big Four, there was nothing left to play for except pride. On paper, that's an admirable goal. In reality, it made it impossible to elevate programs to the next level.

"We used those Holiday Bowl wins as the foundation for the construction for a very successful program," explained Edwards, who coached in 22 bowl games in all. "You start going to bowls on a regular basis and you started elevating your goals. USC and Notre Dame would begin each year with no goal other than to win a national championship. Ours was to get to any bowl game, then it became to get to San Diego, and then it became something much larger."

Another story.

In December 1980, the Florida Gators were preparing for their first bowl game in five years. It was the Tangerine Bowl, just down the road in Orlando. For decades the game had been the home to small-school matchups, hosting everyone from Catawba College to Sul Ross State to the Coast Guard Academy. But now it was pursuing bigger showdowns and it had the Gators coming in to play ACC powerhouse Maryland.

"We get to Orlando and Arnold Palmer invited some of us to his place at Bay Hill," then-Florida wide receiver Chris Collinsworth recalls. "We were so excited, man. I mean, here's The King and we're just a bunch of kids. We hadn't even sat down yet and he looked at us and says, 'You guys know you're going to get crushed in this game, right?'"

What Collinsworth didn't know then was that Arnie was simply trying to push the right button to get the team fired up. It worked. The Gators won 35-20 and Collinsworth was named MVP and interviewed on his future network employer by Johnny Unitas. Sure, Florida still ended up 8-4 and tied for fourth in the SEC. But the NBC Sports broadcaster says now that he still can't go back to campus without someone bringing the game up.

It's the same for Philip Rivers, who is still revered for leading NC State over Notre Dame in the 2003 Gator Bowl. Or Lorenzo Neal of Fresno State for hanging 241 rushing yards on USC in the 1992 Freedom Bowl. Or Air Force's Rob Perez for running through Ohio State in the 1990 Liberty Bowl.

"Everywhere I go, it's about the '92 Peach Bowl," former East Carolina QB Jeff Blake says. He threw for more than 21,000 yards over the 14 NFL seasons. But his legacy is still tied to a rainy day in Atlanta, when the Pirates came from 17 points down in the fourth quarter to defeat rival NC State. "If I had won a Super Bowl ring, it would still be second in this town to people wanting to see my Peach Bowl watch. At a big school, those moments might not mean so much. For the rest of us, those are the moments."

As the Power 5 continues to broaden the gap between itself and the Group of 5, both administratively and monetarily, it could be argued that the role of smaller bowl games will actually be more important in the future instead of watered-down.

Are there aspects of the bowl system that are broken? Yes. Ticket purchase minimums and travel costs end up causing schools to lose money off the bottom line. That needs to be fixed. Are there bowl executives that could stand to do a little less stuffing of their own pockets? Yes. Just ask former Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker, who will watch this year's bowl games from a federal prison in Arizona.

But in the end, once the footballs are kicked off, it's more than just another game to the players on the field. It's a chance to play again. For many, it's their last chance to play. Ever.

OK ... one last story.

It's May 2014 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. On the top floor of famed Pagoda that towers over the start-finish line, IndyCars hammer by on the frontstretch below. Series title sponsor Verizon has a cutting-edge interactive display in which clients sit in virtual reality racecars.

One of the Verizon employees on duty sports a blinged-out ring and is asked what it's from. He says it's a ring from the 2007 Insight Bowl. His name is Brandon Mosley and that season he was a fourth-year junior safety for Indiana University. His original head coach, Terry Hoeppner, had taken over the lowly Hoosiers program in 2005, basing his entire rebuilding effort around the idea of gaining a bowl berth, something IU had accomplished just eight times in school history and not since 1993.

The team motto became "Play 13."

They came one win short of a bowl in 2006, a season during which Hoeppner was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He took a leave of absence in 2007 and died shortly thereafter, on June 19. Almost exactly five months later, his team defeated rival Purdue and accepted a bid to play Oklahoma State in the Insight Bowl. They lost 49-33. It didn't matter.

"We played 13," Mosley said, holding out his Insight Bowl ring, glancing down at it and instinctively nodding his head. "People like to say these games don't matter. But they do."