As I was sitting here, in front of this computer screen, contemplating what flashback moment to cover on this final Friday of 2019, I could hear my television in the background. There was a promo playing for the upcoming College Football Playoff Semifinal games between Ohio State-Clemson and LSU-Oklahoma, respectively. Those games are slated for tomorrow as part of the New Year’s Six college bowl game haul and I’ll definitely be watching. The promo brought to my remembrance a time where watching high-profile college football bowl games was part of my New Year’s Day tradition. From 1999 until 2014, with the heavier concentration on 1999 through 2006, I typically had the same routine when it came to New Year’s Day. It started with prayers just after midnight for a great year ahead…usually at a watchnight service. A few hours after that, it was breakfast and the first entry of the calendar year in Triumphs & Tribulations. Then, my rounds with family and friends. That all led up to mid-afternoon (according to clocks in the U.S. Eastern & Central time zones). It was at that point that I found myself parked in front of a television tuned into my local ABC affiliate. For the next 7 hours or so, I closed out my New Year’s Day by watching some of the best college football games out there. That was how I used to bring in the new year and it brings me to this week’s moment in the Flashback Friday series: the Bowl Championship Series on ABC.
How I first came across this moment? I first came across the Bowl Championship Series—affectionately referred to as the BCS—in the Fall of 1998, much like every other fan of Division 1-A NCAA college football. Over the course of that 1998 season, the collection of bowl games—the Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Orange Bowl, and the Fiesta Bowl—got plenty of promotion by major sports outlets that had a vested interest in college football such as ESPN, CBS, and of course, ABC. It was the first time that a system would bypass the traditional bowl tie-ins and pit the #1 and #2 teams in the nation against each other in the national championship game with 3 other bowl games hosting various major conference champions and top at-large qualifiers. At approximately 2:30pm Central time on January 1, 1999, I found myself sitting on the sofa in my father’s den. I was tuned into Channel 33—the ABC affiliate for the Greater Birmingham area—and waiting for The Rose Bowl Game presented by AT&T to start. That’s when something amazing happened. The intro lead-in for the game came on and it had unfamiliar music and graphics…far different than the longstanding music and graphics that had embodied college football on ABC Sports. My initial thought, being an ABC Sports purist, was “what is this” but I was quickly put at ease with the familiar voice of the late, great Keith Jackson introducing the game. From that point, I just kicked back and enjoyed the show. The Rose Bowl—the debut game of the BCS—was a fantastic style vs. style shootout in which the Wisconsin Badgers edged the hometown UCLA Bruins. I ended that day by taking in my Ohio State Buckeyes beating the Texas A&M Aggies in the Nokia Sugar Bowl.
What it meant to me then? In the moment, I felt excited. That very first lead-in, with the music and the graphics, brought a different kind of “it factor” to the most important games of the college football season. It was unlike anything I had seen previously on ABC or CBS or NBC, which had contracts with each of the four major bowls before the BCS era. There was so much finality in just the way the broadcast opened…even with the way the play-by-play men intro’d the games. My New Year’s Day traditions for the ABC run with the BCS consisted of making sure my eyes saw and my ears heard that BCS theme music, the John Saunders lead-ins, and the voices of either Keith Jackson or Brent Musburger ushering in the afternoon game. There was literally nothing better in life from mid-afternoon onwards to January 2nd.
What it means to me now? The Bowl Championship Series contract with ABC Sports ended after the 2006 games, most notably The Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi, which was for the 2005 national championship. It was Keith Jackson’s final call and the grand finale of what I think was the golden era of college football bowl coverage. ESPN took over ABC Sports later that summer, giving birth to the ESPN on ABC brand, and FOX Sports ended up winning the BCS television rights for the next 4 years, in which they produced some of the worst bowl game coverage in history. Today, the Bowl Championship Series no longer exists. It’s been replaced by the College Football Playoff, which has created the tournament that college football fans have long wanted but at a cost of usurping the importance of each individual bowl game and its history. That’s what I miss most about the BCS run on ABC: the focus on the history of the bowl games. I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like it again.