Bowled over

Why not invite everybody?

Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2001

Get out the pompoms and strike up the pep bands. Alert the alumni and admissions offices. The glut of college football bowls is about to begin from sea to shining sea.

And a few spots in between.

There are 25 bowl games sanctioned by the NCAA, everything from the Bowl in Houston to the Silicon Valley Classic in San Jose, Calif. Don't forget the Bowl in Phoenix and the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho.

That means 50 of the 117 Division I-A schools, fully 42.7 percent, are playing postseason games. Sixty-six schools qualified under the old standard that required six victories and a winning record. They didn't invite everybody. Almost, but not quite.

So who's not going?

Hawaii, for one.

The Warriors were 9-3 this season, finishing with a 72-45 thrashing of previously unbeaten Brigham Young. But they didn't win their conference, and there weren't enough at-large berths available.

BYU, champions of the Mountain West Conference, already had the conference's automatic invitation to the Liberty Bowl locked up and was annoyed at being snubbed by the BCS, which controls the invitations to the big-money games.

Playing Hawaii turned out to be even more annoying.

UCLA's not going, either.

The Bruins went 7-4 and could have gone to the Humanitarian Bowl. The problem was the $750,000 payoff would have left the school about $300,000 in the red after expenses. So the university decided to pass.

Persuading Californians to spend a week in Boise at this time of year -- even with that jazzy blue field -- would not have been an easy sell. Now if this game were in Aspen or Vail, Colo., well, that might be another story.

So who's going?

Well, just about everybody else. Call it a time of equal opportunity in college football.

Everybody else includes North Texas, proud champions of the Sun Belt Conference. The Mean Green kick off the bowl season on Tuesday against Colorado State in the New Orleans Bowl, a new addition to the postseason lineup.

And why not? Who wouldn't want to spend a week in Party Town, USA?

North Texas marches into the Louisiana Superdome with a 5-6 record, nothing unusual. The school hasn't had a winning season since returning to Division I-A in 1995 and is 24-54 since then.

But as conference champions, the school qualified for this bowl invitation, its losing record notwithstanding. That's happened just two other times: SMU in 1963 and William & Mary in 1970. They both lost their bowl games.

The Mean Green got to this point in a most unusual way, losing the first five games of the season, including their conference opener.

No problem. They merely made a U-turn and ran off five straight victories, including a 24-21 decision over Middle Tennessee State for their first conference win.

When North Texas and Middle Tennessee State both ended up with 5-1 conference records, that game became the tiebreaker and the ticket to Bourbon Street.

Ron Maestri, executive directory of the New Orleans Bowl, is aware of the criticism of a sub .500 team in his first game.

''Is that what you want? No. But they're the conference champions and we're comfortable with that,'' he said.

So he presses ahead, hoping for 25,000 fans in the cavernous Superdome. He will not skimp on the treatment of the teams.

''We've never had illusions of grandeur,'' Maestri said. ''But we will treat these institutions and their fans just like the Rose Bowl or the Sugar Bowl. This is a reward for the student-athletes at both institutions.

''They'll play in a world class facility on national television (ESPN2) in the first bowl game of the year. It will be a tremendous experience for them.''

So line up the hurricanes at Pat O'Brien's and get set for a riverboat cruise and maybe some cool jazz at Preservation Hall. Laissez les bon temps roullez.

The New Orleans Bowl with its modest $750,000 payout will do its best to wine and dine these teams and look the other way when it comes to North Texas' record.

''North Texas earned the right to be here,'' Maestri said. ''We're happy to have them.''

Even at 5-6.

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