By Ray Ratto
It is a measure of the diminishing importance of college football on this coast that the big Rose Bowl news was broken in late May in Atlanta and only became a point of contention Monday in Chicago. The big Rose Bowl news being, of course, that as part of the new Bowl Championship Series deal, the Rose Bowl no longer gets the right to reserve its vacancies for the Big Ten and Pac-10. Among the larger consideration, it also means that Cal's already-narrow path to the one bowl its fans crave most is now blocked by the rest of the country. You know, like Utah. Or Boise State. Any team from a non-BCS conference that qualifies for a BCS game would fill the vacancy left by a Pac-10 or Big Ten team that qualified for the national championship game.
In short, Cal's flirtations with second place behind the planet-eaters at USC don't necessarily mean the Rose Bowl as the fallback position. And Cal fans must now cheer as ardently against the Utes, Broncos or whatever other top 12 team from outside the heart of the BCS can run its own table. True, the old runner-up method never helped Cal, and the even older method of winning the conference outright has evaded the Golden Bears since 1958. In that time, every school in the Pac-10 and Big Ten have reached at least one Rose Bowl - except Arizona and Indiana - and each school has reached at least twice except the aforementioned two, plus Oregon and Northwestern. But there was always hope that with a good enough team and a great USC team, the Golden Bears would finally answer the Cal fan's bedtime prayer: One Rose Bowl Before I Die.
Now the smart money is on, well, death - if it hasn't been there already. There is, of course, another caveat here, as there usually is in the backroom-deal world of college sports: The scenario can happen only once in the life of the current BCS contract, which goes through 2014. If, say, Boise State ends up in the top 12 and the conference champion (read: USC) goes to the national title game, the Broncos could go to the Rose Bowl. But that can only happen one time before the game reverts to the old rules.
But knowing Cal's traditional buzzard's luck on this, it will happen at least once. And then the window will close again, because that, too, is the way being a Cal fan works. We'd make more of a point of Stanford's potential risk here, but the Cardinal hasn't the same grand football aspirations, and its fan base recognizes the Rose Bowl as a happy accident, as it was in 1999. With Cal fans, the agony lingers to the point of being a near-addiction, and even if the new roadblock never happens at all, the symbolism is intriguing enough.
In other words, when it's been UCLA or Washington or Arizona State, that's been annoying enough for Cal fans. When it became Miami and Nebraska and Texas and Oklahoma, it was worse, but still understandable. But to think that it could be Hawaii or TCU or Fresno State ... even as a hypothetical, it has a bilious taste to the average Cal fan.
Of course, the BCS system you all know and love needed to play with the Rose Bowl to quiet the complaints of the Utah folks who thought their boys got hosed in January. This is the minimal chicken bone it took to buy off Orrin Hatch, and it tells you how much money actually talks. The Rose Bowl opened its doors so as not to lose its turn in the national championship rotation, and the Mountain West Conference that tilted at the big windmill to get Utah its belated due got a potential slice of the Rose Bowl.
Did Cal get wronged? Not really. Big-city politics works that way, and the BCS eats when it needs to eat.
But just for laughs, consider what the Cal fan might do if in 2014 the bizarre specter of a Wisconsin-San Jose State Rose Bowl rears its head. And then call the street cleaners. It will be a very busy Sunday morning indeed.