An earlier version of this article ran on December 30, 2011
For decades college football bowl games have been there to help Americans make the transition from one year to the next. Every day from December 26 until January 7, football fans can watch at least one bowl game on basic cable or network television, making the post-holiday transition back into the routine of work or school a little bit bearable.
This year, like last year, 70 Division I-FBS football teams are playing in bowl games, including 12 6-6 teams and 6-7 Georgia Tech. (Somehow 8-4 Middle Tennessee, who beat Georgia Tech during the season, was left out.) 56 percent of the Football Bowl Subdivision was rewarded with a berth in one of 35 bowl games, from the BCS National Championship Game, featuring #1 Notre Dame and #2 Alabama, to the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, which will see 6-6 Rice take on 6-6 Air Force.
Some bowls, like the Rose and Orange and Cotton, have been around for decades and will probably never go away, even as college football’s postseason evolves. Many more bowls die young then fade into obscurity. (Remember the galleryfurniture.com Bowl, which debuted in 2000, became the Houston Bowl in 2002, and disappeared by 2005?) Many of the games that rest in the college bowl graveyard were played only once or twice; few survived for longer than a decade.
Though some of these games are better off forgotten, others have stories that deserve to be told. Here are the stories of ten of those short-lived bowl games of yesteryear.
Bluegrass Bowl, Louisville, KY, 1958
December 13, 1958 saw the first and only Bluegrass Bowl at Cardinal Stadium in Louisville. Rumor has it that bowl organizers wanted Kentucky to play in the game, but the Wildcats players voted to decline the invitation. (Kentucky had played a game in Louisville earlier that season, a 51-0 route of Hawaii. According to Wikipedia, the players weren’t happy with the Louisville crowd at that game and didn’t want to go back.)
Spurned by the home-state Wildcats, the Bluegrass Bowl invited #19 Oklahoma State and a Florida State team one year removed from having Lee Corso as its quarterback. Both teams were independent and 7-3.
The Cowboys beat the Seminoles 15-6 in the 1958 Bluegrass Bowl. The ABC broadcast of the game was Florida State’s first appearance on national television. It was also the national television debut of Howard Cosell.
Aviation Bowl, Dayton, OH, 1961
Not all bowl destinations are created equal. A late December trip to Orlando, San Diego, or Honolulu is more desirable than spending Christmas in Detroit or ringing in the New Year in Shreveport. (And I mean no disrespect to Detroit or Shreveport.)
Dayton, Ohio, for all its charms, isn’t the sort of place where people go on vacation during the holidays. It’s the sort of place people leave in favor of warmer climes. But in 1961 the Birthplace of Aviation decided that it could host a bowl game.
From the Official Aviation Bowl Program:
Football fans throughout the mid-west have long voiced their interest in a Bowl Game played within reach. To meet this demand and to provide middle-weight” college teams with an opportunity to play in a bowl game, the Aviation Bowl Classic was launched. [sic]
The New Mexico Lobos faced the Western Michigan Broncos in the inaugural Aviation Bowl. The bowl invitation came as a surprise to fans of the 6-4 Lobos, who managed only a .500 record in the Skyline Conference. (Wyoming, who tied for first in the Skyline that year, and had only a single loss, did not play in a bowl game.) The Broncos were a pedestrian 5-4-1, but had finished 2nd in the MAC with a 4-1-1 conference record.
Game-day temperatures were below freezing, and two inches of snow had fallen on southwestern Ohio the night before. Fewer than 4,000 spectators attended the game. Sponsors needed at least 8,000 to break even.
New Mexico won the game 28-12. 46 years would pass before the Lobos won another bowl game, 2007′s New Mexico Bowl. Western Michigan remains winless in the postseason, including last year’s loss to Purdue in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
Great Lakes Bowl, Cleveland, OH, 1947
Like the Aviation Bowl the Great Lakes Bowl was played in Ohio and lasted only one year. Fewer than 15,000 fans came out to see Kentucky beat Villanova 24-14, leaving several myriad empty seats in the 83,000-capacity Cleveland Stadium. Those who were present witnessed the first ever bowl victory for Kentucky head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. They also got to see future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback and kicker George Blanda kick a field goal and 3 extra points in his only bowl appearance.
The Great Lakes Bowl was the beginning of the golden age of Kentucky football. During the next four seasons, the Wildcats would play in the Orange, Sugar, and Cotton Bowls, winning the latter two.
The other Wildcats, from Villanova, would get their first bowl win two years later in the 1949 Harbor Bowl. The Harbor Bowl, played from 1947–49 in San Diego’s Balboa Stadium, wasn’t interesting enough to make this list. But it’s worth noting that in 1948 Hardin-Simmons, a small Baptist school in Abilene, Texas, beat San Diego State 53–0.
Gotham Bowl, New York, NY, 1961–62
In an 1807 article in the Salmagundi literary magazine, writer Washington Irving (of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame) referred to New York City as “Gotham.” It wasn’t a compliment. Gotham, derived from “Goat’s Town,” was the name of a village in Nottinghamshire, England that had a reputation in folk tales for being a town of fools.
Despite its derogatory beginnings, Gotham as a nickname for New York City gained currency in the middle of the 20th century, thanks in no small part to DC Comics’ Batman series.
In 1960 some enterprising Gothamites decided to bring a bowl game to New York City. They called the game the Gotham Bowl and decided that it would be a fundraiser for the March of Dimes. Unfortunately, the March of Dimes never saw a dime. The history of the Gotham Bowl was rife with follies befitting its namesake in Nottinghamshire.
The inaugural Gotham Bowl in 1960 had to be canceled because bowl organizers were unable to find two teams willing to play the game. Several schools, including Alabama, Syracuse, and Army, declined or backed out of invitations. Eventually Oregon State agreed to make the cross-country trip, but the Gotham Bowl was unable to find an opponent for the Beavers.
The 1961 Gotham Bowl featured Baylor and Utah State, a match-up that failed to bring many fans to New York’s Polo Grounds (the former home of the New York baseball and football Giants and the soon-to-be home of the New York Mets). In 1962 the Gotham Bowl moved to Yankee Stadium and got Nebraska and Miami to agree to come to the Bronx.
Alas, a Nebraska-Miami match-up in 1962 wasn’t nearly as attractive as it would be 25 years later. A newspaper strike hurt publicity and game-day weather was cold even by December-in-New-York standards. According to some estimates, fewer than 1,000 people made it to the game.
The Gotham Bowl was a financial disaster and never achieved its goal of raising money for the March of Dimes. 47 years passed before another bowl game, the 2009 Pinstripe Bowl, was played in New York City.
Glass Bowl, Toledo, OH, 1946–49
The Glass Bowl is the name of the University of Toledo Rockets’ football stadium. The name is an homage to the glass industry’s rich history in Toledo, which is sometimes known as Glass City. For four years in the 1940s, the stadium hosted the Glass Bowl Game. All four games involved the host Rockets.
Toledo went 3-1 in the Glass Bowl—defeating Bates College, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma City University before losing to Cincinnati—before electing not to host the game in 1950. The Glass Bowl was supposed to resume play in 1951, but the Rockets were unable to find an opponent willing to travel to Toledo in December.
Cigar Bowl, Tampa, FL, 1947–54
Last week Orange Bowl officials reneged on a sponsorship deal with Camacho Cigars. Bowl spokesman Larry Wahl decided that a relationship with a cigar company would be inappropriate. But once upon a time in the United States, smoking wasn’t taboo and Tampa, with its thriving cigar industry, hosted an annual post-season game called the Cigar Bowl.
The Cigar Bowl, a fundraiser for the local Shriners chapter, lasted for 10 years and mostly featured small-college teams. (Chris Callaway‘s Wisconsin-La Crosse Eagles won the 1951 Cigar Bowl, beating Valparaiso 47–14.) The 1950 game was Florida State’s first ever bowl game appearance. The Seminoles beat Wofford 19–6.
Delta Bowl, Memphis, TN, 1947–48
Memphis has hosted the Liberty Bowl every year since 1959, an incredible run for a second-tier bowl game. But before the Liberty Bowl, there was the Delta Bowl, played in a 7,500-seat stadium built as a Works Progress Administration project during the New Deal.
Memphis held the Delta Bowl exactly twice, both times on New Year’s Day. Mississippi beat TCU 13-9 in the first Delta Bowl. The following year, bowl officials planned to bring Tulsa to town, extending a bid to the Golden Hurricane before the season began. But in early November Tulsa, which had a record of 0–5–1, declined the invitation.
With Tulsa out, the Delta Bowl invited William & Mary and Oklahoma A&M (which we know today as Oklahoma State). The Tribe shut out the Aggies (now the Cowboys) 20–0.
You can actually watch 30 minutes of the January 1, 1949 Delta Bowl right here:
(An aside: I haven’t been able to figure out how the Delta Bowl got its name. There are no deltas in the region. While the Wolf River empties into the Mississippi at Memphis, it doesn’t form a delta per se. The Memphis International Airport is a hub for Delta Airlines, but it wasn’t in the 1940s, and I can find no connection between the airline and the bowl game.)
Oil Bowl, Houston, TX, 1944 and 1946-1947
During World War II the United States Navy enlisted many American colleges and universities to educate prospective naval officers through the V-12 Navy College Training Program. For schools that had seen their enrollments decline since the beginning of the war, this was a great way to fill their classrooms and dormitories. And for certain schools, including Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now Louisiana-Lafayette) and Arkansas A&M (now Arkansas-Monticello), this influx of naval officers in training—some of whom were formerly star players at bigger schools—turned them into temporary college football powers.
On January 1, 1944 the 4-0-2 Bulldogs (now Ragin’ Cajuns) of Southwestern Louisiana met the Boll Weevils of Arkansas A&M in the first Oil Bowl, at Rice Stadium in Houston. Southwestern, behind All-American LSU transfer Alvin Dark, won easily, 24-7. (Dark was a dual threat quarterback who also punted and returned kicks. The Philadelphia Eagles drafted him, but Dark opted to play baseball. He played 15 seasons and managed another 17, winning the World Series as a player with the New York Giants in 1954 and as the manager of the Oakland Athletics in 1974.)
There was no Oil Bowl in 1945, because the War Department wouldn’t allow undefeated Air Force to participate. The game returned on January 1, 1946 when Georgia beat Tulsa 20-6. The third Oil Bowl, like the first two, was also a blowout. Georgia Tech defeated St. Mary’s 41-19 in 1947.
Due in part to the cold, rainy weather that turned the Rice Stadium field to mud in 1947, the Oil Bowl did not return in 1948. Houston got back into the bowl business in 1959 with the debut of the Bluebonnet Bowl.
Bacardi Bowl, Havana, Cuba, intermittently between 1907 and 1946
Bowl games outside the United States have not fared well. The International Bowl in Toronto survived only 4 seasons. The proposed 1996 Haka Bowl in New Zealand was canceled.
The most successful international bowl game to date was Havana, Cuba’s Bacardi Bowl, also known as the Rhumba Bowl. Though the game shared a name with a brand of rum, it had no formal relationship with the spirits company.
Seven Bacardi Bowls were played at Havana’s La Tropical Stadium between 1907 and 1946 (1907, 1910, January and December of 1912, 1921, 1937, and 1946, to be exact). In 6 of the 7 contests an American team played against a college or club team from Cuba. All 6 of these games were shut outs, with the Americans winning four and the Cubans winning two.
Apparently, the Cuban people—before the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power and ended cordial relations between the U.S. and Cuba—had a penchant for American football.
Refrigerator Bowl, Evansville, Indiana, 1948–56
Today neither of the universities in Evansville, Indiana has a football team, and the Whirlpool factory on the north side of town is no longer producing appliances. But there was a time when the Evansville Purple Aces football team played in bowl games without leaving home, and Evansville was the “Refrigerator Capitol of the United States.”
From 1948 through 1956 Evansville hosted the Refrigerator Bowl at the 10,000-seat Reitz Bowl, which remains one of the best high school football venues in Indiana. The first two installments of the game featured the hometown Aces, who beat Missouri Valley and Hillsdale, respectively. (My Purple Aces would never play in another bowl game, unless you count the 1974 College Division Cup.)
The Refrigerator Bowl mostly involved small college teams, but several participants—Arkansas State, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee, and Kent State—currently play in the Bowl Subdivision.
Here’s a segment on the Refrigerator Bowl from WFIE 14 in Evansville: