On Monday, the Twitter feed of Washington State University’s football team featured the Sun Bowl logo as its backdrop. Super-imposed over the top of it was a small circular inset of the Cougars’ logo under the word, “Anyone?”
It was a light-hearted reference to a serious dilemma for the Cougars, who learned two hours after their arrival in El Paso on Sunday that their opponent, Miami, had abruptly pulled out of the game because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
That left the Sun Bowl folks and WSU athletic director Patrick Chun scrambling for a replacement – while at the same time Chun was also working on an exit strategy to get his team home if they struck out. And after a madcap 24 hours of behind-the-scenes machinations, the word “Anyone?” had been replaced by “BACK ON,” confirmation of the success of that quest.
The Cougars and Sun Bowl executive director Bernie Olivas chipped away and chipped away and unearthed the Chippewas of Central Michigan as their new opponent. The Sun Bowl, which was canceled by COVID concerns last year and would have been devastated, both financially and emotionally, by a second straight cancellation of the 85-year-old game, had been miraculously saved.
The Sun Bowl’s saga, hardly unique this year, is indicative of the increasingly tenuous ground upon which college bowl games stand as we head into 2022. That is certainly not to say they are devoid of meaning. Even playing in a mid-tier bowl like the Sun Bowl – pardon me, the Tony The Tiger Sun Bowl – was something the Cougars felt was worth fighting for.
One can understand the elation in the Cougar program, which endured a traumatic mid-season coaching change and deserved a chance to be rewarded with some semblance of a showcase. The game will be televised nationally Friday at 9 a.m. on CBS, which leaves the Cougars a scant amount of time to game plan for an opponent they just found out about. That’s why their coordinators were excused from a planned news conference on Tuesday to concentrate on game-planning and preparing practice.
But that was a glorious turn of events for a Cougars team that had spent a couple of days enjoying the pageantry of Sun Bowl social events in El Paso without being sure if it would culminate in a game.
“We’re grateful we have this opportunity,’’ Chun said at a Tuesday morning news conference that was posted on the Sun Bowl’s Facebook page. “Today’s really our first normal day of a bowl week. For Washington State and the year we’ve had, a normal day is a good day for us.”
The new COVID wave is wreaking havoc on bowl games across the country. That’s on top of a growing trend of top-tier players opting out of bowl games to safeguard their draft status. Heisman finalist Kenny Pickett (Pittsburgh) and Walter Camp Player of the Year Kenneth Walker III (Michigan State) pulled out of the Peach Bowl. Four key Ohio State players opted out of the Rose Bowl, the first time that’s happened in the Grandaddy of Them All.
But the big question now is whether the games will be played at all. The Holiday Bowl between UCLA and N.C. State was canceled on Tuesday just hours before kickoff when UCLA’s defensive-line room was decimated by COVID. Four other bowls have already been canceled by COVID outbreaks – the Military Bowl (Boston College vs. East Carolina), the Fenway Bowl (Virginia vs. SMU), the Hawaii Bowl (Hawaii vs. Memphis) and the Arizona Bowl (Boise State vs. Central Michigan).
Yes, that Central Michigan. When Boise State players came back from Christmas break and had too many positive tests, the school pulled out of the Arizona Bowl, which was to have been played in Tucson on New Year’s Eve. Sun Bowl officials saw a golden opportunity and swooped in to make it happen. Logistically, it was a perfect match.
“We knew that there was a team out there that didn’t have an opponent,’’ Olivas said at the press conference. “The fact that they were just up the street made it possible. You know, in El Paso, 400 miles is just up the street.”
The Chippewas are scheduled to bus to El Paso on Thursday. It hardly needs to be said that this or any other bowl game won’t be assured of taking place until kickoff, not the way the omicron variant is spreading through society. Even the College Football Playoff has come out with a contingency plan for determining a national champion in the case any (or all) of the four teams have to pull out for COVID reasons.
Over the course of Monday, it had become apparent to Olivas and Chun that the possibilities were dwindling, which is why they seized upon Central Michigan. Numerous names had been bandied about all day through the rumor mill as a possible replacement for Miami, from Stephen F. Austin to Marshall, but none were viable.
“There were schools out there acting like they wanted to play that really had no intention of playing, just to add some bravado into their own programs that they want to play,” Chun said at Tuesday’s press conference. “But the reality is, as we’re trying to sift through what’s real, Central Michigan was going to be the only option.”
Chun said he quickly dismissed the possibility that Washington State would be the one traveling to Tucson to play in the Arizona Bowl. Instead, the Sun Bowl negotiated a settlement with Arizona Bowl officials. That game had been planning a combined $350,000 payout to participants as opposed to $4.55 million total from the Sun Bowl to its teams.
“We locked arms and said, ‘Hey, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen here in El Paso,’ ’’ Chun said.
Olivas, while jubilant to save his game, called up his Arizona Bowl peers to express regret that it had been at their expense. Ultimately, he noted, the culprit was COVID.
“Let’s face it, if Boise State came out clean, we might not be having this press conference right now,’’ Olivas said. “That’s why I am very, very grateful and very thankful. Unfortunately, it was somebody else’s misfortune that turned into our fortune.”
And in a Washington State season that has had innumerable peaks and valleys, the Cougars hope to end on a high note.
“Our guys have earned this opportunity,’’ Chun said at the press conference. “If you study Washington State football, you know we went through a lot to get to this place. This 2021 team will be remembered forever at Washington State, because of the inspiring way they unified Washington State.
“We were fractured at a certain point because of decisions made by others…This year could have dissolved. We could very well be one of those programs sitting at home, hoping to be in a place like El Paso in the Sun Bowl. But these guys found a way to show up when they had some fractured hearts, broken hearts, and decided to play for each other.”
It took a wild 24-hour adventure to give them one last team to play against.