Saying goodbye to the ‘traditional’ Rose Bowl: Penn State prevails over Utah as the historic game enters a new era

PASADENA, Calif. — In the end, the sky opened and it rained on the Rose Bowl. Some would say it was wet.

Just don’t try selling that to the smiling, dancing, happy (valley) Nittany Lions practically floating off the field at the end of the program’s first Rose Bowl win in 27 years. (Only its second ever.)

“It means the world,” said redshirt freshman linebacker Dominic DeLuca, blessed by fate to wear Franco Harris’ No. 34.

“Hopefully, somewhere up there, he is smiling,” DeLuca added.

Elsewhere, outside the competitive boundaries of the hallowed stadium, it meant closure. Not the kind you’d want to consider if tradition and Keith Jackson mean anything.

No. 11 Penn State’s 35-21 win over No. 8 Utah marked the end of an era. It is the last time the traditional combatants in the Rose Bowl will meet for the foreseeable future. In fact, whether the Big Ten and Pac-12 ever face each other again in Pasadena will be a matter of coincidence.

After the 2023 season, the Rose Bowl will be a College Football Playoff semifinal. So only by chance will a Big Ten and/or Pac-12 team play in the game. For different reasons, starting with the debut of the 12-team playoff in 2024, the same circumstances will apply.

“It dawned on us … that we’re playing each other in the last ‘traditional Rose Bowl,'” Penn State athletic director Pat Kraft told CBS Sports. “For someone who grew up in the Midwest and in the Big Ten, this is it. It truly is the Grandaddy. So, to have this kind of moment is surreal.”

The finality of it, though, was palpable: This definitely wasn’t your granddaddy’s Granddaddy.

Since the Rose Bowl reluctantly joined the BCS in 1998, it has been an uneasy relationship between tradition and evolution. Above everything, Rose Bowl traditionalists valued that Pac-8/10/12 vs Big Ten game. For 54 consecutive years (1947-2000), the conferences’ champions met here.

Then BCS intervened. To participate in it, the Rose Bowl, Big Ten and Pac-12 agreed to give up their exclusivity to be part of the first college football championship decided on the field. The Rose’s first shot in the BCS rotation came in 2002. Miami met Nebraska for the national championship. Folks from both schools came back from Pasadena talking about how the welcome had been less than cordial.

That was manifested further the next year when Oklahoma played Washington State in front of only 87,000 fans, 6,000 short of capacity. Since the College Football Playoff debuted in 2014, only once have the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions met (2020, Ohio State vs. Washington).

In the 16 years prior to 2014, the Rose Bowl got its traditional matchup 10 times. That ratio will shrink substantially going forward.

The issue came to a head late last year when the Rose Bowl reluctantly agreed with the CFP to the parameters of the expanded 12-year playoff in 2024. It had run out of leverage in a sport that has become bigger than the first, oldest bowl in existence.

The Rose Bowl was held out for playing at its traditional Jan. 1, 5 pm ET, kickoff time. It was told no. Beginning in 2026, it will be filled with whatever teams are in the system at whatever date and time the CFP deems necessary.

“I don’t say this with insults, but we’re not the Guaranteed Rate Bowl,” Laura Farber, chair of the Tournament of Roses Management Committee, said before the game. “I had to look up where that bowl was taking place. We’re always going to be the Rose Bowl.”

You would get no argument from the Nittany Lions. As a young administrator, Kraft — a former Indiana walk on — vowed never to set foot in the Rose Bowl unless the team he worked for was playing in it.

“No, it’s too special,” Kraft told CBS Sports. “Gotta earn it.”

On the most sacred of soils, Kraft got his wish. Never mind that, at the beginning of the century, Utah was in the Mountain West or that Big Ten’s flagships Michigan and Ohio State — both of whom defeated Penn State — were knocked out of the CFP on Saturday.

But it was history with a side order of melancholy. For the first time since 2017, the game did not kick off in the sunshine.

Again, try telling Penn State this didn’t mean anything. The Nittany Lions won the game for the first time since 1995. This was their fifth appearance in the Rose Bowl since 1923.

On the 100th anniversary of that appearance, Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford reminisced about his first time on the West Coast in the fourth or fifth grade. His father surprised him with a trip to a football camp.

“I just remember really falling in love with football, specifically falling in love with the quarterback position,” Clifford said.

In the last game of his college career, Clifford was the Rose Bowl offensive MVP, throwing for 279 yards and two touchdowns.

There is a lifeline out there for tradition. Following the 2024 and 2025 seasons, if the Pac-12 and/or Big Ten champions are ranked in the top four and get a bye, the highest-ranked of those two will be guaranteed a spot if the Rose Bowl is a quarterfinal that year. . If that had been in place this season, Michigan would have played in Pasadena as the Big Ten champion against the winner of Ohio State and Kansas State.

“The Rose Bowl is iconic,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said.

Monday was another reminder that it is not exclusive.

By essentially giving the Rose Bowl an ultimatum, the CFP stakeholders reinforced what a 12-team playoff had become. The games themselves matter more than when or where they are going to be played.

Farber was asked if the likes of an Alabama-Cincinnati playoff game in the Rose Bowl will matter to his grand tradition?

“That’s a really great question,” she said. “Do you know we’re in the Alabama fight song? … Tradition is what you make of it. We need to evolve, too. We need a balance between tradition and innovation.”

Rain couldn’t dampen Penn State’s party. It heralded that new era where the sun may not shine on the Rose Bowl all the time, in terms of its traditional matchup.

“I’m not trying to sound snotty or whatever,” Farber said. “But we are the ‘Granddaddy of Them All.'”

Yes, but for how long?

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