Ah, Those Red Jackets
By Dave Distel
Bob Shumake checked his watch, and it told him what he didn't want to know: His plane had been late and, consequently, he was behind schedule. His rented car was traveling down an Iowa highway flanked on both sides by cornfields stretching to the horizon.
"Oh well," he said to himself ... and stepped on the gas.
Shumake, a member of the Holiday Bowl's Team Selection Committee, had a 5:30 p.m. appointment with Hayden Fry, the head football coach at the University of Iowa. It would not be prudent to be tardy. He watched both the speedometer, which quickly climbed to 85 miles per hour, and his rearview mirror.
"I was looking for a black-and-white," he recalls with a laugh. "I passed several cars, trying to make up some time, and then I saw flashing lights behind me. Iowa's state troopers drive brown cars. I'd gone right by him."
Shumake, a national account supervisor with Gannett Outdoor, whipped his Holiday Bowl blazer off the passenger seat. All Holiday Bowl representatives wear distinctive red jackets with a patch on the pocket. The jackets sometimes get them into trouble and sometimes get them out of trouble. Shumake flashed his patch as the trooper flashed his badge.
"I have an appointment with Coach Fry," Shumake said.
The trooper eyed the jacket and then eyed the driver.
"Coach Fry?" he said. "I can't keep you here then, can I?"
Shumake was quickly back on the highway, though traveling at considerably less than the speed of sound. He made his meeting with Fry - and, perhaps coincidentally, Iowa's Hawkeyes have made three trips to the Holiday Bowl, more than any other nonÐWestern Athletic Conference university. Such is life on the road with the nomadic members of the Holiday Bowl's Team Selection Committee. It may be pep rallies (and cocktail parties) on Friday night and pompons (and cock- tail parties) on Saturday, but it is also flight delays in bad weather, desolate drives to out-of-the-way places, and motel rooms that seem like $200-a-month studio apartments. These people, all of them volunteers, experience a blend of grit and glamour.
The purpose of these sojourns, known as scouting trips, is to evaluate and romance possible candidates for San Diego's annual collegiate football showcase. For the last four years, the Holiday Bowl teams have been automatically picked according to an agreement made with the WAC and the Big 10. Committee members were all dressed up with nowhere they really needed to go.
That agreement expired, and a new alignment has put committee members back on the road. The terms of the new agreement, involving the Cotton Bowl, the WAC, the Pacific 10 and the newly formed Big 12, have caused the committee to be literally and figuratively up in the air again.
"The Holiday Bowl," says Weldon Donaldson, Team Selection chairman, "has metamorphosed back to its original self."
Not exactly. The original Holiday Bowl was a fringe attraction, at least nationally, which was played on undesirable pre-Christmas dates, offered a most modest payday to the participating universities and had no major network television exposure. It settled for leftovers after the older, more established bowl games consumed all of the best entrŽes.
No less than the late Gladstone E. (Vinnie) Vinson, an optimist's optimist, offered the following assessment before an Indiana-Michigan game at Bloomington in the early 1980s: "From our perspective, an Indiana win would be best. We'd really love to get Michigan to come to San Diego, but they'll go somewhere else if they have too good a record."
Vinson, the Team Selection chairman until his death last January and arguably Mr. Holiday Bowl, did not get his wish. Indiana was defeated by five touchdowns. When Michigan finally came to the Holiday Bowl in 1984, it was far from the Selection Committee's finest hour. The Wolverines were a modest 6-5, and opponent Brigham Young University, the WAC champion, was 11-0 and bidding for a national championship.
"We were severely criticized," executive director John Reid told San Diego Magazine a few years later, "and rightly so."
This year's Plymouth Holiday Bowl may not have national championship implications, but no "leftovers" will be coming to San Diego. The new agreement seems to assure that two very fine teams with excellent records will always be bound for our bowl. Such is the case this year when Kansas State (9-2) and Colorado State (8-3) meet December 29, televised on ESPN.
"We're delighted," Reid says. "We've got a rising program with a huge fan following."
Kansas State came into the fold first, when committee members evaluated their options at their November 20 meeting. The Wildcats were ranked No. 10 in the nation and, with their season over, figured to slip no lower. Other possibilities were Kansas, a
41-7 loser to Kansas State, and the loser of the December 2 game between Texas and Texas A&M, neither as attractive as Kansas State.
Colorado State was on board five days later for a repeat trip. Rather than settle for an also-ran from the Pac 10, the committee opted to go with the WAC champion. Colorado State earned that honor with a 24-13 victory over San Diego State on November 25.
Back in 1978, when Vinson and his colleagues first donned red jackets and headed for America's college campuses, the Holiday Bowl could not have drawn such a pairing. Indeed, only the red jackets seemed to attract much attention.
"We'd show up, and it was like people were wondering who the heck we were," said Vince Benstead, the 1995 Holiday Bowl president and a retired Price-Waterhouse executive. "They looked at us the way they'd look at anybody new. They were wondering how long we'd be around."
College football's "fringe" bowl games have a way of disappearing from the landscape. Every burg wants the glamour of a bowl game, it seems, but very few know how to make them succeed. San Diego had a group of people with the blend of perseverance and imagination to fight through the frustration of less-than-epic matchups in those early years.
"We needed some sort of recognition factor," Benstead muses, "and that's one of the reasons we went with those red coats."
Ah, those red jackets...
Vinson and Herb Klein, vice-president and editor-in-chief of Copley Newspapers, were on a scouting trip to the Midwest when a flight attendant noticed the patches on their jackets.
"Who's that you represent?" she asked.
"The Holiday Bowl," Klein responded, as though it needed no further explanation.
"Hmmmm," she pondered. "I love to bowl, but I've never been to your place."
Bob Hood, president of the Hood Promotion Group, was standing on the curb outside the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles when he was collared in his red jacket. A rather luxurious automobile pulled up to the curb, and the driver stepped out and looked around. He spotted Hood, rushed toward him and slapped the car keys into his palm.
Nonplussed only momentarily, Hood glanced at the car and then called after the driver: "Nice car! You're giving it to me?"
The Team Selection members have grown accustomed to being mistaken for ticket agents and parking attendants, rental-car representatives and bellhops, even professional bowlers. Vinson himself once drew the wrath of an angry rental-car customer who wasn't in the mood to listen to explanations about the red jacket and the Holiday Bowl.
"I remember one time I had a half-hour wait in a hotel lobby in Tucson," recalls Shumake, "and I'll bet 10 to 12 people asked me for assistance unloading their cars. I did help one woman who was struggling with a baby and a carriage."
When Shumake returned to San Diego, he made a side trip to the bank on the way to the Selection Committee's weekly meeting. He picked up $25 in change and had it in a bag at his feet as he reported on the Arizona trip. At the conclusion of his report, he reached for the bag and dumped the change all over the table.
"And," he exclaimed, "the tips were good, too!"
Ah, those red jackets...
Credibility did not come as easily as recognizability. Selection Committee members always made it a point to be in all the right places and visit all the right people, beginning with their arrivals on campuses late Friday afternoons. They had a savoir-faire about them as they presented themselves as ambassadors from both the Holiday Bowl and San Diego. However, their place in the pecking order among bowl games was always clear, come game-time Saturday.
"You knew where you were by where you sat in the press box - if you were in the press box," Hood says. "Now, if you were in the press box and the Orange and Cotton bowl reps were in the president's box, that told you something too."
Weldon Donaldson was made the point man for Penn State University, then a traditional independent powerhouse. The Holiday Bowl coveted such a prestigious university ... and Joe Paterno, its legendary coach. The committee's philosophy has always been to court even the seemingly unreachable.
"I went back there the first time and got sort of a blank stare," Donaldson says. "Joe Paterno looked at me like there was something wrong with me, like maybe I was nuts. He said, 'Why would we want to go way out there?'"
Donaldson painstakingly gave Paterno all the "whys" on why it would be wise to come to San Diego. Everyone here knows them - the weather, the zoo, Sea World, the golf courses, hotels and infinitely more - but the area's attributes were not exactly common knowledge in University Park, Pennsylvania.
Three years later, Penn State was in the Holiday Bowl. The conservative Nittany Lions got swept up in one of those typical Holiday Bowl shootouts, a 50-39 victory over BYU that came down to the last two minutes before it was decided.
In the aftermath, Paterno was pounding Donaldson on the back as if they were old buddies. "I can't believe it," Paterno exclaimed. "I can't believe we scored 50 points." Anyone who has followed Penn State would be surprised that it allowed 39 points, but that's the way these games seem to go, regardless of who is in them.
In those early years, with its fledgling bowl, San Diego did not exactly get a who's who of college football powerhouses. The Holiday Bowl attracted nice teams, and they responded with great games, but a per-team payout of $218,000 was not sufficient to attract the elite. That payout has climbed to an anticipated $1.5 million this year.
Game dates, pre-Christmas until 1986, also inhibited Selection Committee members. Penn State, for example, was tied up by final examinations before the holidays. ESPN was also more tantalized by dates that make the Holiday Bowl what amounts to the lead-off hitter for the traditional New Year's bowl extravaganza.
The bottom line is that the Holiday Bowl has become a most desirable "vacation" destination for America's collegiate football powers. Bob Shumake encountered an example of this change in attitude when a Big 10 coach's wife came up to him in the press box at halftime of a crucial game and pulled him off to the side, naturally by the sleeve of his red jacket.
"Don't tell my husband," she whispered, "but I don't really want to go to the Rose Bowl. I want to go to the Holiday Bowl." She will remain nameless, of course, because such sentiment would be blasphemous considering the Big 10's long and hallowed relationship with the so-called Granddaddy of Bowls.
No one is more closely associated with the rise of the Holiday Bowl than the late Vinnie Vinson, for whom a bust will be dedicated, alongside those of Ray Kroc and Jack Murphy, at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium on game night this year.
"When you traveled with Vinnie," Shumake says, "it was like you were traveling with the president of the United States. He was an amazing guy, and I'm not overstating it. Everyone knew him and loved him."
That being the case, Vinson probably had a leg up on almost any incumbent U.S. president. Klein, who has known a number of presidents and who worked with Richard Nixon in the White House, was with Vinson in the Iowa locker room one autumn afternoon when the Hawkeyes accepted an invitation to the Holiday Bowl.
"It's something I'll never forget," he says. "Hayden Fry had us all get down on one knee for a prayer, and here were Vinnie and I, holding these huge paws of the kids next to us. When the prayer ended, Hayden Fry made the announcement that the Hawkeyes were going to San Diego."
What happened next is what prompted Klein to tell the story in the first place. As one, Iowa's players started chanting and clapping in rhythm.
"Vinnie! Vinnie! Vinnie! Vinnie! Vinnie!" The din kept up until Vinnie Vinson was almost the color of - you guessed it - his red jacket.