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Holy BCS, Batman! Gotham Bowl was a real joker

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

As the glut of 28 bowl games meanders toward a merciful conclusion, it might be appropriate to pause and remember some not-so-dearly departed postseason classics.

There were one-year wonders such as the Bluegrass Bowl, played in 1958 at Louisville, and the Aviation Bowl, hosted by Dayton in 1961. ESPN Classic never shows clips from the 1937 Bacardi Bowl at Havana or the Dixie Bowl at Birmingham in 1948-49.

May they all rest in peace, alongside other short-lived events such as the Cigar Bowl in Tampa, the Camellia Bowl in Lafayette, La., the Delta Bowl in Memphis, the Raisin Bowl in Fresno, and, of course, the Salad Bowl in Phoenix.

A few had some admirable staying power, such as the Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston, which lasted from 1959 to 1987, and the Aloha Bowl, a Hawaii staple from 1982-2000. They're gone now, too.

Each came with a promoter who thought it was a good idea to extend the college football season and make a few bucks. Each fell somewhat short of that mark.

Perhaps the most spectacular failure, however, was the Gotham Bowl, which was founded in New York City with good intentions but hounded by bad luck. It was a two-year experiment that never quite got off the ground and eventually drowned in a sea of red ink.

Gotham organizers noticed the first-year success of the Liberty Bowl in Philadelphia in 1959 -- a game that later passed through Atlantic City before settling in Memphis -- and thought if postseason football could make it there, it certainly could make it in New York.

Well, not exactly.

First, there was a question of a site. With the NFL's Giants occupying Yankee Stadium, the inaugural Gotham Bowl was relegated to the Polo Grounds, an ancient, rundown structure that was home to the cash-starved Titans, forerunners of the Jets.

Then, there was the matter of which teams would be invited. Baylor and Utah State, each located far away from New York, were the unlucky guests.

Jim Turner, later a longtime placekicker in the NFL, recalled how happy the Utah State players were to make the trip.

"I was 20 years old," he said. "To get on a plane and fly to New York. That was great. We rode the subways. We got lost. We ate food on the streets. We found Irish pubs. It was great."

Then came the game.

Early December weather can be dicey in New York, and game day was windy and cold. What's more, the elderly ballpark wasn't exactly spruced up for the event.

"There were more pigeons than people," Turner said. "It was a dump. It had seen its day. It was a baseball stadium. The pitcher's mound was not totally leveled. The locker rooms were like bathrooms of today."

Turner kicked a 37-yard field goal, but Baylor won 24-9.

The attendance was announced as 15,123, and as sports writer Warren Pack was fond of saying, many of them came disguised as empty seats.

The game lost $100,000,and there were reports that the teams had not been paid. Those rumors persisted the following year,when the promoters invited Miami and Nebraska and moved the game to Yankee Stadium, a more luxurious setting.

Both schools were dubious about coming, with neither able to move its allotment of 300 tickets. In fact, Nebraska sold 46 tickets for the Orange Bowl game between Oklahoma and Alabama in Miami and just 30 for its own team's game in New York.

The Nebraska team plane sat on the runway in Lincoln until officials got confirmation that a check covering their expenses had been deposited. Miami also refused to move its team until it saw Gotham's greenbacks.

There were other problems. ABC had canceled its television contract after the first game. There was a newspaper strike in New York shutting down any opportunity for publicity. And a freezing rain fell on game day.

Attendance was limited to 6,166 hardy souls, well short of the 93,781 who watched Miami play Nebraska in the Rose Bowl a year ago. Even with its limited crowd, the 1962 Gotham Bowl still outdrew the New York Titans, who attracted only 3,828 that day for their game a short walk away at the Polo Grounds.

The conditions were terrible but the game was terrific. All-American quarterback George Mira passed for 321 yards, but Nebraska hung on for a 36-34 victory, the first bowl game the Huskers ever won. It was the last Gotham Bowl ever played.

Turner, a survivor of the first Gotham Bowl, hardly noticed the results of the second one.

"The next year, we played in the Sun Bowl in El Paso," he said. "It was warmer there."


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