It was a popular Christmas stocking stuffer in 1981.
Fort Madison’s Sheaffer Pen Co., produced a commemorative pen to honor Iowa’s Rose Bowl appearance, and it was a big deal within the community and around the state to get one.
The Hawkeyes’ trip to Pasadena after sharing the Big Ten title that year had grabbed the state’s fascination. It was the program’s first bowl trip since 1959, only the third bowl appearance in school history.
Getting a ticket for the game was nearly impossible, but it seemed like everyone tried to find one. Souvenirs with the Rose Bowl logo — shirts, hats, and, yes, the pens — were hot items.
The game itself wasn’t memorable — the Hawkeyes lost, 28-0, to Washington — but that season was the first big moment for the program under coach Hayden Fry.
Iowa has been back to the Rose Bowl twice since then — the 1985 team that had been ranked No. 1 in the nation at one point lost to UCLA, and the 2015 team that made it through the regular season undefeated lost to Stanford — and those trips were big, too. But nothing, it seemed, matched the fanfare of 1981.
I would imagine that, in the back of a few desk drawers around Fort Madison, some of those Sheaffer pens still exist — in fact, I think I know where mine is at my parents’ house.
I thought about those when I saw this week that Ohio State had sold only about two-thirds of its Rose Bowl tickets because of a lack of interest among its fan base for the game against Utah on New Year’s Day. Four players, including All-American wide receiver Chris Olave, have opted out of the game.
Going to a bowl game isn’t that big of a deal anymore. It’s become an annual tradition now at Iowa — the Hawkeyes will be making their 34th bowl appearance with a January 1 matchup against Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
You can find plenty of tickets for that game. No one created a special pen. The tradition of bowl games has slowly died. The glut of games means anyone with a winning record can find a spot. The four-team College Football Playoff, on the verge of expanding, captures most of the media interest.
New Year’s Day was always about bowl games. You would have the Cotton Bowl on CBS, the Sugar Bowl on ABC, and the Fiesta-Rose-Orange combination on NBC. The Orange Bowl always seemed to have the most compelling game, but you watched it knowing that once it was over, it meant the holiday break was over and you would have to go to school or work the next day.
Now we have bowls that start well before Christmas, and there are even bowls after New Year’s Day and before the CFP national championship game.
Still, there is something to be said for these games, if only for the quirkiness they provide.
At the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the winning coach is usually doused with a bucket full of French fries. The social media accounts of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, set for Thursday, are hinting that the winning coach might get a bucket of mayonnaise dumped on him, which would be extremely gross. Sadly, no one was doused with motor oil at the Quick Lane Bowl.
Iowa State is playing in the Cheez-It Bowl in Orlando, and a photo from there on Tuesday showed Cyclones coach Matt Campbell and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney standing next to a trophy filled with packages of, yep, Cheez-Its.
I’ve covered a couple of bowl games. I cannot explain my disappointment when, while covering the Outback Bowl a couple of years ago, I found out that the organizers had discontinued the tradition of bringing Bloomin’ Onions to everyone in the press box during the game. The 2019 Holiday Bowl in San Diego was fun, although someone (me) decided not to wear a jacket to the game, not realizing the press box was open-air and yes, even in San Diego it gets cold at night in December.
While the top players are opting out of the games, it does lead to some compelling stories. Iowa running back Tyler Goodson has opted out of the Citrus Bowl to enter the NFL draft, but fifth-year senior Ivory Kelly-Martin is expected to start in his place. Kelly-Martin has battled injuries throughout his career, and has always been behind someone on the depth chart. Yet he’s stayed and, in what looks to be his final game, will get to play in front of his family, who lives in Orlando.
Back in 1981, the national championship was determined by the final AP and UPI polls after the last bowl game was played. Occasionally we would get a 1-vs.-2 matchup in a game, but there was always that chance of controversy and debate over who was a champion.
Now we have a playoff to decide the crown, and it does its job, although it doesn’t provide that many memorable games, and the same teams, it seems, find their way into the final four.
A 12-team playoff will give more opportunities for teams to have a chance at a championship, except you figure when it gets down to the last two teams, it will be Alabama vs. somebody for the national title.
And you wonder when those who make college football’s decisions rip the Band-Aid off entirely, and give us a 16-team or 24-team playoff and just eliminate the bowls.
We’ll watch no matter what — the bowls are still around because they’re television inventory, and even the obscure bowls draw better ratings than regular-season NBA or NHL games on the same night.
But we’ll miss the games that stretch from Idaho to the Bahamas, the French fries and the mayo and the Cheez-Its and all of its glorious weirdness.
Somewhere, though, there’s a Rose Bowl pen waiting to be found.
John Bohnenkamp is a national award-winning sports reporter and is a contributor to Pen City Current.