Tucson had no involvement in the college football bowl business from 1923 to 1947, at which time the man who wrote “God’s Little Acre” built a radio station a few hundred yards from the UA campus and started programming on KCNA (1340-AM).
Erskine Caldwell’s first foray into sports programming was to broadcast UA football games. In the days before TV sports in Tucson, Wildcat football created a significant identity for the new radio station.
Shortly thereafter, Arizona was invited to play in the Salad Bowl — the game was actually played Jan. 1, 1949 at Phoenix’s old Montgomery Stadium — and the author of “God’s Little Acre” got involved in a political football mess the size of Hell’s Big Acre.
Erskine had contracted to broadcast the Cotton Bowl on the same day. Rival station KTUC (1400-AM) had signed to carry the Orange Bowl. Both were on the must-get list for radio programmers, here and everywhere.
The Salad Bowl? Did anybody care?
One Phoenix newspaper reported that Arizona’s football team voted not to play in the Salad Bowl unless each player was paid $175.
“The boys started practicing Sept. 1 and the idea of continuing until Jan. 1 and then starting spring practice again in February just doesn’t go over,” the Tucson Citizen wrote. “It’s a sure bet Arizona will not be in the game.”
So began the bowl era in Arizona — on a bet and a bribe.
Creating interest in the Salad Bowl became a precursor for what the founders of Tucson’s Copper Bowl (1989-99) and second-year Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl would experience.
It’s not easy getting someone off the sofa during bowl season.
When Air Force and South Alabama play in the second Arizona Bowl Friday at 3:30 p.m., Tucsonans will have the option to watch any of that day’s other five bowl games, or 15 college basketball games, not to mention NBA and NHL programming, and the late-night Arizona-Cal basketball game.
To their credit, founders of the Arizona Bowl have not sold out to ESPN and homogenized the Tucson bowl experience. ESPN owns and operates 13 mid-major bowl games, from Boise’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl to Albuquerque’s Gildan New Mexico Bowl.
Except for some ice and fog, one seems no different from another.
The Arizona Bowl chooses to fly solo and create its own personality. That might (or might not) ultimately lead to bowl suicide, but it’s a better idea than selling out. That’s what the Copper Bowl did by going into business with Fiesta Bowl operatives 20 years ago.
Even though Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Baylor and Wisconsin played in Tucson, the Fiesta Bowl’s high command soon moved the game to Phoenix, where it has become known as the Cactus Bowl and serves as the Li’l Brother to the Big Ol’ Fiesta Bowl.
The Arizona Bowl is already one-up on the Cactus Bowl, which is stuck with a dreary 8:15 p.m., Tuesday kickoff on Dec. 27. Other than fans of Boise State and Baylor, who’s going to watch that?
Who in Phoenix will even know the game in being played?
For its own well-being, the Arizona Bowl might do well to study the long-forgotten Salad Bowl rather than the Fiesta Bowl and its little brother.
The Salad Bowl began by involving 37 high school bands and inviting celebrities such as Miss America, Hollywood superstar Hopalong Cassidy and boxing champion Jack Dempsey to create the sense of a big event. It pledged 75 percent of its profits to charitable interests through the Kiwanis Club.
When Arizona finally agreed to play in the 1948 Salad Bowl, it was for all the right reasons.
“We do not play football for hire,” athletic director “Pop” McKale said. “However, it is our understanding that the proceeds from the game will be donated to charitable purposes. We should be reimbursed for all necessary expenses, but no individual should profit from the game.”
The Salad Bowl struggled mightily for survival during an era that the Orange, Rose, Cotton and Sugar bowls dominated the postseason football stage.
In 1947, Nevada initially voted to withdraw from the inaugural Salad Bowl because coach Odus Mitchell said proposed opponent North Texas State “is not a name school.”
And Nevada was?
In 1949, Colorado State and Pacific both declined Salad Bowl invitations for, as Pacific coach Larry Siemering said, “We need more time now for our scholastic endeavors, and due to the fact that many of us have wives and children and family commitments.”
School? Family? Those factors barely register in 2016 postseason football.
Finally, in 1952, the Arizona Board of Regents ruled than neither Arizona nor Arizona State would be allowed to play in the Salad Bowl, or any bowl. The game limped forward, matching the San Diego Naval Training Station team against Camp Breckinridge one year, and ultimately turning it into a showcase of Border Conference vs. Skyline Conference All-Stars.
By 1957, the Salad Bowl was gone. Now, all these years later, may the football gods bless the Arizona Bowl, keep it safe, sound and rolling in the lettuce.