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Two Bowl Bosses: Nebraska’s Brand Strong
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Courtesy: NU Media Relations
12/13/2013
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Randy York’s N-Sider

Sixteen years ago, our family of four (and expected family of 13 soon) decided we couldn’t afford the airfare prices to see Tom Osborne’s swan song national championship over a talented Peyton Manning-led Tennessee team. We found a solution – reasonable airfare from Kansas City to Atlanta and reasonable rental car prices from Atlanta to Miami. My wife, two daughters and I enjoyed the car ride and loved the main event, a 42-17 win that resulted in Osborne’s third national championship in four seasons. We’re glad we went.

With that context, let’s get one thing straight. Nebraska football still carries clout. The Huskers still pack a punch in terms of tradition. We still have historical wallop, and we still create constructive conversation about our loyal fan base throughout college football. To prove we’re balanced in that collective mindset, let the record show that those conclusions were drawn after telephone interviews with two bowl bosses – one who selected Michigan over Nebraska for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe, Arizona, and the other who counted his blessings when he had the opportunity to create a rematch between Nebraska and Georgia in the Gator Bowl one year after the same two teams combined to score 76 points in Orlando’s Capital One Bowl.

“We have Nebraska alums on our governance board, and everybody out here has the highest regard for Nebraska and its football program,” said Robert Shelton, the executive director of the Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe and the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl in Glendale. “It was a very tough choice. Michigan and Nebraska are two fantastic programs. You can’t say anything negative about either program – their tradition, their history, their fans, their current players, their current coaches, their current administrators. Nebraska and Michigan are absolutely at the very top of the class.”

Did Michigan’s Momentum Give Wolverines an Edge?

Shelton appreciated getting a number of phone calls and a text from Nebraska Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst leading up to Selection Sunday. Full disclosure: I didn’t ask Shelton why Michigan was invited ahead of Nebraska, but I’m fairly certain that it related to the Wolverines coming within an inch of upsetting the Buckeyes in Columbus the weekend before Michigan State ruined Ohio State’s undefeated season in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Rick Catlett, President of the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, spoke with similar superlatives Thursday morning. “I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s when all those great Nebraska teams were playing on ABC on Saturday afternoons,” he told me before recalling how the Huskers rallied to beat Clemson in the Gator Bowl five years ago. By the time the Huskers left Jacksonville, Catlett had a one-word definition for Nebraska and its loyal fan base – class. “One of the greatest honors in my life was meeting Tom Osborne and hearing him talk about football and politics,” he said. “I enjoyed Coach immensely, and I’m looking forward to spending time with Shawn Eichorst, too. Everyone I know in the business says great things about him.”

January 1st: Nebraska’s Unofficial 2014 Season Opener

A Georgia native and former golfer at the University of Florida, Catlett sees the best of both worlds every year in Jacksonville because the Gator Bowl is also the home of the World’s Largest Cocktail Party when the Florida Gators and the Georgia Bulldogs collide. With that context in mind, we yield the floor and give our Gator Bowl host the opportunity to make a dramatic point.

“I disagree with people who think this is the last game of the 2013 season,” Catlett said. “When you’re in this business as long as I’ve been, you know that’s not true. This is the first game of the 2014 season, and the nation is going to be watching on New Year’s Day.” Personally, I think Catlett is on to something. The 2014 Gator Bowl really is a launch site, not the final fireworks display for 2013. “It’s a whole new season, and it starts here in Jacksonville,” he said.

The Ultimate Chamber of Commerce Pitch: Sunny Skies

Catlett knows Nebraska fans bleed red. He knows how much they would enjoy Jacksonville’s weather every bit as much as Floridians, who happen to view snow as an unnecessary freezing of water. “The last time I looked it was pretty cold in Nebraska and it was 81 degrees here,” he said. “The Nebraska team’s excited about coming here, and I hope the fans are just as excited.”

Don’t put Catlett in the “been there, done that” category that fans envision. “Isn’t that what bowl games are all about?” he asked. “Every bowl season is a new season.” Bowls set the tone for the fall and stoke the fire during the winter months and throughout the spring. “We had such a great time with Nebraska and their fans the last time they came here in 2008,” Catlett said. “We’re really excited, and I mean really excited. They’re just great fans. They’re polite; they’re warm; and they have a good time. They’re good people. Now I know what they mean when they say ‘We’re Midwesterners.’”

Nebraska’s arrival in the Big Ten paralleled a new Gator Bowl alignment with the nation’s oldest conference. “We’ve had Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern and now Nebraska,” Catlett said. “There’s a lot of class in the Big Ten and a lot of traditional powers. Nebraska is such a quality program. I’ve been to The Swamp and I’ve seen games in Athens and whenever I see Nebraska, it just blows me away seeing all that red.”

The Weather, Beaches, River and New Year’s Eve

Gator Bowl exec Catlett feels fortunate to land two traditionally powerful teams from two of the top BCS conferences. “We want Nebraska here, and I think they’ll love being here,” he said. “We have Florida weather, Florida beaches, a beautiful river, and the last time I looked, we know how to throw a pretty good party for New Year’s Eve.”

Wild Wings/Fiesta Bowl exec Shelton is a Stanford grad, a physicist by training and a one-time president at the University of Arizona. He has the highest respect for Nebraska. “I know Harvey Perlman well. They don’t get any better than that,” he told me before recalling how he emceed a rally in Tucson to welcome Nebraska into the Big Ten Conference a month before the 2011 football season. “It was a lot of fun, a lot kidding around, a lot of joshing,” he said. “We had hundreds of people and there were more Nebraskans than any other Big Ten school and Iowa was second. People really enjoyed the roasting about Nebraska joining a conference with so many bigger stadiums.”

Within walking distance of Shelton’s office in Glendale is a Nebraska athletic clothing store “with hats, sweaters and everything you can think of,” he said. “It’s a very nice store. You guys have a very high and a very positive profile out here.”

Bowl Execs Give Positively Charged Testimonials

There you have it …two bowl bosses, one in Arizona and one who lives within four minutes of the first tee at Sawgrass, a world-class golf course nestled next to Ponte Vedra Country Club. Both bowl execs offer positive testimonials for Nebraska’s brand, not to mention the national relevance of that Iron N logo and its new Director of Athletics. The Huskers' 2014 “season-opener” kicks off at noon (ET) on New Year’s Day in Jacksonville. Will you, your friends and/or your family find a way to get there?

We end this conversation with a footnote to the opening paragraph that encourages Husker fans to think outside the box. The 2014 Gator Bowl pits a proud, hungry Big Ten team which should be healthier against an SEC power that experienced a similar rash of injuries. The 2014 Gator Bowl cannot match the stakes of the 1998 Orange Bowl, but it is pivotal and momentum is crucial for both programs. By the way, when you find a way to end up in Jacksonville to celebrate the first game in a new year, please wave so ESPN’s cameras will know what school you’re representing.

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