On Wednesday afternoon, Stanford makes a return visit to the only football game that matters on New Year's Day.
The Rose Bowl stands alone, if you are a member of a certain generation. As kids in the Midwest, we understood that the Rose Bowl game was the most glorious football destination on Earth, the best reason to turn on the television on the first day of January. It was the same for kids my age on the West Coast because the game matched the Big Ten champion against the champion from the Pac-8 (and later Pac-10 and now Pac-12).
But that was then. What about now? Much to my comfort, it turns out that the Rose Bowl generation eventually encompasses every generation. And so it will be at kickoff time Wednesday, when Stanford meets Michigan State.
"I think anybody who comes from the West Coast, who goes to a West Coast school, has the Rose Bowl in mind," Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney said. "That's why you play football, just to be in the Rose Bowl. It's something special. Probably the most special game I'll be part of in my college career."
"Last year," said linebacker A.J. Tarpley, "when the stealth bomber flew over after the national anthem, that was the chills moment for me. When I was growing up in Minnesota, the Rose Bowl ... you know, that was the premier game."
This is the 100th Rose Bowl. That makes the game more than twice as old as the Super Bowl and easily the oldest postseason football event on the planet. Stanford players get it. They understand they will be part of history. Defensive back Ed Reynolds vividly recalls watching the 1998 Rose Bowl as a grade-schooler in North Carolina, seeing Michigan star Charles Woodson "running around with a rose in his mouth" after his team had beaten Washington State.
"You come out here to this school for the chance to play in this game," Reynolds said.
This game? Yes. Not the others. Even we Northern Californians, who inherently fathom that we live in the state's most superior region, are willing to concede that Southern California has gotten at least one thing right. And that would be the New Year's Day tradition that nestles in the Arroyo Seco of Pasadena. It trumps the setting and mojo of any other bowl game, anywhere.
I should note that the Cardinal seniors are uniquely qualified to back me up on this contention. This is their fourth consecutive trip to a Bowl Championship Series game. They played in the Orange Bowl three years ago, in the Fiesta Bowl two years ago and in the Rose Bowl last year. Consider this: Since the BCS system began in 1998, only five teams have played in four or more consecutive BCS bowls. The five are Miami, USC, Ohio State, Oregon ... and Stanford.
In other words, Tarpley and Gaffney and Reynolds belong to a small club. They can tell you why Wednesday's kickoff will be so different from other kickoffs. Stanford plays regular season games in the Rose Bowl stadium against UCLA because the venue serves as the Bruins' home field. And on Jan. 6, the BCS national championship game will be played in Pasadena. But neither of those experiences provide the true Rose Bowl feel. There will be no big, flowery parade in the morning. There will be no lazy, holiday-type tailgating throughout the day, no Tournament of Roses queen and her court waving to the crowd, no tradition that stretches back more than a century.
"You might have played a game in the same stadium before," Reynolds said. "But it is a completely different feeling when you run out of the tunnel and it's ... The ... Rose ... Bowl."
"It almost feels like a different stadium," agreed Stanford coach David Shaw. "You can always count on the Rose Bowl being the Rose Bowl. A lot of games have changed venues and changed sponsorships and all those things. This is the one that's been consistent."
He's right. The other big bowl games do pale in comparison. I've covered them all. The Sugar Bowl is a loud and raucous party beneath a dome in boozy New Orleans. The Orange Bowl is played at a remote pro football stadium far away from the Miami beachfront. The Fiesta Bowl is a long slog across the Arizona desert to reach a large metallic spaceship with comfortable amenities but no soul.
The Rose Bowl's official nickname, "The Granddaddy of Them All," is hopelessly corny. But it is exactly correct. On New Year's Day every year, the eyeballs of America find their way back to the 94,000-seat bowl in the spectacular postcard setting.
Retro? You bet. Even the hospitality shown the players each year smacks of something straight from the 1950s -- a day at Disneyland, a visit to Lawry's restaurant for a "Beef Bowl" dinner event, an outing to a Hollywood comedy nightclub. It's the sort of stuff you would think would induce a college kid of today to roll his eyes then don headphones and plug into his Xbox.
Stanford players, bless them, have instead chosen to embrace the tradition and the moment. May a stealth bomber chill their spines. May rose blooms fill their mouths. For the 100th time, "Granddaddy" is ready to hand out football gifts someone will never forget.