I think those of us who care about this kind of thing owe a debt of gratitude today to a man by the name of Harriman Cronk.
He just sold the Rose Bowl, without selling the bowl's soul.
Throw this guy a bouquet.
Cronk is the chairman of the Tournament of Roses' football committee. I figure this makes him the second most powerful person in Pasadena, behind whoever's in charge of Rose Parade cleanup.
A few mornings ago, it was announced that the 96-year-old Rose Bowl game would be "presented"--as opposed to "sponsored"--by AT&T;, a company that traditionally has been associated with college football for about as long as I traditionally have been associated with Demi Moore.
AT&T; will pay $19 million annually.
It can afford it. I made 10 calls all month, but my bill for June was a little under $18 million.
Anyway, AT&T; gets to bankroll the 1999 game. It is the first time our beautiful Rose Bowl has had a patron saint.
(Or a matron, in Ma Bell's case.)
Unlike at other holiday games, however, the "sponsor's" name will not be plastered all over the place.
"They know they're not going to cover my field with a bunch of stuff," Cronk stated, literally standing his ground.
In my book, this makes Harriman Cronk the toughest man in Rose Bowl history.
Because the others just played football.
He played hardball.
I knew collegiate sports were changing the first time I heard about the Poulan Weed Eater Bowl.
I didn't know who Poulan was, nor why he ate his weeds. All I knew is that he had his own bowl game.
Like a lot of people, my New Year's Days were spent around a TV set, eating Chex mix and watching a bunch of college boys play football.
Our choices were simple then: Sugar Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl.
It was golf that had the funny sponsorships. We'd sit around and hear a TV voice tell us, "Stay tuned for the Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open." Or, other times, "Coming right up: The Andy Williams Shearson Lehman Bros. San Diego Classic."
College football was pure.
I particularly enjoyed the Rose Bowl game, right after the Rose Parade. Out there in Pasadena, a parade had 1,000 floats, 1,000 horses and 1,000 girls twirling 1,000 batons, it seemed to me. In my town, a parade was five guys from the VFW and a six-man band playing "Alley Cat."
Years later, I visited Pasadena.
The weather was nice, the lawns were nice, the people were nice. I couldn't believe how clean and neat everything was. I remember telling people back home, "Pasadena is so nice, even the motorcycle gangs dress well. They tie the sleeves of their leather jackets around their necks."
In time, I went to most of the major bowls. I went to a Gator, a Peach, a Bluebonnet, even an Aloha.
None was as nice as Pasadena's.
One day, a game called the Sun Bowl got sponsored by an insurance company. It became the John Hancock Sun Bowl, but when nobody would call it that they dropped the "Sun" part.
I found myself at a Federal Express Orange Bowl and a Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. I saw one called an Outback Steakhouse Bowl, which was tricky. I kept calling it an Outhouse Steakback Bowl.
And then came that Weed Eater thing.
(Picture a poor grandpa, telling a grandchild how he once got to play in the prestigious Poulan Weed Eater Bowl.)
Well, that was the last straw.
I knew the bowls needed money, which meant corporate sponsors. I knew for our pure, impeccable Rose Bowl, it was only a matter of time.
I just didn't want it to end up the Ty-D-Bol Rose Bowl, or the Chock Full o' Nuts Rose Bowl, or some such thing.
A game in Hawaii got a sponsor a few years ago: a restaurant chain, Hooters.
Be glad those people didn't call Harriman Cronk.
AT&T; struck a deal, but Cronk nevertheless said, "We violently were, and still are, against a title sponsor." Therefore, he will permit no AT&T; patches on the players' uniforms, no AT&T; ads on the field, no "AT&T; anywhere around" the stadium gates, he said.
Cronk's only got one problem now.
Every night, callers will be bothering him at home, asking if he'd like to switch to MCI or Sprint.
Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.