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John Blanchette: Bowl critics should be realistic, join the party

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 27, 2018, 9:26 p.m.

SAN ANTONIO – Any canoe ride up the murky creek of social media tells us that the bowl system must die and that the playoff field must expand, and that seemed perfectly reasonable until it came time to board the plane out of Spokane.

In front of a guy in a 1994 Builders Square Alamo Bowl windbreaker, in rich Washington State crimson.

Vintage. Impressive.

Not only had the garment outlasted Builders Square’s corporate sponsorship of the game, but the company itself – in two different incarnations. To say nothing of 24 years between Cougar appearances in the event.

Memories must have been made for it to be such a keeper.

By contrast, who’s going to faithfully preserve any “College Football Playoff Quarterfinals” apparel in their closet? Fess up – that tee will be a painting shirt within six months.

It’s a subtle pull, but not one to be dismissed. Sure, having the Cougs in a 16-team tournament for a real prize instead of a bowl game against Iowa State would have been priceless – except for the fan who would have had to pony up for a plane ticket and a hotel room in Oklahoma for the quarters, and then fetch himself to Atlanta or Orlando or San Antonio a week later.

So, no, the bowls must live, in some form.

Where else were 25,000 Iowans going to go this week?

The Cyclones were just 24th in the final CFP ratings and thus wouldn’t have qualified for even an expanded playoff, and yet it won’t be until Friday’s 6 p.m. kickoff that Wazzu can get them on equal footing.

“We need all the help we can get,” sighed one Cougar supporter, shuffling into Thursday’s bowl luncheon in a knot of maybe 30 Iowans.

Quarterback Gardner Minshew tried to provide it at Wednesday’s pep rally for both schools, concocting an instant meme when told the assembly, “We’ve lost two games this year, but we haven’t lost a party!”

Except the Cougs already had. It’s a volume endeavor, Gards.

Noted sociologist Mike Leach, who did three years launching the Air Raid at little Iowa Wesleyan in the early stages of his hopscotch resume, warmed to the phenomenon on Thursday when he called the state “a fascinating place.

“This is going to happen in this bowl, too,” he said. “Folks from Iowa, they’d be going somewhere really cool. They’d be heading to, I don’t know, Disneyland. Yeah, we’re going to go to Disneyland, see what all that Mickey Mouse stuff is all about. Then when it was time to go, they’d be at the airport a couple of hours before the plane left. They’re on the plane, get back there, then they go to Maid-Rite or something once they get back, have their coffee.

“They’ll say, ‘Yeah, we went down there to that Orlando area, went to Disneyland, a little of that. It was nice. Ain’t nothing like Iowa, though. Ain’t nothing like Iowa.’ ”

There must be something to that.

There are lots of reasons the Cougs are so outnumbered on the Riverwalk – travel distance and cost, some residual disgust from being left out of the New Year’s Six mix and even the fact that bowling has become an every year thing. Still, for it to be such a struggle to peddle their allotment of 6,000 tickets – there’s even been a donate-to-the-military movement – speaks again to the challenge facing WSU athletic director Pat Chun, even in the wake of all this football success.

Leach’s teams have won 36 games in four years and though another rabbit must be pulled out of the helmet at quarterback, sustaining that pace next fall is hardly a stretch.

And yet how does the program grow?

Chun’s operation remains buried under budget debt left from his predecessor building all the baubles the Cougs purportedly required just to “keep up.” No new TV money is in sight until the Pac-12 can negotiate new deals in 2024. And his football team is filling Martin Stadium to 96 percent of its 32,592 capacity the last three years, with 12 sellouts.

Build more seats? With $68 million in debt already – and no waiting list demanding supply?

Ho ho. Good one.

Parallels have been drawn between the two programs meeting here this week and, yes, there are some – fellow land-grant schools and similar enrollments (if you throw in WSU’s satellites) in similar markets. ISU’s is slightly bigger, and its major population draw is 35 miles closer.

But that modest distance hardly explains a stadium nearly double the size of Martin, filled with an average of 56,000 fans this season – for a school that has had just 10 winning seasons in the past 40 years, and never a conference title. Now they have a football program getting its footing under coach Matt Campbell – and probably $27 million more in TV revenue to spend than the Cougs over the next five years.

Doesn’t mean the Cyclones will find themselves in the playoff any sooner than the Cougs. But the party will go on.

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