Dr. Robert Shelton brings a unique perspective on bowls, having sat on both side of the bowl process. He’s been both a bowl executive and a high-ranking administrator at successful FBS schools. He joined the Fiesta Bowl as its executive director in June, 2011 after 5 years as president of the University of Arizona that followed years in administration at North Carolina and the University of California. He was kind enough to take a few minutes on Tuesday to bring us inside the bowl decision making process and to detail Northwestern’s bowl resume.
Below are some highlights of our chat with him… (And a special thanks to Purple Mafia member Andrew Bagnato for making this interview happen.)
BK: Take us inside that room when the decisions are being made. What are the most important factors a bowl committee looks at in selecting teams? How and when are the decisions made to extend an invitation?
RS: The factors that we look at are quality of the team, their win/loss record, and the quality of the opposition that they’ve played. Certainly, Northwestern, in this case, comes up with trumps. They have a great win loss record, and they’ve been in every game, even the ones they lost in the fourth quarter. That’s really a big plus for them. Secondly, we look at matchups – this year, for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, we have Big Ten and Big 12. We want to see what kind of matchup might attract not only fans from the schools that participate, but also catch the local interest. And then third, we look and see which teams’ fans are excited about their team this year. Is the team exceeding expectations? Is the team below expectations? Some teams, 8-3 is a phenomenal year, some teams 8-3 is a disappointing year. So, we look to see what kind of fan interest there is, and that’s going to affect how well they travel. So those are three factors we take into account when we look at teams to invite to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
BK: Is there any one factor that plays a great role than others? Size of fan base? Win-loss record? Travel? Larger appeal? Matchup?
RS: I don’t know that there’s any one factor that trumps anything else, at least not in this case. In the Fiesta Bowl, we take the Big 12 champion, so that factor obviously trumps everything else. But in this case, we’re looking at just exactly what you mentioned – what kind of fan base they have, how well they’ve done this year, the excitement around them, are they on an upswing as opposed to a downfall. Northwestern, since I know this specific to Northwestern interest, would be an extraordinary team here for all those reasons, and the fact that they have a lot of alumni here in the Greater Phoenix area.
BK: You just touched on this a bit, but digging a little bit deeper… How would you describe Northwestern’s bowl resume? What are their positives? Negatives? How attractive would they be to you?
RS: I have to say… I don’t see a whole lot of negatives at this point, unless, of course, you want to go to the Rose Bowl (laughs). But, 8-3, with some really excellent victories that they have. And, in some ways, their losses are just as impressive – Nebraska… they were ahead of Penn State in the 4th quarter… They are not only beating a lot of good teams, they are hanging tough with those iconic names coming out of the Big Ten. You couple that with an excited fan base – it’s all upside for Northwestern.
BK: Northwestern’s two most exciting players, Kain Colter and Venric Mark, have each been dealing with injuries over the last few weeks. How important would injuries to key players near the end of the season be in evaluating a team’s credentials for your games?
RS: It is a consideration, but one that I think is secondary or even tertiary. Part of it is, you can’t really predict, unless they are out for the season, because there is long time between the end of the regular season and when a bowl game occurs. So, your star player has a chance to get healthy again. So, unless there is something really exceptional – a team that relies totally on one player and then that player sustains an injury and then he’s out for the season – I don’t think that factor comes into play in any significant way.
BK: This is a question fans raise every year. What might make a bowl select a team with a worse record over another? For instance, let’s use the case of Northwestern. Let’s say Northwestern finishes the season 9-3, Wisconsin finishes the season 8-4 and then goes to the Big Ten Championship Game, but Wisconsin is selected ahead of Northwestern for a bowl game. Fans of Northwestern might say “we have a better record, so we should go to the higher ranked bowl game.”
RS: I think in general, we know that the record doesn’t tell the whole story. Strength of schedule is an important one as well. If you’re looking at two Big Ten teams, their strength of schedule is going to be very, very similar in most cases. Another factor that comes into play on taking a team with a slightly inferior record, maybe one more loss or one less win, is whether that team has been to the same bowl multiple times, the old “bowl fatigue” factor. So, if Northwestern had been out here two years out of three, or three years out of four, then we might say “Look, they and their fans are tired of our unmatched hospitality and great weather that we have in Phoenix, let’s give them a shot to go somewhere else.” Those are the factors, really – looking at the comparison of schedules, strength of schedules, and whether one team is going to the same bowl multiple times in a short period of time.
BK: You’ve seen this from both sides, both as a bowl executive and in your days at the University of Arizona and North Carolina. Besides the game, what do the players enjoy the most about the bowl experience?
RS: I’ve had a chance to go to multiple bowl games when I was at North Carolina, the Final Four when I was at North Carolina, multiple bowl games at Arizona, and of course experienced it from the bowl executive side last year. I sense, and in talking with a lot of the student athletes, they really enjoy seeing a new area. They enjoy the social experiences that they have here, the dinners that we put on for them, the organizations that they get to meet. They like seeing a different part of the country. We really go all out in taking care of them, and not just giving them things. The NCAA regulates what kind of gifts they can have. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about new experiences that they have here, whether it’s going and meeting members of the Boys and Girls Club, making visits to local hospitals, or just the kinds of dinners and galas that we put on for them. That I think it really what distinguishes a bowl game from, let’s say, the new model that will be the championship game. It will be a game where you fly in the day before, you practice, you have your game, you fly out the next day. We spend a lot of time and volunteers to make those experiences strong for these players. And, I’m very pleased that in the new BCS configuration, all of the kids are going to have a chance to get a bowl experience.
BK: What would you say is the biggest misconception about the bowl selection process?
RS: I think people assign us in the bowls more power than we actually have. We feel properly constrained to do the right thing, and that is to invite a team that has earned it on the field and whose fans are excited about coming. They recognize this will be a great experience for everybody who attends the game, as opposed to any secondary, indirect thoughts about whether it’s going to profit the bowl in some way. We’re here to put on a great experience for the players and the fans, that’s what we’re all about. Now we do have a meeting of our governing board, we scheduled that for the 29th of this year, right before Selection Sunday. At that point, we should have a list of possible invitees to both of our bowls and the governing board thrashes that around and then gives me guidance on how to prioritize our selections for both bowls. So, that’s the way it works formally for us.
BK: What is one thing you might change about the bowls, having seen it now from both sides?
RS: My concern going forward really focuses on the financials and how to avoid a bidding war for teams, when in fact, it really should be a more straightforward “you’ve earned it on the field” kind of thing. I don’t think this is a serious problem, but, you know, we’re going into a new era in two years and there’s a lot of new money on the table. I think all of the bowl organizations need to think about where they are, not so much in providing funds to conferences, but in providing experiences for the student athletes.
BK: Where do you see Northwestern ending up this year, and I take it there’s not much chance of Northwestern ending up in Arizona at this point?
RS: I would be less than candid if I didn’t say I’m worried that one of the bowls that selects higher [than the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl] would take Northwestern, but I’m not giving up on that. We still want them very much to think about Glendale and Phoenix. We’re not shy about saying that you’re going to have a better experience here than anywhere else. But, if someone picks sooner than us, that means they’re going to Florida.
BK: Final question… I’d probably be remiss if I didn’t ask this one, given the “evolution” that has gone on in the Big Ten over the last few days, with Maryland and Rutgers on their way to the Big Ten. What do you think of Maryland and Rutgers joining the Big Ten? What do you think it means for college football, the future of conferences, etc.?
RS: I always try to avoid overreacting. I can understand the Big Ten’s motivation. They’re getting some TV sets there on the East Coast, so I certainly wouldn’t fault them for that. As someone that’s spent a lot of time in the ACC, it really pains me to see Maryland leaving that conference. I think it is yet one more example of how basketball is being pushed down by the power of football. Don’t get me wrong. I admire both sports, and the people that play them and that coach them. Maybe I’m a bit too much of a traditionalist, but I’m sorry to see Maryland make that move.
BK: Anything else you’d like to say before we go?
RS: Congratulations to the Wildcats for their season so far. I’ll just repeat that we remain very interested in them.
Watching the Bowl Watchers
Big thanks to Dr. Shelton for taking the time to chat with us and take us behind the scenes of the bowl decision making process. Now we jump to the latest Northwestern bowl projections for Northwestern from the guestimators we’ve been following over the last few weeks. We spent a lot of time yesterday analyzing the possibilities and scenarios, so we won’t rehash too much of that here. One interesting point… we spent a lot of time over the last several days researching and clarifying the Big Ten’s bowl rules, especially the “two-loss rule.” To make a very long story short, losses in the Big Ten Championship Game do count within this rule. (Check out the post from Tuesday where we give the full explanation and breakdown.) Given that, unless the six guestimators who project Northwestern to the Gator Bowl are presuming a Northwestern loss to Illinois, I’m not sure I can agree with their Gator Bowl projection. As we said yesterday, if Northwestern beats Illinois, they will finish 9-3. If Wisconsin does not win the Big Ten Championship Game, which none of the Northwestern-to-the-Gator-Bowl projectors are suggesting, the best record they can finish with is 8-5. Yet, these guestimators have Wisconsin going to the Outback Bowl over Northwestern. By rule, and based on what we’ve been told, the Outback Bowl could not select Wisconsin over Northwestern because Northwestern would have two fewer losses than Wisconsin, unless the Big Ten sent a second team to the BCS (which none of them are projecting), in which case, the rule would not apply to the Outback Bowl.
Note that changes (or lack thereof) from last time are marked in parentheses.
Outback Bowl, January 1, Tampa, FL
- Jerry Palm/CBSsports.com, vs.South Carolina (moved up from Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl) / has Wisconsin in Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl
- CollegeFootballNews.com, vs. South Carolina (moved up from Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl) / has Wisconsin in Rose Bowl, Nebraska in Capital One Bowl, Michigan in Gator Bowl
- Stewart Mandel/SI.com, vs. Georgia (moved up from Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl) / has Wisconsin in Gator Bowl in Gator Bowl
Gator Bowl, January 1, Jacksonville, FL
- Brad Edwards/ESPN.com, vs. Mississippi State (no change) / has Wisconsin in Outback Bowl
- Mark Schlabach/ESPN.com, vs. Mississippi State (no change) / has Wisconsin in Outback Bowl
- Matt Murschel/Orlando Sentinel, vs. Mississippi State (no change) / has Wisconsin in Outback Bowl
- Paul Myerberg/USATODAY, vs. Mississippi State (was vs. South Carolina) / has Wisconsin in Outback Bowl
- Erick Smith/USATODAY, vs. Mississippi State (moved up from Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl) / has Wisconsin in Outback Bowl
- Phil Steele, vs. Mississippi State (moved up from Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl) / has Wisconsin in Outback Bowl