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Running the Rose Bowl: Age-old tradition confronts a changing college football climate

With long-stemmed roses firmly planted in the mouths of almost every grinning Oregon Duck, a symbol that celebrates a trip to the Rose Bowl, Gina Chappin prepared to repeat the process 24 hours later.

A couple hours after the Ducks defeated the UCLA Bruins, 49-31, in the Pac-12 Championship on Dec. 2, Chappin, the director of media for the Rose Bowl Game , hopped a red-eye to Indianapolis with Rose Bowl president Rick Jackson to greet the Big Ten champion later that evening.

Chappin slept for just two hours after landing in Indianapolis at 5 a.m. on Dec. 3. It didn’t affect her mood during the second quarter of the Big Ten Championship, however, when she sat at a table in the back of the press box at Lucas Oil Stadium smiling and upbeat.

There was more than a half of football to be played, which meant Chappin had a chance to catch her breath.

“It’s nice to be part of the postgame celebration with both sides because we can actually say, ‘See you in Pasadena. This is our official invitation,’” Chappin said.

“In years past, we kinda had to say, ‘We hope to see you in Pasadena,’ because we could lose them to the [BCS] championship game.”

There was no hesitation this year when No. 11 Wisconsin booked its second consecutive  trip to Pasadena with a 42-39 win over No. 15 Michigan State. Immediately after the game, Chappin accompanied Jackson on the field as he handed out dozens of roses to the Badgers.

The organized chaos hasn’t stopped. Until Wisconsin and Oregon meet in the Rose Bowl on Monday, Chappin won’t have much time to sit and relax.

Sign of the times

This is a different era for the “Granddaddy of Them All,” the nickname sportscaster Keith Jackson made famous for the oldest bowl game in America. The Rose Bowl is lush with tradition, but it’s trying to keep up with the times.

It added a sponsor 12 years ago to fall in line with the other BCS bowls. And this year, the qualification process was simplified when the Big Ten and Pac-12, the game’s two anchor conferences, announced each would start playing a championship game. If a conference champion isn’t ranked Nos. 1 or 2 in the BCS standings, it receives an automatic bid to the Rose Bowl.

Gone are tiebreakers and controversy. Hello to playing it out on the field.

That transition took time getting used to for people associated with the Rose Bowl. Chappin said one of her toughest challenges was educating the membership that the debates were over – the conference champions would play in Pasadena.

Southern Cal won the Pac-12 South but wasn’t allowed to play for the conference’s automatic bid to the Rose Bowl because of NCAA sanctions, which meant second-place UCLA faced Oregon instead.

During the week before the Pac-12 Championship, people inside the Rose Bowl were still questioning whether UCLA could play in their game. If UCLA upset Oregon, the Bruins would have been the first team with more than four losses to play in the Rose Bowl, Chappin said.

“For a bowl game that’s been around 97 years, to have this kind of change is fairly significant,” she said. “We were a certain way for a long time, but we also recognize that we need to change with the times also, to keep our game relevant and keep it interesting.

“We all have learned the conferences are going to move ahead with or without a lot of things, and we don’t need to be left out of that – not to say they would leave us out. But we know that we need to be flexible in their plans as they move forward.”

Coincidence that both schools started championship game in the same year? Yes, said Scott Chipman, the Big Ten assistant commissioner for communications, but it was the best-case scenario for the Rose Bowl.

“I think it probably worked out pretty well that it happened in the same year,” Chappin said. “We have this term that we use for everything, ‘Like for Like.’ What we do for one team, we do for the other.”

From the amenities in the players’ hotel rooms to the number of roses given to each team to the ribbons wrapped around those roses, the Rose Bowl wants to give each team equal treatment. The inaugural conference championships upheld the Rose Bowl’s “Like for Like” motto because bowl officials could attend both games.

“I think it would have been a little awkward if one side had that extra exposure and the additional game and the other side didn’t,” Chappin said.

Run for the roses

The Big Ten used to value tradition as highly as the Rose Bowl.

Before the league expanded in 2011 to include Nebraska as its 12th team, football ended the weekend before Thanksgiving. It didn’t matter that the 50-day layoff after the regular season made it challenging for Ohio State to stay sharp going into the 2007 and 2008 national title games, Chappin could start working before the tryptophan wore off.

That was how Bo and Woody did it, so that’s how it was going to be done.

And it actually made Chappin’s job a lot easier. She used to have a week to prepare for the Big Ten champion and then put a week into preparing for what was the Pac-10 champ.

This year, Chappin lost seven days of work. Sitting in the press box at the Big Ten Championship, Chappin predicted college football’s Selection Sunday would be her busiest day next to the Rose Bowl itself.

It didn’t disappoint.

The day after the Big Ten Championship, she left Indianapolis on a 6 a.m. flight – 3 a.m. Pasadena time – and went straight to the office after landing. She started making phone calls, writing emails and planning until the Rose Bowl continued another tradition by hosting its BCS Selection Sunday Party in a tent on the lawn outside its office. After the party, Chappin had to go back to work, booking hotels, meeting rooms, banquet rooms, meals and excursions. She didn’t leave the office until 11 p.m. Pasadena time – 2 a.m. in Indianapolis.

The week after the conference championships, the travel parties from Wisconsin and Oregon flew to Pasadena for joint meetings. The Rose Bowl takes its “Like for Like” motto seriously.

“We want to make sure our first official meeting with the schools are in the same room,” Chappin said.

After touring the game and hotel facilities, and nailing down travel details, Rose Bowl officials took each school out to dinner separately. Then it was on the road again for Chappin and the Rose Bowl delegation.

Three days in Madison, Wis., were followed by three days in Eugene, Ore. The routine was the same for both schools: going over the game manual, taking pictures for credentials, talking to the media and giving the players a chance to go through the Rose Bowl’s gift suite.

According to NCAA rules, bowls are allowed to give players up to $550 worth of gifts. Instead of having travel coordinators ship the gifts back to campus, the Rose Bowl brings the gifts to the players. This year the Rose Bowl has a six-point system, awarding points to gifts based on their value and size. The “lineman” recliner leather chair is worth all six points, Chappin said. Players also had the opportunity to take home a custom bike, a Vizio flat-screen TV and Beats by Dr. Dre headphones.

“It’s our first chance to show them what they’re going to experience when they come,” Chappin said. “We just started this going out to the school and doing this whole whirlwind, but it really works out because our main goal when the teams get to town is for them to focus on the game.”

Staying true to their “Like for Like” motto, the Rose Bowl delegation went through the same routine, spending Dec. 12-14 in Eugene, Ore.

By the time the teams arrived in Pasadena earlier this week, Chappin was running on fumes. She’s averaging about three hours of sleep after making more than 75 phone calls and writing more than 500 emails each day .

She worked both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve won’t be much different when she works a Rose Bowl event.

When the game kicks off at 5:10 p.m. on Monday, Chappin will take a deep breath.

She will finally be able to stop and smell the roses.

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