DETROIT — Lloyd Carr still remembers the first time he heard about plans to create a college football bowl game to be played in Detroit starting in the late 1990s.
“I remember thinking, ‘That is never going to happen,’” the former University of Michigan football coach said recently.
Carr was not alone in that thinking. At that time, 15 bowl games were anchored in sunny climes; in fact, a bowl game had been played at the Pontiac Silverdome roughly 10 years earlier — and gone under after just two years.
That never deterred the brain trust of the bowl now known as the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Carr, now on the bowl’s board of directors, and a number of other doubters will be able to watch the 17th edition of the game today at Ford Field.
It was an idea that began to germinate for Ken Hoffman, now the bowl’s CEO and executive director, in the early 1990s. He joined George Perles, the former Michigan State coach who now is the bowl’s CEO emeritus, in discussions with then-Mid-American-Conference commissioner Karl Benson about the possibility of a Detroit bowl.
The reason Hoffman felt a bowl would work in Detroit is the same reason the number of bowls has expanded to 35 today, with more on the horizon. And the reason goes well beyond playing a football game.
“It’s because of the impact and the benefit events like this bowl can bring to a community,” Hoffman said. “There’s clearly an economic impact in terms of jobs created during the holiday season, especially in service industries like hotels and restaurants.
“People come into the community and spend dollars, and that’s of significant economic impact to a community.”
The bowl originally was called the Ford Motor City Bowl, and in its 1997 debut more than 43,000 fans were at the Silverdome to watch Ole Miss outlast Marshall 34-31. The next season Ford was joined as a sponsor by GM and Chrysler, a story that Hoffman said reveals the bowls’ core values.
“George Perles and I sat down with the president of Ford at that time, Ross Roberts,” Hoffman said. “I clearly remember Roberts saying, ‘Would you mind if I called GM and Chrysler to get them involved?’
“Would we mind? We said, ‘No’ as fast as we could, Ross made two phone calls — one to GM, one to Chrysler — and it was done.”
Hoffman enjoys that story because it shows the spirit of cooperation that he said is a hallmark of the bowl.
“Our idea all along was to get the three major automakers, who all have their world headquarters in this town, to hold hands and work together in the city where they live,” he said.
From its beginning the bowl partnered with the Mid-American Conference to provide one of its participants.
“For a long time, this bowl was the only bowl relationship the Mid-American Conference had,” league commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said.
“They were there and were involved with the MAC from the start, and that’s special stuff.”
As time passed and the MAC developed arrangements with other bowls, Steinbrecher said the bowl always has worked hand-in-hand with the league.
“This bowl has always looked at the ‘regionality’ of its participants, and used that as a strong consideration [when picking teams],” he said. “They have looked at teams participating in the bowl as good regional partners.
“There also have been times they have been willing to work with the MAC to facilitate more bowl opportunities for the league. They certainly have been a good partner to work with.”
The bowl moved from the Silverdome to Ford Field in 2002, but game remained intact.
In 2009 Little Caesars Pizza became the bowl’s title sponsor after General Motors and Chrysler reorganized under bankruptcy protection, and the game kept humming.
All of that progress was threatened this summer, though, when the Detroit Lions and Big Ten Conference announced plans to bring a bowl game to Ford Field starting in 2014.
The Lions, who operate Ford Field, have not provided much public support for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl returning next year, while the Big Ten has failed to live up to its commitment to provide a bowl participant in all but three of the 12 seasons the league has been aligned with the bowl.
Still, Hoffman hopes the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl continues beyond this season.
“We haven’t had any time to feel anything but excitement about this year’s game,” he said. “No matter what happens, we are happy and proud for what this game has meant to the city of Detroit and the surrounding community."