COLUMBUS - Earle Bruce is clearly no Martha Stewart, but the crusty former Ohio State coach grows roses in his garden, just like the famous horticultural maven. Roses mean a lot to Bruce, and not just for their brilliant hues and subtle perfume.
In the botanical plot in his mind, roses to Bruce signify what at Ohio State was traditionally the ultimate accomplishment - a trip to the Rose Bowl. This year, the Buckeyes are back in the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1996 season, and Bruce thinks that is still a very important matter.
"After the Michigan game, this was it. For the longest time, for any Ohio State player or coach, the Rose Bowl was the real grand prize in your season," Bruce said after the Buckeyes landed an invitation to the 2010 Rose Bowl by winning the Big Ten Conference title for a fifth straight time.
"That's changed some, since we got the BCS involved and they added the championship game, but I still want to impress on these kids who are playing here now just how important the Rose Bowl has been to so many players who were here before them. For many years, that was the goal - to get to the Rose Bowl."
Ohio State junior wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said most of the current Buckeyes know the tradition of the bowl game and how prominent the Rose Bowl is in Ohio State's rich history.
"A lot of us grew up hearing about the Rose Bowl and knowing it was very important, and you see evidence of that all over the place," he said. "We're really excited about playing in the Rose Bowl, and looking forward to the whole experience. Just the name 'Rose Bowl' has always meant so much in college football."
In 1946, the Big Ten and the Pac-10 conferences entered into an agreement to send their champions to play in the Rose Bowl. The game was the exclusive territory of those two leagues until 1999 when the Bowl Championship Series format was adopted.
Under the BCS guidelines, the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the final rankings of the regular season meet in the National Championship Game. Initially, the top four bowl games (Rose, Orange, Sugar, Fiesta) hosted the championship game on a rotating basis, and the format dictated that if the Big Ten or Pac-10 champion went to the title game, the Rose Bowl slots would be filled by other high-ranked teams.
In 2002, the Rose Bowl featured No. 1 Miami against No. 2 Nebraska for the national championship - the first time since 1947 that the Rose Bowl did not involve the Big Ten and Pac-10 champs. The following year, the Fiesta Bowl hosted the championship game, and the No. 2-rated Buckeyes beat No. 1 Miami 31-24 in two overtimes to win the title.
The BCS format was further tweaked in 2007 when a separate National Championship Game was added, to be hosted at the four traditional bowl sites on a rotating basis. Six days after Ohio State and Oregon meet in the 2010 Rose Bowl, Pasadena's Rose Bowl Stadium will host this season's national title game.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said the advent of the national championship game forced every program to add that as their top goal.
"Does the BCS compromise the excitement or the opportunity of going to the Rose Bowl ... no, but I suppose the BCS has added something to your overall thinking - something to your set of goals," Tressel said as the season neared completion.
"I think it would be hard - if you have the opportunity to earn a chance to play in that bowl game - to minimize the excitement of that. We haven't gone in a long time and it's an important thing to Ohio State. It's a big deal."
The Buckeyes' last trip to the Rose Bowl came in the 1996 season under then-head coach John Cooper, who led the No. 4 Buckeyes to a 20-17 win over No. 2 Arizona State.
In 1987 when he was the coach at Arizona State, Cooper took the Sun Devils to a 22-15 win over Big Ten co-champ Michigan.
"In both the Big Ten and the Pac-10, the Rose Bowl was the trophy everyone was after," Cooper said.
"You had to win your conference to get there, so it was quite an honor just to be part of it, with all of the Rose Bowl history and the pageantry involved. Winning the Rose Bowl was the ultimate. The BCS, of course, changed that somewhat, but I think it's still very attractive for any team, since there is so much tradition attached to the Rose Bowl."
Tressel has taken his team to a bowl game in all eight of his previous seasons in Columbus - including three trips to the national title game - but never to the Rose Bowl.
Most of the current Buckeyes, who clinched the Rose Bowl bid with their overtime win against Iowa in mid-November, were in elementary school the last time Ohio State played in the Rose Bowl game.
"None of our kids have gone to the Rose Bowl. I haven't been there in 25 years - since I was an assistant coach in the 1985 Rose Bowl,'' Tressel said. "There's nothing like it. It's a great feeling.''
Tressel was on Bruce's Ohio State staff in the 1984 season when the No. 6-ranked Buckeyes lost to No. 18 Southern California by a 20-17 score in the Rose Bowl. Tressel said that when he was growing up, everything else in his household came to a stop when it was time to watch the Rose Bowl, and it was an event he enjoyed with his late father Lee, who was then the head coach at Baldwin-Wallace.
"On January 1st in our house, it was two black-and-white TVs set up side-by-side, with that old 30-cup coffee machine going - that little silver thing - and my dad never got off the couch," Tressel said. "We were taking him coffee and switching the stations. I mean - shoot, you were living on January 1st."
The current Buckeyes expect the Rose Bowl will provide an experience they will carry with them the rest of their lives.
"The Rose Bowl just has a certain reputation as always being one of the best and the biggest bowls," Ohio State running back Dan Herron said after the Buckeyes closed the season with a win over Michigan.
"We're excited about doing the best job we can to prepare, and then going out there and representing the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl."
Ohio State's Rose Bowl opponent - Oregon - has not been to the Rose Bowl since the 1994 season when the Ducks lost to Penn State by a 38-20 score. Oregon clinched this year's Pac-10 Rose Bowl bid with Thursday night's win over rival Oregon State. Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli said it will take some time to digest the upcoming historic meeting with the Buckeyes.
"Guys were running around with roses in their mouths, and just really happy about it," Masoli said. "I guess it hasn't sunk in yet, but it will."
Oregon's first-year coach Chip Kelly said his team excitedly accepted the Rose Bowl invite in the moments following the win over their rivals and will soon get down to the business of preparing for the Buckeyes.
"It's an awesome feeling," Kelly said about winning the Pac-10 and taking his team to the Rose Bowl. "We'll get cracking. We know we're going to have to play against a really, really good Ohio State team. I know our players are excited about the opportunity ... we're not just happy to be in a bowl game. We want to win the bowl game."
Ohio State sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor said that after the victories over Iowa and
Michigan, and wining another Big Ten title, he is pleased that his coach and the team's seniors
will get to experience the Rose Bowl.
"I just kept on telling him 'coach, trust me, I'm going to get you there,'" Pryor said about the Rose Bowl. "I'm happy for the seniors and coach Tressel, and knowing how hard they've worked, I'm just happy to get them there. Coach Tressel's never been there [as head coach], and I'm really happy to help him get to Pasadena."
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Earle Bruce is clearly no Martha Stewart, but the crusty former Ohio State coach grows roses in his garden, just like the famous horticultural maven. Roses mean a lot to Bruce, and not just for their brilliant hues and subtle perfume. In the botanical plot in his mind, roses to Bruce signify what at Ohio State was traditionally the ultimate accomplishment - a trip to the Rose Bowl. This year, the Buckeyes are back in the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1996 season, and Bruce thinks that is still a very important matter.