Opinion: Notre Dame's Brian Kelly is right. It's time for college football to stop worshiping the Rose Bowl.

Dan Wolken

Even as college football has modernized, nationalized and become less emotionally tied to the nonsensical system that determined its champion until 2014, the power brokers who run the sport have engaged in a long-running colossal failure to remove the sport from the vise grip of the Rose Bowl. 

In fact, they’ve barely even tried.

There are a lot of things that make no sense about the College Football Playoff in its current iteration. Many of them would be eliminated if conference commissioners and college presidents had the chutzpah to tell the Rose Bowl to take its Jan. 1 kickoff time and its perfect sunset and shove it. 

Instead, the Rose Bowl has been allowed to dictate so much for so long, that even in a year where it makes zero sense to play a semifinal there in an empty stadium, the College Football Playoff has been so tepid and slow to react that schools who might be assigned to the location are openly saying they don’t want to go and even threatening to pull out of the Playoff altogether. 

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly popped off about the Rose Bowl on Friday.

“I’m not sure we’ll play in the playoffs if the parents can’t be there,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told reporters Friday before the ACC championship game, referring to COVID-19 restrictions in Los Angeles County that for now mandate no fans at sports stadiums. “Why would we play if you can’t have families at the game? If you can’t have families at bowl games, why would you go to a game where your families can’t be a part of it? What's the sense of playing a game in an area of the country where nobody can be part of it?” 

While the threat of Notre Dame pulling out of the Playoff seems, shall we say, a bit over the top, Kelly’s point is merely the public manifestation of a problem that has been roiling within college sports for weeks. 

It has been obvious for a while that this College Football Playoff — just like the last several — would not include a team west of Texas. Given the case numbers and restrictions in California that are more severe than other places in the country and the fact that semifinal road trips are being reduced to just a couple days, it makes absolutely no sense for a team like Clemson, Ohio State or Notre Dame to fly across the country and play at a Rose Bowl with no fans. Especially when family members will be allowed for the teams that play in the other semifinal at the Sugar Bowl and the national championship game in Miami. 

The practical thing to do would be for the Rose Bowl to either move to another location for one year or simply bow out. Of course, there are contracts, significant financial considerations and longstanding relationships involved. But when you start naming all the major sporting events that have been moved or canceled this year on short notice, are we really to believe that only the Rose Bowl is immune from a one-time disruption?

“It makes no sense to me to put a bunch of kids on a plane and fly them all the way to California to play in an empty stadium,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told reporters Friday. “That makes zero sense when you have plenty of stadiums where you can have fans and, most importantly, you can have families. It should be the same for all four teams as far as the opportunity that you have. This year everybody has had to make adjustments. To me, that would be a simple one to make.”

To this point, the CFP’s game plan has been to work with local health officials in an attempt to get an exemption for friends and family to attend the game. CFP executive director Bill Hancock released a statement earlier this week to that effect but said the plan was still to play the game in Pasadena. 

The comments by Swinney and Kelly bring the pressure campaign to another level, and perhaps the noise surrounding the issue will be enough to force some action in California. 

At the same time, expecting health officials who are dealing with a massive coronavirus surge to make policy exemptions for the sake of a football game is not a reasonable strategy.

And that’s where the CFP has failed. 

From the very beginning, the priority here should have been to make it as easy and as safe as possible for the teams to compete. There is no scenario under which the Rose Bowl fits into that equation this year, and the CFP should have seen this conflict coming from a mile away. As I suggested several weeks ago, the sensible thing would have been to bring all four teams to one centrally located city and put them in a semi-bubble for a couple weeks to make sure the games get played.

Instead, we’re sitting two days before the Playoff bracket gets announced and two weeks before the game and we’re talking about whether the Rose Bowl needs to move to a different city.

If there’s a silver lining here, maybe this fiasco will make college athletics officials question why they have let the Rose Bowl dictate so many things about their postseason. The rigidity of the Rose Bowl’s time slot — 5 p.m. ET kickoff on Jan. 1, per the contract — has pretty much made it impossible for the CFP to land on favorable dates in the years where the Rose Bowl isn’t a semifinal host. College football, a multi-billion dollar business, has subjugated its best interests to a sunset and a parade. 

“We’re worshiping the ashes of tradition,” Kelly said. “That can be the only reason.” 

Suddenly, that acquiescence is holding the sport hostage at the worst possible moment. And time is running out to fix it.