Lewis: Sugar Bowl no longer guaranteed lofty status

Paul Hoolahan has endured enough barbs during his 17 years as the head of the Allstate Sugar Bowl to profess not to feel them anymore.

But the words of Alabama coach Nick Saban rationalizing the Crimson Tide’s 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in last season’s game still had to sting: “It’s hard trying to get them to play in a consolation game.”

Consolation game? The Sugar Bowl with its 80-year history where more national championships have been decided than any other venue during that span, including two for teams coached by Saban?

“I totally appreciate the context in which those words were flowing,” Hoolahan diplomatically countered without mentioning that Alabama had laid a bigger egg under similar stances in the 2008 game against Utah. “I don’t have a problem with what he said.”

Still, Saban’s words rang true.

In the new world of the College Football Playoff, the Sugar Bowl, one of the sport’s traditional “Big Four,” has been largely reduced to a consolation game — pitting the top teams from the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12 that don’t make the Football Four.

When you’re Alabama, anything else is a consolation game.

And since never in the just-concluded 16-year history of the BCS was there neither an SEC or Big 12 team in the top four, the term “Champions Bowl,” which was applied to the game during the bidding process, is pretty much a misnomer. The Sugar Bowl won’t even have its time-honored say in selecting the teams are as the leagues retained that right.

Of course, we won’t really know how this plays out until the 2015.

This season, and three more times over the next 12 years, the Sugar Bowl is one of two semifinal games (the other is the Rose Bowl) being played on New Year’s Day with the winners advancing to the national championship game 11 days later in at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

But whether that title game ever comes to New Orleans is up in the air.

Under the BCS system, the Sugar Bowl was guaranteed to be the host of the title game every four years, but that event is now part of a separate bidding process by potential host cities.

And in light of New Orleans losing out to Phoenix and Tampa for the 2016 and 2017 title games, Hoolahan is now saying he isn’t certain about the financial feasibility of biding on future ones.

“For as long as the Sugar Bowl has been in existence, we’ve punched above our weight to remain relevant,” he said. “And certainly during the life of the BCS, with all of its tweaking, things worked out for the best for us.

“But unfortunately, this has become a dog-eat-dog world.”

And the Sugar Bowl doesn’t have the bite it used to.

Blame in part the negative public perception about the bowls that developed in the waning years of the BCS, particularly the Fiesta Bowl, where chief executive John Junker ultimately drew an eight-month sentence for illegal campaign finance dealings, one of six bowl employees to be caught up in the scandal.

The Sugar Bowl drew lesser criticism, but the damage was done when it came to negotiating with the Power Conferences over the financial setup of the CFP.

“We were dealing with some very complex issues, and all of a sudden it’s ‘Oh, look at how much money the bowls are making,’ ” Hoolahan said. “We lost the sound-bite war. “We used to have a seat at the table and had input into the final decision-making. Now, we’re basically just a venue for the games.”

When, as the Sugar Bowl has over the year, you feel that you are responsible for helping make college football what it is today, that can’t go down well, even when viewed as just a change in the way business is done.

Still, the membership, at Hoolahan’s urging, felt it was necessary to land the Champions Bowl, if only to retain its spot among the top tier of bowl games.

Playing the game on prime time on New Year’s is a particular point of pride for Hoolahan.

“The Rose Bowl is our lead-in,” he likes to say.

Cotton Bowl CEO Rick Baker recently expressed envy for the Sugar Bowl, saying, “We’ve been trying for 20 years to get back to their level.

“We’re a little more humble and appreciative now. It’s different for the Sugar Bowl.”

So all is not doom-and-gloom for the Sugar Bowl, at least for this year.

The CFP is treating the semifinal games like the teams’ bowls games, meaning they will arrive early, presumably with fans in tow.

And in those non-semifinal years, a high-level pairing between two power-league teams is assured.

A preview of the new order was on display last season when Oklahoma met Alabama.

The Sooners certainly didn’t treat coming to New Orleans as a consolation prize.

Maybe next time neither will Alabama.