The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl will close an era Jan. 2 with its 35th annual game. The bowl that was created to give Arizona State University a postseason date, and grew into one of the nation’s top sporting events, is staging its final game at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe.
The game is set to move into the new NFL stadium in Glendale next season. The decision came down to business, rather than passion.
The Fiesta Bowl needs the highend amenities at the $430 million Cardinals Stadium to remain on the rotation for college national title games, said Arizona Sports Foundation president and CEO John Junker.
The new stadium is scheduled to open for the NFL season in August.
"It’s a slam to the ego more than anything," said former Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano. "Tempe residents and business owners in the very early years built that game from nothing."
Indeed, the Fiesta Bowl has had a wild 35-year run that energized the ASU football program, its hometown and even the Arizona sports scene. Its Tempe run will conclude with a matchup between two of the nation’s most popular programs — Ohio State University and the University of Notre Dame.
The Fiesta Bowl was created with equal parts frustration and pride — frustration that ASU was frequently overlooked by the existing bowls and pride among civic leaders that the Valley deserved a place in the national spotlight.
Through the 1960s, coach Frank Kush’s teams spent most holiday seasons nestled in front of television sets watching other teams play in bowl games.
The only games in the West were the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
In 1968, former ASU President G. Homer Durham proposed creating an Arizona bowl, and business leaders got behind the plan. The drive came to life on the plane ride home from the 1970 Peach Bowl in Atlanta.
ASU had beaten North Carolina 48-26 in its first bowl game since 1951, but in order to secure the Peach Bowl invitation, ASU had to buy 15,000 tickets for the game 1,850 miles away.
Camelback Inn owner and Sun Devils booster Jack Stewart, who was seated next to Kush, took a business view of the arrangement. The coach recalled him saying, "You know, this is ridiculous we have to sell so many tickets. We’re going to create our own bowl."
Stewart became the driving force behind the Fiesta Bowl. Supporters established a tie-in with the Western Athletic Conference and petitioned the National Collegiate Athletic Association to grant a new game.
The bowl committee members touted the region’s growing population, warm winter climate and their intention to use proceeds to benefit charities. NCAA officials rejected the bid in April 1970, but approved it the next year.
In the inaugural game Dec. 27, 1971, quarterback Danny White threw for 250 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Sun Devils to a 45-38 victory against Florida State University in front of 51,098 fans. The high-scoring affair gave ASU instant credibility, Kush said.
"It was a great ballgame. It was one of the first major television viewings for the Sun Devils, in many respects. That was, in my opinion, the onset of the recognition that we received after that," he said.
The Sun Devils played in the first three Fiesta Bowls and five of the first seven. They won all but one game.
The string of Fiesta Bowls directed new money toward the ASU athletic department. Plus, the national media coverage helped ASU coaches make inroads into important recruiting areas, including California, Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Kush said.
"That first Fiesta Bowl probably meant more to us than most people can probably imagine," he said.
The steady appearances also boosted ASU’s stature before the university and its riva l, the Un iversity of Arizona, switched from the WAC to the Pacific 10 Conference in 1978.
The Fiesta Bowl has generated more than $1 billion for the state’s economy over the decades, according to studies commissioned by bowl officials, the bulk of which has come from spectators visiting Tempe during an otherwise lackluster tourism period between Christmas and New Year’s.
All but one of the past 20 Fiesta Bowl games have sold out, filling the city with freespending alumni from coldweather schools in Utah, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Tennessee and New York.
The long-term value of the game’s media exposure is impossible to quantify, said Toni Smith, spokeswoman for the Tempe Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"It definitely has brought a lot of national exposure to the city of Tempe, especially when you have a matchup like you do this year with Ohio State and Notre Dame, two teams with such loyal fan bases," she said.
The Buckeyes and Fighting Irish both are making their fourth appearance in the game.
The game nearly always has produced lofty TV ratings.
The 1987 game between No. 1 Miami and No. 2 Penn State drew 52 million television viewers, which still stands as the most watched college football game in history. While Pennsylvania was in the throes of winter on Jan. 2, 1987, Tempe presented TV viewers sunny skies and mild 60-degree weather.
Furthermore, newspapers in the teams’ hometowns invariably run travel features highlighting tourist attractions in Tempe and Arizona every year, Smith said.
The game also helped shape Tempe’s civic image, Giuliano said.
"Without a doubt, the city of Tempe and the Fiesta Bowl have grown and matured and now have nationwide exposure, which is very positive for both," he said. "Tempe is known around the country as the home of the Fiesta Bowl."
Tempe officials point with pride to the game’s link to the development of the Chase Manhattan financial center on Mill Avenue in the 1990s.
Chase executives confided that while they considered other cities, Tempe had the inside track all along because company officials had attended the past few Fiesta Bowls, Giuliano said.
The annual showdown also has helped establish Tempe as an exciting spot for other sports events, Smith said. Among them: The P.F. Chang’s Rock ’n’ Roll Arizona Marathon, the AVP Tempe Open volleyball tournament and the Ironman Arizona Triathlon.
In several real ways, the Fiesta Bowl has redefined major sports.
It was the first college bowl game to attach a corporate sponsor to its title in 1985.
The Sunkist Fiesta Bowl largely was considered crass commercialism at the time, but 20 years later Tostitos Fiesta Bowl seems natural when 10K races and little league fields bear corporate names.
The Fiesta Bowl also was the first of the five major college bowls to install a woman at the helm when Fiesta Inn general manager Sherry Henry was named chairwoman in 1994.
The bowl’s volunteer staff has set a standard for hospitality that is legendary among college coaches, administrators and fans.
University of Miami fan Scott Arnold of West Palm Beach, Fla., marveled at the party atmosphere before the 2003 title game between the Buckeyes and Hurricanes.
"The pep rally is awesome. It provides a place for the fans to hang out before the game and get connected,’’ he said.
Clearly, the game has grown from its humble beginnings.
Early on, one of the bowl’s early proponents, Arizona Republic executive Bill Shover, approached Phoenix Suns executive Jerry Colangelo, the godfather of Arizona’s sports scene, to discuss creating the game.
"I said to him, ‘We don’t need more competition, Bill,’ " Colangelo
recalled. "He said, ‘Well, it’s only a one-day event.’ I’ve never let him live that down."
The bowl since has spawned dozens of ancillary events, including a nationally televised parade, a top-flight college basketball tournament, one of the nation’s largest New Year’s Eve parties, a nationalcaliber running event and a second Arizona bowl game, the Insight Bowl, which is affiliated with the Fiesta Bowl organization.
The development of the Fiesta Bowl into one of the nation’s top sports events is a tribute to its volunteers and leaders, Colangelo said.
"All of the people who have been associated with the Fiesta Bowl over the years, and its leadership, deserve a tremendous amount of credit. John Junker has done a great job in recent years to give it the prominence that it has," Colangelo said.
The Fiesta Bowl has helped the Valley emerge as one of the premier sports destinations in the country, he said.
The region supports professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey, plus spring training baseball, two pro golf tournaments, two NASCAR races and a selection of minor league teams.
It all ends for Tempe with the final whistle Jan. 2.
The game will relocate to the high-tech stadium in Glendale, and even the organization’s headquarters is moving to Scottsdale.
Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman said the blow is cushioned somewhat because the Insight Bowl is moving from Chase Field in Phoenix to Sun Devil Stadium next season.
Besides, while Glendale has the new stadium, Scottsdale retains the hotel rooms and Tempe has the Block Party.
"What we’re going to see develop over the next several years is the Insight Bowl on one end of this eight- or 10-day period, the Fiesta Bowl on the other end, and bowl-related events throughout the region during the interim," Hallman said.
"That will create a powerhouse marketing opportunity for all of us together, whether or not the majority of the people stay in Scottsdale, Glendale, Tempe or whathave-you."