Since then, the game has been the pie-in-the-sky benchmark for a return to prominence for Minnesota — the game fans dared to dream about. One coach, Joe Salem, even (infamously in retrospect) posed with a rose in his mouth for a billboard. The Gophers never even managed to finish above .500 in conference play under ol’ Smoky Joe. That was more than 30 years ago.
Lou Holtz conjured images of Pasadena. Glen Mason’s best teams ultimately were woulda coulda shoulda teases that accomplished plenty but couldn’t make a really serious dent in Rose Bowl talk. Tim Brewster had a patch of Rose Bowl grass. No, really.
And here we are today. It would be getting way ahead of ourselves to talk about the Rose Bowl, even in a normal year for the game. The Gophers under Jerry Kill are 3-0 in the Big Ten for the first time in nearly a quarter-century, and the next two games on their schedule (at Illinois, home vs. Iowa) are certainly winnable. Their final three (Ohio State, at Nebraska, at Wisconsin) are more than daunting.
But still, at 3-0, this is the kind of start that would allow most fans to have at least a realistic dream of the Rose Bowl in most years. Indeed, we’ve heard chatter from plenty of them already about that very bowl game.
However, a lot has changed about the game — and getting to the game — in recent years. Unlike many of the seasons in the great Rose Bowl drought, getting there can be complicated.
This season, in particular, it would require being one of the top four teams in college football. That’s because under the new four-team playoff system, the Rose Bowl hosts one of the national semifinals every three years. And this happens to be one of those years.
The Gophers are still in the running for the playoff (think of that, for a moment), but even a Minnesota team that fell short of the playoff but wound up winning the Big Ten would get bounced to a different bowl this season.
Everyone within the program — fans included — would gladly accept that outcome because it would still be the best year for the program since the 1960s. But there would still be some unfortunate irony if the Gophers finally had a season worthy of the Rose Bowl, only to find out they picked the wrong year to be great.
Again: nice problem to have, should it happen — and a long way to go before it becomes a reality. Just remember it will take a lot more to smell roses this season than in past years.