It had been a tradition to open the New Year with a day of football viewing that would be unsurpassed over the next 52 weeks. The abomination called the Bowl Championship Series has destroyed that tradition to the point that there are reports of people actually watching a regular-season hockey game over the bowl matchups available early Friday afternoon.

There was a Philco or Zenith in most living rooms by the mid-1950s, and over the next 30 years there were four bowl games that mattered: Sugar, Cotton, Orange and Rose. The Fiesta Bowl grew to prominence when it hosted Miami and Penn State in meeting of Nos. 1 and 2 on Jan. 2, 1987.

These games, for the most part, were crowded into a 28-hour window from the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Eve through the Orange Bowl on New Year's night. When this marathon of drama was concluded, everyone had a fairly good idea as to which was the best team in the nation.

That was not the case after the 1991 season, when Rose Bowl champion Washington was voted No. 1 in the coaches poll and Orange Bowl champion Miami finished No. 1 in the Associated Press poll.

This provided the impetus for the formation of the Bowl Coalition (1992-94), which begat the Bowl Alliance (1995-97), which begat the first Bowl Championship Series (1998-2005), which begat the current BCS (2006 to present).

The Cotton was long shunted aside to third-tier bowl status. We're now left with four major bowl games -- Rose, Sugar, Fiesta and Orange -- stretched over four days, followed by an alleged national championship game that will be played Thursday night in Pasadena, Calif.

The BCS offered only the Rose and Sugar on Friday. They were preceded by three games that lacked tradition or prestige, or both. So, a New Year's Day couch potato was left to watch Oregon and Ohio State for three hours in America's greatest football setting, and to spend a few minutes confirming that Florida-Cincinnati was a mismatch, and that was it.

Happy New Year from the BCS.

As a youthful sports fan in this state, there was nothing to top the Gophers gaining a first trip to the Rose Bowl after the 1960 season. And the chance to return a year later, after Ohio State turned down the bid, and this time to get a victory was an equal thrill.

The first Rose Bowl I covered was after the 1981 season. The Iowa Hawkeyes were back in Pasadena after a 23-year absence. Iowans arrived in waves and in runaway euphoria.

In 1993, Wisconsin earned its first Rose Bowl trip in 31 years and the Red Horde descended into the Arroyo Seco that houses the stadium and held a New Year's party like you've never seen.

In 1995, Northwestern made a shocking climb to the top of the Big Ten and took a journey to Pasadena for the first time in 47 seasons. You didn't realize the Big Ten's only private school had so many loyal alums until that afternoon.

Forget the attempt to legitimize a national champion. The reason that Big Ten teams play football should be for the eternal hope of being inside the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

We have waited longer to relive that experience -- 48 years -- than any Big Ten school. Were it to happen, the maroon would descend on the Rose Bowl as if it were Badger red or Wildcat purple.

The public clamor is for an eight-team or even a 16-team playoff to determine a certain champion in the NCAA's major division. The bureaucrats resist, saying they don't want to overturn the bowl system. We scoff at the absurdity of this, of protecting matchups such as 6-6 Minnesota vs. 6-6 Iowa State.

That's not being protected. What's worth protecting is the Big Ten vs. the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl ... protecting the handful of bowls with tradition and prestige.

This is the easiest answer: Play the major bowls with traditional matchups. And then choose the two most worthy winners from those bowls to play one more game.

Years back, "bowls plus one'' was being offered as a solution to big-time football's quandary. It continues to have two important advantages over the BCS: It would maintain the New Year's football feast, and give a greater sample in choosing the two teams to play for a title.

Patrick Reusse can be heard 5:30-9 a.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. •