A four-game Big Ten winning streak, national media attention and an inspirational story has the Gophers in the hunt for a January 1 bowl game. What seemed like a dream five weeks ago, Minnesota’s 8-2 record has them smack dab in the middle of a New Year's Day bowl talk, and for the first time in years, the prestigious Capital One Bowl has the Gophers as one of three teams they are focusing in on in the Big Ten’s final weeks. Along with Michigan State and Wisconsin, Minnesota can make a strong statement to Capital One Bowl officials by winning out and putting together an impressive 10-2 season, with wins over Nebraska, Michigan State and Wisconsin, the other teams likely in contention for the Bowl.

Nadine Babu went in-depth with Steve Hogan, CEO of the Capital One Bowl, to learn about the bowl selection process, his view of Minnesota, and why the Bowl is narrowing in on Minnesota, Michigan State and Wisconsin as the likely three contenders for the Orlando-based bowl.

NB:  What makes the Capital One Bowl unique?

SH:  I like to think it's a combination of things. It's one of the older bowl games in the country, so it has a lot of history and a lot of tradition, has a very long standing relationship with the Big 10 at the highest level and that, partnered with the SEC at the highest level has created some very memorable match-ups from arguably two of the more well-known, established conferences.  So I think that those things kind of come together and create some magic and a destination that we think is a special one in Orlando that people enjoy visiting. Leading in at 1pm into the Rose Bowl has really built a brand for the Capital One Bowl, it just all works.  1pm Eastern Time on New Year's Day turns out to be a heck of a ballgame, and so we'd be happy to have Minnesota if it worked out that way. 

NB: What are the main factors that a bowl takes into consideration when deciding on a team? Is it merely number of fans who will travel?

SH:  It's a combination of things, really. Often times what happens is how you close the season, how you finish, did you just play a championship game; there are a lot of considerations that fill in a lot of gray areas.  When was the last time you were here?  Was there a repeat match-up?  Who would you possibly be playing in the bowl games, a lot of those things. 

Primarily, you look to have the most successful teams you can have.  So, if they earn it on the field, how are the other teams in that conference in relation to how they played head to head; who won that game, what were other games that they had in common?  Where were they ranked in the final poll?  Those are the important things.  If you have two 10-2 teams and one beat the other, that's a big thing, that's important in our mind.  Certainly where they're ranked in the polls matters.

In the end, that national broadcast and the attention for the game is important too, but I'd say the most important thing is the fact that you honor the student athlete.  The student athlete is the one who works so hard, and plays the season, and you see the wins they achieve, so they need to be rewarded fairly.  You want to be able to look them in the eye, and say ‘this is the decision we made and why we made it,’ and have it be one that they would agree with. That would be the biggest factor, honoring the kids that play in the game. 

NB:  One of the factors you mentioned was how you close the season.  Would you look more favorably toward a team that may have started slow but finished strong? 

SH:  Yes, there's no question that that matters.  You love it if you can, if all of those other important factors—rankings, win-losses—work out, you love to have a team that's hot and excited.  All those things are fun to be a part of; they're fun for the school, [and] the fans here in town.  All of us want to sell tickets, but for us, it's never been the dominant thing.  It's never been the reason we've made a selection—because of tickets.  It helps, you obviously have bills to pay (laughing), but in the end, it's not about us making money, it's about honoring the kids that play the game and the school that deserves to be here, you want to give them that chance.  Having a hot team is fun, that's definitely one of the things to look at. 

NB:  How familiar are you with the Gophers' season and Jerry Kill's story?

SH:  Well certainly the country has followed Jerry Kill's story and it's one that was heartening, and from a far, because I don't know Jerry very well, it seems like the kids just really responded and rallied around the whole program and the leadership. 

We started to pay attention to the team with the Northwestern victory, that was a very good football team, Northwestern, and to follow that up with Nebraska, ranked and still very much in the picture, those are two very big wins, back to back.  Of course Penn State—another good one—at home.  The last several weeks, starting with NU, you really start paying attention.  The early part of their season, there really wasn't any team to measure up against on the schedule. Not that they aren't hard won victories, but they aren't necessarily wins that you put up there as a measure of a team.  But the last 4 weeks have certainly been a measure of the team, and they answered the bell. 

NB:  When you're promoting the Capital One Bowl, how important is it to have that star player, or that star story? 

SH:  Those are nice things, they're definitely nice story lines, and you want people around the country to care and say I can't wait to see this kid or that kid play.  Those are important things, they aren't "the" thing, that can't be "the" decision maker, but they certainly add layers that add teams.  If it's really close, and you're making a decision between two teams, and it's hard to break the tie, those are things—the hot run, marketable teams and players, a great story—all those things add up to breaking ties. 

NB:  Nebraska has been there 2 years in a row, is it important for you is it to have different teams come every year or at least every few years?

SH:  With all due respect to Nebraska, because they are a great fan base and a fine team, I think that the conference you've seen in 2014 and beyond, everyone is focused on how you can create an atmosphere and a sprit that's good for everyone—that's good for the fans and the market.  It keeps things fresh and competitive.  It's a delicate balance; you want to put quality team against quality team, but you also need to create the experience that these kids have and keep that fresh and new. 

There's no question, that that's a big factor, not only now or moving forward.  I'm not sure that Nebraska, and every team at this point in the season, is focused on bigger things. They're trying to get to a championship—potentially win a championship. When that's all done, I'm not sure the team would love to come to Orlando 3 or 4 years in a row. 

There's too much football to be played to think about that kind of decision.  Minnesota, we're all excited about, and you see they have two of the biggest games of the season to end the season with Wisconsin and Michigan State—these are the teams.  Wisconsin, Michigan State, Minnesota, these are the teams that are in the picture.  You're probably going to get a team from these three.  How do those games go, how does this play out?  The stakes couldn't be any bigger than these last weeks. 

NB:  I know there is a lot of football left to play, but what would the Gophers have to do to be selected by you, or be in serious consideration?

SH:  I think they're doing what they need to do to be in serious consideration, they are in serious consideration.  Now they just have to win, they have to play it out.  The win over Nebraska is a big one, when you look at teams that are tied head-to-head, they have that win on the field.  You make a strong argument, they deserve to be the team.  If it came down to those two schools, they won on the field and that's important, and you want to honor that, and we've always tried to honor that in Orlando. 

If you look back at our history, it's been more about who had the most successful season, and sometimes that's created some repeat scenarios.  That will be a nuance that everybody works on.  A head to head victory—and they got one against Nebraska.  Now they have Wisconsin and Michigan State, if it comes down to it, that's going to be an important factor. 

NB:  How do you forecast the number of fans who could potentially travel to a bowl game?  For example, we have not been to a New Year's Day bowl game in my lifetime, it's tough to compare attendance with other bowl games.

SH:  We really wouldn't have any idea. I don't have a basis for comparison.  You try to talk to other bowls and other places that the team has appeared and get some information from them.  You start to do that in the next 2 weeks, and the final week you're really calling around to see what their experience was, what they encountered. You’ve certainly talked to the school and have some advance visits from operational people and they'll give you a feel for what the fanbase will do.  You'd love the whole state of Minnesota to come down, but it's more about those kids being supported with a good solid showing, because they deserve that too, and they want to see their fans, and have a good piece of the stadium be Gopher-ed up.  We'll start to figure that out in the next couple weeks. Having no history, we'll have to get that from places that have had an experience with Minnesota. 

NB:  How much influence does an athletic departments campaign play into a selection?

SH:  You know, not a ton.  They help, it helps, you get a lot of information, you learn about the city and community and what the media points are.  Many of these things are well known, but it's just more about the operation, working together; the athletic department, the ticket office, the alumni, the association of affairs groups, and our team operationally. 

You really build a relationship and understanding of how easy it will be to work together, that's not a deciding factor.  It's not about who "out-sold" another school, is this AD a better sales person or politician than another one (laughing) - it's not about that, we have respect for all of them. 

I remember when we had Northwestern come play Tennessee back in 1997, and it was Peyton Manning, and Northwestern had a great run that year, they played in the Rose Bowl the year before, and nobody expected Northwestern to travel well or so any of those things. It's a smaller school, and they knocked it out of the park. They did great, they had a great crowd. It was more about the fact that it was a great experience.

Everybody was so excited, they achieved this level, and that would be my same expectation for Minnesota.  If they were our team, I think fans would be very excited and want to support the kids, and I think it just all works out.  I would have every expectation that Minnesota would be everything that everyone would hope it would for us. 

NB:  What is the ticket allotted per school?

SH:  12,500

NB:   If you have a 10 win team or a 9 win team, aside from playing head to head, what other factors would play into your choice if that 9 win team could leap from the 10 win team?

SH:  I think it depends on a lot of things, maybe they didn't play each other in the regular season—you want to take into account if they did, how they finished the season, were they hot, how did they close it out, did they finish with a win?  Were they ranked in the polls?  Those are the things that are important because you want people nationally to care too. 

A ranked team, oftentimes, is a representation of the fact that the country is paying attention and that they've had a lot of success.  Those are the things.  A 9 win team could jump, and those are the things that could make it happen.

NB: Will you be having representatives at our last two games?

SH:  I have to go back and look, but yes is the answer for that.  I'm pretty sure we'll have someone at home for Wisconsin, and I'm pretty sure they're on the road against Michigan State.  I think we'll want to be there either way.  We should have people at both.

Nadine Babu

Twitter:  @NadineBabu www.twitter.com/nadinebabu

Nadine Babu is the CEO and Social Media Strategist at Babu Social Networks and completed her undergraduate degree and MBA at the Carlson School of Management. She manages and writes for GopherHole.com

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