With the advent of cable television in the late 1970s, the prospect of more teams playing in post-season bowl games started to rise. For most of the history of college football, there was just the Big Six Bowl Games (The Rose, Sugar, Peach, Cotton, Orange, and Sun Bowls) with occasional other games popping up, such as the Pineapple Bowl and the Salad Bowl(which was a real thing, I promise). The growth of television in general led to an increase in bowl games in the 1960s and 1970s, but most of these were still locked away from the mid-major teams. Cable TV though changed everything, and the California Bowl was one of the first to jump on to this train, and made the bold decision to also start the bowl season, instead of being right around New Year’s Day like before. Usually on the 2nd weekend of December, the Big West Conference would square off against the Mid-American Conference, usually pitting champion against champion.
The first of these bowl games took place in 1981, and put the 8-3 Toledo Rockets against the 9-2 San Jose State Spartans, and the visiting Rockets squeaked by with a 27-25 win in Bulldog Stadium. Close games would be a hallmark of the first three games of the California Bowl, with a 10-1 Fresno State beating 7-4 Bowling Green State 29-28 in 1982, 9-2 Northern Illinois beating 8-3 Cal State Fullerton 20-13 in 1983. The 1984 game was a decent win for UNLV, but that game was stripped off the record as the Rebels had been found to be using ineligible players in what was their best ever season with Randall Cunningham at QB.
In 1985, what was on paper the best matchup of the California Bowl turned into a huge blowout, as an undefeated Fresno State squared off with an undefeated and ranked Bowling Green State on December 14th, 1985. The winner of the game would get to claim to be the only undefeated team in D-1A that year, and a post-season ranking. The Bulldogs came out on absolute fire, and dismantled the Falcons to the tune of 51-7, known in BGSU circles as the Bowling Green Massacre. The Falcons were playing without their head coach, who had announced before the game that he would be leaving to take over the job at San Diego State, but the Bulldog Defense kept the normally explosive Falcons off the scoreboard until the 4th quarter, after committing 8 turnovers in the game. For reference, Bowling Green had committed 5 turnovers in the regular season.
The Spartans would make the next two Big West titles and the California Bowl bid, winning the 1986 game over Miami(OH) 37-7, but losing a close game against Eastern Michigan 30-27 in 1987. The biggest change in the bowl game happened in 1988, when it became sponsored by the California Raisin Growers Association, and it became the California Raisin Bowl. Fun fact, this was the second Raisin Bowl to be played in Fresno, there was one back in the 1940s before the campus moved to its current location. Sadly though, the big sponsorship deal would also be the beginning of the end for the California Bowl, and the first rumblings of the Las Vegas Bowl.
In 1988, Fresno State returned to their home bowl game against the Broncos of Western Michigan in the first California Raisin Bowl. Both teams came in at 9-2, and ready for a good game, which did not disappoint. Mike Barsotti was sharp early, hitting Andre Alexander twice in the early going for touchdowns of 55 and 38 yards. Just as quickly though, Western Michigan came roaring back in the 2nd quarter with 17 points of their own. Just as quickly as WMU had taken the lead though, Fresno State answered with 21 points in the 3rd quarter to jump to a 35-24 lead going into the final frame. Western would score one more time in the 4th quarter, but the PAT missed, and the Bulldogs held on for a 35-30 victory.
The 1989 season was one of high expectations for Fresno State, as they won their first 10 games and rose in to the rankings before a season finale loss to New Mexico to ruin their run. They were still picked for the California Raisin Bowl again, this time taking on the Ball State cardinals after their first MAC title since 1978. This was also the send-off for Mike Barsotti before the Trent Dilfer era began in Fresno. Steve Loop got the Dogs on the scoreboard first with a field goal, but Ball State answered with a touchdown next. That touchdown would be it for Ball State, as Fresno State controlled the game on both sides from then on in. Mike Barsotti threw his last Bulldog touchdown to Stephen Shelley for 91 yards as a curtain call. Ron Cox earned his MVP trophy by being dominant at linebacker, but also for having a 58 yard pick-six in the 4th quarter to really put the game on ice. Eric Beuchele would toss one more touchdown to make it a 27-6 final score over the Cardinals, and Fresno State’s 4 bowl win in 8 years.
In 1990, San Jose State used a perfect conference record to get them in to the California Bowl against the Chippewas of Central Michigan in their first ever bowl game. Yes, SJSU used to be good, WHO KNEW? They started quickly, and were up on CMU 26-7 at the half because of a failed 2pt conversion. Sheldon Canley far and away was the MVP of the game, with 164 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground. The Spartans were never really threatened, and took an easy 48-24 win over the Chips, and the Spartans would have to wait until 2006 for another bowl game.
The last California Bowl would be one of its best, with two 10-1 teams squaring off with Bowling Green and Fresno State playing in the bowl for the 3rd time in a decade, always after strong seasons from each. This was the first season for the Falcons under Gary Blackney, while Jim Sweeney remained entrenched in Fresno. The Bulldogs came in as favorites, and did outgain Bowling Green through the game. The Falcons though scored two touchdowns on their first two possessions, and were able to hold off the Dogs. A 21-14 halftime score favored the Falcons, and they would hold that edge to the end, even though the Bulldogs threatened at the end of the game. Fresno State had 4th and goal with 3 seconds remaining, but Mark Barsotti’s pass would fall harmlessly incomplete to end the game. Bowling Green had completed the upset, and the California Bowl would fade in to memory.
Next up in the Bowl History Series will be the many iterations of the Hawaii Bowl! Stay tuned!