'It goes pretty fast': How CMU was able to secure new bowl game, bigger payday in 8 hours

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

It's not as easy as snapping your fingers, or calling an audible at the line of scrimmage.

Yes, Central Michigan and the Mid-American Conference were able to salvage a bowl game in the span of less than eight hectic hours Monday, after Boise State was forced to pull out of the Arizona Bowl because of COVID-19 issues. The Sun Bowl and the Pac-12, already looking to replace COVID-affected Miami (Florida), were able to hastily negotiate a new pairing for Washington State.

Central Michigan football coach Jim McElwain.

It certainly helped that Central Michigan's players and coaches already had arrived in Tucson, Arizona, which is only a 4½-hour drive from El Paso, Texas, home of the Sun Bowl — as head coach Jim McElwain noted, "A normal MAC road game for us."

But just about everything else proved to be a logistical headache — albeit, one that paid off in the end, in dollars and exposure — in setting up the new matchup, which kicks off at noon Friday and will air on CBS.

"There's a myriad of things you don't necessarily even think about," said Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the MAC. "There's all these little details."

But, as Steinbrecher added, "We certainly have been able to make some lemonade here."

Despite the controversy over the title sponsor of the Arizona Bowl, Barstool Sports, everyone at Central Michigan and the MAC has been saying all the right things about the bowl game. They were disappointed to not be able to play there, and they appreciate the hospitality.

That said, the move to the Sun Bowl is a boon — albeit, an inadvertent one — for CMU and the MAC. For starters, the Arizona Bowl payout was $350,000, split between two teams and two conferences. The scheduled payout for the Sun Bowl is $4.55 million, also split between two teams and two conferences. Now, Central Michigan and the MAC aren't going to receive the full share that, say, Miami would have, and while Steinbrecher, wouldn't specify the terms, he did acknowledge, "It's sizable."

In other words, yes, CMU and the MAC will benefit financially from the switch. 

But, some of those extra funds were needed to make the change from Tucson to El Paso — from issues that are obvious (like travel; the football team wanted to fly, but flights couldn't be secured) to issues that aren't so obvious (CMU was to wear white jerseys at the Arizona Bowl; it has to switch to dark jerseys for the Sun Bowl, those jerseys have to be shipped, and the Sun Bowl patches need to be put on).

Central Michigan has a traveling party of about 300, when including players, family members, coaches, athletic department staffers, as well as the band and cheer and dance teams. CMU and the MAC decided it was best for the CMU party to stay in Tucson until Thursday, then bus to El Paso. That way, CMU could take advantage of the hotel rooms it already had booked, as well as all the meals and activities the Arizona Bowl had planned. CMU players and coaches had one night of Topgolf and bartop shuffleboard.

"Arizona put together a great experience," CMU athletic director Amy Folan said.

"And we're gonna see that through."

Said Steinbrecher of the bowl committees: "They work 12 months out of the year to facilitate this opportunity."

More: Central Michigan switches to Sun Bowl, will now play Washington State

Steinbrecher was driving home from spending the holidays with family Monday morning when he got a call telling him that Boise State was having some COVID issues, but that the school was hopeful things would work out. By early afternoon, his phone "was blowing up" with inquiries from national reporters, before he received a call from the Pac-12 about a possible Sun Bowl opportunity.

By 1 p.m., the call came from Boise State that it wouldn't be able to play in the Arizona Bowl, which was followed immediately by a call from a Sun Bowl official. Steinbrecher told the Sun Bowl he would be in his downtown Cleveland office within the hour, and he would get back in touch then. First, the MAC had to consult with its legal team, which confirmed it was within its rights to leave the Arizona Bowl without a penalty, at least if the Arizona Bowl wasn't able to find a replacement opponent.

The MAC gave the Arizona Bowl until 8 p.m. to find an opponent; in the meantime, the MAC was negotiating with the Sun Bowl about a game (and payout), and had a tentative agreement in place by 7:45 p.m. At 7:55, an Arizona Bowl official confirmed it couldn't find a replacement team — which, of course, was no surprise, given most football teams that didn't get a bowl bid haven't practiced in weeks, with most of theirs rosters dispersed all over the country for the holidays. And Washington State was not interested in moving to Arizona, given the Sun Bowl has the bigger payday and the bigger exposure.

The whole situation didn't set well with Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy, a Michigan alum who wrote on Twitter, "It sucks. ... WSU said Sun Bowl or nothing. CMU was willing to move. Came down to money."

Said Folan: "It just goes pretty fast."

McElwain, for his part, stayed off all the calls, quipping: "That's why I have an unlisted number."

"We don't sit there and try to do what-ifs," added McElwain, whose team practiced Monday preparing for Boise State. "Let's find out what the answer's gonna be, then let's set the plan. So, I will tell you this, by telling the team they got to play, they were excited, and ultimately that's all that maters."

CMU players participate in Topgolf during their stay in Arizona.

The Arizona Bowl became the fourth bowl game to be canceled this season; it's now five, with the Holiday Bowl being scrapped in San Diego on Tuesday night.

It took a small army of officials from two schools, two conferences and two bowls to make sure the Sun Bowl — tradition-rich, as the second-oldest bowl game, behind only the Rose Bowl — wasn't a casualty, too.

Point people on the switch — the second of the bowl season, with Rutgers replacing Texas A&M in the Gator Bowl — included Steinbrecher, Folan, Washington State AD Pat Chun, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, Arizona Bowl executive director Kym Adair and Sun Bowl executive director Bernie Olivas. Not to be overlooked are Central Michigan's director of football operations, Ben Presnell, and the school's deputy athletic director, Rachel Blunt. Then there were the football staffers who had to break down Washington State game film in a little over three days, when it had more than three weeks to prepare for Boise State.

This marks the third time Central Michigan (8-4) will play a Power Five program in a bowl game, having lost to Minnesota (2015) and Purdue (2007) in Detroit. Washington State is 7-5.

You could make a strong case that CMU's chances at a bowl win — they haven't had one since 2012 against Western Kentucky, in Detroit — have diminished. But playing a bowl at all for CMU, which by the way has a 100% vaccination rate, is a win in itself, especially a bowl with the profile of the Sun Bowl, which should draw more than 1 million viewers on CBS. McElwain, the former Florida head coach, said, "with Gary Danielson and that crew, it's been a long time for me since I had to visit with them."  The Arizona Bowl, meanwhile, was to be streamed on BarstoolSports.com, the only bowl game not on linear television, though what it lacked in streaming it surely would've mostly been made up for in social-media commentary.

"CMU always perseveres," said Folan, whose traveling party also had to adjust flights home out of El Paso, instead of Tucson. "Whatever comes at you, you'll find a way to get it done.

"I think the only stress was thinking we wouldn't have an opportunity to play, but you just roll with the punches with great people, great leadership. We can't control what we can't control. We embrace what comes at us.

"I'm really happy that we have an opportunity for our kids to be able to play in any game, really."

Said Steinbrecher: "I am very pleased that the Sun Bowl was interested. It's a wonderful opportunity."

Sun Bowl

Central Michigan vs. Washington State

►Kickoff: 12:30 p.m., Friday, Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas


►Records: Central Michigan 8-4; Washington State 7-5

►Line: Central Michigan +7.5

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984