Motivation key factor in bowl games

ByMitch Sherman ESPN logo
Wednesday, April 22, 2015

On the eve of bowl season, with 39 games on tap, involving 76 teams in 24 days, one word makes a world of difference.

It is the X factor of bowl season, the wild card at the wildest time of year, often the key to victory in December and January and the cause for coaches to worry.


For the four teams in the first College Football Playoff, motivation this month is at an all-time high. The job at Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon and Florida State involves staying grounded -- to avoid overloading on motivation.

But for those other 72 teams, what provides the fuel for multiple weeks of practice, mixed with final exams and a deviation from the routine? As the bowl lineup has grown, so, too, have coaches' skills at pushing the right buttons with players at this time of year.

The destination may not always be sunny; the matchups not always the most attractive; the reward not the most glamorous. With the first five games, though, set for Saturday -- it starts at 11 a.m. ET on ESPN as Nevada and Louisiana-Lafayette meet in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl -- you'll struggle to find a coach or player willing to admit that motivation is a concern.

The postseason archives, littered with upsets and unusual occurrences, support the belief that it matters.

"The part that's difficult," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said, "is to keep that edge. We try to talk in our program about earning things. Do the right things, and you'll be rewarded. And at the end of a rainbow is a bowl game. This is your reward for a lot of hard work. You get to go to a nice city and stay in a nice hotel with a nice gift.

"It's a nice reward."

Bielema encountered no trouble with motivation this year. The Razorbacks missed a bowl game the past two seasons after three straight trips. They secured bowl eligibility with consecutive November shutouts of LSU and Ole Miss in the treacherous SEC West.

And the reward is old rival Texas in the Dec. 29 AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl.

"When you sit out, it allows you do a lot of soul-searching," said Bielema, who coached Wisconsin in consecutive Rose Bowls in 2010 and 2011.

Arkansas sits among 10 bowl teams, including Tennessee, Utah, Penn State and Illinois, to miss the postseason each of the past two years. Nineteen of the 76 did not play in a bowl last season.

"I'm going to appreciate this one that much more," Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers said, "knowing what we've been through to get to this point. It took a lot of fight."

By contrast, 27 teams are back for a fifth straight year, including 20 with a streak of six years or longer, topped by Florida State, with a 33-year streak, and Virginia Tech, with a 22-year streak.

It all factors in the motivation process.

Just ask Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats qualified for bowl games in five consecutive seasons from 2008 to 2012. They've sat out the past two years, missing both seasons by one victory.

Fitzgerald said he told his players to pay attention to the bowl games this year while at home.

"I want them to watch every game and be mad about it," Fitzgerald said, "and when we come back in January, to do something about it.

"From our perspective, it's an incredible motivator."

In 2009 Stanford, under former coach Jim Harbaugh, faced Oklahoma in the Sun Bowl in the Cardinal's first bowl appearance in eight years.

Its players were thrilled, said defensive coordinator Lance Anderson. Stanford followed that visit to El Paso with an Orange Bowl, a Fiesta Bowl and two trips to the Rose Bowl.

This year? The Dec. 30 Foster Farms Bowl awaits for the 7-5 Cardinal.

"No question, it's a little bit different," Anderson said, "because the results are disappointing. But the guys have been great."

Anderson said the Stanford coaches have maintained a pre-bowl routine similar to past years. To keep everyone fresh, they drill the top-unit players hard in early bowl practices and give the reserves a shot in live scrimmages as the game gets near.

Thursday night, Stanford players attended the Oklahoma City Thunder-Golden State Warriors game. They'll visit restaurants as a team before the official bowl trip to stay in a San Francisco hotel -- farther from the game site in Santa Clara than their Palo Alto campus.

Ready for a team visit to Alcatraz? Whatever it takes.

Georgia has played in a bowl to wrap every season under 14th-year coach Mark Richt and in 18 straight overall. Some of its players weren't born the last time the Bulldogs missed the postseason. They know nothing else.

So with a trip looming to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the Dec. 30 Belk Bowl against Louisville, well, you might expect a lapse or two in focus as Georgia readies in Athens.

Not so, said senior center David Andrews, recently named the Bulldogs' permanent captain.

"The big thing is keeping the energy up," Andrews said. "I think our guys understand that these opportunities are fleeting. Motivation can be tough, but with a team like this -- we've got some great guys -- it's pretty easy to get it going."

Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Brewer finds motivation in the chance to get better during December practice sessions. And there's plenty of room to improve after a 6-6 regular season.

"You've got to find a way to get everybody together to understand that it's going to help you going into spring and summer," Brewer said.

He played as a backup at Texas Tech last year as the Red Raiders started 7-0, then lost five straight games. Motivation did not come easily after such a skid, he said, but Tech used bowl preparations to regain focus and beat Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl.

The situation is similar this year for the Hokies.

"It's for our seniors," Brewer said. "But it's also for the spring and next season. We want to feel good at the end of the season, and we need to develop as a team."

Of course, players have not always so easily recognized the general benefit of a bowl game. George Darlington, who coached 30 years under Tom Osborne and Frank Solich at Nebraska, recalls a player vote in 1975 to skip the Fiesta Bowl.

It seems an unlikely scenario today. But the Tempe, Arizona, game was new to the landscape, and the Huskers felt jilted. At 10-0, they lost in the regular-season finale to Oklahoma, missing a trip to the Orange Bowl.

Darlington thinks Alabama coach Bear Bryant had his own motivation and played a major role in pitting Penn State against the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl.

"The coward didn't want to play us," Darlington said.

So the Nebraska players, unmotivated to face Arizona State, wanted to stay home. Only after encouragement from Bob Devaney, the athletic director and former coach, did the Huskers reconsider.

No real surprise, Arizona State beat Nebraska 17-14.

"If you're used to playing for it all and going to major bowl games every year," Darlington said, "it's not easy."

The same sentiments, for sure, still exist. But coaches and players insist they focus almost entirely on the positive.

Boston College coach Steve Addazio gushed this week over the opportunity for his team to play in the Dec. 27 New Era Pinstripe Bowl against Penn State.

"You know when it feels good," Addazio told reporters at a news conference alongside Mark Holtzman, executive director of the Pinstripe Bowl. "When it's right, it fits. This is right ... Success breeds success. The young players in our program are wide-eyed because they see the old players, how excited they are. It's all positive. It's all good."

Political correctness likely drives some of the cheery talk. After all, not every team is steadfastly motivated for bowl season. History proves it.

Who's truly ready to play? We'll soon see.