Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Orange Bowl remains the star attraction

South Florida attractions: Teri Spain of Booneville, Mississippi, shops for team apparel while in town for the Orange Bowl game. Mississippi State fans purchased team apparel inside the pop-up store at Trump National Doral, the official hotel for Mississippi State, prior to the Orange Bowl game against Georgia Tech.
South Florida attractions: Teri Spain of Booneville, Mississippi, shops for team apparel while in town for the Orange Bowl game. Mississippi State fans purchased team apparel inside the pop-up store at Trump National Doral, the official hotel for Mississippi State, prior to the Orange Bowl game against Georgia Tech. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The Orange Bowl game rolls across time and terrain tough as a tank, never slowly, never stopping. It cuts through turbulence and change, Miami’s welcome constant in the ever-evolving landscape of college football and of life in South Florida.

They reduced the annual game’s venerable namesake stadium to rubble and dust in 2008, leaving only ghosts, but the Orange Bowl game, the event, plows on, still making memories — fresh all over again with its 81st edition Wednesday night at Dolphins stadium.

One year from now the Orange Bowl game will be one of the College Football Playoff semifinals, which it will host every third year. That will foist it back onto the national stage, but that’s a customary place, nothing special. The OB game has crowned the national champion 20 times, as recently as Alabama two years ago.

This latest game, No. 7-ranked Mississippi State vs. No. 12 Georgia Tech, is supposed to be an “off year,” at least relatively speaking. The teams are non-traditional powers without championship pedigrees. The game being on New Year’s Eve also will contribute negatively to what likely will be a less-than-capacity crowd. The media turnout has been modest. Tickets are available, cheap.

That’s OK, though.

The Orange Bowl is perfectly capable of being the star attraction even when the matchup might be lacking. The Bulldogs of the Southeastern Conference and the Yellow Jackets of the Atlantic Coast Conference might produce a great game that sells as a TV draw, don’t get us wrong. Other than the Final Four teams in the inaugural CFP semifinals, only two other bowls boast higher-ranked teams than the Orange.

The point is, the Orange Bowl game’s rich history makes every renewal of it a major event no matter the participants, much as the Oscars are the Oscars no matter who is collecting the statuette.

Hardly a college football program worth mentioning hasn’t seen its history intertwined with that of the OB, and Wednesday’s two teams are no exception.

Mississippi State played in the third Orange Bowl game ever, in the leather-helmet days of the 1936 season, losing to Duquesne 13-12 at the old Miami Stadium. The record will note the Bulldogs’ first touchdown that day was scored by a player named Ike Pickle. The team from Starkville also played in the OB after the 1940 season but not since, until now.

Georgia Tech also has its footprint on the OB’s early days, first playing here after the 1939 season, a 21-7 win over Missouri led by a player named Johnny Bosch, who was most notable for weighing only 147 pounds. Wednesday will be Tech’s seventh OB appearance, in search of its first win here since 1951.

(That first Tech game here was only the third played in the then-new Orange Bowl Stadium, a gleaming palace built, as Miami clawed out from under the Great Depression, for the whopping sum of $360,000).

Bowl games ideally are supposed to feel like the reward coaches always claim they are, and the Orange Bowl, more than most, lives up.

The annual game was conceived as a public relations ploy, a tourist attraction. Eighty-one years later, the tourists include college football players genuinely pleased to be here.

“I bet if you asked every team which bowl game would be the ultimate reward, they’d say the Orange Bowl,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “You’re down here spending a week in South Florida going to the beach, here in Miami with the weather, the nightlife, the social scene. There’s no better reward.”

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson was smiling when he added, “I looked this morning and it was 49 degrees and raining in Atlanta.”

Some bowl games are anticlimactic, a perfunctory letdown. The Miami Hurricanes just played in one of those, losing to South Carolina in the second-tier Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana. Even South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier had to admit it was tough getting either fan based excited being relegated to that destination after disappointing 6-6 seasons.

But that isn’t the case here. Georgia Tech and Mississippi State enjoyed seasons worthy of reward. The Bulldogs were 9-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation — for the first time ever — before losing two of the last three games. And the Yellow Jackets, by winning Wednesday, would almost certainly finish ranked in the final Associated Press top 10 for the first time since 1998.

No matter who wins, though, the Orange Bowl will write its 81st chapter, and start planning for its 82nd before the ink has dried.

The event is living history.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president when this thing launched in 1934. John F. Kennedy was when he attended the 1962-season game here. Miami won its first national championship here after the ’83 season. The game moved permanently from the dilapidating Orange Bowl Stadium to the Dolphins’ stadium in 1999 and it seemed like blasphemy at the time — but the “Orange Bowl Classic” rolled on through the fleeting criticism, that tank across the terrain, repelling all bullets.

Bear Bryant has won an Orange Bowl. Joe Namath was an MVP here.

Nothing is the same as it was eight decades ago in Greater Miami except the New Year’s tradition run by the men and women of the Orange Bowl Committee. Those orange jackets they wear may be sartorially dubious, but how splendid they are as a positive icon stitching together Miami’s past, present and future.

We are lucky to have other major, annual sporting events including pro tennis on Key Biscayne, championship PGA Tour golf at Doral, horse racing’s Florida Derby and the NASCAR season finale at Homestead. But the patriarch of them all is the Orange Bowl game.

“Our origins are where Miami came from,” as Orange Bowl Committee CEO Eric Poms put it Tuesday. “And nobody owns the game. It’s the community’s treasure.”

It is. Because no matter who is playing or the outcome, Miami always wins.

Related stories from Miami Herald