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25 Years of Shining the Light on the Port City

By Bill Vilona

The idea of a college football bowl game in Mobile was formulated decades ago with a simple presumption. Why not bring together a community’s love for football, along with its proven know-how on throwing a party as the originators of Mardi Gras, for a bowl game to celebrate the region’s festive spirit?

What a special marriage this has been.

The 68 Ventures Bowl featuring the University of South Alabama and Eastern Michigan University celebrates the 25th anniversary of bowl history in Mobile on December 23 at Hancock-Whitney Stadium. The milestone moment reinforces the community pride, support and preparation it takes to pull this all together for a nationally televised game on ESPN.

“We’re certainly proud of it. We’ve had a really good run,” said Jerry Silverstein, the co-founder of the bowl game, who has been the Bowl President since the inaugural game on Dec. 22, 1999 at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. “We thought it would be successful, but like any new venture, you just never know, and it exceeded our expectations. And how this bowl has been received by the fans here and TV viewers across the country on ESPN has been very special.”

The silver anniversary game on this Saturday before Christmas comes with a trifecta of first-time gifts.

It’s the first year of a partnership with 68 Ventures, a real estate company based in Daphne, which will celebrate its involvement as the first local presenting sponsor in the bowl’s history. The company, located on the Eastern Shore, has grown into one of the nation’s top 100 private home builders with more than $250 million in assets in its company portfolio.

This is also the first time in the 15-year history of South Alabama’s football program that the Jaguars are playing in this bowl game, along with the venue being on their campus at Hancock-Whitney Stadium.

“Well, my first thought is that it’s amazing how time flies,” said South Alabama Athletic Director Dr. Joel Erdmann. He joined the school’s Athletic Department administration in 1997 and has been the Jaguars’ Director of Athletics since 2009, coinciding with the football team’s first season.

“I remember I used to help with the bowl game operations when it first began in 1999,” Erdmann said. “The bowl game back then — and still is today — a great bowl game which has been embraced by the city and is known for its great student-athlete and fan experience.”

“I think the bowl folks and the people in our community, who helped make it happen, capitalized on the rich history of the city of Mobile and the options for entertainment for everyone involved during the week. It has been fun to see it grow and have great games and provide national exposure for the city of Mobile,” said Erdmann.

Speaking of entertainment, the 68 Ventures Bowl game is the grand finale of 10 events in four days, beginning with the Players Welcome Reception on Dec. 19, and highlighted with the one-of-a-kind Mardi Gras style parade, sponsored by Greer’s Markets and, which has been the signature public event on the night before the game in downtown Mobile.

The ultra-popular parade featuring both teams tossing beads and candy has been a staple event. It celebrates Mobile’s distinction as the home of Mardi Gras, which first happened in the early 1700’s in Mobile before New Orleans was even founded as a city. After the Civil War, Mardi Gras was revived by resident Joe Cain in 1867, and this city has let the good times roll since then.

“We wanted to showcase the city of Mobile and Mardi Gras and educate the public to the fact that Mardi Gras was started in Mobile, Alabama, it was not started in Louisiana,” Silverstein said.  “And today, people still say, ‘Really? I did not know that!’ when you tell them. So, that brings a little nostalgia and a history element, and the players get to experience a fun time. The parade has been something where people who have come to the bowl game and experienced a parade like that for the first time, then have come back to Mobile during Mardi Gras season. It has been a huge hit.”

The 68 Ventures Bowl holds special distinction in the vast array of bowl games throughout the nation. The highest-scoring bowl game in the sport’s history was played in Mobile on December 19, 2001. Then known as the GMAC Bowl, the Marshall Thundering Herd rallied behind quarterback Byron Leftwich from a 38-8 halftime deficit to beat East Carolina 64-61 in double overtime in front of a sellout crowd of 40,139 at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

“I would say that has to be our all-time most exciting game,” said Silverstein, who joined with former college football coach and ESPN analyst Mike Gottfried to lead the effort in bringing a bowl game to Mobile.  “People still talk about that game, and it remains a record for combined points.” It was one of two double OT games in the bowl’s history. The other was Central Michigan’s 44-41 win against Troy in the 2010 game.

Fast forward to a year ago: Southern Mississippi running back Frank Gore Jr., son of the former five-time NFL All-Pro running back by the same name, rushed for a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) record 327 yards in the Eagles’ 38-24 victory against Rice. No running back had gained that many yards before in a bowl game.

Gore and Leftwich are among a large number of star college players and future NFL stars who played in the game. The second year of the bowl game featured TCU’s LaDanian Tomlinson, who was inducted in 2017 into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after a stellar career with the San Diego Chargers and New York Jets.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, soon-to-be Hall of Famer, played in the 2003 game as quarterback for Miami (Ohio) University, leading the team to a 49-28 win against Louisville in a game that attracted the second largest crowd (40,620) in the bowl’s history.

“A couple years ago we looked at this and we had 52 players who had played in this game who were on active NFL rosters,” Silverstein said. “And for a small game like ours, that is a lot of good players, and it shows you that great players come from all over.”

When Silverstein and Gottfried teamed up to help start the bowl game proposal for Mobile, the college football landscape was far different than today. The inaugural 1999 game was called the Mobile Alabama Bowl. It became the 23rd bowl game on the schedule.

This year will feature 43 bowl games from Dec. 16 through the two national semifinal games in the Allstate Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.

“There are many cities across the country that would love to have a college football bowl game,” Silverstein said. “We are very fortunate to have ours and maintain it through the years. It couldn’t be done without the support of the community, the city of Mobile and the county.”

Silverstein and Gottfried worked with former Mobile Mayor Mike Dow in the mid-1990’s to bring the idea of a bowl game to fruition. It occurred during a time where the number of NCAA Division I football teams was growing, new conferences were formed, and other conferences expanded.

Conference USA became one of the bowl tie-in conferences, led by its former commissioner Mike Slive, who later went on to become SEC commissioner. In that era, the upstart conferences and expanding conferences were urged by their member schools to help create additional bowl games and tie-ins for their conferences.

“Not having a college team here at that time (South Alabama started football in 2009) or a pro team, we were definitely cautious on how we put it together to give this bowl some longevity,” Silverstein said. “We needed to make sure we stayed in the space of who we were and tried not to do more than what we are with our marketplace.”

“The mayor of Mobile at the time (Dow) charged us to go figure it out to see what it was going to take. We went at it, formed it and put it together, said Silverstein.”

Gottfried later teamed with his wife, Mickey, to form Team Focus in 2000, a cost-free, community outreach program to mentor young men growing up without fathers in their lives. Team Focus is one of the bowl’s many charitable partners.

The bowl’s community involvement includes the Mobile County Spelling Bee, Art Contest, Big Day of Giving, Extra Yard for Teachers and a give-back day for the participating institutions where players serve at local food banks, participate in a Flight Works Alabama museum tour and classroom lesson with Team Focus members, and visit children in the hospital. “There is a lot to this bowl game beyond football. We provide a year-round community impact,” said Silverstein.

The staff working the 68 Ventures Bowl planned a full array of activities for the participating teams all week leading up to the game itself. The mission is to balance the football preparation and focus with a fun set of events the teams enjoy and remember to enhance the bowl experience.  The quest is to also incorporate an educational experience of Mobile’s history and attractions so the teams can understand what makes the city special.

“You have an entertainment district downtown in Mobile that is within walking distance of the hotels were the teams are staying and many of the out-of-town fans will be,” Erdmann said. “We are also fortunate to live and work in a place with a climate like ours where it might be 60 degrees at kickoff (Dec. 23).” Erdmann continued, “I think all of that lends to the enjoyment of the fans and the teams. I think the support of the city and our community and the sincere attention paid to the game has made it last. There are not a lot of bowl games out there which have been in existence for a quarter of a century.”