For several years, the Rose Bowl logo was nearly ubiquitous around Michigan State's practice facility, serving as a constant reminder of the team's ultimate goal.
The Spartans finally made it back to Pasadena last year for the first time since the 1987 season, prompting legions of their fans to follow them to California. The victory over Stanford in the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl game will go down as one of the greatest moments in Michigan State history.
"That was a special place at a special time with special people," head coach Mark Dantonio said.
The Rose Bowl remains the most revered postseason name in college football and has long been viewed as the Holy Grail for the Big Ten. The sunny skies and majestic setting that beckoned chilly Midwesterners to Southern California for New Year's Day helped fuel the popularity of the event. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany rightly calls the Rose Bowl "the most important external relationship that we have."
But as the Granddaddy of Them All begins its second century, both its relationship with the Big Ten and its very nature are about to change, thanks to the arrival of the College Football Playoff.
The Rose Bowl will serve as a national semifinal site this year and in the 2017, 2020 and 2023 seasons. If a Big Ten team wants to go to Pasadena in those years, the playoff is the only route. (And even that is not necessarily guaranteed, as it will be up to the selection committee's seeding preferences). In the years in which it is not a part of the playoff rotation, the Rose Bowl will stage its traditional Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup. But any Big Ten team that makes it in those years either (A) won the league and missed out on the playoff or (B) did not win the conference title.
Think about this: A Big Ten champion that gets snubbed for the four-team playoff could actually be -- gasp -- disappointed to play in the Rose Bowl. That would be a first.
"If you're knocking at the door and you don't make it, there may be a little short-term disappointment," Delany said. "But [the game] is still iconic and emotional and traditional. So I think everyone who goes there will be excited."
What if a team that loses in the Big Ten championship game to the league's eventual playoff rep gets picked for the Rose Bowl? Recent history shows that fan bases don't travel well after their team loses in a league title game, and some bowls have avoided inviting those teams for that very reason.
"We're well aware that emotionally, that can be a downer for not only the team but for the fans," said Scott Jenkins, football committee chairman for the Tournament of Roses. "But the opportunity to come to the Rose Bowl game, for the vast majority of teams, doesn't come along very often."
When it's a semifinal game, like this season, the Rose Bowl is no longer the destination; it's part of the journey. Any team that goes to Pasadena this year will hope to move on to Arlington, Texas, for the championship 11 days later. That could change the entire feel of the event.
"I think it has the real opportunity to lose something for the teams, not for the fans," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "You really have to see how that travel is going to be and what events you're going to do. Are you going to Disneyland for a day? I don't think so. Because you're hoping to play in the next one."
Jenkins said game officials still plan on holding the side events, like the meet-and-greet at Disneyland, the "Beef Bowl" steak-eating competition and a night out at local comedy clubs. But teams will now be arriving in Los Angeles one day later than they have in the past, which puts a time crunch on the entire schedule.
"While it's a little bit squeezed, we hope they enjoy our events here just like they would for a regular, traditional Rose Bowl game," he said. "We're treating this semifinal as we would any other Rose Bowl."
Tradition at times took a backseat for the game during the BCS era, too. Big Ten teams didn't appear in the 2002, 2003 or 2006 Rose Bowls, and Ohio State played in the game only once (2010) during the era despite winning multiple Big Ten titles. The 2011 game matched Wisconsin and TCU. No wonder the screensaver on Jenkins' work computer reads: "Only change endures."
But can the Rose Bowl endure all this change? The playoff eventually could make all non-semifinal bowls seem like secondary concerns. Hey, the NIT was once considered a prestigious tournament in college basketball, after all.
But if any bowl game can continue to thrive, it's the Granddaddy. People don't speak in reverential tones about one day getting to step foot in Sun Life Stadium or the Superdome, for instance. The Rose Bowl, Dantonio says, still "has a mystique about it."
"Generations and generations of football players in the Midwest dreamed of playing in the Rose Bowl, and I think that will still be the case," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who played in the game as a Wildcats linebacker in 1996. "It was an experience at least from my standpoint that was surreal. It's still Pasadena, the San Gabriel [Mountains] are still in the background, and it's still a special opportunity when you get the privilege to play there."
It just may no longer stand as the ultimate goal for Big Ten teams.