Local Bowl Goes Bust

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“I remember being knocked out of the game, recalls Bob Toledo. I was unconscious, lying on the dirt floor of Hughes Stadium. The field was painted green to look good on TV.

The game was the 1967 Camellia Bowl, pitting the San Francisco State Gators against the San Diego State Aztecs. Both were 9–1. The Gator offense topped 60 points three times that season, led by quarterback Toledo’s record-breaking 45 touchdown passes. The Aztecs were the nation’s top-ranked small-college team. Their stingy defense surrendered only 13 points per game.

Unlike the six previous Camellia Bowls, the weather on game day was perfect. Sportswriters predicted a titanic struggle, and promoters envisioned a sellout crowd of 22,000.
Both would be disappointed. The Gator aerial circus fell from the trapeze, reaching the end zone just once in a 27–6 loss. The Aztecs were sloppy in victory, committing three turnovers and 21 penalties. And under the clear December skies, 6,000 seats sat empty.

Held 16 times between 1961 and 1980, the Camellia Bowl brought small-college championship football to Sacramento, but never once did it play to a full house. Cool and rainy winter weather wasn’t the only reason. Teams often came from obscure schools with no local appeal, like 1962 contestants Lenoir-Rhyne College and Central Oklahoma State. The Gators/Aztecs matchup seemed a godsend by comparison, so its failure to fill the stands left one organizer asking, What do we have to do?

The Camellia Bowl Association never found the answer, and as they say in sports, it cost them the game. Revenue from even a well-attended contest barely covered the expense of staging it. After only 8,000 fans turned out in 1980, the association took a $15,000 hit and gave up the Camellia Bowl for good. As luck would have it, that last game was the best of the 16: A touchdown in the closing seconds decided its outcome.

While it lasted, the Camellia Bowl hosted many talented players and coaches on their way to accomplished football careers. Aztec coaches Don Coryell and Ernie Zampese moved on to the NFL, and Aztec receiver Haven Moses played in a Super Bowl. Toledo has achieved success as a college coach.

But they’re just a small sample. Dust off your souvenir program, no matter which game you attended. You might recognize at least one face that inspires you to say, I saw him when. There just weren’t enough fans like you to keep the game in town.