Petco Park looked immaculate. North Carolina State and UCLA were ready to put on a fantastic football show. So, when the Bruins had to pull out of the Holiday Bowl less than five hours before kickoff due to COVID-19 protocols, it was a gut punch.
“That’s a pretty good way of saying it. It was a gut punch,” says Mark Neville, Holiday Bowl Executive Director. “I was sitting here and I got the call and a staff member walked in and said the look on my face was like something bad happened to someone in my family. Yeah, this one came out of the blue.”
The game was supposed to have 40,000 people in attendance and a national TV audience flipping on a prime-time event that’s a celebration of San Diego. To lose it just before it begins put game organizers on an emotional roller coaster.
“I will say my range of emotions has gone all over the map in the last 24 hours,” says Neville. “I mean I was angry, of course. I was sad. I had tears, even, at one point. I’ve laughed hysterically. It’s just all over the place. But, overriding everything is I feel horrible for all the people involved. It’s just a bummer.”
Neville and his staff, fondly known as the Red Coats for their festive attire, work year-round on this event. When UCLA bowed out they immediately started working with North Carolina State and the NCAA to try and find replacement team on the shortest of notice.
“There were probably 10, 11, 12 teams we had conversations with. We talked with a couple of bowl games just to see and make sure … I was hoping they were going to be OK but in the event that maybe a team was having an issue at another bowl game. I really wanted the NC State players to get a game. So, we tried but things started going a little dry and that when we canceled it this morning.”
Having that conversation with the Wolfpack players and coaches was one of the tougher conversations Mark has ever been a part of.
“My heart breaks for all those student-athletes who were excited to be playing in this game. I’ll tell you, I got feedback from players who were telling us that this has been the most fun at a bowl game they’ve ever had. That’s even with some inclement weather and things like that. San Diego’s a pretty easy place to have a bowl game. I feel bad for so many people.”
Neville says there’s no ruined relationship with UCLA and the Bruins could be invited back to the game in the future. As for the payout, about $3.2 million per school for participating in the Holiday Bowl, the board of directors is working on a plan to figure out what that number is going to look like for UCLA and NC State.
Mark wants to make sure to shine a light on work done by the Red Coats and the San Diego Padres, who along with an army of volunteers did something that just a few years ago would have seemed unthinkable.
“They worked their butts off to get Petco Park to be this world-class football facility. I mean, this game was going to be unreal. The presentation of it; I’ve said it all along and I mean it even now that when we get our first game in there it’s going to be the best bowl experience for fans of any game in the country. I say that with all due respect, obviously I’ve got lots of friends out there at every single bowl game and they do great work in their communities and for the student-athletes but I think the experience at Petco Park will be the best.”
When it does happen it will have been three years since the last Holiday Bowl was played. So it should be one heck of a great time.