While other bowl games skipped over Penn State, presumably because of the ongoing Jerry Sandusky scandal, the TicketCity Bowl had its sights set on the Nittany Lions for a while and is thrilled to get a high-profile matchup between PSU and Houston.
TicketCity Bowl CEO Tom Starr said the scandal was not a concern in the selection process. Starr addresses that and other topics in this Q&A.
Q: You've said for a couple of weeks your bowl would be interested in Penn State despite the scandal. How much of an impact did that have on your selection process, or did you think all along that you would take Penn State if given that option?
A: "There's no question. All I looked at with Penn State, great academic institution, great football legacy, and that's all that mattered to us. I think the unfortunate situation, Penn State is just a great, great institution. And I think: Why did the abhorrent acts of one person, why does everybody want to drag the university down? What did the student-athletes on that team do? What did the faculty, the student body, the alumni, the fans do? They didn't do anything. And I never understood that thinking. Why would you punish a team by not letting them go to a bowl game just because of one person's acts? So we just felt all along, that didn't even enter our equation. We are very fortunate to have the Nittany Lions in our bowl game."
Q: Is having a 9-3 Penn State versus a 12-1 Houston a dream scenario for your bowl game?
A: "It certainly is. I've been in the bowl business about 35 years ... but certainly for ours -- we're the new kid on the block at this, this is our second year -- and for us to pull two Top 25 teams with great football teams [is] an exciting matchup, I think. Penn State's great defense of course and Houston's high-octane offense, I think it's going to be a good football game."
Q: Do you understand why the Insight Bowl and Meineke Car Care Bowl may have looked at everything surrounding Penn State and decided not to offer an invitation?
A: "I will admit this: I do understand the Insight Bowl obviously has had an interesting year in their own right. I know all those people there, from [fired CEO] John Junker and all of them, and I understand that they might have had a situation that they'd gone through the mill, so maybe they just didn't want to put those two things together. I guess you can kind of see that. But again, I would like to think that people would judge in fairness, and I don't understand mass punishment. I don't understand why you punish everybody for the horrible acts of one person. I don't get that."
Q: Many PSU followers thought the Meineke Car Care Bowl would take Penn State. But that bowl took Texas A&M, so do you think the bowl didn't want a PSU-A&M matchup because Sandusky's last game was against them in 1999?
A: "I can't speak for anybody, but obviously you put 2 and 2 together, and that probably does add up to 4 in that case. I would guess that's their thinking. ... We are fairly low on the pecking order, so what we wanted to do, we thought, well, let's do an end run. Let's try to get a good opponent for Penn State."
Q: What was the selection process for the Conference USA representative, with Houston being in the BCS bowl picture until Saturday?
A: "Conference USA is unique. It doesn't have a pecking order; it has what makes geographical sense. So it's not like this bowl gets No. 2, that bowl gets No. 4. They just do what makes sense. So we knew that all along. And conversely, by having Penn State, we could go to Conference USA and say, 'Look, we've got the perfect place. If Houston happens to slip up in that championship game, we've got a perfect place for them. We think we can put Penn State together with you and have a great matchup.' You take these records -- they're a combined 21-4 -- that's the second-best only behind the national championship game. ... So I think you throw the pecking order out the window and say it's just a great matchup."
Q: Are you allowed to have conversations with other bowl representatives, and did you have a sense the Insight and Meineke would pass on Penn State?
A: "You try to do your homework, and all the bowl directors, it's a pretty close fraternity. We are all good friends, and we pretty well try to keep up with each other and what they're thinking, the thought process. And having been in it a few years, I kind of can guess what will happen. So we did, to answer your question. We started talking about Houston a few weeks ago. ... [The bowl's backup conference is the Big 12.] We thought about possibly, if we needed to vacate Conference USA [invitation] and get a Big 12 team to help get Penn State, that was a possibility, too."
Q: At what point did you think this matchup was a possibility?
A: "I've actually been working on it for three or four weeks, and I knew, to be honest, there was some reluctance with some bowls with Penn State. So I knew that we might be very fortunate to be able to get them. ... I thought we had a good chance. We played off Houston and Penn State. We said, 'We think we can get this team if we can get you.' ... But we felt pretty good about Penn State if we could get a good opponent."
Q: Did Houston coach Kevin Sumlin or any of its university officials express any concern about playing Penn State given the scandal that's taken place?
A: "No. Quite the opposite, in fact, and that's what helped us get Houston. Penn State, with its great tradition and being a great school and all the things it has had, the winningest coach of all time, those types of things I think was a selling point. I can honestly tell you we haven't gotten one negative phone call nor one negative email since we named the matchup. Just quite the opposite. People are really excited around here."