26 locations across Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. That is the extent of Famous Toastery’s fiefdom. A fiefdom with a history of less than two decades. This alone made a perfect bowl sponsor—if there was such a thing for Old Dominion. The Monarchs’ football kingdom is small, much like a kingdom in the Holy Roman Empire of old; four bowl appearances and two FCS playoff berths in 15 years of football is all the Norfolk school has to show.
America had every reason not to watch the Famous Toastery Bowl on Monday. The time was during work hours for much of the country. Western Kentucky fell from the heights of back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2021 and 2022 to a disappointing 7-5 record. Old Dominion barely reached bowl eligibility with a 6-6 record. A failed two-point conversion attempt by first-year FCS school Texas A&M Commerce preserved the Monarchs’ bid to a bowl.
Win-loss records aside, this matchup was a macrocosm of the landscape conference realignment created in college football. Not only had Old Dominion and Western Kentucky been in Conference USA together just two seasons before, but the two found themselves playing in the stadium of another former conference foe, Charlotte, as a reward for the postseason.
From afar, the Famous Toastery Bowl seemed to reflect everything wrong with bowl season. College football’s largest media conglomerate, ESPN, created the bowl to temporarily replace the Bahamas Bowl. They even slapped on the classic “bowl sponsor you have never heard of" to make it official. Instead of enjoying a city that many players would have never visited, as once was the spirit of bowl season, the familiar confines of the Queen City were the prize.
However, the underdog spirit of Famous Toastery and Old Dominion shined. Before stepping into the stadium, the Famous Toastery’s mascot, a man wearing a slice of toast, greeted fans. I could not waste the opportunity for a picture. Along with bowl games elevating programs, they have also lifted several businesses to new heights of relevance, with the first one coming to mind being Duke’s Mayonnaise. Like Duke’s Mayonnaise, Famous Toastery embraced the opportunity to get their name out.
The little restaurant that could, with only two more locations than Blake Corum’s 2023 rushing touchdown total, was set on becoming a household name before the clock hit double zeroes. Along with the two toast mascots patrolling the stadium for fans eager to take pictures, the bowl organizers stationed Michael McDowell’s NASCAR stock car behind the Jerry Richardson Stadium end zone stands. Bowls are better when they immerse themselves in the local community. Charlotte is notably home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, making this a worthy tribute to the area.
The bowl also employed an overlooked art, the celebrity coin toss. McDowell had the honors of performing likely the only coin toss in Famous Toastery Bowl history. It is something so minute but so ceremonial. The coin toss happens every game, but few invite a dignitary in any field. This small gesture alone made the Famous Toastery Bowl a marquee event.
Old Dominion’s fans expressed a similar exuberance for the Famous Toastery Bowl. From the start, it was clear which fanbase wanted to be there more. After the Monarchs ran out of the tunnel, a thunderous “O-D-U", chant followed, one that reverberated throughout the stadium multiple times during the game.
Being another program’s little brother is arguably the worst thing a school can be. Western Kentucky fans could argue Old Dominion was their little brother. The Hilltoppers led the series 6-1 coming into Monday’s bowl. A win against Western Kentucky would vindicate Old Dominion and show the country they were not an also-ran in one of America’s deepest conferences.
Ironically, a bowl meant to be forgotten, produced what could be the most memorable bowl of the season. Old Dominion’s late-game troubles that hindered them against Coastal Carolina and Wake Forest returned. The Monarchs blew a 28-0 lead to lose in overtime to Western Kentucky.
The ensuing celebration from Western Kentucky fans and players was not one of relief after beating a school they dominated for nearly a decade in Conference USA. The Hilltoppers’ fans and players rejoiced. Few things in life never get old. One is the thrill of winning a bowl or seeing your team win a bowl game.
Like any other bowl sponsored by food, the coach received a bath of the toast, the title sponsor’s signature dish. Slices of toast flew in the air and players even imitated Patriots’ long snapper Lonnie Paxton’s snow angel celebration after the Patriots’ first Super Bowl win at Super Bowl XXXVII, but surrounded by slices of toast. In reality, this game may have had the same magnitude as a Super Bowl in the eyes of Western Kentucky fans.
Sure, Western Kentucky has seen bigger stages in bowl season, such as Ford Field. Last year, they made their first appearance at a venue that is one of the most synonymous with big games, the Caesar’s Superdome in New Orleans, and walked away with a win. Still, the hope and wonder of a bowl win has few parallels in sport.
The FBS postseason is the most paradoxical in all of sports. So few schools have access to a real shot at the national championship. Yet, the bowl system makes the FBS postseason the most robust in American athletics. Each year, 42 teams end their season on a high note with a postseason win. Western Kentucky got to begin their offseason with optimism for what next season holds.
There may never be another Famous Toastery Bowl. Nassau, Bahamas’ Thomas Robinson Stadium's renovations will finish and Bowl Season’s Caribbean getaway will return. Yet, for one year, an upstart sponsor showed the true spirit of bowl season much better than many of the games on the 42-game slate. Two fanbases, each in different ways, showed that bowls are more than excuses for quick vacations and a chance for some national TV spotlight. People may forget the 2023 Famous Toastery Bowl's score, but they will not forget its spirit.