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Toledo AD Bryan Blair discusses 2023 Arizona Bowl storylines

The Rockets face Wyoming in the 2023 Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl in Tucson, AZ.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Northern Illinois at Toledo Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Only one game remains in the 2023 Mid-American Conference season.

The sun will officially set in Tucson, AZ, where the Toledo Rockets are slated to face the Wyoming Cowboys in the Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl at 4:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, Dec. 30.

Toledo athletic director Bryan Blair was on the scene in Tucson to discuss several storylines of the Rockets’ upcoming bowl game — their eighth in the last 10 seasons. Blair, who was hired in May 2022 as the youngest athletic director in the FBS, had high praise for the city, as well as the bowl’s presentation and festivities:

“The Arizona Bowl does a phenomenal job top to bottom,” Blair said. “I’ve been lucky enough to go to a lot of bowl games. I put this at the top of the list, bar none. You can tell the community cares. The volunteers go the extra mile and that makes the experience so great for all of our guys.”

Feels like ‘71?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 02 MAC Championship Game
Toledo head coach Jason Candle is in his eighth year as the program’s head coach, winning two MAC titles with the Rockets.
Photo by Allan Dranberg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The landscape of college football bowl season drastically changed in the past decade. Teams that don’t qualify for bowl games often fire their coaches in November, pushing down the first dominos in the offseason coaching carousel, which subsequently affects bowl teams — forcing interim coaches to lead teams into their postseason contests.

This isn’t the case for Toledo. The Rockets exude some of the most impressive stability in the entire FBS, recording their 14th consecutive non-losing season in this 2023 campaign. And for the past eight seasons, Toledo enjoyed that success under one head coach in Jason Candle. Candle was once an interim to replaced the departed Matt Campbell, leading the Rockets to a 2015 Boca Raton Bowl victory over a ranked Temple squad to finish the season at No. 24 in the AP Poll. But the head coach has been a staple in Northwest Ohio ever since, winning two MAC championships and two bowl games in a sustained tenure. This degree of stability tremendously helps Toledo remain a power in the MAC, consistently producing winning records and top recruiting classes in the ever-evolving landscape of college football.

“When you look around college athletics right now with the transfer portal and everything else, you have to look at the book to figure who’s coaching what games,” Blair said. “For Toledo to have one man to lead this program and do it the right way for so long, I think it speaks to our players too. If you want to be a part of something special and know who’s gonna be your coach all four years, this is the place for you. I think you look no further than our corner Quinyon Mitchell — being an All-American, had opportunities to go elsewhere — he chose to come back, he’s here practicing with our team ahead of this bowl game because he’s here and has a relationship. Relationships still matter and Coach Candle’s the king of that.”

One thing Candle hasn’t accomplished yet at Toledo is a 12-win season. In fact, despite all the success over the past decade and change, the program hasn’t earned 12 wins in a single campaign since 1971 — when it finished No. 14 in the nation. Despite falling short in the MAC Championship Game against Miami (OH), Toledo can rebound and produce a 12-2 record (and a potential season-ending ranking) to complete a banner season in program history. The only task needed to achieve that objective involves emerging over Wyoming in the Arizona Bowl in Tucson.

“I want it for our seniors,” Blair said. “They earned this. They came back with a goal in mind and had a phenomenal season. It didn’t quite go our way in the MAC Championship Game. We’ve got a game to wash that taste out of our mouth and come out on top with 12 wins against a really well-coached Mountain West team.”

Culpepper is cancer-free

NCAA Football: Toledo at Ohio State
Toledo DT Judge Culpepper earned First Team All-MAC honors before knowing of his cancer diagnosis.
Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive tackle Judge Culpepper prematurely exited the MAC Championship Game due to a targeting foul, limiting the sixth-year senior’s college career to one more game — Toledo’s upcoming bowl. But devastating news struck the Toledo star four days after the MAC Championship Game, which looked destined to conclude his college playing career. He was diagnosed with Stage 1 testicular cancer — an earth-shattering, gut-wrenching diagnosis for anybody, especially a young athlete in his early 20s.

Fortunately for the First Team All-MAC defensive tackle, the condition didn’t even last a month. Culpepper underwent surgery immediately following the diagnosis and in the week leading up to the Arizona Bowl, he was announced cancer-free. The team rallied around the veteran leader, who now stands as a symbol of perseverance and hope for the program after enduring a serious medical condition all year long and successfully winning the battle.

“Judge gives the world the window of the kind of young men that are in our program,” Blair said. “It’s funny because when you talk to Judge about what just happened, he makes light of it, he makes jokes, he talks about how it all went down. But really, that’s a scary situation. It’s scary for a young man like that to feel something’s wrong all year long and not find out what it is until after the MAC Championship Game.”

Culpepper plans on playing the Arizona Bowl to cap his six-year college career, a journey which launched at Penn State in 2018 and redirected to Toledo in 2021. This year was the Tampa native’s most impressive season to date, registering 9.0 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss from the interior of Toledo’s defensive line — even earning Second Team All-American honors from College Football Network.

“He’s had a tremendous year — All-American by some publications, All-MAC by all publications,” Blair said. “Just been a force inside for us, a team leader that we can’t value enough so for him to have that happen and bounce back the way he has and be with us this week is one small window into the kind of man we have on this team.”

Leaning into viral moments

MAC Championship - Toledo v Ohio
Toledo WR Adam Beale was placed on scholarship in August by Pardon My Take podcast host Dan Katz (“Big Cat”), who also provided him an NIL deal.
Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

In the current age of social media and the concept of vitality, bowl sponsorships mean more now than ever. For instance, Pop-Tarts took over the longtime Orlando bowl game held at Camping World Stadium and turned its sponsorship into a worldwide phenomenon Thursday night by introducing the bizarre idea of an edible mascot.

For the second consecutive year (third if you include the 2021 game canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic), Barstool Sports is the naming rights sponsor of the Arizona Bowl. During the early stages of the pandemic, Barstool Sports personality Dan Katz (colloquially known as “Big Cat”) streamed himself playing dynasty mode in the NCAA 14 video game to hundreds of thousands of viewers. Katz, playing under a created character named “Coach Duggs,” selected Toledo as his team and guided the Rockets to a virtual national championship — a cultural event Toledo’s athletic department leaned heavily into during the absence of live sports in the spring of 2020.

“I think we’re Barstool’s college football team,” Blair said. “If you look at what they’ve done with our university in terms of the tailgate, they gave (wide receiver) Adam Beale a scholarship this past semester, they hosted our basketball team in a basketball tournament, and then Coach Duggs — he got a key to the city. Our mayor actually came out and gave Big Cat the key to the city on stage before one of our rivalry games. They’ve taken us in, in a weird way and really propped us up and talked about University of Toledo more than any other team in the country.”

As Blair stated, Beale received a scholarship and an NIL deal from the bowl’s sponsor during an August practice. Toledo continues its strong partnership with Katz and Barstool, using this symbiotic relationship to revel in the national spotlight — as it will do once again in its Saturday afternoon battle vs. Wyoming.

“Rather than lean away from that, we lean into that because Barstool matters,” Blair said. “They’ve got a massive following. They think outside the box and they tap into a demographic that otherwise we wouldn’t maybe tap into. So we’re all about it. They’re all about us. It’s a great relationship.”