Holiday Bowl is called off due to COVID-19 issues with UCLA

Workers take down sideline signage at Petco Park after the Holiday Bowl was cancelled hours before kick-off.
Workers take down sideline signage at Petco Park after the Holiday Bowl was cancelled hours before kick-off.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Bruins short-handed on defensive line, forced to pull out of Tuesday’s game at Petco Park


The SDCCU Holiday Bowl’s football balloon in Tuesday morning’s Port of San Diego parade hit a light pole somewhere along Harbor Drive and began to shrivel.

As seven redcoated volunteers struggled to move the balloon along the parade route, volunteer Brian Mooney said to spectators lining the street: “Half a football is better than no football.”

An hour later, there was no football.

Tuesday night’s SDCCU Holiday Bowl game between No. 18 North Carolina State and UCLA was canceled at midday, fewer than five hours before kickoff, because of COVID-19 issues with the Bruins.

UCLA’s football Twitter account announced it was unable to participate in what was scheduled to be the first football game played at Petco Park.

A short time earlier, Bruce Feldman, part of Fox’s broadcast crew for the game, tweeted, “The Bruins D-Line room has been decimated by COVID issues. The Bruins were down to two interior linemen (Monday) for this game with a converted LB as the back-up nose guard, and were set to play but then had more COVID issues today.”

Holiday Bowl CEO Mark Neville confirmed the game would not be played within an hour after news broke.

On Tuesday night, Neville said, “The entire bowl family is heartbroken that we weren’t able to play the game tonight. We don’t want to just cancel the game officially until we have exhausted every opportunity, and we’re working really closely with a really great team at NC State, Boo Corrigan and his staff.”

On Wednesday morning, Neville announced the game was officially canceled.

In recent days, three teams — Memphis, SMU and East Carolina — all had bowl games canceled because of opponents’ COVID issues.

It wouldn’t be feasible for one of those teams to play Wednesday, and having the game on Friday or Saturday opposite the College Football Playoff or New Year’s Day games would not be realistic. That left Thursday, but the logistics of getting a team prepared and in town for a game inside of 48 hours did not work out.

North Carolina State cheerleaders take photos on the field at Petco Park after the Holiday Bowl was cancelled
North Carolina State cheerleaders take photos on the field at Petco Park after the Holiday Bowl was cancelled hours before kick-off because UCLA had a number of positive COVID-19 cases on the team.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

UCLA Athletic Director Martin Jarmond issued a statement that read: “We are extremely grateful to the Holiday Bowl, students, fans, sponsors and the people of San Diego for their support this week … We are deeply disappointed for our young men in the football program that worked extremely hard for this opportunity. My heart goes out to them. The health and safety of our students will always be our North Star.”

Workers began removing Holiday Bowl banners and other infrastructure inside Petco Park within an hour of the announcement.

Fans for both schools had already started to gather in the Gaslamp Quarter and East Village for pregame activities when the news broke.

Many fans still filled downtown restaurants and bars a couple of hours before the scheduled kickoff.

Street vendors offered T-shirts and knit caps for half price rather than be stuck with items for a game that wasn’t played.

The news arrived late to a woman who walked up to a Petco Park ticket window 90 minutes before the scheduled kickoff.

“It’s canceled?” she said.

This marked the second straight year the Holiday Bowl was not played because of COVID issues. The 2020 game was canceled in late October, two months before the teams were selected and staging expenses began to ramp up.

Rob Gladwell, assistant groundskeeper for the Padres picks up endzone markers after the Holiday Bowl was cancelled.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Immediate questions surrounding this year’s game will include reimbursement for fans who purchased tickets and payment of hotel and travel expenses for the North Carolina State and UCLA teams.

The payout for each team is $3.2 million, but much of that comes from ticket sales as well as television broadcast rights. Details of Fox’s contract with the Holiday Bowl and whether any money must be paid out in the event of a cancellation were not available.

An estimated $2.2 million had been spent within the past two months to prepare Petco Park for a football game.

Most of that was one-time costs to renovate the ballpark for a football field configuration.

Sodding the field cost approximately $200,000. Removing some field-level seats, temporary seating and goal posts would be annual costs.

The Padres fronted renovation expenses, which will be repaid by the Holiday Bowl amid costs of its five-year contract with the baseball team.

The Holiday Bowl was cancelled hours before kick-off at Petco Park on Tuesday.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

UCLA (8-4) was playing in a bowl game for the first time since 2017. The biggest motivation for North Carolina State (9-3) was the opportunity to reach double-digit victories for just the second time in the program’s 130-year history.

North Carolina State head coach Dave Doeren was unaware UCLA had such extensive issues with COVID until NC State Athletic Director Boo Corrigan informed him the game was canceled shortly before the news became public.

“Felt lied to, to be honest,” Doeren said. “We felt like UCLA probably knew something was going on, didn’t tell anybody on our side. We had no clue they were up against that.

“I don’t feel like it was very well handled from their university. It would have been great to have had a heads-up so two or three days ago we could have found a Plan B. Disappointing.”

In response to Doeren’s comments, UCLA’s Jarmond tweeted another statement: “With today’s COVID results, our medical staff deemed it unsafe for us to compete this evening. While we had isolated COVID challenges, we were still in a position to compete up until today.

“I am truly disappointed for everyone who was involved with the game.”

The Bruins already were without senior defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight, who tested positive for COVID last week and was isolating at home, but the extent of the issue was not revealed by Kelly when he met with the media at Petco Park in Monday afternoon’s coaches’ news conference.

“It’s an ongoing thing, so if someone comes down with symptoms later on this afternoon, they’ll be tested,” UCLA head coach Chip Kelly said on Monday. “We will test kids up until game time. We don’t have any final numbers, but what’s gone on is our unvaccinated kids, obviously, get tested earlier in the week. But anybody that has symptoms will be tested after they report symptoms.

“So you could have someone go (Tuesday) on game day. We’ve got our fingers crossed. Our whole mindset has always been if we’ve got 11, we’re going to go play.”

Both UCLA men’s and women’s basketball teams have had games canceled because of COVID.

“The COVID cloud has hovered over America,” Kelly said. “Part of playing in this bowl game is to make sure we can play the bowl game. We’ve talked to our players a lot about protecting the ecosytem.”

“We’re proud of the fact that we played every single one of our games a year ago. And the credit goes to our players. They had to make a lot of sacrifices. You’ve got to be a real selfless person to accomplish all those things.

“Obviously, we have incidents on our campus. Our (men’s) basketball team has had games canceled. Our women’s team has had games canceled. So our players have been doing the best job they can with it and we know how, especially this new (Omicron) variant is, they’ve been great with it.

“Again, going up until kickoff we’ve still got our fingers crossed that we’ll have a game.”

Kelly did not comment after the cancellation was announced.

North Carolina State fans stand outside Petco Park after the Holiday Bowl was cancelled.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This is the fifth bowl game canceled within the past week.

The other games were last Friday’s Hawaii Bowl (because of Hawaii), Monday’s Military Bowl (Boston College), Wednesday’s Fenway Bowl (Virginia) and this week’s Arizona Bowl (Boise State). Texas A&M had to withdraw from this week’s Gator Bowl because of COVID issues, but Rutgers was found as a replacement to play Wake Forest in the game. Central Michigan, which was to play Boise State in the Arizona Bowl, was shifted to the Sun Bowl to play Washington State after Miami had to pull out of the El Paso game.


1:54 p.m. Dec. 28, 2021: This article has been updated with additional information.

8:06 a.m. Dec. 29, 2021: This article has been updated with official cancellation of the game and information on ticket refunds.

5:26 p.m. Dec. 28, 2021: This article has been updated with further quotes and information and photos.