Dec. 20, 2013
By Malcolm Moran
A New Year’s Day formula of Pasadena sunshine and championship football, invented and perfected by the Tournament of Roses early in the 20th century, was no longer a monopoly. Ambitious promoters in Dallas, New Orleans and Miami were pursuing the same goal of using the lure of talented teams to fill hotel rooms and stadiums during the holiday season.
Where there was once a single postseason event, the Rose Bowl Game, now there was so much competition that an article in The New York Times posed a question that would echo into the 21st century:
“Too Many Bowls?” the headline asked.
It was November, 1938.
As the Rose Bowl celebrates its 100th game next month, and this evening’s Big Ten Championship Game ends with the giddy acceptance of red roses by the winner, the relationship between the conference and the Tournament of Roses feels as though it has existed throughout an endless afterglow of sunsets reflected by the San Gabriel Mountains.
It is a history of extended dominance and frustration over lost opportunities, the validation of national championships and long journeys as the perpetual road team, short sleeves in the wintertime and shrieks of joy at the announcement of a game-time temperature.
The relationship has grown to connect schools, and families, across generations. Pasadena is where Michigan coach Fritz Crisler said, “This is a great team, and this was their greatest game.” The 49-0 Wolverine victory over Southern California in 1948, led by Bob Chappuis’ record total of 279 yards, inspired an unprecedented Associated Press post-bowl poll that gave the Wolverines an unofficial national championship.
Fifty years later, Michigan quarterback Brian Griese celebrated a share of another national championship after the Wolverines hung on for a 21-16 victory over Washington State. He embraced his father Bob, who had led Purdue to a 1967 victory over Southern California. “I was kind of choked up,” Brian Griese said. “I told him that I loved him. He told me that he loved me. That was the extent of what was said.”
Pasadena is Script Ohio in the sunshine, where a group of Buckeye sophomores, including Rex Kern, Jim Otis and Jack Tatum, prepared for a No. 1 vs. No. 2 meeting with USC at the end of the 1968 season. Coach Woody Hayes, when asked if his young players would be affected by the pressure, replied, “We like to feel that by now they’re not exactly sophomores.” Their response was a 27-16 victory that secured a national championship.
Five years later, after a 42-21 victory over the Trojans led by Archie Griffin and Pete Johnson, Hayes proclaimed, “The greatest victory I ever had, or we ever had.”
But for all the perceived permanence, the reality is that the relationship evolved slowly, through decades of Big Ten disinterest, intense debates over academic priorities, a hesitant commitment, periods of uncertainty, controversial withdrawals, and an eventual connection to a memorable spectacle.
In the first 32 games, Michigan (in 1902) and Ohio State (in 1921) were the only Big Ten teams to play in Pasadena. Michigan’s 49-0 dominance of Stanford in the inaugural game nearly ended a tradition as soon as it started. For the next 13 New Year’s celebrations, football was replaced by chariot races, a polo match, an ostrich race and the challenge of camel against elephant. From the summer of 1921 through the 1946 game, Big Ten teams chose not to accept invitations.
“The prohibition has stood so long,” Hal Reynolds, chairman of the Tournament of Roses football committee, said in 1945, “I can hardly believe there’s much chance of ending it.”
Attitudes were beginning to shift, and when Kenneth “Tug” Wilson became Big Ten commissioner on May 1, 1945, momentum moved the conference toward a commitment. On Sept. 1, 1946, faculty athletic representatives and athletic directors approved a five-year commitment that would match a Big Ten school against a Pacific Coast Conference opponent beginning with the 1947 game.
But the issues remained. Conference members could not appear more than once in a three-year period, and they could not be forced to compete. As university officials in the Midwest and West Coast considered their options, there was increasing pressure to select an undefeated Army team with Heisman Trophy winners Glenn Davis and Felix “Doc” Blanchard. On Nov. 19, the decision was made to begin the Big Ten commitment with the 1947 game and send Illinois, with its 7-2 record, to Pasadena.
Davis, “Mr. Outside” in the celebrated Army backfield, came home to California to accept an award as the best player in the country and voiced his disappointment at being unable to play in the Rose Bowl. When he was followed by Wilson, the Big Ten commissioner for just over a year, the crowd booed.
“At first, I was tempted to sit down, but I finally waited until they quieted down,” Wilson would later write. “I told them Illinois was not a second-class team and that the conference had worked hard on this pact with the Pacific Coast for many years. I even stuck my neck out by saying I thought Illinois would take care of the situation.”
Claude “Buddy” Young, the 5-foot, 5-inch, 163-pound back, became the first African-American player to score a touchdown in the Rose Bowl. He added a second and gained 103 yards in a 45-14 victory. Years of speculation and debate had led to the beginning of an era.
The early years featured a six-game Big Ten winning streak. A three-year agreement, beginning with the 1952 game, dictated that schools could not participate in consecutive years, a one-year reduction from the original agreement.
In 1953, opposition to the conference commitment threatened the future of the relationship. But by a vote of 6-4, the Big Ten would continue the agreement for three years through the 1957 game.
In late November, 1953, Michigan State, which tied with Illinois for the conference championship, became the Big Ten representative. After the 28-20 Spartan victory over UCLA in the 1954 game, the voice of coach Biggie Munn cracked as he spoke to his team. “I’ve never been so proud of a game in my life,” Munn said. “I want to thank all of you. There are tears in my eyes, but I can’t help it.”
When Bob Jeter’s 194 rushing yards led Iowa to a 38-12 victory over California in the 1959 game, the Big Ten had 12 victories in 13 games. That dominance soon began to end as questions continued about the conference commitment to the game.
Shortly after Ohio State completed an undefeated 1961 season, the school’s faculty council voted, 28-25, against accepting an invitation. A year later, while the final, championship-defining wire service polls continued to take place at the end of the regular season, the Rose Bowl matchup offered a look at the distant future. For the first time since the Associated Press poll began in 1936, the top two teams would meet in a bowl.
It was not until the sun disappeared that the game between No. 1 Southern California and No. 2 Wisconsin became unforgettable. As a 42-14 USC lead began to vanish into the growing darkness, the Badger comeback led by Ron Vander Kelen delayed dinners throughout the Midwest. In the final 13 minutes, the Wisconsin quarterback threw for 213 yards. After the 42-37 Trojan victory, the Chicago Tribune headline read, “BADGERS WIN CHEERS, TROJANS ROSES.”
“The game lasted only slightly less long than the War of 1812,” Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote. “If the game had lasted one more quarter, they would have run into next year’s Rose Bowl traffic.”
By the 1970s, the no-repeat rule was gone, the commitment was permanent and a series of moments added to the conference history. Michigan coach Bo Schembechler’s long-sought victory in 1981. Tyrone Wheatley’s 235 rushing yards for the Wolverines in a 1993 victory over Washington.
Wisconsin’s 1994 victory over UCLA, the first of three victories with Barry Alvarez as coach. Penn State’s Ki-Jana Carter racing 83 yards on the first play from scrimmage in a 1995 victory over Oregon that ended a perfect season with a No. 2 ranking.
The standing ovation from Northwestern fans near the end of an inspiring 1996 loss to USC and an unforgettable conference championship season. Joe Germaine coming off the Ohio State bench to lead the Buckeyes to a 1997 victory over Arizona State. Wisconsin’s back-to-back victories in 1999 and 2000, the first by a Big Ten school, led by the dominance of Ron Dayne. A series of moments in the sun, as the glowing reflection of a sunset in the San Gabriel Mountains marks the end of another New Year’s Day.
Malcolm Moran, Director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University, is the author of “Rose Bowl: The History of the Granddaddy of Them All.” He covered college football for more than 30 years for publications including The New York Times and USA Today.