When Florida State and Auburn meet in the national title game on Monday, it will be the second major college football event in Pasadena, Calif. this year. On New Year’s Day, Michigan State beat Stanford, 24-20, in the 100th Rose Bowl.
This season there are 35 bowl games, but in 1902 the Rose Bowl was the first. The second Rose Bowl didn’t happen until 1916. That gap is just one of the many quirks and highlights in the game’s storied history.
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Coming into the 100th Rose Bowl, the Michigan State Spartans were ranked No. 4 in the nation and Stanford was No. 5. But for Dublin, Calif. resident Ellen Silky and her fellow Cardinal fans, the teams were playing for the ultimate prize.
“The Rose Bowl is the college championship,” she said. “That’s it, period. No matter what they say. I don’t care about the playoff. It says it on the T-shirts: The Rose Bowl is the ‘Granddaddy of them all.’”
Stanford’s about 350 miles north of Pasadena, but Hollywood’s close by, so when James Caan pulled up next to me in the Rose Bowl parking lot, I thought he might be a regular at the game. But the actor best known for his roles in “The Godfather” and “Misery” showed up for one reason.
“Michigan State. I went there,” Caan said. “I didn’t graduate. I’m too stupid.”
Caan played quarterback on the MSU freshman team in 1956. This year’s team was just the fifth in school history to the reach the Rose Bowl.
“It’s great, man. That’s what we play for. It’s been a while,” Cann said.
A while – as in 26 years since the Spartans’ last Rose Bowl appearance. That’s a long wait, but we’re talking about the oldest college football game.
Sports and Roses
Sports have always been a part of the New Year’s Day festivities in Pasadena. When the Valley Hunt Club staged the first Rose Parade in 1890, tug of war, foot races and jousting were on the agenda. By 1902 the Tournament of Roses was in charge and decided it was time for a different sport: football. They invited Michigan to face Stanford in “The Tournament East-West Game.”
“They thought they’d only get about 1,000 people showing up for it,” said Scott Jenkins, the current Tournament of Roses President.
The game was played at Tournament Park, where Cal Tech is located today.
“They had about 8,000 people show up,” he said. “There weren’t nearly enough grandstands. Apparently it was quite chaotic.”
The forward pass had yet to be invented in 1902, but the crowd still saw plenty of scoring – all by one team.
I don’t care about the playoff. It says it on the T-shirts: The Rose Bowl is “the Granddaddy of them all.”
So, organizers took a break from football. Michelle Turner is the collections manager at the Pasadena Museum of History and the author of a book about the Rose Bowl. She says one year they tried racing ostriches, but for about 12 years they staged chariot races.
“They were inspired by the Broadway production of ‘Ben-Hur,’” she explained. “And one year, in 1913, they even raced an elephant against a camel. They really were doing whatever they could to get people’s attention.”
But in 1916, football returned, and in 1923, the Rose Bowl got a new home. Modeled after the Yale Bowl in Connecticut, the Rose Bowl was originally shaped like a horseshoe. The project was so unusual construction workers mounted a huge sign that said “STADIUM” to help confused local residents.
Football with a Spectacular View
Legendary announcer Keith Jackson called many memorable moments — including Texas quarterback Vince Young’s game-winning run in 2006 — in the game he nicknamed “the Grandaddy of them all.” But he says the stadium’s stunning location at the base of Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco and its mountain vistas are as memorable as the games.
“And the setting is so spectacular because you see the sun sinking in the West,” Jackson said. “Dramatic, always dramatic. And then you watch a ballgame that’s being played, as I’ve oftentimes said, under the shadow of the broad-shouldered San Gabriels.”
Pasadena has hosted every Rose Bowl except one, and that was held in North Carolina. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 1942 contest was canceled because of concerns that the game could be a target for the Japanese. Then Duke offered to host, but despite having home-field advantage lost to Oregon State.
The Midwest and the West
Later that decade, the Rose Bowl began its tradition of welcoming the champions from the predecessors to the Pac-12 and Big 10 conferences. In 1978, the Washington Huskies were the underdogs (pun intended) against mighty Michigan.
Behind quarterback and Los Angeles native Warren Moon, the Huskies prevailed. Moon was named Most Valuable Player, an honor also earned by George Halas, Jim Plunkett, O.J. Simpson and Mark Sanchez. After his 17-year NFL career and induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Moon says that victory still stands out.
It was a spectacular day, a spectacular scene. To me, [the Rose Bowl] was probably the highlight of my career.
And as Michigan State closed out its victory over Stanford Wednesday, it was a huge moment for the sections of fans dressed in green and white, too.
After the game, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said the work done by the Tournament of Roses volunteers makes the Rose Bowl unique.
“The Rose Bowl to me is the pinnacle,” he said. “If you win the Big 10 championship, you’re gonna be here, and then you can play this football game. Some of other things are taken out of our hands with polls and these type of things, so I always try and focus on the things we can control. And I can just tell you, the experiences we had this week are really unparalleled, and I’ve been to a lot of bowls.”
Next year, a new four-team playoff format will begin, with the Rose Bowl in the rotation as a semi-final game. Keith Jackson says the game’s place in the sport may change, but its appeal will not.
“There’s always been something happening in the context of the Rose Bowl and the Tournament of Roses that makes it all worthwhile, makes it a real, true festival.”
And no matter how the new system plays out, Pasadena’s days of chariot races are gone for good.