The First Post-Season College Football Game

At the turn of the 20th century, Pasadena was a quiet California town at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains a few miles northeast of Los Angeles. Wealthy people, including many from the East, wintered there. Starting in 1890, Pasadena hosted an annual New Year's Day parade of carriages covered with flowers. After the parade, spectators watched footraces, polo, tug-of-war matches, and a Spanish-style horseback riding competition called the "tourney of rings." The entire affair was therefore called the Tournament of Roses.

The 1900 tournament attracted an estimated 50,000 visitors. Hotel owners and other area businessmen decided to increase interest even further with a college football game to be played at Tournament Park between a West Coast team and one from east of the Mississippi.

At the time, the "powerhouses" were all Eastern schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, and Cornell – teams that much later, but not at that time, comprised the "Ivy League." Harvard finished 1901 with a 12-0 record. However, a team from the Midwest finished 10-0 and outscored its opponents 128-0, causing sportswriters to proclaim them the national champions. So the Tournament of Roses Association invited the "point-a-minute" Michigan Wolverine team of Fielding Yost as the visiting team.

Finding a West Coast team anywhere near Michigan's caliber proved to be a daunting task. Southern California played mostly high school and athletic club teams. California finished 9-0-1 but only two Bears' victories were against college teams, Nevada and Stanford. Despite their loss to Cal, 3-1-2 Stanford became the host team because Yost had coached them the previous season. So it was felt that the Indians would be ready for Yost's tactics.

Tournament officials agreed to give Michigan players $3 a day in meal money while they were in California. The team journeyed for a week to the Golden State by rail.

The game was delayed thirty minutes because the players rode to Tournament Park on parade floats. The teams went through a brief warmup in 90-degree heat, making spectators wonder if the Wolverines would wilt late in the contest.

The rules were different from today in some important ways.

Michigan started slowly and after 10 minutes the score remained 0-0. The visitors' speedy halfback, Willie Heston, started a sweep around right end but stopped and darted back to the left in a "naked reverse." He gained 40 yards before getting knocked out of bounds. Then All-America fullback Neil Snow crashed through the middle for the first score and the rout was on.

With six minutes to go, Michigan led 49-0. Heston had gained 170 yards and Snow, 107. The Stanford captain requested that the game be called because his players, not the cold-climate team, were exhausted. The Wolverines, in fact, had not substituted at all. Stanford guard W. K. Roosevelt, second cousin of the president, played 15 minutes with a broken leg before fractured ribs finally forced him to the sidelines. (Teddy himself intervened when football became so brutal that a number of players nationwide died. But that's a story for another Golden Moment.)

8,500 fans attended the first bowl game in college football history. The event earned a profit of $3,161 for the Tournament of Roses Association. However, the fact that there was not likely to be any West Coast ready to compete with Eastern opponents any time soon caused Festival leaders to put the game in mothballs.

The 1903 festival featured polo but drew only 2,000 spectators. From 1904 to 1915, the main draw was chariot races based on the novel Ben-Hur. During that period, the parade became more elaborate, with floats and prizes to the most attractive ones. (There were several post-season football games elsewhere during this period but, again, we'll save that story for another time.)

In 1915 the Association resurrected the idea of a New Year's Day football game. Because of the chariot races, Tournament Park now held 25,000 in wooden bleachers. The Ivy League powerhouses were not interested in an expensive trip across the continent. However, Brown accepted the invitation to play Washington State, which was 6-0 against college competition, outscoring opponents 190-10. The West Coast team dominated on a muddy field 14-0, holding Brown's African-American All-American back Fritz Pollard to 40 yards. (Pollard went on to play and coach in the National Football League.)

The Rose Bowl has been played every year since 1915. The only game not played in Pasadena was the 1942 contest between Oregon State and Duke which was moved to Durham NC because of fear of a Japanese air attack on the West Coast.

Reference: Bowl Games: College Football's Greatest Tradition, Robert M. Ours, 2004

Time article on Michigan's next appearance in the Rose Bowl in 1947

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