You Can't Tell College Football's Story Without the Rose Bowl

Chris Dufresne

Editor's Note: Nov. 6 marks the 150th anniversary of the first college football game ever played —Princeton at Rutgers in 1869. This week, four TMG sportswriters, with 150 years of newspaper experience, offer their regional reflections on the the sport they’ve long covered and loved.

Let’s be honest: the "west" had little to do with the early years of college football’s 150th celebration.

Michigan’s fight song, written in 1898, considered Ann Arbor the last train stop on Manifest's Destiny as the Wolverines proclaimed their conquering heroes “champions of the west.”

That was four years before Michigan really did dip toes into the Pacific, in 1902, to inaugurate the Rose Bowl with a 49-0 “how do you do” over Stanford on a dirt-patch of Pasadena known as Tournament Park.

That event, part of many activities and festivities surrounding the Rose parade, went over so lopsidedly poor organizers dumped football for chariot and ostrich races.

The game returned in 1916, with Washington State versus Brown. That’s when a grand tradition went off to the races.

Over the next hundred years, the Rose Bowl would come to legitimize and epitomize all we celebrate this week commemorating that first game played in 1869.

It truly is difficult to imagine 150 years of college football without the dreamy idea that a kid linebacker from East Lansing, or West Lafayette, could trade in his snow shovel at Christmas for a Beach Boys sunburn.

The Rose Bowl did more to sell California than oranges or avocados. Long Beach, you might not have heard, is known as “Iowa by the sea” for all the transplants it has subsequently welcomed and taxed.

A kid from Tuscaloosa, in the 1920s, could not grow up wanting to play in the Sugar Bowl because it did not exist.

Alabama going to the Rose Bowl, though, long before The Masters, became a tradition unlike any other. By 1938, the Crimson Tide had made five visits to Pasadena. Bear Bryant never coached in the Rose Bowl, but he played in it.

There are too many memories and highlights to condense into this story; just know the Rose Bowl leads college football in overwritten newspaper first paragraphs. A young sportswriter's inaugural press box account typically tries, but falls short, to capture the grandeur of glistening sunlight on the San Gabriel Mountains.

There have been good games and bad, controversies, no-repeat rules and cigar-smoke politics. Once, a sullen-cuss coach from Columbus punched an L.A. Times photographer. Years later, columnist Jim Murray said people were surprised this same coach suffered a heart attack because "they didn't know he had one."

And don’t let anyone tell you it’s never rained on a Rose Bowl because the 1955 game was played in a downpour so heavy, as one reporter put it, “only lifeguards should have been hired as ushers.”

By and large, though, the Rose Bowl has brought out the sunny side of people who have had the honor to be a part of it.

It has played host, under the best sunset, to the best teams, the biggest-name coaches and a cacophony of Hopalongs and other star-studded heroes. The Rose Bowl is time honored and time tested, with a delivery rate Grubhub would kill for.

The Rose Bowl has provided long-last memories, numbing heartbreak and its share of teachable moments. You can argue “best” and “worst” until you’re bluer than Michigan’s uniforms, but you can’t much argue college football’s official flower. That would be a rose.

The greatest Rose Bowl played, in the minds of many, was the 2006 game featuring USC and Texas for the BCS national championship. It featured the game’s singularly greatest voice, Keith Jackson, with the singularly best performance, by Texas quarterback Vince Young.

The strangest, most out-of-place game was, no doubt, the game of 1942, moved to Durham, North Carolina, only weeks after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Oregon State, a stranger to the Rose Bowl since the 1960s, defeated Duke, 20-16.

The most important Rose Bowl was played Jan. 1, 1925, and featured the one-and-only appearance by Notre Dame.

Knute Rockne’s fabled Irish team, led by the “Four Horsemen,” arrived in late December via train after weeks of barnstorming through Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans, Houston, El Paso and Tucson before chugging to a full stop in Glendale.

Rockne used the trip to promote and proselytize faith, family and football for an institution that had, for years, faced considerable Irish-Catholic bigotry backlash.

Notre Dame’s famed backfield arrived only weeks after being dubbed “horsemen,” by famed writer Grantland Rice, during a late-October game against Army in New York’s Polo Grounds.

On Jan. 1, Rockne’s boys defeated Stanford, led by legendary coach Pop Warner. The score was 27-10.

Notre Dame did not play in another bowl game until 1970. The Irish did not step foot in the Rose Bowl again until it played UCLA in a 2007 regular-season game.

Notre Dame’s lone trip in 1925, however, helped galvanize East football to West and forge the Irish's everlasting love/hate relationship with College Football America.

Notre Dame earned $52,000 for its 1925 trip. Almost a century later, Mitch Dorger, the Rose Bowl’s CEO, made a trek back to South Bend to verify (or refute) rumors floating around that the 1925 Rose money had been used to build student housing. Dorger went to Dillon Hall on campus and asked a random student if he was familiar with this story.

He was told that Dillon Hall was known as “Rose Bowl Hall,” which made Dorger ecstatic.

Of all the instructional and inspirational Rose Bowl stories ever told, though, my favorite remains the 1929 game between Cal and Georgia Tech.

That was a day that could have/should have ruined the life of California center Roy Riegels.

Riegels would live in infamy as the player who ran the wrong way with a fumble in a 0-0 game. Riegels, who said he got disoriented after picking up the loose ball, took off 62 yards on a beeline toward his own end zone.

He was chased down by teammate Benny Lom and tackled at the one.

You think Riegels couldn't catch a historical break?

Concerned that its two-way players were too exhausted running after Riegels, Cal decided to punt on FIRST down. It was, of course, blocked and ended up a safety.

Georgia Tech won by the margin of the safety, 8-7, leaving Riegels to bear the brunt of history.

He became forever known as “Wrong Way Riegels.”

The most important part of the story, however, came after his blunder. Instead of letting that play ruin the rest of his life, he owned it.

Riegels returned to Cal the next year and was named team captain. He went on to a successful career in the cannery business. Riegels even lived long enough, before his 1993 death, to be inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.

Also lost in history is the fact Riegels was hardly a bumbling blunderer—he was an All America. After the 1929 game, the Georgia Tech center called Riegels “the best center he’d played against all year.”

Riegels did not let one mistake define him.

“I used to be sensitive,” Riegels said in a 1955 Sports Illustrated story. “But everybody else thought it was funny and I finally decided that all I could do was laugh with them.”

Riegels commiserated with other wrong-way players and wrote letters to athletes, especially high school kids, who had made similar game-costing mistakes.

“You’ll get over it,” he wrote to one.

“Wrong Way” will forever be tied to one of the most infamous plays in sporting history, but Reigels really should be commended for the way he handled it.

Riegels once told the Pasadena Star, “I gained true understanding of life from my Rose Bowl mistake. I learned you could bounce back from misfortune and view it as just something adverse that happened to you.”

You’d be hard pressed to find, in college football’s 150th anniversary season, a finer example of sportsmanship, fortitude and perseverance.

Riegels made a wrong turn, at the wrong time, on one play, on one day, in one Rose Bowl.

From that day forward, though, he found his compass and his direction.

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Chris Dufresne

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