Saturday, June 4, 2011

Remember the Rose Bowl, part 3: the 1946 Big Nine pact

The Tournament of Roses flower show and parade, Pasadena’s annual New Year’s Day tradition since 1890, hosted an exhibition “East-West football game” in 1902. Fielding “hurry up” Yost took the University of Michigan’s unbeaten “point-a-minute” Wolverines to play the team he had coached the previous year, Stanford. West coast football was then still in its infancy and the Stanford squad simply could not play with Michigan. In an uncharacteristic show of mercy, Yost allowed the game to be abandoned after three quarters with Michigan leading 49-0. The event provided little in way of exhibition, and Tournament of Roses organizers shelved the “East-West football game” in favor of chariot races and polo matches.

The first Tournament of Roses "East-West football game"

Football returned to the Tournament on New Year’s Day 1916, coinciding with the inaugural season of Pacific Coast Conference football. With the exception of two wartime games featuring short-lived military training school teams in 1918 and 1919, the Pacific Coast Conference [and later Pac-8/10] provided the host team every New Year’s Day until 2002. For its first two decades as an annual fixture the Tournament of Roses game [known as the Rose Bowl after construction of Pasadena’s famous elliptical stadium in 1923] securing a guest team often provided something of a challenge. The trip involved weeks of train travel and considerable inconvenience and expense, all for a game that counted for nothing more than the fun of the trip and the experience of playing. Tournament organizers aimed to attract elite east coast teams. From 1916 to 1925 visitors included Brown, Harvard, Penn, Navy, Notre Dame, and Penn State. While those institutions doubtless enjoyed the trip, none made repeat appearances. For the 1922 game the Tournament committee could secure no better guest than tiny Washington and Jefferson college of Pennsylvania, which played Cal to an uninspiring scoreless tie. Four years later three schools, including unbeaten national champion Dartmouth, turned down invitations before desperate organizers decided to turn to Southern Conference champion Alabama.

Only once during the three decades after 1916 did a member of the Big Ten Conference repeat Michigan’s appearance in the experimental 1902 scrimmage. John Wilce’s 7-0 Buckeyes traveled to face California on New Year’s Day 1921, and were solidly beaten 28-0. Faculty representatives on the Ohio State University athletics board subsequently decided that the academic disruption the trip involved for participating students constituted an undue burden. The university decided to decline any future invitation to post-season games. Faculty members at the other Big Ten member schools followed suit, establishing a conference-wide rule against post-season play which lasted a quarter century. Ohio state's decision was hardly unusual. Despite defeating Stanford 27-10 in the 1925 Rose Bowl, Notre Dame University decided against future post-season play and did not accept another bowl invitation until 1969. Navy had made a similar decision the previous year after playing Washington to a 14-14 tie. The Midshipmen made no further bowl appearance until 1955.

Ohio State in the 1921 Rose Bowl

The decision to approach a southern school in 1925 proved a turning point for the Rose Bowl, and the entire history of post-season collegiate football. The Crimson Tide edged Washington in a 20-19 thriller, earning new respect for southern football. Alabama football gained popularity within the south and the praise of sports journalists nationally. Dixie remained an under-populated social and economic backwater. The south rarely made national headlines for good reasons. University of Alabama administrators viewed the trip as more than worthwhile. The following year Wallace Wade's Crimson Tide became the first repeat visitor to the Rose Bowl, playing Stanford to a tough 7-7 tie. Alabama made five further appearances in Pasadena over the next two decades, building much of the university’s early legacy of football greatness on the edifice of a 4-1-1 Rose Bowl record. Other schools saw an opportunity to garner some of the interest and heightened prestige that the Big Ten, Notre Dame, and military academies had to spare. Between 1928 and 1945 Duke, Georgia Tech, Georgia, Tulane, Southern Methodist, and Tennessee [twice] each made the trip to Pasadena, often providing thrilling games and drawing sell-out crowds. Rising eastern independent Pittsburgh boosted its growing reputation with four appearances.

By the mid-thirties, just a decade after Alabama’s first visit, the Rose Bowl had established itself as such a popular, thrilling, prestigious, and lucrative annual sporting fixture that entrepreneurial city fathers in several southern towns decided to follow suit. Since 1907 the Havana Athletics Club had intermittently hosted post-season visits from southern schools. Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario held a few similar games against mid-Atlantic region guests. Several other cities held one-time games pitting their hometown team against a visitor, such as the 1921 “Fort Worth classic”. But the Rose Bowl had offered the only annual post-season clash between a regional champion and the best willing and available guest. After the Sugar, Orange, and Cotton Bowls entered the picture in 1935 and 1936, New Year’s Day emerged as one of the great national spectacles on the American sporting landscape. Fans and journalists flocked to games which allowed participating universities to crown successful seasons by showcasing their varsity squads in the national limelight. A share of the gate receipts provided a welcome bonus.

Despite the obvious success of their annual fixture, Tournament of Roses organizers and Pacific Coast Conference members continued to fret over the annual headaches of selecting a guest. Southern schools provided interesting games, but the east and mid-west remained the demographic and economic heartland of the nation. After 1935 the Rose Bowl faced the added threat that southern teams would in future prefer bids to play closer to home in Dallas, New Orleans, or Miami. From the mid-thirties onwards the PCC made repeated overtures to the Big Ten [then still more commonly referred to by its original moniker dating to the league’s inception in 1896, the Western Conference] to establish a formal relationship with the Rose Bowl. Not until 1946 did those efforts bear any fruit.

By the end of WWII post-season bowls had become sufficiently established that athletics personnel within numerous Western Conference member schools began to consider an end to the prohibition on post-season play. Needing little encouragement, representatives of the ten PCC schools voted unanimously to extend a formal invitation early in the 1946 season for the Big Nine [as the conference was briefly known following Chicago’s withdrawal that year] to enter a long-term agreement regarding Rose Bowl participation. Ohio State’s board of regents led the way in overturning the post-season ban their school had originally established by approving the potential agreement on September 25th. OSU president Wilbur St. John told reporters:

“I have always been in favor of having the two conference winners meet, and I feel confident in saying that all Big Nine coaches and athletics directors share my opinion. However, it is a matter for the faculty to decide.”

Three weeks later conference commissioner Kenneth Wilson convened an informal meeting in Chicago at which members voted five to four in favor of pursuing the PCC proposal further. Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern, and Purdue cast the dissenting votes, with Illinois faculty representatives providing the most outspoken opposition to the academic disruptions bowl trips involved for student-athletes. Due to such concerns the Chicago meetings drafted numerous provisions for a counter proposal qualifying the terms on which the Big Nine would consider participation. The narrow majority tentatively approved a five-year Rose Bowl agreement but reserved the right for the Big Nine champion to decline a bid and send another conference member instead. The conference further stated that the same representative would not appear more than once over a three-year period, and also requested the privilege of nominating a non-Big Nine independent [newspapers presumed Notre Dame] to appear in case no conference member wished to accept.

Collectively the reservations amounted to a complete assumption for five-years of the Rose Bowl committee’s invitational prerogatives. But the PCC remained enthusiastic. Stanford athletics director Alfred Masters told reporters:

“It would be a great thing if it happened. A permanent fixture of this kind would assure us a high-class opponent every year.”

University of California athletics director Clinton Evans was even more explicit regarding what the PCC stood to gain. He told reporters:

"We would welcome an opportunity to have the Western Conference champion meet the Pacific Coast champion every year in the Rose Bowl. It would eliminate the necessity of sending out invitations in December. The Big Nine plays an outstanding type of football every year."

In other words, Evans and his colleagues worried about the same question that still haunts bowl organizers in 2011 — not how to secure a chance at lining up the best possible matchup, but how to eliminate the chance of ending up with an unattractive fixture.

The same day as the Chicago meeting trustees in Iowa City voted to approve the possible agreement. A university spokesman told a reporter: “We think it would be a grand thing.” The attitude in Ann Arbor was more reticent. While Michigan representatives in Chicago voted informally to pursue the deal, trustees and faculty remained unconvinced. A university official told reporters:

"We have objected to the idea because the five or six extra weeks practice required of players would keep them away from their studies just that much longer."

Internal conversations continued at Big Nine institutions through October. Ultimately the opportunities offered by the lucrative, high-profile Pasadena fixture overrode objections. At a second Chicago meeting on November 14th conference members voted 7-2 to formally accept the proposal, Minnesota and Illinois being the only hold-outs. PCC commissioner Victor Schmidt was present to provisionally approve the terms of a five-year contract under which his league and the Big Nine would share the Rose Bowl’s annual gate receipts — a princely sum at roughly $450,000. Not coincidentally a significant increase in ticket prices [from $5 up to $5.50] had already been announced earlier that month.

The timing of the agreement Schmidt carried back to California for final approval by PCC members was ironic for two reasons. Firstly, Illinois [whose faculty had most virulently opposed the plan] led the Big Nine standings. Two days after the Chicago meeting the Illini defeated Ohio State 16-7. Only in-state rival Northwestern stood between them and a first conference crown since 1928. A win would give Illinois first right of refusal on a bowl bid it had vocally opposed the conference receiving. Secondly, while the pact was designed to preclude the risk of the Pacific Coast champion hosting a relatively unattractive opponent, by far the most prestigious guest available in 1946 did not belong to the Big Nine. Earl Blaik’s great wartime Army teams, led by Heisman winners “Doc” Blanchard and Glenn Davis, had not lost a game since falling to Navy in 1943. The Cadets crushed Penn 34-7 in Philadelphia on November 16th and had only the Midshipmen to beat for a second consecutive unbeaten season. Unofficially, West Point did not accept bowl bids, but Superintendent Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor explicitly left the door open. The same day that Big Nine officials met in Chicago, Maxwell told journalists.

“The Army has received no bowl bid and remains focused on completing the current season. If an invitation is received I will give consideration to the advantages and disadvantages of a post-season game. Normally the Academy is solidly against post-season games, but this year there are plainly exceptional conditions which may warrant special consideration.”

Army had played a post-season game, though not technically a bowl, against Stanford in Palo Alto on December 28th 1929. If there was ever a year for repeating that precedent, this was it.

On November 19th the Presidents and athletics directors of all ten PCC members met in Berkeley. Schmidt and Kenneth Wilson were present to sign the agreement if officially approved. But by the time of the meeting every major west coast newspaper had called for the Rose Bowl to invite Army. Administrators at USC and UCLA both publically favored that option. A closed-door meeting approved the five-year deal but initially left the door open to defer the start date to the 1947 season. The value of Army as a bowl participant could not be doubted when on November 20th, immediately after receiving news that the PCC had approved the pact, Sugar bowl president Sam Corenswet issued a formal invitation to the Cadets.

The following day the Rose Bowl formally announced that the PCC had, on a second vote, chosen not to defer the new pact. Illinois, not Army, would appear in Pasadena on New Year’s Day 1947. Many west coast football fans expressed outrage. Following the announcement, Illinois athletics director Douglas Mills received nearly 600 telegrams in a single day appealing for his school to stand aside in favor of the Cadets. With World War II a recent memory, national sentiment in favor of the poll-topping service academy teams was at an all time high. A telegram from Ernest Newquist, the spokesman for a group of southern Californian football fans who opposed the Illinois invitation, lambasted Mills:

"It is with deep regret that we find it necessary to inform you of the bitterness which now exists among Southern California football fans as to the possibility of you, or any other Big Nine representative playing here on January 1st. In the name of all that is decent and just, it is inconceivable that Army should not be allowed to play this year. We fans will never forgive the freeze-out of Army, nor will ever believe that any Big Nine school would deliberately accept a bid knowing they were not welcome… Your conference and school could gain the nation’s admiration and respect by first allowing the invitation to be extended to Army."

Whether or not Newquist spoke for most or even many Californians, he certainly echoed the sentiments of the man then serving as Rose Bowl committee chairman. USC athletics director Willis Hunter issued a joint statement with his UCLA counterpart, saying:

"We did everything in our power to make it possible for the U.S. Military Academy team to play in the Rose Bowl game, recognizing from the beginning the strong public interest in seeing the unbeaten Army team play in this traditional New Year’s classic. Representatives of the Big Nine, however, stated that if the postponement occurred it would be necessary for them to return to their conference for further action, with considerable doubt as to the outcome. I regret very much that it was made impossible for Army to be the eastern representative in the 1947 Rose Bowl game, although I am fully appreciative of the advantages of the agreement now completed with the Western Conference.”

Essentially Kenneth Wilson had strong-armed PCC representatives with a “now or never” warning. As a result West Point missed out on the Rose Bowl and decided against the Sugar bowl bid. Army would not play in a bowl game until 1984.

Controversy for the new PCC-Big Nine pact did not end with the Cadets. The agreement explicitly permitted the nomination of a replacement “eastern” team for the last two of its five year duration. Thus the agreement explicitly shutout the southern schools which had provided the Rose Bowl’s guest on no fewer than fourteen occasions since 1926, and had done so much to make the game’s reputation as an annual thriller. Exciting games against non-eastern teams had drawn large crowds and national radio audiences, and entertained gushing journalists. Now Big Nine schools wanted to ensure themselves control of the game’s multifarious value.

Southeastern Conference coaches publically criticized the pact. LSU coach Bernie Moore called the move “the biggest mistake the Rose Bowl ever made.” He claimed that the Sugar and Orange Bowl games might in future “take the traditional national championship away from the Rose Bowl.” Frank Thomas, coach of the reigning Rose Bowl champion Crimson Tide, echoed Moore’s sentiments. He commented that the decision would leave great teams available for the newer southern bowls. Moore, Thomas, and other southern football luminaries openly questioned the Rose Bowl’s logic in opting for a safe annual matchup with the Big Nine, rather than remaining open to the possibility of a stronger candidate emerging from another conference.

Not for the last time, PCC and Big Nine personnel responded to such criticism by claiming a higher moral standard. Cal head coach Frank Wickhorst commented that the PCC and Big Nine had “strict and similar” eligibility rules preventing member schools from fielding ringers of tenuous connection to the university. Implicitly Wickhorst defended the pact by labeling southern schools as unscrupulous football factories — still a familiar refrain.

California officially accepted a Rose Bowl bid on November 28th. Illinois accepted a bid to represent the Big Nine two days later. Despite Ernest Newquist’s assertion that California football fans did not welcome a Big Nine representative, when tickets went on public sale three weeks later the crowd quickly got out of hand. A small-scale riot led to bottles being thrown at police officers, several of whom were hospitalized. The fifty cent price increase, absence of the unbeaten Cadets, and controversial snubbing of southern teams did nothing to dampen local enthusiasm for football. It is likely that an appearance from Army would have created even wilder scenes. Doubtless very few of the Californians seeking tickets felt any particular attachment to the Fighting Illini.

Faculty representatives at Illinois had dug-in against the Rose Bowl agreement, but when the offer to participate actually came, the university found the promise of significant revenue and public attention impossible to refuse. Not only did the Big Nine [Big Ten after the addition of Michigan State in 1950] not exercise its right to nominate “outside” representatives for the final two years of the five-year term, but it eagerly renewed the pact upon its expiration and continued to do so until approving of the Rose Bowl’s inclusion in the equally controversial Bowl Championship Series in 1998. While the Big Ten maintained a prohibition on the same conference member appearing in Pasadena on consecutive years until 1972, no conference member ever turned down an invitation.

On December 8th 2010, at the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in New York, longtime Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany aired his frustration over the BCS provision requiring the Rose Bowl to accept a non-automatic qualifier once over a four-year span if certain specific conditions arose. Delany told WAC commissioner Karl Benson, interrupting his comments regarding the BCS allowing his teams to play postseason football on the “big stage”:

“The problem is that your big stage takes away opportunities for my teams to play on the stage they created in 1902.”

Historically speaking, Delany’s comments could hardly have been farther off-base. The Big Ten conference did not “create” the Rose Bowl in 1902. While the truncated and lopsided Michigan-Stanford exhibition of that year technically represents the first Tournament of Roses game, the event did not emerge as anything like a prestigious and lucrative annual “big stage” until after Ohio State’s disastrous showing and subsequent post-season boycott in 1921. The Big Ten’s exclusive pact with the PCC did not establish a prominent fixture on the American sporting landscape. It merely served to eliminate from involvement other institutions, many of whom had done much to solidify the event’s reputation.

The Big Ten’s relationship to the Rose Bowl established in 1946 was not creative but rather exclusionary, monopolistic, and controversial. Many view it in the same light today. Karl Benson should not have been surprised at the venom of Delany’s objection to the possibility of unbeaten Boise State or TCU taking a Rose Bowl spot from less deserving Big Ten or Pac-10 teams. If Delany’s forbear Kenneth Wilson was willing to strong-arm the unbeaten West Point Cadets out of the way of a two-loss Illinois squad barely a year after the end of WWII, what would posses him to give a damn about some pesky upstart squad with a blue field?

Jim Delany: persona non grata among college football's have-nots

[Sources: New York Times;]

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