During the Rose Bowl’s early history, the game featured a team from the Pacific Coast Conference (a precursor to the Pac-10) against an Eastern team. But what the public at the time didn’t know was that the PCC was actively seeking to sign an exclusive agreement with the Big Nine Conference (which became the Big Ten) to guarantee the champions of both conferences played in the Rose Bowl. Then in late 1946, the two conferences changed the landscape of not only the Rose Bowl, but of all bowl games in the future.
The marriage between the PCC and the Big Nine was actually over 20 years in the making. Michigan became the first Big Nine school to play in Pasadena when the Wolverines made the trip in 1902. The Rose Bowl wouldn’t see another Big Nine school until 1921 when Ohio State played and lost 28-0 to Cal.
From that game on, officials from the PCC constantly tried to woo the Big Nine into a contractual agreement with the Rose Bowl. Big Nine schools continually turned down invitations to play in the game and on three separate occasions the PCC members voted on whether to extend a formal contract offer. All three times the idea was shelved, including one time by just one vote.
The primary reason for the partnership had a lot to do with the make-up of both conferences. Even in the ‘40s, the issue of amateurism in college football was debated and at the time the PCC and the Big Nine were the two conferences that placed the most emphasis on academics and the idea of the “student-athlete.”
Both conferences were also more progressive on the issue of desegregation as compared to the Southern conferences, which would take years to become fully desegregated.
As the landscape of college football was changing, officials from both conferences eventually saw the merit in joining an exclusive agreement with the Rose Bowl, a way to separate themselves from what they saw as the professionalization of the sport in the southern conferences (never mind that the Rose Bowl’s popularity grew in large part because many of the Eastern representatives were Southern schools).
Said Big Nine commissioner Kenneth L. “Tug” Wilson: “We must set up a policy whereby a boy will choose a school for its educational value rather than the school choosing the boy for his athletic ability.”
So on Nov. 21, 1946, the PCC and the Big Nine officially announced that they had signed a five-year contract that guaranteed the champions of each conference would play each other in the Rose Bowl. But the decision wasn’t universally liked amongst the member schools. USC, UCLA, Illinois and Minnesota voted against it (oddly enough, the first Rose Bowl under the new contract featured UCLA against Illinois).
Officials from the two Southern California schools were especially offended that the decision largely hinged on the votes of two PCC programs that weren’t any good: Montana and Idaho.
Maxwell Stiles, a columnist from the Long Beach Press-Telegram, shared the same sentiment: “We don’t like being told by a bunch of professors in Missoula (Mont.) and Moscow (Idaho) and Ann Arbor (Mich.) that we must play a Big Nine team every year… we don’t believe the closed shop has any place in intercollegiate football.”
The sports editor of the Los Angeles Times, Paul Zimmerman, was even more dour: “In Memoriam. The Rose Bowl. Born January 1, 1916. Died November 21, 1946 … Rest in Peace.”
The public, especially college football fans living in Southern California, were just as upset about the contract as the media. The reason for all of the vitriol surrounding the new agreement was largely in part because the timing of the announcement couldn’t have been worse.
In 1946, Army finished its third consecutive undefeated season behind two Heisman Trophy winners — Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. Not only were the Cadets arguably the best team from the East, making them prime candidates for the Rose Bowl, but Davis was from nearby Claremont, CA, a hometown boy that had a shot to play in front of friends and family for the first time as a college student.
Fans and the media in Southern California wanted Army to make the trip to the Rose Bowl. Missing out on seeing the Cadets was bad enough and when the Big Nine commissioner refused to push back the start date of the agreement one year to accommodate an Army appearance in Pasadena, that sent everyone into a frenzy.
Los Angeles Times columnist Braven Dyer summed up the public’s outrage: “The Coast and Western Conference [Big Nine] are the laughingstock of the sports-minded nation today. The ridicule which will be heaped upon them is richly deserved. It doesn’t make sense that Montana, winner of seven conference games in 21 years, should tell fans of Southern California, who have built the Rose Bowl into a national institution, that they cannot see Army play.”
Despite invitations to play in a hastily made rival bowl game in Los Angeles, Army never made that trip out West. And despite all the protests of the public and the media, the first game of the agreement went on as planned on Jan. 1, 1947, when Illinois trounced UCLA, 45-14.
Pacific Coast Conference fans had to get used to that image because the Big Nine won the first six Rose Bowls under the Big Nine-PCC agreement. After USC won the 1953 Rose Bowl, the now-Big Ten won the next six games. The Big Ten dominated the bowl game during the late ’40s and ‘50s but during the 1960s the conferences were even, going 5-5.
During the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Rose Bowl aura continued to grow at a national level. The 1952 Rose Bowl was the first nationally televised college football game. The 1954 Rose Bowl was the first live sporting event filmed in color (the broadcast was shown to a limited amount of televisions in 22 cities). Eight years later the 1962 Rose Bowl become the first national color television broadcast of a college football game.
Then the 1970s rolled around and in 1971 the “no-repeat” rule that disallowed a team to go to two straight Rose Bowls (it was followed much more closely by the Pac-10) was finally abolished. As a result, the Rose Bowl’s reputation as the most glamourous of the bowl games grew tremendously.
Now without a no-repeat rule, college football fans could become familiar with the best teams in both conferences (which usually were the best teams in the country). Dream match-ups were almost a yearly occurrence at the Rose Bowl and none were juicier than USC vs. Ohio State or USC vs. Michigan.
It was the beautiful, Hollywood team from the West against a down-to-earth, smash mouth powerhouse form the Midwest. What was not to love about these match-ups?
Because of the success of programs like USC, Ohio State and Michigan, the profile of the Rose Bowl continued to rise. Not only did the games showcase some of the best teams in the country in front of over 100,000 fans and under blue skies, but the L.A. scene combined with the broadcast of the Rose Parade prior to the game added to the elegance and glamor of it all.
Said broadcaster Keith Jackson, who first dubbed the game the “Granddaddy of Them All”: “It’s just the aura, the ambience, particularly when it’s full. … From the minute you go on the air, there’s a different feeling about it.”
Former Washington State athletic director Rick Dickson was more colorful about the game in 1998: “The Northwestern game two years ago was the first Rose Bowl that I had attended. The next day I went over and watched the Taco Bowl, or whatever that thing was where they were playing for the national championship (the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, AZ). It was such a contrast. The Rose Bowl experience was such a cut above what was considered to be the crown jewel of the alliance. The Rose Bowl had tradition and pageantry. The other one smacked of a midway carnival affair that was wrapped up in commercialism.”
But while the Rose Bowl’s aura had placed it a cut above the rest, a sea change in college football in the 1990s would force the bowl and the conferences associated with it to be altered amid protests from fans and the media alike.