On New Year’s Day, 1969, I resolved to keep working as a sports writer. A magazine editing opportunity was to arise a month later, but nothing could make me feel as special as the assignment I took up 40 years ago: to cover the Rose Bowl game featuring two undefeated teams, USC and Ohio State, and one acclaimed individual, O.J. Simpson. It was a game that celebrated the centennial of college football, dating back to an 1869 contest between Princeton and Rutgers.
I can say with some assurance the stadium was bathed in sunshine. The weather on January 1 (or a day later, if the first fell on Sunday) was almost always pleasing to the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce. From my seat in the press box, I could see the San Gabriel Mountains etched against the blue sky, above the foothill community where I grew up. I could look down at the end zone where I had been seated for several earlier Rose Bowl games, including UCLA‘s storied 14-12 upset of Michigan State in 1966, a painful day for my father, an MSU grad.
Ohio State was led onto the field by Woody Hayes, a coach who was notorious for his belligerence. He showed it before the game when he threw a punch at a photographer who got too close to him. In the second quarter, O.J. Simpson picked his way through the Buckeyes’ defense on a weaving 80-yard touchdown run. That prompted an exchange between Hayes and Lou Holtz, his defensive coordinator. “Why did he go 80 yards?” Hayes demanded. Holtz responded, “Coach, that’s all he needed.”
But the game ended happily for the Buckeyes, who were voted number one in the polls after defeating USC, 27-16. The Trojans were undone by turnovers. Simpson had fumbled twice in his final collegiate game. Surrounded by reporters at his locker, he showed great equanimity in defeat. He still had his Heisman Trophy and was destined to be a star in the NFL. He seemed too good to be true.
All told, I attended 31 consecutive Rose Bowl games, 27 as working journalist. Maybe it was a coincidence, but the last game of the streak was on January 2, 1995-a few weeks before O.J. Simpson went on trial for double murder. That dismal episode purged hero worship out of the sports pages for a time; it still flares up now and again, along with the myopic hallowing of entertainers, politicians, and financiers.
But as a spectacle, the Rose Bowl game remains a bright spot in my memory. It’s mostly about the schools, the teams, the bands, and the fans. For a decade, it seemed that USC and Ohio State-sometimes supplanted by Michigan-were the gridiron version of the Lakers and Celtics. The most decisive of their encounters was USC’s 42-17 victory in 1973, the end of a perfect season by what many consider to be the greatest Trojan team and possibly the greatest college team of all time. Santa Barbara’s own Sam (Bam) Cunningham, the USC fullback better known for his blocking, set a Rose Bowl record by plunging for four touchdowns in that game.
Wacky incidents are part of the game’s lore. Roy Riegels‘s wrong-way run came before my time, but I was there to see a Washington card stunt spell out “Caltech,” and later to see “Caltech” and “MIT” light up on the scoreboard when the participating teams were UCLA and Illinois. It was refreshing to see Pasadena’s pomp punctured by some brainy future scientists.
In the outcry for a Division I college football playoff, the “Granddaddy of all Bowl Games” seems increasingly like a relic. It endures, along with the other major bowls, in no small part because they are bloated with money. Yet the Rose Bowl stands tall in its unique tradition.
Joe Paterno has taken Penn State to 34 bowl games, but only one of them was the Rose Bowl. I still remember how excited he was after the Nittany Lions defeated a plucky Oregon team 38-20 in 1995. “Everything here at the Rose Bowl is just bigger,” Paterno said. “I can’t describe it.”
I cannot understand why some USC partisans are ho-hum about the Trojans playing in the Rose Bowl game next week for the fourth consecutive year. I expect their coach, Pete Carroll, will get the team fired up come game time. If not, Joe Paterno-yes, he’s back in Pasadena for the second time-will surely enjoy an upset victory, even if he can’t describe it.