Loel Schrader spent 15 years covering Southern California football as both a beat reporter and a columnist for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. He had an urge to return to his Midwest roots in the early 1980s and was hired as the sports editor at the St. Paul newspapers.
Schrader loved many things about sports, but nothing more than the Rose Bowl. He could not imagine running a sports department that did not cover the Big Ten vs. Pac-10 showdown on New Year’s Day. I was able to get that assignment for the first time for the Iowa-Washington meeting on Jan. 1, 1982.
The Big Ten had unusual balance for the 1981 season, with the Hawkeyes and Ohio State finishing in a tie at 6-2. The Big Ten had the rule that a tie was broken in favor of the team that had gone the longest since playing in the Rose Bowl. That was Iowa, which made its previous Rose Bowl appearances after the 1956 and 1958 seasons.
The Big Ten started sending a representative to play the Pacific Coast Conference host team in the 1946 season. It remained the ultimate prize for a Big Ten team for a half-century, until the 1998 season when the Big Ten, the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl finally capitulated and joined the Bowl Championship Series.
There was much drum-beating over a pending trip to the Rose Bowl after the Gophers’ 27-0 victory at Ohio State on Oct. 15, 1949. It came two days before my fourth birthday, so even as a savvy child, I don’t remember.
Sid Hartman does. He can tell you about that season still, as can Bud Grant, a star end for those Gophers. Mistakes were made in preparation by coach Bernie Bierman. The worn-down Gophers lost at Michigan the next week, and then to Purdue at home, and the Rose Bowl conversation was muffled for a decade.
One tradition discovered during the 1950s was an annual pregame column written by the Los Angeles Times’ Jim Murray, in which the Big Ten invaders were the bullies and the Pacific Coast hosts could only hope to escape the contest without great physical harm.
This was based on the Big Ten winning 12 of the 13 games played from the start of the Rose Bowl agreement on Jan. 1, 1947 (Illinois 45, UCLA 0) through Jan. 1, 1959 (Iowa 38, Cal 12).
Wisconsin had the only loss — 7-0 to USC on Jan. 1, 1953 — and when the Badgers returned, they lost again, 44-8 to Washington, on Jan. 1, 1960, and a new trend of Pacific Coast success was triggered.
The Rose Bowl on New Year’s late afternoon was can’t-miss TV for us Midwesterners, even when it was on small screens in black-and-white. And unanimously, we would root for the Big Ten, even if it was the main rivals: the Hawkeyes, Badgers or Wolverines.
Finally, in 1960, the Gophers won the Big Ten at 6-1 and were crowned as national champions by the wire services in official voting that took place after the regular season.
We were still in Fulda, Minn., looking at the old Philco, and watched in horror as the Gophers were upset 17-7 by Washington on Jan. 2, 1961. It was heavenly when the Gophers had another chance a year later and throttled UCLA 21-3 on Jan. 1, 1962.
I didn’t know anyone who actually made the trip to Pasadena. It was a 1,900-mile drive, and you weren’t going to fly, not at those prices. So, we could only imagine the wonder of seeing the Gophers, at long last, running onto the plush greenery of the grand stadium on the floor of the spectacular canyon.
OK, we assumed the grass was green and the canyon was spectacular, but as I mentioned, it was black-and-white and a 21-inch tube supporting a screen with large margins.
It was two decades later, thanks to Mr. Schrader, that I was able to see this for myself. It was the return of the Hawkeyes, and it was fantastic.
The Pac-10 took care of its host duties at the Huntington Sheraton, a historic, sprawling hotel. What I still remember are Hawkeyes fans pulling up in Winnebago Chieftains, bounding out 10 or 12 strong, and the suspender-wearing driver in his 60s saying to an aging bellhop in front of the Huntington: “Hey, Bill, remember us — Wilbur and Delores from Decorah. We were here the last time and now this is our family.’’
The last time had been for the 1959 game; this was 23 years later.
Hayden Fry was the coach who brought back Iowa to the Rose Bowl. Fry and his opposing coach, Washington’s Don James, were brought to Tournament House — a mansion donated by the Wrigley family to the Tournament of Roses (parade and game) in the late ’50s. Fry showed off a ring with a gold-clustered “I’’ on a rich black background.
“When I was hired , an Iowa fan came up, handed me this ring and said, ‘Coach, if you take us to the Rose Bowl, I’m going to put big diamonds inside that ‘I,’ ” Fry said. “Well, here we are, and I haven’t seen that guy since.’ ’’
I was back for a half-dozen Rose Bowls, including Fry’s return after the 1985 season, when there was an “All-Iowa Picnic’’ at a huge events center in Culver City. So many Iowans — from back home and transplants to California — showed up that lines were 100 deep at the bars. A liquor store was in the front of the building, and by 8 o’clock it was sold out.
Iowans chugging Amaretto straight from the bottle … you had to be there.
The Rose Bowl was played without teams from the Big Ten and Pac-10 for the first time in 55 years on Jan. 3, 2002, when Miami (37) and Nebraska (14) played for the national championship.
All you have to know about the current Rose Bowl: Urban Meyer has been the dominant force in the Big Ten in seven seasons at Ohio State, and his Buckeyes will be in Pasadena on New Year’s for the first time Tuesday.
I’m not complaining about the playoff and previous attempts to crown a champion on the field.
I’m simply lamenting how great it was when there was nothing more in the football universe for a Big Ten team than playing in the Rose Bowl, in the world’s greatest stadium, in a setting as plush and spectacular as only could be imagined on the old Philco.