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The first Rose Bowl was one of the worst games ever

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Fittingly for this sport, the 1902 Rose Bowl was ugly as hell, made a lot of money, and spawned a tradition that lasted generations.

Michigan’s football team rides on a carriage in the 1902 Rose Parade at the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena.
Michigan’s football team rides on a carriage in the 1902 Rose Parade at the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena.
U-M Library Digital Collections. Bentley Image Bank, Bentley Historical Library. Accessed: December 27, 2019. Banner Society illustration.

Today, the Rose Bowl is college football’s most hallowed tradition. People who visit Pasadena fall over themselves to touch the stadium’s grass. The view of the California sunset is one of the sport’s defining visuals. It’s the only non-Playoff bowl to be the object of lifelong hopes and dreams.

And it all started with a terrible game.

It’s not only a wonder the Rose Bowl survived afterward; it’s a wonder bowl games survived. The 1902 Rose was the first bowl ever, and it would’ve been understandable if nobody wanted to try another after that.

The people who organized the first Rose Bowl wanted an East vs. West game. They did not seem that worried about having a good game.

It wasn’t called the Rose Bowl. The organizers of Pasadena’s annual Tournament of Roses parade thought it might be nice to bring another attraction to their event, so they organized the Tournament East-West game. The idea was to pit a well-known team from each half of the country.

The problem is that the top Eastern teams were far better than Western teams. About 32 years after Rutgers and Princeton invented “football” by playing violent soccer in New Jersey, football was still mostly an Easterner’s and Midwesterner’s game. USC started a team in 1888, and Stanford followed by 1891, playing at first without a coach, then with Walter Camp, then with a series of brief tenures.

Stanford wasn’t really a major-level program yet. The Cardinals (it was plural at the time) were 3-1-2 heading into the East-West game, fairly typical for them. They had 12-0 win over Nevada and a 2-0 loss to Cal. They’d won two and tied two against the Olympic Club and Reliance Club, two of the many non-colleges that faced college teams in those days.

It’s not clear the Tournament of Roses wanted Stanford because they thought Stanford was any good at football. A Los Angeles Times story from late October said the Tournament “proposes to have a match between two leading universities,” which makes it sound like an institutional prestige thing.

Stanford was still a young university but had a ton of money and was close enough to Pasadena, and Michigan was a big draw. The Cardinals not having a blue-blood team wasn’t a problem. Imagine some town today trying to boost tourism by having Ohio State visit the local FCS team, and you get it.

Organizers might have wanted nothing more than an East-West game that’d draw eyeballs and make the Tournament a big show. The game was part of a strategy to drive up the event’s revenue. The Tournament president said the event would cost $7,000, up from $3,000 the year before.

“We will have the finest exhibition of the kind that was ever given anywhere,” he told the Times in November 1901. “You can give a show if you have the money. We will have the money, and will spare no expense.”

The game would draw whichever Stanford opponent the Tournament wanted, he thought. He said organizers were considering Michigan, Carlisle, Chicago, and Georgetown. The Hoyas (or the Blue and Gray, as they were called) also weren’t anything special, which bolsters the idea that organizers weren’t focused on making this a quality game.

“They all jump at the chance of spending their Christmas holidays here,” he said, because the Tournament would pay expenses. “There will be at least 5,000 people at the game. We will have two handsome grands stands provided, with private boxes for those who care to pay for them.”

Indeed, the first bowl was primarily about making money. Nothing is new!

Weeks before the game, organizers decided on Michigan. This probably helped with the primary objective of making money. It did not promote competitive balance. Michigan was great, with a 10-0 record and a combined 501-0 scoring margin. People called the Wolverines the “Point-a-Minute Team.”

The Cardinals and Wolverines would play under the following rules: three downs to get five yards before a turnover, no forward passes, and TDs and field goals worth five points apiece (plus a PAT), all on a 110-yard field.

California media gamely talked themselves into thinking the Cardinals had a chance. The day before the game, the San Francisco Examiner wrote:

Captain Fisher of Stanford says that his men are in prime fettle, know the signals well and go through the different plays with careful thought. He thinks that, although Michigan is rated as the wonder of the age, with its long belt of scalps, with its immense score, with its incomparable coach [Fielding Yost] and its apparently invincible power Stanford will play in such improved form that the Wolverines will have to do some lively footwork in order to keep up time with the Cardinals’ music.

Narrator: That is not what happened.

The Wolverines delivered a brutal ass-kicking — both for Stanford and all who watched.

The Cardinals held up for a while. For the first 23 minutes or so, Michigan’s offense couldn’t move the ball. The Wolverines’ Everett Sweeley would punt 21 times, still a bowl record.

But the dam broke. Michigan’s Neil Snow scored a six-yard touchdown after Michigan got into scoring position via a 21-yard naked bootleg. The Wolverines followed with a field goal and a punt return TD to lead 17-0 at halftime. Snow scored four more touchdowns in the second half. His five total TDs remain tied for a bowl record.

Stanford couldn’t push the pigskin at all. The Cardinals ran just 24 offensive plays, fumbling on nine of them. (It is not clear from the box score maintained by Michigan’s library how many they recovered.) They gained 67 yards, compared to 527 for Michigan. The Wolverines’ edge in first downs was 27-5.

Leading 44-0 in the second half, Sweeley ripped off a 50-yard run on a fake kick. The Wolverines scored a few plays later to make it 49-0.

The Cardinals conceded with somewhere between five and eight minutes left, either because they were tired of getting pounded or it got dark, or both. Press accounts vary.

After that gruesome affair, there wasn’t another East-West game for 14 years.

There’s a common perception that the scale of the rout was so bad, the Tournament of Roses decided it did not like football. My research says that isn’t quite right, but the lopsidedness might’ve contributed to the East-West game not returning until New Year’s Day 1916.

While the Michigan-Stanford game was going on, fans enjoyed it! The Examiner wrote the next day that “vigorous applause greeted every good play, and though the score was large on one side, the spectators saw a good game and left the field in a happy frame of mind.”

The game was a financial success. The following September, the Times called the 1902 Tournament of Roses “probably the most successful ever held” and said it was “largely due” to football. Michigan’s archivists say the Tournament made a $3,162 profit on the whole event, close to $100,000 in 2020 money, all earned without TV and on a makeshift field the Tournament only acquired that year.

So, why wasn’t there another game until 1916?

Organizers tried to set one up a sequel for New Year’s Day 1903. In mid-December, they nearly locked in Wisconsin (9-0) and Utah (5-2-1).

People would’ve showed up, but as the Times put it, “the Mormon team will have about the same chance of stopping the onslaughts of the husky Badgers that a go-cart would of putting a locomotive out of business.”

How great the slaughter of the Utah boys will be is more easily imagined than figured, but it seems certain the Wisconsin eleven will be the whole show on the Pasadena gridiron on January 1. The game will nevertheless draw a large crowd of people, who are always anxious to witness the maneuvers of a really first-class team, but it is deeply regretted that they are not to compete with a team that is more nearly their equal.

There likely wasn’t overwhelming appetite to watch another blowout, especially one involving less glitzy universities than Michigan and Stanford.

The Wisconsin-Utah idea fell apart when the Badgers backed out. The Times reported in December 1902 “the faculty of the Badger school think enough rough-house has been made this year,” a pretty standard reservation at that time.

The Salt Lake Tribune, though, cited a dispatch from Madison that said Wisconsin pulled out because it didn’t think playing Utah would help its reputation in the West — especially after having not practiced since the end of November.

It would make sense if Wisconsin saw Michigan’s beatdown of Stanford a year earlier and figured there was little upside in jumping through logistical hoops only to risk losing to the Utes.

After Wisconsin backed out, the Tournament considered a contingency: having Utah play Pop Warner’s Carlisle of Central Pennsylvania. The American Indian school had an 8-3 record and a win over that Georgetown program the Tournament had considered a year prior.

“The management concluded that would not do,” the Los Angeles Evening Express reported.

“We hope to have a good polo game instead,” the new Tournament president said. “There are three crack polo aggregations in the state – at Santa Barbara, Riverside and San Francisco – and last night communications were sent to them.”

Polo and chariot races replaced football until the game returned 13 years later.

If Stanford hadn’t gotten so annihilated, perhaps Wisconsin would’ve seen more to gain by playing Utah in 1903. Or maybe the suits would’ve been fine having Carlisle play Utah, rather than insist on a big-brand opponent.

Eventually, the game did come back. It became the Rose Bowl, and now it happens in a beautiful stadium instead of on a makeshift lot.

The origin story is deeply fitting for college football: