In 1948, Michigan finished the season with a perfect 9-0 record, having outscored their opponents 252-44. The Wolverines easily won the AP Poll’s national championship vote, but they did not travel to Pasadena to represent the Big Nine (Michigan State hadn’t joined yet) in the Rose Bowl. That honor went to Northwestern, a team Michigan had beaten 28-0. The culprit was, to put it bluntly, some extremely Big Ten shit: a no-repeat rule.
Despite Michigan’s presence at the first Rose Bowl in 1902 (wherein they absolutely sandblasted Stanford), the Big Ten didn’t have a formal arrangement with the game itself until the 1940s. Before then, teams from all over served as the East representative: Pitt, Alabama, Georgia Tech, Navy, and so forth. The Big Ten largely stayed out of postseason play altogether; Ohio State played in the 1921 Rose Bowl, but that was the only other bowl appearance the conference made before 1947.
When the Big Nine agreed in 1946 to start sending its champion to the Rose Bowl, it added a stipulation. Once a team went to the Rose, it couldn’t get the invitation the next year – the no-repeat rule. (The Pacific Coast Conference had a no-repeat rule for a while as well, though it disappeared in 1959 when the conference dissolved and re-formed as the Athletic Association of Western Universities.)
Technically, it was even stricter than that to start; a Rose Bowl team couldn’t return to the game for the next two years. This was known as the double no-repeat rule, which might be the most made-up parliamentary rules of order name one could come up with. Theoretically, this rule could have forced the Rose Bowl to welcome the Big Nine’s bronze medalist, if both the champion and the runner up had represented the conference in the last two Rose Bowls. Regrettably, this situation never came to pass.
And while the conference did eventually reduce the double no-repeat to a standard no-repeat (don’t say they’ve never been merciful!), that rule remained in place until 1971. They had to use it on three occasions:
- 1948, with that Michigan team I mentioned at the beginning of this post.
- 1955, when Ohio State went undefeated in the conference but Michigan State got the Rose bid instead.
- 1966, when Michigan State’s fortune flipped as they went undefeated and a Purdue team they’d beaten by three touchdowns went to the Rose Bowl instead.
(The 1962 Rose Bowl also featured a second-place Big Ten team, though that was the result of a faculty vote at Ohio State that kept the Buckeyes from accepting the invitation, just one of many Big Ten moves that potentially altered national championships throughout history.)
This stubborn adherence to a pointless rule yielded one tragedy and one comedy.
In the tragedy department, the no-repeat rule didn’t just keep Big Ten champs out of the Rose Bowl. It kept them out of any bowl game, because the conference also had a rule preventing more than one team from playing in a postseason contest. ‘48 Michigan and ‘55 Ohio State and ‘66 Michigan State didn’t get stuck in the Fiesta or Sugar or some other non-granddaddy game. They just stayed home. It wasn’t until 1975 that the Big Ten started sending multiple teams to the postseason. The SEC, by comparison, had been doing the same thing since the 1930s, and in 1974 alone they put seven teams into bowls.
On the comedy side, every one of the runners-up that benefited from the no-repeat rule took advantage by beating their West Coast opponent. Northwestern beat undefeated Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl, Michigan State kicked the game-winning field goal with seven seconds left to beat UCLA in the 1956 game, and Purdue beat USC by one in the 1967 Rose Bowl when they intercepted a two-point conversion attempt by the Trojans in the fourth quarter.
My colleague Holly Anderson has but one criticism of this system: It wasn’t cartoonishly restrictive enough. A conference truly committed to fairness and everyone-gets-a-turn-itude would have put all its teams on a Rose Bowl rotation, where nobody could play a second time until every school had made a trip. Imagine saying “Sorry, Penn State*, you can’t go to the Rose Bowl because Maryland hasn’t had a chance yet.” That’d be some amazing Big Ten.
*Not this year, obviously.