The End of an Era

There was a time when there were no New Year’s Day football bowl games to watch or listen to on the radio. There weren’t even bowl-shaped stadiums to host them. In fact, what we call bowl games today weren’t called that. Records have been changed to “grandfather in” major New Year’s Day games that were played in this primordial period .

Needing a place to accommodate large crowds to its football games–the schools referred to as Ivy League today were football powers back then and attracted more spectators than just the players’ parents and alumni living locally—Yale University broke ground for a stadium with a seating capacity of 70,896 in 1913. It opened for the 1914 36-0 drubbing by rival Harvard. More than 68,000 spectators nearly filled the new stadium, named The Yale Bowl because of its bowl-like configuration.

After Washington State’s upset of Brown in 1916, the New Year’s Day contest between eastern and western powers in Pasadena became an annual event. But it didn’t have a proper home. When the game’s future seemed certain, the City of Pasadena acquired land in Arroyo Seco on which to build a football stadium. They broke ground in February 1922. Construction was completed in October of that year. The horseshoe-shaped facility was called “Tournament of Roses Stadium” or “Tournament of Roses Bowl” prior to the 1923 New Year’s game. It was then officially named “Rose Bowl” as a reference to the Yale Bowl, although it wasn’t a bowl at that time. But it would accommodate 57.000 spectators.

The first game played in the new stadium was the regular-season meeting of the University of California (Cal) and University of Southern California (USC). Cal won 12-0 but declined the invitation to defend the honor of the West on the upcoming New Year’s Day. USC, having the Cal loss as the only blemish on her record, accepted the invitation to defend against the Eastern interloper, 6-2-1 Penn State. The Nittany Lions’ head coach, Hugo Bezdek, was no stranger to Pasadena. He had taken his Oregon team to victory there in 1917 and again in 1918 when some of his old players, then preparing for combat in WWI, got him to coach their Mare Island Marines team for that game. He wasn’t so successful in 1923 because USC prevailed 14-3.

Over the years, the Rose Bowl was expanded to become a complete bowl and seating was increased to 104,594 (later reduced to 92,542). The number of bowl games (few of which were played in actual bowl stadiums) expanded over the years to 26. However, the rise of the FCS playoffs has impacted the bowl games significantly. The 2024 expansion to twelve teams in the playoffs, with the Rose Bowl probably hosting a quarter-finals game, brings an end to the Rose Bowl’s prominence.

The 2023 game ends the 100-year-long sequence of significant games, broken only by World War II, in the Rose Bowl. It is only fitting that Penn State is again the eastern contender as it was in 1923. Their head coach, James Franklin, lost his first appearance in the Rose Bowl to USC in 2017, also on January 2nd. It is a sad, but fitting, end to a great run for Penn State to bookend the birth of the stadium and the end of its glory.

The Rose Bowl under construction.
Note the horseshoe shape.
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