First Rose Bowl Game

When the University of Michigan won a lopsided victory over Stanford University in the first “bowl” game in college football, organizers decided not to repeat the competition. However, an annual New Year’s game between western and eastern teams resumed in 1916. Eventually named the Rose Bowl Game, this event spawned many additional bowl games that made football a major part of the New Year’s Day celebrations across the United States.

Summary of Event

In 1890, residents of Pasadena, California, a town about seven miles northeast of Los Angeles that boasted a modest population of about five thousand, began attempting to attract free-spending visitors from the frigid Midwest and Northeast by staging an annual New Year’s Day spectacle. The event featured a parade in which horses and carriages were adorned with roses and other flowers, followed by such activities as footraces, polo games, greased-pig chases, and a Spanish game called the “tourney of rings,” which would later supply the name for the “Tournament of Roses.” Rose Bowl Game
Football;bowl games
[kw]First Rose Bowl Game (Jan. 1, 1902)
[kw]Rose Bowl Game, First (Jan. 1, 1902)
[kw]Game, First Rose Bowl (Jan. 1, 1902)
Rose Bowl Game
Football;bowl games
[g]United States;Jan. 1, 1902: First Rose Bowl Game[00390]
[c]Sports;Jan. 1, 1902: First Rose Bowl Game[00390]
Yost, Fielding Harris
Heston, William M.
Snow, Neil

In 1901, the Tournament of Roses Association Tournament of Roses Association decided that a game of football, a sport that was growing in popularity across much of the country, might induce larger numbers of people to visit from the eastern half of the country, especially if the contest featured an eastern team. Consequently, the association looked for two teams that would offer an appealing contest, one from the East, the other from the West. After much deliberation, organizers settled on Stanford University (the nearby team from the University of Southern California had done little to distinguish itself on the gridiron that year) and the powerful University of Michigan squad, generally considered the best team in the country.

Michigan, coached by Fielding Harris “Hurry-Up” Yost (whose nickname conveyed his intensity) had won all of its ten games in 1901, outscoring its opponents 501-0. Michigan was known as the “point-a-minute” team because of its overwhelming offensive production. Stanford, by contrast, was hardly a powerhouse, having won only half of its six games, but it possessed an especially attractive characteristic: Its previous coach, who had been pushed out after the 1900 season, had been Fielding Yost. The organizers of the event thought that Yost’s close connection to both teams would spark great interest, and they also hoped that Stanford’s experience with Yost’s coaching technique would offer the team an advantage that might make up for its comparatively lackluster track record.

The Michigan team had to travel by train for a week to reach Pasadena. Their trip, however, was made more pleasant by the thirty-five hundred dollars each team received, the three-dollar daily food allowance for each of Michigan’s players, and the chance to escape the deep snow covering the Midwest as the team departed for the West. After arriving, the Michigan players were featured in the parade, in which they were clad in new football uniforms and waved Michigan banners from a large carriage. The Stanford players also participated in the parade.

Thousands of spectators lined the route to Tournament Park on the campus of Throop Polytechnic Institute (now the California Institute of Technology) on a warm New Year’s Day; the temperature reached the high eighties. Although the stadium had seating for only one thousand, approximately eighty-five hundred spectators pushed into the park to watch the game, which was billed as a contest between the champions of the East and West.

Despite Michigan’s impressive offense, Stanford held its own in the early part of the game, and for twenty-three minutes, neither team scored. Three times, Stanford stopped Michigan one foot from the end zone, but Michigan finally broke a long play. From the thirty-yard line, Michigan ran a sweep to the right with halfback William M. “Willie” Heston carrying the ball. Suddenly, Heston reversed direction while the rest of the team continued right. This play would be named the “naked reverse” because the ball carrier runs uncovered, or unprotected, by teammates. The move took Stanford’s defenders by surprise, and Heston reached the nine-yard line before being shoved out of bounds. Three plays later, All-American fullback Neil Snow powered his way from the six-yard line to the goal line for the first touchdown of the game, giving Michigan a 5-0 lead. According to the rules at that time, touchdowns and field goals both earned five points, and the extra point made the score 6-0. For the rest of the first half, Stanford remained scoreless, while Michigan gradually began to dominate. After a field goal by Ev Sweely, end Chris Redden returned a twenty-five-yard punt for a touchdown. The point-after kick made the halftime score 17-0.

Michigan continued to dominate throughout the second half. Neil Snow carried for four more touchdowns, scoring on runs of two, eight, seventeen, and four yards, and the other halfback, Al Herrenstein, scored the final touchdown from twenty yards out. Several missed kicks after touchdowns kept the score under 50, but just barely. With Michigan leading 49-0 and about eight minutes left to play, Stanford captain Ralph Fisher offered to concede the inevitable, and Michigan captain Hugh White accepted. The Stanford team was not only hopelessly behind but also exhausted and injured. Guard William Roosevelt, a second cousin to President Theodore Roosevelt, had played fifteen minutes on a broken leg before being driven out of the game by broken ribs. Michigan, however, was unfazed, despite the team’s lack of familiarity with playing in such warm weather and its long train ride to reach Pasadena.

Furthermore, the starting eleven players had played the entire game without any substitutions. Heston gained 170 yards on just eighteen carries, and Snow rushed for 107 yards and five touchdowns, establishing a Rose Bowl record for touchdowns that endured into the twenty-first century. Altogether, Michigan gained 527 yards rushing against Stanford’s 67 and racked up twenty-seven first downs to Stanford’s five. (There was no passing yardage because the forward pass had not yet been legalized.) In addition, the crushing Michigan defense, as good as its offense, recovered nine of Stanford’s fumbles, while the Michigan offense lost the ball only once.

The game also proved a winner for the Tournament of Roses Association, which netted a profit of more than three thousand dollars even after paying the two teams. Nonetheless, the lopsided score convinced the organizers that future audiences might anticipate another mismatched contest and would turn out in smaller numbers. The association was also concerned by the threat of another large, unruly crowd, and so it decided not to stage another football game in 1903. Other events were featured instead, including a polo match in 1903 and Ben-Hur-style chariot races from 1904 through 1915. Football games between the East and West resumed in 1916.


The 1902 New Year’s Day game set the stage for the later institution of the game as an annual event. The contest was moved into a new 57,000-seat stadium in Pasadena in 1923; the stadium was christened the Rose Bowl, and the game was named the Rose Bowl Game. In the 1930’s, other warm-weather locales imitated the Rose Bowl contest by creating similar New Year’s bowls: the Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Sun Bowl, and Cotton Bowl. Eventually, dozens of bowl games would spread over several weeks from mid-December through early January.

Except for the most prestigious bowl games, excellence was no longer a criterion for a bowl invitation. Organizers and teams alike viewed the bowls as moneymakers, and the visibility created by televised bowl games helped teams recruit high school athletes. Starting in 1998, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system was put into place to determine the Division I-A national football championship. Four bowls (the Rose, Orange, Sugar, and Fiesta Bowls) rotated through a four-year cycle in which each stadium hosted the Bowl Championship Series national championship game, the final bowl game of the season. By the twenty-first century, bowl games had become big business and a major part of the holiday season for many Americans. Rose Bowl Game
Football;bowl games

Further Reading

  • MacCambridge, Michael, ed. ESPN College Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of the Game. New York: ESPN Books, 2005. Massive volume includes a history of the bowls and a year-by-year record of each football team.
  • Ours, Robert M. Bowl Games: College Football’s Greatest Tradition. Yardley, Pa.: Westholme, 2004. Provides in-depth analysis of the history and significance of the bowl games.
  • Stiles, Maxwell. The Rose Bowl: A Complete Action and Pictorial Exposition of Rose Bowl Football. Los Angeles: Sportsmaster, 1946. Early work remains valuable for its history of the early years of the Rose Bowl.
  • Whittingham, Richard. Rites of Autumn: The Story of College Football. New York: Free Press, 2001. A companion to the ten-hour television series presenting the history of college football since 1901. Includes a chapter on the bowls.

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