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1902: The First Rose Bowl and Its Revolutionary Impact on College Football’s Postseason

Another college football history, this time centered around the first “bowl game”, the East-West Tournament game in Pasadena, California in 1902 between Michigan and Stanford.

This game has shaped the entire college football postseason for over a century. Funny how it all came about.


“Explore the origins of the Tournament of Roses and its pivotal role in shaping college football history with Jon Johnston in Hardcore College Football History. The journey begins in 1890 with the Pasadena Valley Hunt Club’s inaugural Tournament of Roses, a spectacle of sports and floral pageantry in Pasadena, California. Witness the evolution from a local festival featuring races and contests into a national phenomenon, as the Rose Parade captivates audiences across America.

Delve into the early 1900s, where the rise of college football intersects with the Tournament of Roses, leading to the historic East-West Football Game. Discover the game-changing 1902 match between Stanford and Michigan, a defining moment that set the stage for future bowl games. This video uncovers the challenges, transitions, and triumphs of the tournament, including the transition to rugby in California and the eventual return of football with the iconic Rose Bowl stadium.

In this comprehensive account, Johnston brings to life the enduring legacy of the Tournament of Roses, its impact on the college football postseason, and how it reflects broader changes in the sport, including the recent shift to a 12-team playoff system and NIL contracts. Join us in celebrating a century-old tradition that continues to shape the landscape of college football. Don’t forget to subscribe and share with fellow college football enthusiasts!”

Full Transcript:

The Los Angeles Times on December 19th, 1889 declared a great occasion and that the Pasadena Valley Hunt Club would be holding new festivities on New Year’s Day, 1890.

The festivities would be called the Tournament of Roses, and as the Times stated, “The object of the tournament is to afford amusement of a novel kind to the Pasadena’s, including the little ones, as well as to the hundreds of strangers who are wintering here.” The sports will begin in the morning at about 10 o’clock. It will be called the Tournament of Roses because the contestants in the various events will be designated by the color of the rose they wear.

The visitors who come in vehicles are expected to deck them gaily with flowers. The grandstand will be trimmed with a profusion of roses and oranges and bouquets, and will be dispensed freely among the crowd. Among the events to be included in the tournament are Bronco and Donkey races, a polo match on donkeys for a cup, bicycle and running foot races for boys and men, running races for horses, knights riding for rings, hurdle races for horses and men on foot, a tug of war and a sack race.

Handsome prizes of saddles, bridles, riding boots, whips and spurs will urge on a contestant to great deeds of daring, as will also the much desired applause of the fair ones who are sure to be present in large number. And while this isn’t the Rose Bowl, the first bowl game, it is the establishment of the Women of Roses in 1890, which is germane to our conversation. I’m John Johnston and this is Hardcore College Football History.

The grand entertainment was held at Tournament Park in Pasadena, California and attended by over 2,000 people, although other articles referenced as many as 3,500 were on hand. On Thursday, January 2, 1890, the Los Angeles Times stated that the stands were filled with “beautiful ladies and handsome men.” A great throng of ladies, gentlemen and children filled the grounds with hundreds of carriages within the enclosure. A 100 yard foot race was won in 11 1 quarter seconds by Charles V. Howard. Participants won prizes such as the aforementioned, along with medals, engravings and at least a couple people walked away with a $30 shotgun.

The event was such a success they decided to keep doing it on a yearly basis.

In 1900, the Rose Parade was shown in movie theaters across the nation. People from other states saw the film of the parade, which made many of them want to leave their cold weather state to travel to California and see it in person.

So imagine you’re sitting in Minnesota, it’s 10 degrees, and you see a film of other people in January celebrating with a parade and an unbelievable number of roses and flowers that are in blossom.

You have to believe what sorcery is this. That must be paradise.

The urge to see it has to be incredibly strong.

By 1902, the Pasadena Valley Hunt Club had given way to the Tournament of Roses Association.

College football had grown to the point that the association wanted to stage a football game to attract even more visitors.

They wanted to include one team from the west coast and another team from east of the Mississippi.

The game would be called the Tournament East West Football Game. The University of Southern California, USC, is the closest college football team to Pasadena.

The USC played only one game in 1901, a 6-0 loss to Pomona College. The University of California, Berkeley, was also close to Pasadena. Cal had gone 9-0-1 in 1901, but only one of its games were against an actual college team, Stanford, and it had won that game 2-0. If you’re wondering about UCLA, they wouldn’t start playing football until 1919. The organizers chose Stanford.

Stanford had gone 3-2-1 in 1901, beating Olympic Club, Reliance Athletic Club, and Nevada State in the process.

They’d lost to Cal 2-0 in the big game, but they were willing to play and that’s all it took.

Michigan was chosen as the West Team.

Michigan was coached by Fielding Yost. Yost had coached Stanford the year before, going 7-2-1. At Michigan, he was to become legend. For more, see my video about Yost and his 1901-1905 point-a-minute teams. Going into the game against Stanford, Michigan had won all 10 of its games and had not given up a single point, whereas they had scored 501 points on offense.

Wins included 128-0 win against Buffalo and a 50-0 win against Iowa on Thanksgiving in Chicago. Michigan’s offense was very prolific. From the San Francisco Examiner on January 1, 1902 is a section of an article that says Michigan expects to execute formations at the rate of 9-a-minute. Stanford promises to stop these plays before they get started. That basically means they’re going to run plays at a rate of 9 per minute. That is amazing.

James Wagner, president of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association, wasn’t very confident about Stanford’s chances. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle on December 6, 1901, Wagner stated, “I think that Stanford stands a good chance of scoring against the Michigan team.

That in itself would be a victory, as no team has been able to do that against Michigan this year. The Easterners will come out of zero weather into humid weather, and I think that this change gives Stanford all the more chance of scoring. I believe Stanford will be as strong as any team that Michigan has played this year.” It was a good game for the first 23 minutes. Then Michigan scored. In a section called Cardinals Lose Heart, the Los Angeles Times tells us, “The touchdowns seem to mark the end of equal struggle. Stanford lost heart. Then later.” It was not until Stanford went to pieces in the second half that it was possible for the Michigan players to pile up the score almost at will. The final score was Michigan 49, Stanford 0. Estimates vary widely, but up to 8,500 people attended. Halfback Neal Snow rushed for five touchdowns, setting a bowl record that still stands today. Kings Everett Sweeley kicked four field goals and punted 21 times another still standing record in a bowl.

Many stories about this game state, mostly from the Michigan side, that with eight minutes left in the game, Stanford’s captain said his team was too exhausted to continue. So Stanford asked for the game to end early, so it did.

I could not find any references to this in the articles I researched, the newspaper articles. I found articles that stated the game was called On Account of Darkness.

Because the first Rose Bowl was such a blowout, there wasn’t another East West football tournament game for 14 years. The Rose Festival featured other sports to replace football. Competitions include chariot races, ostrich races, and polo. The Tournament of Roses Association had to pay for the travel and expenses for teams to play at tournament park. The 1902 massacre left them with the risk that people wouldn’t attend the games and they’d lose a bunch of money. Now there was the possibility of a game in 1903, but the organizers could find no takers. Wisconsin looked like a promising candidate, and Wisconsin’s faculty had approved them to play in the game, provided the game was against Cal or Stanford.

Cal and Stanford were the only schools playing high-level football in California at the time, and even those teams played more games against local athletic clubs than they did other universities.

Cal and Stanford both declined. Going to a bowl game at the end of the season wasn’t seen as the reward it would be in later years, and they wanted no part of another team east of the Mississippi after Stanford being smashed the year before. Both Cal and Stanford dropped football for rugby in 1906 because of the 1905 football crisis. See the video about the 1905 crisis for more on that as well.

Most other colleges and high schools in California followed suit so there would be no football in California for which to hold an east-west tournament game. Cal would not resume playing football until 1915.

Stanford waited until 1918.

The Tournament of Roses Bowl game returned in 1916 when Washington State beat Brown, 14-0 at Tournament Park. It wasn’t officially called the Rose Bowl until the stadium opened in 1922, and the first Rose Bowl game was played on New Year’s Day with USC beating Penn State 14-3. So there you have it. The entire college football postseason as it’s been for a century or more started because a club in Pasadena, California wanted to have festivities, but more than that they wanted people in cold places to come visit their warm city in winter. They began playing football games on New Year’s Day that then became bowl games as the football postseason evolved over the years, and other cities realized they could attract tons of fans from cold weather cities to their warm weather cities to watch football and spend their hard earned cash. 2024 represents an incredible change in college football, an expanded 12-team playoff system, and players being paid through nil contracts.

The bowls are still with us and likely will be for a while for the simple fact that they still make money. Even if they are not well attended, they still get more viewers than most of the programs on TV and therefore still have value. The impact of the Tournament of the Roses started in 1890, and the first East West Tournament football game in 1902 are still with us today. I’m Jon Johnston with Hardcore College Football. I hope you like these videos. Please subscribe and share with your friends that like college football. Maybe they’ll like history too. I would like to grow and be able to do more seat research to provide you with even better videos.

Thank you.