1902 Rose Bowl: First College Bowl Game

Eleven Stanford University football players set in formation with center waiting to snap ball to quarterback. Cartoon illustration bracketing either side of main photo.

Stanford Eleven in formation. San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), November 9, 1901.

For college football fans, the end of year means bowl games! To get you into full football mode, let’s take a look at how the very first bowl game, the “Granddaddy of Them All,” got off the ground.

The 1902 Tournament of Roses football game, known today as the Rose Bowl, was the first post-season college football game or “bowl” game ever played. From its inception in 1890 through 1901, the Tournament of Roses Parade, held each New Year’s Day in Pasadena, California, featured post-parade athletic activities like donkey races and bicycle races, but no football. The parade, for the most part, was a local affair garnering little national attention. That was all about to change.

Black and white illustration of cyclists riding in pairs in the Tournament of Roses parade passing beneath a pedestrian bridge.

Bicyclists in Tournament of Roses parade. The Herald (Los Angeles, CA), January 2, 1898.

In October 1901, James Wagner, newly elected president of the Tournament of Roses Association, proposed an afternoon “football match between two leading universities of the country” (Los Angeles Times, 1901, Oct. 30, p. 15) and better yet, the Roses Association would cover all lodging and travel expenses for both teams. Wagner had recently moved to the West Coast from New York and had never attended the Tournament of Roses Parade, hence his bold move, perhaps.

Left image: Wagner: Portrait head and shoulder of Roses Association president. Right image: Newspaper clipping entitled, “Football at Pasadena” James R. H. Wagner

Left image: Portrait of James R.H. Wagner. Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), October 30, 1901. Right image: San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), November 13, 1901.

Stanford University, champions of the “Pacific Coast Universities” with a regular season record of 3 wins, 2 tie games, and 1 loss, was the first to accept the Association’s invitation. Makes sense to have at least one team representing the host state. The Western Conference (now the Big Ten) champions, undefeated University of Michigan Wolverines (11-0), jumped at the chance to ditch the frozen tundra of Ann Arbor for the sunny skies of Pasadena.

Left image: Newspaper clipping entitled “Feeling at Mich…students redhot for one” (a post-season game)' Right image: Newspaper clipping indicating Stanford onboard for Rose Bowl game and list of possible opponents

Left image: Minneapolis Journal (Minneapolis, MN), October 26, 1901. Right image: Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), November 4, 1901.

Oddly enough, Michigan’s selection was not a foregone conclusion. Several other university squads, including the Carlisle Indian School coached by legend Glenn “Pop” Warner, University of Chicago, and Georgetown University, were considered before Michigan made the final cut. (L.A. Times, 1901, Nov. 4, p. 11). Michigan quickly became the frontrunner likely due to a couple of factors unrelated to their stellar record on the gridiron. First, Wagner was originally from Michigan and it just so happens that the color theme chosen for the parade was blue and gold. Wolverine colors are maize (yellow) and blue. Coincidence? I think not. Oh, and did I forget to mention that he reserved 100 seats for members of the Michigan Society of Southern California?

Left image: Newspaper clipping mentioning that Wagner is a from Michigan; Right image: Newspaper clipping indicating official Roses parade colors, yellow and blue

First image: Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), December 21, 1901. Second image: San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), December 30, 1901.

Second, Fielding Yost was not only the first-year head coach for Michigan, but also the former coach of, you guessed it, Stanford’s football squad the previous season. In addition, Yost had been expressing interest in a postseason match-up with Stanford since March when he was tapped as Michigan’s new coach.

With the teams set, the hype and speculation went into high gear. Based on the numbers alone, one would wager that the Cardinal’s chances of winning were slim to none, right? Well, that’s mostly true with some oddsmakers betting that Stanford would not score at all against Michigan. However, others thought that an upset was possible for a couple of reasons, both related to Michigan’s ability to cope with conditions in Pasadena: 1. adjusting to warm southern California temperatures so soon after arriving from frigid Ann Arbor and 2. playing on a dusty, “pavement-like adobe” field as opposed to the turf they were accustomed to back East. A writer for the San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA) posited that “[T]he Michigan men are as much out of their native element as a whale on land.

Newspaper clipping featuring illustration of football play mid-stride and text underneath detailing 10 to 1 odds that Stanford will not score at all.

Illustration of football player on the run with betting odds indicated in text below. San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), January 1, 1902.

With a 10-0 regular season record outscoring their opponents 501-0, including a 128-0 rout over the University of Buffalo, Yost and his vaunted Michigan Wolverines arrived in sunny Pasadena, California on December 26th from the frozen tundra of Ann Arbor determined to win. Practice began immediately with players given “light work every morning on the golf links” followed by football at Sportsman’s Park where the game would take place in the afternoon. The only real adjustment the players had to make was wearing regular shoes, because “they started so fast in getting into play that they broke their cleats in the soft sand.”

Michigan football team in action with the quarterback handing off the ball and two tackle up front ready to block

Michigan team in action. San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), January 1, 1902.

Stanford engaged in two practices per day and in the evenings teammates would go over game strategy and devise new plays. Though when queried by the San Francisco Chronicle about their chances of winning, the Cardinal captain was “unwilling to state explicitly what are his exact expectations” (1901, Dec. 28, p. 8).

Newspaper clipping headlined “Football Teams Training Hard”

San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, CA), December 28, 1901.

On New Year’s Day 1902, over 7000 fans packed into Sportsman’s Field to watch Michigan rout Stanford 49-0, well surpassing the Roses Association’s predicted turnout of 5000 spectators. Michigan was held scoreless for the first 20 mins of the opening half, but hammered Stanford’s defensive line so hard Cardinal defensive end Clark was injured and out for the rest of the game. After that, it was all Michigan. Star fullback Neil Snow scored the first touchdown and that was just the first of three plus a field goal scored by the side. By halftime, the score was 17-0.

In the second half, despite superb tackling by Stanford left tackle (LT) William “Bill” Traeger, the Wolverines bulldozed their way to victory, gaining an average of 10-20 yards per play on “fake passes, fake kicks, and every other known football device”. The newspapers describe the second half as an “exhibition in fast football…so fast and fierce was their play that Stanford was bewildered and knew not how to stop the encroachment on her goal” (San Francisco Call, 1902, Jan 2, p. 5).

Newspaper headline: Michigan’s Team Routs the Cardinal above illustration of football players in action with inset headshots of Michigan center, George Gregory and Coach Fielding Yost

Michigan defeats Stanford 49-0. San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), January 2, 1902.

Very few were surprised by the outcome of the game. It’s worth noting again that during the 1901 regular season Michigan did not give up a single touchdown, field goal, or safety. Also it is important to remember that the rules of football in 1902 were very different from today in several ways:

  1. Forward pass was not legal yet. It became regulation in 1906
  2. Each team was only given three downs to advance five yards for a first down. Today it’s four downs for 10 yards
  3. Touchdowns (TD) and field goals (FG) were worth five points each. Today TDs are worth six points (7 with point after kick) each and FGs three points.
  4. The field was 110 yards long from goal line to goal line. Today it’s 100 yards

In addition, players played both sides of the ball (offense and defense) with very few substitutions. To learn more about the rules, check out the Library of Congress’ historical issues of Official Foot Ball Rules, including the 1906 edition.

You might think that an event this popular would be repeated the following year, but no. Apparently, due to the lopsided score, the Roses Association had a hard time convincing tourists to come back for a football game (Jessop, 2013). The following year Tournament spectators were stuck with chariot races instead. Pasadena did not host New Year’s Day college football game again until 1916 when the game finally became the annual fixture that it is today.

Newspaper clipping indicating that Roman chariot races will be featured as part of the 1905 Tournament of Roses festivities

San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), December 4, 1904.

Any discussion of Rose Bowl history cannot end without mentioning its most famous feature–the stadium. Designed by architect and Pasadena resident Myron Hunt, the Rose Bowl Stadium was completed in 1922, likely based on the largest football stadium at the time, the Yale Bowl at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. The stadium was originally shaped like a horseshoe until it was filled in with additional seats in 1928.

Photo of two men looking at construction of additional seats at the south end of Rose Bowl stadium in 1928.

Construction of South End, View South, 1928 – Rose Bowl Stadium, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. [Select Image button to view]

On October 28, 1922, while still under construction, the University of California Golden Bears and the University of Southern California Trojans battled it out on the gridiron of the new stadium. The Tournament of Roses Association took over the stadium on November 1, 1922. The Rose Bowl Stadium was dedicated on January 1, 1923, and ushered in the first official Rose Bowl Game pitting the USC Trojans against the Penn State University Nittany Lions.

Rose Bowl Football Game, View Northeast, 1923 - Rose Bowl Stadium

Rose Bowl Football Game, View Northeast, 1923 – Rose Bowl Stadium, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. [Select Image button to view]

Discover More

Search Chronicling America* for more historical newspaper coverage of the Rose Bowl. Pro-tip: When searching in Chronicling America, be sure to try the following search terms: “Tournament of Roses,” “Roses Association,” “Pasadena bowl,” and “Rose Bowl” in order to get the most thorough results.

*The Chronicling America online collection of historic newspapers is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program that is jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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