December 27, 2012

Behind the Close-Up: the 1962 Rose Bowl

If there was anything particularly notable about the 1962 Rose Bowl, you’d think a native Minnesotan would have heard about it. That game occupies a somewhat exalted position in the history of Minnesota sports, being the last time the University of Minnesota went to the Rose Bowl* (or any major bowl for that matter); and while the game doesn’t approach the historical significance of the 1961 game, which featured the Gophers’ beloved national championship team, it still remains a high point in Gopher football. And besides, that championship team was defeated in the Rose Bowl by Washington, whereas the ’62 team was victorious over UCLA.

*A drought so long that every team in the Big Ten – including Northwestern, the league’s longtime doormat, and Nebraska, which didn’t even join the Big Ten until last year – has been to the Rose Bowl since Minnesota’s last appearance.

So, at best, one might look at the 1962 Rose Bowl as a historical footnote; interesting, perhaps, to Minnesotans, but otherwise no more, or less, special than most editions of that storied game. And unless I miss my mark, that’s what Professor Kurt Kemper thought as well, at least until one day…

“In particular, I just found a fragment one time in a popular history about UCLA football where they happened to note that UCLA had threatened to boycott the Rose Bowl. I had grown up in Los Angeles as a UCLA fan, and I had never heard this before. It astounded me. The more I went looking, the more and more I found, and it just sort of morphed into this whole project.”

That project is Kemper’s book College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era, and the Rose Bowl in question is the 1962 game. Kemper’s book doesn’t deal with television per se, but as is often the case, this listing from TV Guide belies a tumultuous current of social change, lurking just under the surface, ready to burst forth.

***

The 1962 Rose Bowl was shaping up to be a unique one.  The longtime contract between the Big Ten and Pacific 8* to send their champions to the game had expired, and there was reason to believe that it would not be renewed in time for the 1962 game - if in fact it was renewed at all.  For this reason, the Rose Bowl committee had unusually "wide latitude" in selecting the game's participants.

*The game's host conference underwent many name changes throughout the years, being known as the Pacific Coast Conference and the Athletic Association of Western Universities before settling down as the Pacific 8, later to become the Pacific 10 and Pacific 12, depending on how many schools were in the conference at the time.
  
The stakes were high.  Rose Bowl was considered the "grandaddy of them all."  It was the first bowl game, and by far the most prestigious.  For many years it was understood that the Rose Bowl winner was the champion team of the year, and even after the introduction and maturity of the other "Big Four" bowl games - the Sugar, Cotton and Orange - the Rose Bowl remained the gold standard.  It was played in the largest stadium, before the largest crowd, with the largest radio (and later television) audience.  When discussions of a national championship playoff first started, it was a given that the championship game would be played at the Rose Bowl.

The game started out matching the West coast champion against the best team from the East, and as the game grew in stature and lore, it became every young boy's dream to one day play in it.  Teams from around the country had competed for the honor of playing in Pasadena - programs as storied as Notre Dame and Alabama had won there, but so had the Ivy League's Harvard and Columbia, and tiny Washington & Jefferson had played mighty California to a scoreless tie in 1922.

The Rose Bowl’s ties to the Big Ten were not in fact that deep, only dating back to the 1947 game, and the conference's initial involvement was actually quite controversial; one sportswriter pointed out that the arrangement made the Rose Bowl in essence a “closed shop,” cutting off those dreams of young football players who had the misfortune of not playing for one of the ten Midwestern schools in the conference.. Read in this light, one could see that the possibility of looking outside the Big Ten for an participant was not necessarily the worst thing that could happen to the game.

Likewise, the Big Ten wasn't all that crazy about committing to the game.  This sentiment was especially strong at Ohio State, where many of the professors had come to see the athletic department as having undue influence over the university as a whole.  This is especially important within the Cold War context of the time; Kemper notes regarding the opposition from faculty members (particularly in the Humanities department), "They really thought that this was the Republic’s hour of need, that this was a period of great peril for the nation and that this was the type of service that university personnel could offer: to study the problems of society. They thought these efforts were really being hindered by the university’s obsession with football." Before the drama of the 1962 Rose Bowl was through, they would be heard from.

Many teams were mentioned as possible Rose Bowl contenders, but the focus of the game’s organizers eventually settled on two powerful Southern teams: Alabama and Louisiana State.  Both schools had powerful incentives for playing in the game: Alabama had a history in the Rose Bowl, having played there six times in the past (winning four); LSU was eager to break out of the Sugar Bowl rut into which they had fallen.  Excitement about the possibility of a Rose Bowl appearance was high on both campuses and, initially, among West Coast football fans as well. Fred Neil of the Los Angeles Herald-Express wrote, "The sportswriters' No. 1 choice is Alabama because everyone thinks they have a better team. I think they (the Rose Bowl) will look favorably on LSU. The Big Ten teams under consideration are dull, and there's little reaction to our going to the Big Ten with hat in hand and begging them to play us."  However, complications were not long in coming, and they dealt with race.  Not the race for the championship, nor the arms race, but the issue of racial equality.

***

There was a good reason why LSU had so often played in the Sugar Bowl.  New Orleans, home of the game, was one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States, and for years LSU had, by state fiat, been barred from competing against integrated teams.  It was simply assumed that LSU, if it qualified, would be one of the two teams in the game. For LSU, the game had ceased to be much of an incentive; head coach Paul Dietzel essentially told athletic director Jim Corbett, "If you want this team to play in the Sugar, YOU'LL have to take 'em."

Dietzel's comment was an indication of the changing situation. By 1961 the legal requirement against integrated competition had been overturned, but the school still maintained a policy of avoiding "integrated extracurricular activity," which could be anything from school dances to bowl games.  In fact, the 1961 baseball team, which had won the SEC championship, declined to play in the NCAA tournament out of concern that they would have to play an integrated team. 

But football wasn't baseball, and now, with a possible Rose Bowl invite dangling in front of them, supporters of a change in the school's policy saw their opportunity.  Rose Bowl fever was rampant in Baton Rouge, and even staunch segregationists admitted that they were excited by the prospect of a trip to Pasadena.  With the possible bid as bait, the school ultimately reversed the policy in November, allowing for the possibility of LSU playing an integrated team in a bowl game (although not integrating their own team).  As Kemper notes, "By placing the issue in terms of a national sporting culture unrelated to integration," supporters of integration carried the day.  It was acknowledged that the policy change would allow LSU to compete on a national level.  "When faced with the choice of regional values that isolated southerners or national values that celebrated American distinctiveness and unity, many southerners willingly embraced the latter because they could tell themselves the two were unrelated."

The role of football was a key point when it came to understanding the position of similarly-segregated Alabama.  "Accepting that segregation created division within the South and hostility from without, white southerners embraced the game of football because it represented both Southern and American ways of life."  Alabama had in fact played integrated teams before, notably Penn State in the inaugural Liberty Bowl* in 1959.  The school's policy seemed to suggest, more or less, that playing an integrated team outside of Alabama was fine as long as nobody made a Federal case out of it. 

*For the first five years of its existence, the Liberty Bowl was played in Philadelphia, hence its name.  It would not be until 1965 that the game would settle permanently in Memphis. 

As Alabama rose to the number one ranking in the country, Rose Bowl fever reached a peak.  But then there was a twist, as socially active students at UCLA (which would play USC for the West Coast Rose Bowl bid) began raising the possibility of a boycott of the Rose Bowl should a segregated team be selected.  The free-speech movement was already divisive on the campus, and the specter of mass protests against the game, and possibly at the game itself, raised red flags.  Especially harsh on the topic were two Los Angleles sportswriters, Melvin Durslag* of the Los Angeles Examiner and Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times.  Murray in particular wrote provocatively, with column titles such as "Bedsheets and 'Bama," and noted that sports could no longer be separated from society as a whole:  "The real news . . . had everything to do with the smell of roses and the color of the players."

*A frequent contributor to TV Guide, by the way.

 Anger rose throughout Alabama, and concern.  The desire to keep football isolated - segregated, if you will - from the larger social scene was clearly threatened by the actions of the student activists at UCLA and their allies in the press.  Alabama remained the top choice of Rose Bowl officials, but did the Crimson Tide feel the same way?
 
***

In the end, as is oft the case, the final outcome belied the drama that had preceded it, perhaps helping to explain why the entire episode has faded into the historical background.

LSU made the first move.  Earlier in November it announced formally that it would not play in the Sugar Bowl, perhaps hoping it would force the hand of the Rose Bowl committee.  However, it was clear to the school that the top-ranked Tide remained the committee's first choice and, fearing it would wind up playing in no bowl at all, preemptively accepted a bid to the Orange Bowl to play Colorado.

For Alabama, the concerns had less to do with either football or academics, and more with the school's (and the state's) reputation.  Concerned that accepting a Rose Bowl bid "would have allowed all of the scorn, rage, and disgust many felt toward the state and the region to be directed at the football team," the university announced that they would go to New Orleans and the Sugar Bowl, where they would play Arkansas. Much of the available evidence suggests that a Rose invitation was indeed offered (even prior to Ohio State's season-ending defeat of Michigan to win the Big Ten title), but declined, although no Alabama official would ever go on the record as admitting such.

Rose officials then turned back to the Big Ten, whose champion - undefeated, once-tied Ohio State - although not contractually obligated, would remain an attractive choice.  However, in Columbus the battle between academics and athletics had finally come to a head, as the faculty council met to consider the invitation.  As Kemper points out, "These faculty members were not against the Buckeyes having an athletic program. The problem was with the fact that football, in their minds, was the tail that was wagging the dog. So their hope, in terms of denying the Rose Bowl, wasn’t just some sort of childish temper tantrum, but was an effort to try to get people’s attention -- particularly those whose only connection to the university was the football program -- to help them realize that there’s a serious business going on here."  The council voted 28-25 to decline the invitation.  They hoped their decision would "vastly improv[e] the university's reputation as an academic institution fit for service in a Cold War political economy."  It may have done that, but it also set off riots on the Columbus campus, with students threatening to march on the state capitol.  The Buckeyes would stay home for the holidays.

Finally, with nowhere else to turn and with dissension rising within the Rose Bowl committee, an invitation was extended to Minnesota, defending national champions and the second-place team in the Big Ten. Ironically, had the Gophers won the Big Ten title, the conference's no-repeat rule would have prevented them from making a second successive trip to Pasadena.  However, since they'd finished second, the option was technically still available, and the Gophers accepted.*  Interestingly enough, in January of 1962 it would be the University of Minnesota that would cast the deciding vote as to whether or not the Big Ten would renew its contract with the Rose Bowl.  Having been assured that the contract would require not the Big Ten champion but instead a "representative team," Minnesota voted in favor, and the contract passed.

*The no-repeat rule, which existed in both the Big Ten and Pac-8, prohibited a conference champion from making back-to-back appearances in the Rose Bowl, in order to "spread the wealth" of experiencing the great game.  The no-repeat clause apparently did not anticipate the possibility of a conference champion declining the invitation.

So, to someone looking at the TV Guide from January 1, 1962, there would appear to be nothing out of the ordinary.  A Big Ten team was in the Rose Bowl*, the SEC champ was in the Sugar Bowl, and a highly-regarded LSU team travelled to Miami.  More along, nothing to see here.

*The 1962 Rose Bowl would be the first telecast in color.

***

Since then, the Rose Bowl has changed in numerous ways.  In the early 1970s, both the Big Ten and the Pacific 10 voted to end the "no-repeat" rule.  When the Rose Bowl became part of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998, even Big Ten-Pac 10 matchups were no longer guaranteed.  By 2012, with the Big Ten sending an 8-5 Wisconsin team that had finished in third place in its own division (upsetting Nebraska in a conference championship game they qualified for only because the two teams ahead of it were ineligible due to bowl bans), it would be hard to argue that the Badgers would have fit the 1962 definition of a "representative team."  The Rose Bowl had become, in essence, just another bowl game - a big one, to be sure, but no longer the "granddaddy" except in name.

The race issue would continue to evolve as well.  It was becoming increasingly apparent that a policy of segregation would continue to isolate Southern schools within the larger college football community, limiting not only their bowl opportunities but their national exposure.  This process would perhaps come to a head in 1966, when Alabama's undefeated, untied team would wind up third in the final national standings, trailing both Notre Dame and Michigan State (who had tied in their "Game of the Century"), in part because the school lacked a "national" footprint.  From then on, pressure to integrate and to look outside the South for opponents would increase.  Texas would win the 1969 national championship with an all-white team, but it  would be the last time college football would see a segregated champion.

The story of the 1962 Rose Bowl is a fascinating mess, as so much of history tends to be.  It's too bad that we aren't more familiar with the story, because it provides a stunning contrast with the state of college athletics today.  It's not that college football is more important per se - after all, when seen in the context of the Cold War, it assumes a great deal of significance.  Rather, it has become important in different ways.  The prestige of the university, with which the Ohio State faculty was so concerned in 1961, has now taken second place to the financing of the university and its athletic programs.  Mainly through the influence of television, the money behind college football has grown so immense, and the schools have become so dependent on that money, that no institution in its right mind would refuse a multimillion dollar payday on the grounds that their mission was being hindered by an "obsession" with football.

It is truly the story behind these TV Guide Close-Ups.

No comments

Post a Comment

Keep those cards and letters coming in!