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The Grand Tradition

By Mark Langill

The colossal horseshoe-shaped structure was originally designed to stage the ultimate football game, a four-quarter crescendo to a New Year’s Day celebration that blended the intensity of collegiate pigskin gladiators with the early-morning tranquility and pageantry flowing from the City of Pasadena’s famous Rose Parade®. 


A century later, the Rose Bowl Stadium and its picturesque surroundings remain a jewel of the community, nestled in the heart of Arroyo Seco, below the San Gabriel Mountains. Still the ideal parade companion, the area has blossomed into a thriving, year-round hub of activity.


In 2019, *Sports Illustrated* magazine ranked the Rose Bowl as the greatest stadium in college football, citing its history and beauty: “The stadium sits in a perfect location with amazing sights, landscape, and scenes all around. The one-tier grandstand surrounds the entire field, and there is simply not a bad seat in the house. The first Rose Bowl Game was played here in 1923, and the stadium continues to host the highly anticipated bowl game here, every year. There is no more aesthetically pleasing place to watch a game, and it certainly sits atop the list of stadiums a college football fan must visit in their lifetime.”


In addition to football, the historic landmark provides a vibrant source for entertainment, hosting a variety of sporting and community events, including AmericaFest, which for nearly a century has provided the largest annual fireworks show on the West Coast. 


The roll call of famous concerts includes the U2 360 Tour—one of the largest stadium shows by attendance in history—along with rock (the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Metallica, Coldplay), country-western (Kenny Chesney, Jason Aldean), pop (Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift), and international acts (BTS, Juan Gabriel), to name a few.


Michael Jackson’s spectacular moonwalking performance in 1993 during the intermission of Super Bowl XXVII—one of the five Super Bowls staged in the Rose Bowl—forever changed the dynamics of the NFL’s ultimate halftime entertainment stage.


And you don’t have to be an elite athlete to enjoy the “competition” of the Rose Bowl, especially on the second Sunday of each month, when the venue hosts a flea market that attracts approximately 20,000 people from around the world, including noted celebrity shoppers.


The seeds of such a phenomenon were sown with the formation of the Rose Parade in 1890, when a small village ceremony in which members of the Valley Hunt Club decorated their buggies and surreys with flowers grown from their own gardens brought attention and tourism to Southern California. During the first decade of the Rose Parade, the afternoon provided a menu of public games that included young men competing in footraces, tugs-of-war, and chariot races. There were even ostrich races and another contest pitting a camel against an elephant. The events were eventually moved to a “town lot” in 1900, later known as Tournament Park, located on the current campus of the California Institute of Technology. 


While parade activities continued to expand in the 1890s, the popularity of college football was slowly gaining momentum on the East Coast. The first football rules were written in 1876 by representatives from Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Walter Camp, recognized as the father of American football, played and coached football at Yale. Among his inventions were a line of scrimmage—a major difference from the sport’s rugby origins—and a set of downs.


When the Tournament of Roses Committee chose to stage a football game after the 1901 season, the results were a touchdown at the box office and a train wreck on the field, as more than 8,000 fans crowded into Tournament Park to watch Stanford and Michigan battle in the first college bowl game.


Founded in 1891, Stanford was hardly a football powerhouse, and its modest six-game schedule in 1901 included playing two local club teams. After inviting Stanford to represent the West Coast, the Tournament committee pondered three finalists from which to choose for the opponent: Michigan, Carlisle College, and Georgetown. Michigan happily accepted an all-expenses-paid vacation to a warm-weather destination and arrived in Pasadena with a 10–0 record and the foreboding—and foretelling—nickname Point-a-Minute, having outscored its opponents 501–0.


The game was played on Tournament Park’s 110-yard field, and its makeshift rules reflected the era: Touchdowns and field goals were worth five points apiece. Teams were not allowed to use the forward pass. (This rule would stand for another five years.) Michigan’s 49–0 rout of Stanford was so lopsided that with eight minutes remaining, Stanford captain, Ralph Fisher, approached Michigan’s bench and offered to concede. Tournament officials didn’t try New Year’s football for another 13 years. 


The idea for an “East-West Football Game” resurfaced in 1916 with a competition at Tournament Park waged in the mud after days of rain had turned the surface into a quagmire. Undefeated Washington State blanked Brown, 14–0, in a game that featured Brown halfback Fritz Pollard, the first African American to participate in a Rose Bowl Game. 


The success of subsequent games led Tournament President William L. Leishman to announce in 1920 that football entertainment needed a permanent home. Leishman and his son Lathrop, who would become a Tournament president and chairman of the Football Committee, visited the Yale Bowl, which opened in 1914 and would prove to be an excellent prototype. The city-owned site at Arroyo Seco was selected. Construction funds were raised by selling a 10-year seat subscription for $100. Built on the City of Pasadena’s landfill, the Rose Bowl Stadium was built, paid for, and then donated to the city by the Tournament of Roses Association.


When designing the Rose Bowl Stadium, Pasadena architect Myron Hunt studied the theaters of the ancient Greeks and Romans for inspiration. Hunt reportedly stood on a mountain and used a round paper cutout to envision the stadium in the suggested location.  


It took 28 miles of lumber to provide the original seats for the Rose Bowl. The initial capacity (57,000 seats in 1923) was enlarged to 76,000 when the south end was enclosed in 1928. The demand for seats prompted further enlargements, to 83,677 in 1932 and to 100,807 in 1949. New seats, both grandstand and loge, were added in 1964, pushing the capacity to an all-time high of 102,016.


The Rose Bowl Stadium was dedicated on October 28, 1922, with a football game between the University of California Golden Bears and the University of Southern California Trojans before a crowd of 35,000. Cal beat USC, 12–0.


When the Stadium played host to its first New Year’s Day event in 1923, Penn State’s traveling party arrived 15 minutes past the scheduled starting time, blaming traffic. USC coach Elmer Henderson charged across the field to confront Penn State’s coach, Hugo Bezdek, accusing him of gamesmanship. After the coaches were separated, the players took over, and Henderson’s Trojans won the main event, 14–3.


Before 1935, the western team in the game was invited by the Tournament, which also selected the eastern team until 1923. From 1923 through 1946, the western team selected its eastern opponent. The 1947 Rose Bowl, between UCLA and Illinois, marked the first year of an alliance between the Pacific Coast and Big Ten (then Big Nine) conferences. 


Three landmarks in communication began with the Rose Bowl Game: the first wire photo transmitted from a bowl game (1925), the first coast-to-coast broadcast linking radio stations across the nation (1927), and the first nationwide color television broadcast (1954). 


The story of past Rose Bowls and famous athletes—even if just for a day—are preserved throughout the Rose Bowl Stadium and its surrounding area. The Junior Rose Bowl, originally pitting the best California junior college football team against the best from the rest of the country, was held between 1946 and 1977. The Rose Bowl Stadium also served as an Olympic venue for cycling in 1932 and for the 1984 gold medal men’s soccer game, in which France defeated Brazil, 2–0.


There are historical markers throughout the stadium, such as Tunnel 18, commemorating the uniform number worn by Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning when he made his collegiate debut in 1994 against UCLA. The Rose Bowl Stadium has been the home of UCLA football since 1982, spotlighting a litany of Bruin greats, including quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Cade McNown, running back Gaston Green, and offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden. 


Renovation projects in the years leading up to the 100th anniversary of the stadium have included upgrading the original locker rooms and building the 150,000-square-foot pavilion named after longtime UCLA football coach Terry Donahue, who also played for the Bruins as a 195-pound defensive tackle in their 14–12 victory over Michigan State in the 1966 Rose Bowl Game. 


Just beyond Gate A in the front of the stadium is the Court of Champions, constructed in 1989 in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Rose Bowl Stadium. Along the back wall are plaques commemorating the final scores of all Rose Bowl Games, and in front of the court is the statue of a lone football player in a vintage uniform.


Statues outside the stadium honor Jackie Robinson, who grew up in Pasadena and was a four-sport star athlete in baseball, basketball, football, and track and field both at Pasadena Junior College and at UCLA before his Hall of Fame baseball career with the Dodgers, and Brandi Chastain, who scored the winning goal on a penalty kick during a shootout between the US and China at the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final.


In 2019, a statue was dedicated honoring Keith Jackson, a Georgia native who grew up listening to the radio and covered college football as a television reporter for more than 50 years, including a record 15 Rose Bowl Games. Jackson was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 2000, and the broadcast center at the Rose Bowl was renamed in his honor in 2015. Following the epic 2006 Rose Bowl Game, in which Texas defeated USC, 41–38, for the national championship on a fourth-down, eight-yard scramble by quarterback Vince Young with 19 seconds remaining, Jackson retired. The greatest college football announcer of all time is credited with giving the Rose Bowl its signature nickname, the Granddaddy of Them All.

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