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The Rose Bowl Game That Never Was: 1903 Wisconsin vs. Cal
Devotees of college football and Rose Bowl history know the first Rose Bowl game was played on New Year's Day 1902, while the second Rose Bowl did not occur until 1916. Traditional wisdom tells us the gap between the games was due to the 49-0 walloping Michigan laid on Stanford in 1902. Supposedly, the Tournament of Roses Committee feared the lopsided score would hurt attendance at future games. While there is an element of truth to that story, the Tournament of Roses made several attempts to schedule games between 1902 and 1916, but failed to finalize the deals for various reasons. They came closest to scheduling a match between Wisconsin and California for the 1903 Tournament of Roses.
The Origins of the Rose Bowl
The Tournament of Roses sponsored a variety of events to bring publicity and tourists to their festival, but they faced several extra challenges if they wanted to host games between top Eastern and West Coast football teams. First, intersectional games were rare due to the time and expense of the rail travel needed to bring Eastern teams to Pasadena. The University of Chicago was the first team from East of the Rockies to cross the mountains and play a West Coast team when they faced Stanford in San Francisco and Los Angeles over the 1894 Christmas holidays. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School made a similar holiday trip in 1899. Michigan's journey for the 1902 Rose Bowl was only the third such instance of teams crossing the mountains.
The Tournament of Roses was a non-profit organization with a limited budget, so the game's ticket revenues had to offset the travel and hosting expenses for both teams. With 8,000 people attending the Michigan-Stanford game, the ticket and subscription receipts more than paid the team expenses. However, hosting the first "Rose Bowl" required buying land and building a wooden bleacher stadium in the weeks leading up to the game. The $8,500 capital expense for the stadium left the 1902 Committee $4,500 in debt when all was said and done. The Committee was eager to sponsor future games to retire the debt, but leery of losing money if the opponents were not as popular as Stanford and Michigan.
The second challenge was finding teams to participate. Although teams eagerly participate in bowls today, that was not the case in the early 1900s. Faculties commonly banned participation due to concerns about overemphasizing athletics, a stance limiting bowl participation by some schools and conferences into the 1970s.
The third challenge was the need to convince each team's players to participate. Playing over the holidays was not yet seen as a reward for a successful season, particularly among West Coast teams. While a game in Pasadena gave Eastern teams the opportunity for cross-country travel and the California sun, the West Coast teams were not as impressed. Instead, post-season play meant a few more weeks of training and spending the holidays away from home.
The 1903 Rose Bowl Game
Despite these challenges, the Tournament of Roses Committee voted in late October 1902 to sponsor a game on New Year's Day 1903. Committee President Charles M. Coleman quickly headed north to assess Cal and Stanford's interests in the game. Cal's team manager expressed sufficient interest for Coleman to continue his efforts.
The Committee identified three Eastern targets: Georgetown, Carlisle, and Wisconsin. Georgetown started the season 4-0 , splitting their next six games, including a season-ending loss to Carlisle. Carlisle, under Pop Warner, was 8-3 with losses to Bucknell, Harvard, and Virginia. Wisconsin, led by coach Phil King, was coming off an undefeated 1901 season during which they tied Michigan for the Western Conference (Big Ten) title. The Badgers started 1902 season with five wins before faltering against Michigan, Minnesota, and Chicago to finish 6-3.
Despite fading in the second half of the season, Wisconsin took the initiative in early November by obtaining faculty approval to participate in a game against Cal or Stanford. They also sent an agent, Clifford Roe, to Pasadena to negotiate a contract for their appearance. The parties reached an agreement by November 24. Wisconsin received its invitation. TOR President Colemen and Wisconsin's Roe then traveled north to negotiate Berkeley's participation. As it turned out, however, the Berkeley team manager expressing interest could not convince his team to participate.
The Committee and Wisconsin's Roe looked for alternative opponents, but viable opponents were few since Cal and Stanford were the only colleges in California playing top-level football. (Both Cal and Stanford played more alumni and athletic club teams than college teams during the 1902 season.) Roe explored options for a Christmas Day game with the Perris Indian School and a New Year's Day game with Utah in Pasadena. However, Stanford stomped Utah 35-11 on Thanksgiving after Cal had beaten Stanford 16-0 in the Big Game, so Utah was not a premier football squad. Moreover, Wisconsin's faculty approved the trip under the condition the Badgers played Cal or Stanford. Utah was neither, so Wisconsin's faculty said 'No' to the 1903 game. Badger fans waited fifty years before their team first played in the Rose Bowl.
The Rose Bowl Committee made several more attempts to schedule New Year's Day football games over the next decade, but Stanford and Cal's 1906 decision to drop football in favor of rugby left the state of California without a college team playing high-level football. (USC gained prominence in the 1920s, while UCLA did so in the 1940s.) The 1903 committee considered bringing two Eastern teams west and asked the railroads to donate the transportation. Alas, the committee members did not push the game forward until 1916, re-initiating the one-year tradition that became the annual Rose Bowl game and more broadly, college bowl system.
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