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Back when college football was fun

Monday, December 27, 2010

In 2010 football fans in Nebraska are a bit spoiled, as to what to expect at the end of a successful season. There has been considerable grumbling about the fact that the Cornhuskers will have to play in San Diego's Holiday Bowl, (a lesser Bowl game) against Washington, an opponent they defeated soundly earlier in the season.

This was not always the case. Before World War II it was a distinct honor to be invited to play in any Bowl game. For one thing, there were only a handful of bowl games, compared to the 35 bowl games of today. There is a renewed interest in the Rose Bowl for Cornhusker fans. For many years, the Rose Bowl has been restricted to opponents of the rival Big 10 and Pac-10 Conferences. With Nebraska's move to the Big 10 in 2011, the Huskers will be eligible to be the Big 10 representative for the Rose Bowl.

The first Rose Bowl in 1902 featured Fielding "Hurry-up" Yost's University of Michigan team, the winner of the Big 10 with an 11-0 record. The team had outscored its opponents 550-0 during the season, earning them the nickname of the "Point-a-Minute" squad. Their opponent was Stanford, winner of what is now the Pac 10 conference, with a 3-2-1 record. There was quite a lot of human interest in that game, since Stanford's coach the previous year had been Fielding Yost. The first Rose Bowl game was really no contest, the Wolverines winning 49-0. It was so bad that the Stanford captain, Ralph Fischer, requested that the game be called with eight minutes still remaining.

Fielding Yost was truly a young man in a hurry. He was a baseball player, who had begun playing football for the University of West Virginia at the age of 23. After graduation he began his coaching career at Ohio Wesleyan -- for one year. This was followed by one-year stints at Nebraska, Kansas, and Stanford. He was successful at each school -- at Nebraska his record was 8-3, and at Kansas 10-0-0. He finally found a home at the University of Michigan, where his teams won 10 Big 10 Championships and six national championships. He stayed at MU until his retirement in 1940, the last 20 years as athletic director. He was a member of the inaugural Hall of Fame Class in 1951.

Beginning in 1916, the Rose Bowl game has been played every year, usually on New Year's Day (since it is part of the BCS system it has been the site of the National Championship game in 2002 and 2006). The winner of the Pac 10 always plays the winner of the Big 10, except if that winner is involved in the BCS championship game.

There have been many memorable Rose Bowl contests over the years, none surpassing the 1941 Rose Bowl game between Stanford University, with QB Frankie Albert operating the then new T-Formation to perfection, versus the University of Nebraska, led by Quarterback Vike Francis and All-Americans Warren Alfson, from Wisner, and Forrest Boehm of Lincoln.

This was clearly a history-changing football game. It featured a small, fast Stanford team, ranked No. 2 in the national polls vs a strong, big Nebraska team, ranked No. 7. The Huskers entered the game as slight favorites. Nebraska was coached by Col "Biff" Jones, while Stanford was coached by first year coach, Clark Shaughnessy, who had previously been on the coaching staff of the pro Chicago Bears team.

Shaughnessy had installed a new system for college teams, the T-formation. Jones had the Huskers aware of the new system, but really had no way to practice against it. He would rely on relentless quarterback pressure, and the ability of the strong Nebraska line to wear out the smaller Stanford players. For a time the plan worked, and at half-time Stanford led just 14-13. Both Stanford touchdowns were the result of the tricky ball handling of Stanford's QB Frankie Albert.

There was just one more score in the second half, which came on what is widely known as the best play in Rose Bowl history. In the third quarter, the Indians drove from their own 23 yard-line to a first down at the Nebraska one. Four times they drove into the Husker line and were stopped each time -- one of the great goal line stands in NU history.

Evidently Biff Jones felt that the Cornhusker defense was key to an NU victory. On Nebraska's first play from scrimmage following the goal line stand, NU chose to punt. Harry Hopp got off a 40 yard spiral to Stanford's Pete Kmetovic, who returned the kick, weaving and bobbing, behind great blocking, to the end zone for a 21-13 lead.

There was no more scoring in the fourth quarter and 21-13 proved to be the final. It was a great game between two fine teams. Network sportscasters, Bill Stern and Graham McNamee both referred to the game as the greatest they had ever seen.

The '41 Rose Bowl had huge implications for Nebraska. That was the last NU team to be made up entirely of Nebraska boys. It was certainly the high point in Husker football for its first 50 years. (Bob Devaney used to say that he had been here for three years before he found out that Nebraska had "lost" the Rose Bowl Game.) Nebraska had never been to a bowl game when Biff Jones' fourth team announced that they had accepted an invitation to Pasadena on Jan. 1, 1941. The announcement set off a celebration in Lincoln that lasted for 24 hours. Classes at the university were cancelled. Students stormed the governor's residence, demanding that Governor Cochran lead the revelers in singing the Cornhusker fight song, "There is No Place Like Nebraska."

The whole state got caught up in Rose Bowl fever. The team took a special train to California, stopping in Phoenix for a few days' practice on the way. Another special train carried many of the 5,000 NU fans to the game, at $58.95 per head, R.T.

Almost at the last minute, Chancellor Boucher gave his permission to take the Cornhusker Band.

He would only approve the trip if it was an educational experience, so the 10 day trip dutifully included side trips into Mexico and to San Francisco.

The Husker Band was led by a drum major from McCook -- Harold Larmon, a trombone player in the band. At the time, the Musicians' ASCAP Union was having a great dispute with the music publishers, and decreed that certain numbers could not be played over the radio without its consent. It happened that these numbers included almost all of the music that the NU Band had planned to play during the parade and at the game, and thus would be broadcast over the radio. Professor Don Lentz and the senior band members (including McCook's Bill Kelly and Al Hein) scrambled to come up with music they could use. To the tune of "The Vagabonds" (in the public domain), Lentz penned the words to "The Scarlet and the Cream," in which the band sang in unison (over and over) as they marched. The band loved it, the crowd loved it, and the concept has been used by Husker bands since that time -- a practice that has been widely copied.

The 1941 Rose Bowl game had important national implications as well. That important game showed that a good fast team, using the T-formation, could beat a good big and strong team. More than anything else, the game convinced football pundits across the land that the T-formation was the offense of the future. It might be said that the 1941 Rose Bowl game marked the end of innocence in college football. Before another year went by most of the "boys" that played in that game would become the "men" of World War II, and many them would not come home alive. After World War II college football would become "big business" and would never be so much fun again.

Source: Rose Bowl Stories, 1902, 1941; NU Hall of Fame

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Great history lessons.


-- Posted by greb on Sun, Jan 16, 2011, at 12:04 AM

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