The Nittany Lions and Trojans played in the 1923 Rose Bowl, about three years before current PSU coach Joe Paterno was born.
When Penn State announced it would play in the 1923 Rose Bowl, the team and its fans were delighted. There was just one hitch. The New Year's Day game was nearly two and a half months away and the Nittany Lions still had five games left in their regular season.
That's not the way bowl games are set up today. But at that time, the Rose Bowl was the only bowl game in existence and the people in charge had a selection process that was private and capricious.
Actually, the invitation had been made in the spring of 1922 and accepted by Penn State officials in August. But everything had been kept a secret until the school's bi-weekly student newspaper, The Collegian, broke the news in an exclusive story on the eve of Penn State's first ever game against Syracuse, at New York's Polo Grounds.
This invitation comes as a tribute to past achievements of Penn State football machines, The Collegian reported on Oct. 27 in a box at the top of the front page. The enviable record which has been set up during three consecutive years is receiving recognition through this opportunity to represent the East in collegiate football.
That record certainly was enviable. The three previous years had been the most successful period in Penn State's history, starting with a 7-1 mark in 1919, 7-0-2 in 1920 and 8-0-2 in 1921. As it was, the Lions were taking a school record of 29 straight games without a defeat into the Syracuse game. And Hugo Bezdek, hired as the head coach in 1918, was being hailed as one of the geniuses in college football.
Bezdek's 1921 team may have been the best of all, and it had burst onto the national stage in the fifth game of the season with a surprising 21-21 tie at Harvard. After Penn State followed up the next week by beating Georgia Tech at New York's Polo Grounds, 28-7, some newspapers reported that the Rose Bowl had invited Penn State to play in its game on Jan. 1, 1922. Whether that was true or not is unknown because there is absolutely nothing about this in Penn State's official athletic records.
According to at least one newspaper, the 1921 invitation was turned down by Penn State with regret because the school had already scheduled its first ever game on the West Coast — Dec. 3 against Washington — and two transcontinental trips in that same general time period would not have been feasible.
So the invitation that went out the following spring was apparently a way of rewarding Penn State's previous success. There also was some backroom political influence involved because Bezdek had strong connections on the West Coast from his six years as head football coach at Oregon (1905, 1913-1917). In fact, Bezdek had taken his 1916 Oregon team to the Rose Bowl and beat Pennsylvania, 14-0, and the next year he was in the Rose Bowl again as coach of the Mare Island Navy team that defeated Camp Lewis, 17-0, as World War I was raging in Europe.
When the Collegian broke the story during the 1922 season, Penn State was just halfway through its schedule with the toughest part remaining. The Nittany Lions had cruised through their first five victories, scoring no less than three touchdowns a game, recording three shutouts and giving up a total of just 13 points.
Despite the importance of this invitation, The Collegian reported, Coach Bezdek and the members of the varsity squad are not allowing it to overshadow the more important work of whipping into shape an aggregation which will successfully compete against the hard teams already appearing on the schedule.
Maybe Bezdek and the varsity read their Collegian clippings because what happened next was the worst than anyone could have imagined. The next day, an underdog Syracuse team fought State to a 0-0 tie. Six days later, at American League Park in Washington, D.C., a crowd of politicians, big name rival football coaches and other dignitaries watched as Navy upset the Lions 14-0. Penn State rebounded briefly the next week to beat Carnegie Tech 10-0 at Beaver Field but finished out the regular season with embarrassing losses to its biggest rivals, Pennsylvania (7-6) and Pitt (14-0).
The Rose Bowl was anti-climactic. Some wags referred to it as The Losers Bowl because Penn State's opponent, the University of Southern California, was the second choice as host. Undefeated California, the three-time Pacific Coast Conference champion, rejected the invitation after two straight Rose Bowl appearances, and bowl officials turned to USC, whose only loss in eight games was to Cal, 12-0.
What's most significant about the game is that it was the first one played in the stadium at its present site, Pasadena's Arroyo section. Perhaps most prophetic, there was a traffic jam following the traditional Rose Bowl parade that delayed the Penn State team's arrival. Their tardiness precipitated a shouting match and near fist fight between the rival coaches, Bezdek and Elmer Gloomy Gus Henderson, and forced the game to start 45 minutes late.
"Gloomy" Gus Henderson.
Alas, it was another bad day for the whimpering Nittany Lions. State's star guard, Joe Bedeck, had been injured on the first day of practice and missed the game entirely while team captain and standout center News Bents sat on the bench most of the time for breaking several team rules, including curfew.
Still, the Lions were able to take a 3-0 lead midway through the first quarter on a 20-yard field goal by quarterback Mike Palm. But from that point on, the game belonged to USC. Early in the second quarter, a fumbled punt almost led to a Trojan touchdown, but USC fumbled the ball into the end zone, ending that threat. But late in the period, a poor 12-yard punt gave USC the ball at State's 30-yard line and it later scored on a pass from the 1-yard line to take a 7-3 lead into halftime.
USC scored again on its second possession of the third quarter, going 56 yards in six plays to expand its lead to 14-3. A short time later, the Trojans missed a 30-yard field goal, and as the twilight faded, the teams slugged it out in a defensive battle as many in the announced crowd of 43,000 began leaving. And that's how the game ended, almost in darkness, with the scoreboard showing a 14-3 Penn State defeat.
However, the game was not a total loss for Penn State and Bezdek, who doubled as the school's athletic director. He took a check for $21,349.64 back to Penn State as the Lions' share of the Rose Bowl profits.
It would be 72 years before a Penn State football team would return to the Rose Bowl again. This time the invitation didn't go out until after the regular season was over. The 1994 Penn State team was not late getting to the stadium, and the Lions won this time, beating Oregon, 38-20, to preserve an undefeated season.
But there sure was another major traffic jam that day after the Rose Bowl parade.
Some things just don't change.
Penn State sports historian Lou Prato is a frequent contributor to Fight On State The Magazine and FightOntate.com.