The year was 1922 and the Rose Bowl of current fame was then known as the Tournament East-West Football Game.
The Rose Bowl stadium which now hosts the game was still only a pile of blueprints and wouldn’t have ground broken on its construction for another month.
While the Rose Bowl is now part of the New Year Six games that showcases either National Championship semifinalists or those finishing in the top 12 of the rankings, back then it was simply a game between a team from the Pacific Coast Conference against an opponent from the Eastern U.S.
In 1922, the team from the PCC — now the Pac 12 Conference — was the undefeated California Bears. And their opponent was now NCAA Division III school Washington & Jefferson from Washington County in western Pennsylvania.
At the time, W&J was a school of about 450 students which had just completed an undefeated season. En route to their perfect record, they took down powerhouse teams Pitt, Detroit and Syracuse.
In E. Lee North’s Battling the Indians, Panthers, and Nittany Lions: The Story of Washington & Jefferson College’s First Century of Football, he describes how their final win of the season over rival Pitt led to a day of celebration, where classes were canceled so the students could have bonfires and inspirational speeches were given in front of the local courthouse.
After accepting the invitation to compete in the Rose Bowl, W&J had to figure out how to get to Pasadena. Traversing the country by train was not cheap, so W&J could only afford to send the minimum 11 players needed to compete in the game. To make matters worse, one of the players, C.L. Spillers, contracted pneumonia on the journey and had to be left in Kansas City.
According to the Washington & Jefferson historical page on the game, there are two different accounts of how the situation was solved. One account states that a reserve had stowed away on the train and was given Spillers’ ticket. Another account from a report in the New York Tribune states that athletic administrator R.M. Murphy had sent for Al Haddon to take Spiller’s place.
Regardless, 11 players took the field and played every snap on both offense and defense for W&J as they faced Cal, which had outscored its opponents 312-33 that season.
The stout defensive showing from W&J held Cal to no points, no completed passes, two first downs and 49 yards rushing. W&J had scored a rushing touchdown, but it was called back on a controversial offsides penalty.
The tie gave W&J claim to a national championship and one of the biggest underdog stories in college football history.
Some additional notes from the game:
- Charles Fremont West became the first African American quarterback to play in the Rose Bowl.
- Herb Kopf became the first freshman to play in the Rose Bowl.
- Hal Erickson became the first and only player to play in the Rose Bowl with two different teams and not lose (1919 with Great Lakes Navy and 1922 with W&J)
- W&J coach Greasy Neale pulled double duties and played for the Cincinnati Reds in addition to coaching football. He was the starting right fielder for the Reds during the infamous 1919 World Series.
- It will likely remain the only Rose Bowl ever to end in a scoreless tie. It is one of only four bowl games to ever end in a scoreless tie and three Rose Bowls to end in a tie.