What a season! And what a reward: Pasadena and the Rose Bowl to take on the USC Trojans.
Penn State completed a dream season, winding up 11-1 after a spectacular win
over Michigan State and becoming the first Big Ten team in history to defeat
Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State in one season. The icing on the cake: Having
10 Nittany Lions named to the first team Big Ten All-Conference squad and Joe
Paterno selected, for the third time, as the Big Ten Coach of the Year.
And, for the third time in the 120 years of Nittany Lion football, a trip
to the Rose Bowl.
The first Rose Bowl for Penn State was Jan. 1, 1923. It was a different era,
and the decision about which teams were to play was a long time coming. Actually,
Penn State’s selection, according to Penn State football historian (and my
predecessor as Alumni Association director) Ridge Riley, came not so much in
recognition of the 1922 team, which was 6-4-1, but in “delayed recognition
of the deserving 1921 team,” which finished 8-0-2.
Penn State accepted the Rose Bowl invitation on June 12, 1922. Word reached
the public when The Daily Collegian announced on Oct. 27 that Penn
State would play in Pasadena. “No opponent was named, but the invitation came
from the Pacific Coast Intercollegiate Conference and was ‘a tribute to past
achievements,’” Riley noted. These “past achievements” were engineered by the
great Hugo Bezdek, Penn State’s head coach from 1918-29 … but that’s a whole
And so it came to pass that the Penn State contingent departed by train for
Pasadena on Dec. 19, 1922, taking 25 players and the coaching staff. Oddly
enough, it was Bezdek’s third coaching experience in the Rose Bowl. In 1917,
his Oregon team defeated Penn, 14-0, and in 1918 he was back (in the midst
of World War I) as coach of the Mare Island Marines, which beat an Army team
from Camp Lewis, 19-7.
Penn State’s opponent in 1923? By coincidence, USC, which won the game 14-3
and in so doing began its run of 18 straight Rose Bowl appearances. What happened
to Penn State? Riley noted that after their first drive, which resulted in
their only score, “the Lions appeared to be exhausted in the balmy climate
of Southern California.”
Flash forward nearly seven decades and most of you will recall our second
Rose Bowl appearance on Jan. 2, 1995. The undefeated Nittany Lions—the greatest
offensive team ever to play college football, in my view—took on 12th-ranked
There was a glimmer of hope that the Nittany Lions might have been able to
seize at least a piece of the 1994 national championship, but they weren’t
controlling their own destiny. Their fate was sealed when the No. 1 Nebraska
Cornhuskers rallied to defeat Miami in the Orange Bowl—at a time when the soon-to-retire
Nebraska coach Tom Osborne reigned as the sentimental favorite.
Still the Nittany Lions showed up with something to prove. On the first play,
Ki-Jana Carter broke through the line and bolted 81 yards for the first of
his three touchdowns. Penn State went on to win against overmatched Oregon
38-20. The pollsters were not in a mood to split the national championship,
as had been done in 1990 and 1991, and so the greatest offense of all time
wound up No. 2.
Another great Penn State offense—and defense—will grace the Rose Bowl in less
than a month. Penn Staters everywhere are flush with excitement. Interest in
the Alumni Association’s 2008-09 Official Penn State Bowl Tour is boiling over,
with more than 2,000 Penn Staters traveling on our tour. For the 2006 Orange
Bowl, by contrast, we took 1,980 Penn Staters on our tour.
This is a special time and a special team for Penn State. It’s time to commit
to seeing these incredible Nittany Lions play in the “granddaddy of them all.”
See you in Pasadena!
Roger L. Williams ’73, ’75g, ’88g