Penn State's first Rose Bowl trip was a wild one, even for 1923

December 31, 2013 9:48 PM
By Mark Dent / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Dream and wait for Sen. George Mitchell, or maybe file another lawsuit.

That's all a Penn State player or fan can do right now pertaining to the prospect of a bowl game. The NCAA's cloud of sanctions could lift early, perhaps giving Penn State bowl eligibility next season, but if not the Nittany Lions will have to wait until 2016.

And let's be real. That's really far away.

In the meantime, memories will have to suffice. So here's a tale of the strangest bowl trip of all time for Penn State, its first Rose Bowl, back on Jan. 1, 1923. This account was drawn from newspaper reports of the time, other published material and university archives.

Winter, stark and punishing, had already come. Eight inches of snow covered Beaver Field on Dec. 14, 1922, and a snowplow had to clear the playing surface before Penn State could practice.

The Nittany Lions had been practicing three times a week, twice a day, since their loss to Pitt ended the regular season. This was coach Hugo Bezdek's idea. He was a rather intense individual. In that game against Pitt, officials secured the benches to the sideline to prevent Bezdek from indulging in his habit of throwing benches, water buckets and helmets.

It had been that kind of year, too, worthy of enraged projectile launching. Penn State entered the season on a 31-game unbeaten streak. It finished the regular season 6-3-1.

Blame the struggles on the departure of assistant coach Dick Harlow. Bezdek certainly did. He never liked the guy, but he missed him when he left to coach Colgate and six of Penn State's best players joined him.

In a usual year with this record, the Nittany Lions should have been relaxing for the holidays instead of preparing for the Rose Bowl. But this was the Roaring '20s, a time of excess and oddity -- did you see that gorilla-sized champagne bottle in "The Great Gatsby" movie?

Depending on your source, Penn State secretly agreed to play in the 1923 Rose Bowl as far back as December 1921 because the bowl organizers wanted to secure a championship-level Eastern team well in advance, and Penn State was considered a safe bet because of its recent success. The opponent would be Southern California, another team that didn't belong. The Trojans were selected after California declined.

At these snowbound practices, Bezdek experimented with lineups so often that a writer said he "changed his style of play more than a woman changes her mind." Penn State was considered the favorite because of Bezdek and because the Nittany Lions were big. They had a supposed size advantage of about 10 pounds per player. Of course, they also had to trek across the country via train.

On Dec. 19, the day after temperatures dropped to 5 below in State College and six inches of snow fell, they left for a weeklong journey, planning to arrive on Christmas Eve in Pasadena, Calif. They stopped at the Grand Canyon and entertained themselves by telling stories. Usually these tales didn't relate to sports. Football wasn't much of a priority on the rails.

"We're getting fat, eating anything and sleep when we like," one player told the Los Angeles Times. "And why not? We have a week to train after we arrive.

"Oh, we have a walk occasionally," he continued. "Had a half-hour walk in the town of Albuquerque today."

They were a well-fed group upon arrival in Los Angeles. All of them, one writer noted, had two hands. Not one, he added, looked like he suffered from anemia.

As soon as Bezdek and the team checked into the Hotel Raymond, he ordered them on a 5-mile hike. In the week before the game, they regularly continued with those hikes and practiced behind barred doors with security guards because Bezdek feared spies. At Penn State's first practice in Los Angeles, its star player, Joe Bedenk, broke three ribs and missed the game.

If only the complications stopped there. This was the year the Tournament of Roses decided to go big. For the first time, the new Rose Bowl stadium hosted the famous football game -- and a record crowd of 53,000 watched. The parade drew more than 300,000 people, also a record.

The festivities began at 10:45 a.m. New Year's Day, 15 minutes before Penn State planned to leave its hotel, expecting to arrive in time for the 2:15 p.m. kickoff. The Raymond was a resort south of Pasadena. Because of the parade, generally poor road conditions from recent inclement weather, 1920s infrastructure and a cow that decided to rest in the road, traffic was at a standstill.

When Penn State finally arrived at the stadium, it was after 2:30. Trojans coach Elmer Henderson didn't believe his opponents' excuse. He confronted Bezdek on the field and accused him of arriving late as a psychological ploy and a way to start the game later, in cooler weather.

People in the bleachers could hear Bezdek shout "liar." He told Henderson to remove his glasses. He wanted to fight.

Presumably because Bezdek was known for throwing benches and helmets and forcing his players on grueling mountain hikes, etc., Henderson backed down. The game started at 3 p.m.

Yes, between the train ride, traffic jam, near fistfight and the delay, there was a game. It was kind of boring. Penn State led, 3-0, after a Mike Palm field goal in the first quarter but then its offense sputtered to the point that someone observed Penn State "seemed better designed for the days when 5 rather than 10 yards was the distance to be spanned [for a first down]." The Trojans won, 14-3.

By the end, the sports writers were so angered by the late start and the knowledge that traffic would still be chaotic when they left the pressbox that the stories about the game were nearly unanimously negative. One writer from the Los Angeles Times invented quotes for Bezdek and Henderson.

"Good coaching, like the effect of cigarettes, always tells in the long run," the fake Henderson said.

The fake Bezdek had just one regret: "My only wish is that Elmer Henderson had left his glasses at home yesterday."

Sources: Hugo Bezdek personal journals from the Penn State University Archives; The Centre Times; The Collegian (Penn State); The Los Angeles Times; "The Penn State Football Encyclopedia" by Lou Prato; "The Rose Bowl 1902-1929" by John Charles Hibner.