The year was 1923 and the good people of Pasadena decided to play their annual East-West football game in its new football stadium called the Rose Bowl. The stadium did not yet resemble its current shape and was a horseshoe and it sat around 50,000 people. But for the first time, people in Los Angeles could listen to the game on radio.
Penn State got the bid as the team from the East despite going 6-3-1 in the regular season. The Nittany Lions had tied Syracuse and lost games to Navy, Penn, and Pittsburgh. Penn State had gone undefeated (with two ties) in both the 1920 and 1921 seasons. Hugo Bezdek, who from 1917 through 1919 had managed the Pittsburgh Pirates, coached Penn State. Bezdek coached Oregon in the 1917 Rose Bowl, which the Ducks won 14-0 over Penn. Bezdek would also coach in the NFL for the Cleveland Rams in 1937 and part of 1938.
The West Coast representative slot was up for grabs. The 1922 representative, California, finished its third straight undefeated season, going 9-0. The Bears had played tiny Washington & Jefferson College to a scoreless tie in the 1922 Rose Bowl. The California student body voted against accepting a bid to the New Year's game. Most college football historians recognize either California or Princeton (which was 8-0) as the national champion for the 1922 season.
So the West Coast slot was up for grabs. There were two main contenders: Southern California, which had lost one game all season, a 12-0 shutout against California at the Rose Bowl (it was a practice run for New Year's Day). The other team up for consideration was Washington, which also lost to California, 45-7 in Seattle.
When the regular season ended, the eight schools in the Pacific Coast Conference held a vote (by mail and it took a couple of days) and Southern California was the winner. And the Trojans, coached by Elmer "Gloomy Gus" Henderson, were set to make their first appearance in the big New Year's Day game. Despite USC's superior record, Penn State was considered the favorite as West Coast football wasn't considered up to the level of the East.
The 1923 Rose Bowl did not start smoothly. The Penn State team got stuck in traffic trying to get to the Rose Bowl and arrived for the game nearly 10 minutes after the scheduled kickoff time of 3:15 pm. Henderson and Bezdek nearly came to blows on the field as Henderson accused Bezdek and Penn State of gamesmanship by showing up late.
Nevertheless, the game got started. Penn State won the toss and chose to receive and the teams exchanged a few punts in the early going, before Penn State got good enough field position, thanks to a USC penalty, to allow Penn State's Mike Palm to drop kick a 20-yard field goal to give Penn State a 3-0 lead.
USC couldn't make a first down on its next drive and punted, but Penn State fumbled on its own 21-yard line to set up the Trojans. USC drove to the 1-yard and went for it on fourth down, but fumbled in the end zone and Penn State recovered for a touchback.
With 3 minutes to go in the first half, USC got the ball on the Penn State 31. Five plays later, Gordon Campbell punched the ball in from the 1 for a TD and the extra point gave USC a 7-3 lead at halftime.
Penn State took the kickoff at the start of the second half, but couldn't get a first down and punted away to USC, who took over at their own 44. The Trojans used the running of Campbell and Roy Baker to quickly drive down the field. Baker scored from the 2 and the PAT made it 14-3.
With the sky growing darker, it was getting difficult to see and Penn State's offense seemed to disappear too. The Nittany Lions couldn't get any offense started in the second half and USC was able to use the powerful running of Baker (who gained 107 yards) and Campbell (who gained 76) to salt the game away.
The most interesting part of the event was the postgame quotes in the L.A. Times. Neither team's coaches or players were politic in their statements. Or they could have been fabricated. Sports writing in 1923 wasn't exactly of the highest standard.
Gus Henderson "The best team won. Good coaching, like the effect of cigarettes, always tells in the long run. Thank God for the guy that made it a criminal offense to hit a man wearing glasses. Hugo Bezdek is no gentleman."
Hugo Bezdek "The best team lost. A football eleven with the best coaching in the world could not win with the luck that the Trojans had (yesterday). My only wish is that Coach Henderson had left his glasses at home "
Leo Calland, USC captain "There is no doubt as to who was the star of yesterday's game. For the benefit of those who failed to see the walkaway, modesty forbids me from naming myself as the star."
Newah Bentz, Penn State captain "Had I been in the game sooner there would have been a different story to tell. Coach Bezdek probably means well, but I think he is a good baseball coach."
The four officials were also quoted as saying at how good a job they did and how they should get the job permanently.
For Penn State, they would not return to the Rose Bowl until 1995 when the Nittany Lions beat Oregon 38-20 to cap off an undefeated season that inexplicably did not give them a national championship.
As for USC, the 1923 Rose Bowl was the first in a long line of New Year's Day (or near then) appearances in the Arroyo Seco. The Trojans would win their first eight Rose Bowls and did not lose until the 1946 game against Alabama. Tonight's game marks USC's 30th appearance in the Rose Bowl, by far the most of any school. The Trojans sport a 21-8 record in Rose Bowls.
"Gloomy Gus" Henderson would coach USC for two more seasons, before leaving to coach Tulsa in 1925. Henderson left USC with a record of 45-7 and a winning percentage of .865, the highest in school history, better than Pete Carroll's "paltry" 54-9, .857 record. (Some record books credit Henderson with a 44-7 record that would be .862). Henderson passed away in 1965.