The Most Memorable Rose Bowl : History: In the 1963 game, Wisconsin, led by quarterback Ron Vander Kelen, scored 23 points in the fourth quarter in 42-37 loss to USC.
It is decades later, and the young men who played the game are middle-aged.
But for all who played and all who watched on Jan. 1, 1963, the memory of what was probably the greatest of all Rose Bowl games still burns brightly.
It was No. 1 vs. No. 2 on that day 29 years ago when USC met Wisconsin. Expectations were high, because the Rose Bowl game would decide the national championship.
Yet, early in the fourth quarter, with USC leading, 42-14, many of the millions who had started with the game on the telecast switched to more interesting fare. And in Pasadena, some began filing out of the Rose Bowl, too.
Then it began.
The greatest show in Rose Bowl history.
The game that began in crisp, cool sunshine ended in near-darkness, with USC desperately hanging on for a 42-37 victory.
In the final quarter, Wisconsin and USC fought each other like two prizefighters--with Wisconsin much the fresher at the finish. The Badgers simply ran out of time against the Trojans, who had run out of gas.
All this was because a 6-foot, 175-pound quarterback from Green Bay, Wis., Ron Vander Kelen, began a passing demonstration that even today stands as the greatest in the event’s history.
And no one who saw it has forgotten. At least, not the people Vander Kelen encounters.
“It’s absolutely fantastic to me how many people I run into who remember not only the major plays from that game, but other plays,” Vander Kelen said recently from his Edina, Minn., home.
“I travel quite a bit in my job, and people I meet still want to talk about that game.
“I certainly remember it. It was like my whole life had led to the Rose Bowl. I grew up in Green Bay, and when I was 10, I was climbing over fences to get into the Packer games. All I wanted to do in those days was play quarterback for Wisconsin, win a Big Ten championship and take a team to the Rose Bowl.”
With Vander Kelen and his primary receiver, Pat Richter (now Wisconsin’s athletic director), leading the way, the Badgers went 8-1 in the regular season, losing only at Ohio State, 14-7. Six times, Vander Kelen’s offense produced more than 30 points.
Nevertheless, pro scouts ignored him. In those days, the NFL held its college player draft in December. That season, Vander Kelen went 0 for 280 picks.
The rap: “Not tall enough . . . not a dropback passer . . . has tendency to throw sidearm,” read one scout’s report.
USC was ranked No. 1 in the nation coming into the game, yet was a two-point underdog to No. 2 Wisconsin. The Trojans seemed much less the offensive power than Wisconsin.
USC was 9-0, but five of the victories had been close, low-scoring games. By comparison, Wisconsin was burying teams offensively and defensively, by scores of 69-13, 30-6, 42-14, 37-6 and 35-6.
The Trojan quarterback was Pete Beathard, a 6-2, 205-pound junior who had completed 50.5% of his passes with only one interception. And he had thrown 10 touchdown passes (to Vander Kelen’s 12). A year later, Beathard would be a first-round draft choice.
For three quarters, it looked as though the NFL scouts were right. Beathard, passing principally to Hal Bedsole and Willie Brown, had the Trojans up, 42-14, a few seconds into the final quarter.
At that point, USC Coach John McKay said later, he saw something disturbing on the sideline: “Some of our guys were congratulating each other, like the game was over.”
What better time to go to work, Vander Kelen decided. Here’s what ensued, in the Rose Bowl’s wildest fourth quarter:
--Vander Kelen immediately took Wisconsin 80 yards, Lou Holland scoring on a 13-yard sweep. With the kick, it was 42-21.
--USC’s Ben Wilson fumbled on the first play after the kickoff, and four plays later, Vander Kelen threw a four-yard touchdown pass to Gary Kroner for 42-28.
--A bad USC center-snap in punt formation resulted in a safety for Wisconsin: 42-30.
--After the free kick, Vander Kelen drove his team 43 yards in three plays for another score. The final touchdown, with 1:19 left, was a 19-yard pass to Richter, making it 42-37.
It was now nightfall in Pasadena, nearly 5:15 p.m., and the Rose Bowl then had only field-level lights. Yet, many of the original crowd of 98,698 were on their feet, looking through the gloom at the dramatic finish.
Wisconsin tried an onside kick, but USC’s Pete Lubisich recovered. Trying to kill the clock, Beathard lost 10 yards in three plays. The Trojans punted to Wisconsin’s 40 as time ran out.
Vander Kelen and Beathard walked off the field as co-players of the game.
And because they threw 69 passes and the officials called 19 penalties, the game was the longest anyone could remember--3 hours 15 minutes.
Jim Murray wrote that the game " . . . lasted slightly less long than the War of 1812.”
Of the darkness in the final quarter, Beathard recalled: “It was so dark, our defensive backs had a hard time picking up the ball. When the last quarter started, when we were up by 42-14, Willie Brown said to me: ‘Look, people are leaving.’ And I said: ‘That’s because they can’t see the field.’ ”
Wisconsin’s rally, 23 points in the fourth quarter, seemed to have left everyone breathless. Nevertheless, McKay had a ready locker room quip when reporters trooped in.
“They’re still No. 2,” he said of Wisconsin.
Nearly three decades later, Vander Kelen’s performance stands unmatched. He’s still the Rose Bowl record-holder for most passes attempted (48) and completed (33) and passing yards (401). Richter, with 11 catches, is the receiving co-record holder with Iowa’s Ronnie Harmon, who caught 11 passes in 1986.
Beathard, who completed eight of 12 passes for 190 yards, also remains in the Rose Bowl record book. His four touchdown passes that day have been matched only by UCLA’s Rick Neuheisel in 1984.
Two-way USC lineman Marv Marinovich recalled that McKay ran out of defensive players that afternoon . . . and night.
“I got thrown out of the game just before halftime for using a legal forearm shiver, but the referee called it a punch,” Marinovich said.
“Years later, the referee told me he’d seen the film and that ejecting me was a mistake. But we had several defensive guys hurt before the game and a couple more during the game. I can remember two guys playing defense in the second half who hadn’t been in a game all year.
“We knew Vander Kelen could play. We’d seen on the films that he’d moved the ball against everybody in the Big Ten. We wore ourselves out trying to stop him.
“Afterward, we were physically and mentally exhausted. But it was still a great experience. There’s a certain electricity to playing in the Rose Bowl game. And then to have been involved in a game that people call a classic . . . “
Vander Kelen signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Vikings. For five seasons he was the backup quarterback, behind Fran Tarkenton.
Today, he is employed by a Minneapolis firm that specializes in marketing restaurant chains.
Beathard, like Vander Kelen, says the 1963 Rose Bowl game follows him around like a blinking red light.
“To this day, it’s phenomenal how people remember that game,” he said. “Almost everyone I meet wants to talk about it.”
After his USC career, Beathard signed with the Kansas City Chiefs and, like Vander Kelen, became a backup quarterback--behind Len Dawson. Beathard played 12 NFL seasons and his highest NFL salary, in 1974, was $120,000.
Beathard, 49, is a real estate developer who lives in Houston and Las Vegas. Oddly, he says he still has never met Ron Vander Kelen.
“I haven’t seen him since that day,” Beathard said.