Mike Bellotti, coach of the Oregon team that felt it should have been in the national championship game at the Rose Bowl rather than Nebraska, tried his best to be magnanimous Thursday night and nearly pulled it off.
Bellotti, whose team finished 11-1 and second in both major polls but wasn’t picked to play in the title game when the computer conglomerate that determines the matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2 spit out Nebraska instead of the Ducks, had originally referred to this bowl championship series as “a bad disease, like cancer.” That assessment, as hyperbolic as it was, took on additional credibility when Oregon routed Colorado, 38-16, in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day. That was the same Colorado team that had made mincemeat out of Nebraska a month or so ago.
So when Bellotti met with a few reporters just after halftime Thursday night, with Miami coasting along after its 34-0 first-half explosion, the temptation was to say, “I told you so.”
Instead, Bellotti tiptoed around a bit, saying, “Yes, this is frustrating. Miami is a talented team, but, yes, we’d like to have had a shot at them. We would have liked to have had a chance to do something here.”
Bellotti also said, “The polls had us No.2 for a reason, and our passing game would have given us a chance here.”
He was asked about the apparent discrepancy in speed between fleet Miami and lumbering Nebraska and he said, “We were considered to be a fast team.”
Giving credit to both Miami and Nebraska as highly talented, he added, “Knowing how close we were, it is still a heartbreak thing.”
Today, our Marines are serving in Afghanistan. But when the Rose Bowl was in its youth, they were also serving as some of the best football teams in the country.
Oakland freelance writer Dennis Cavagnaro points out that the fourth and fifth Rose Bowls were not won by college teams but by the Marines.
“The time was 1917, WWI, and throughout the country, many universities suspended football,” Cavagnaro writes. “With President Woodrow Wilson’s encouragement, ‘I don’t see how such a celebration would interfere with the government’s war activities,’ the Tournament of Roses was able to continue the still-young tradition of the Rose Bowl football game, the nation’s first bowl game, and, at that time, the nation’s only bowl game.
“Many of the universities--Michigan, Pitt, Georgia Tech, Ohio State, Washington State--were considered, but they demurred. The tournament’s football committee then took Uncle Sam into partnership, not the least reason being that he had the corner on the nation’s football players.”
The Rose Bowl yearbooks report that the 1918 game was won, 9-7, by “The Marines” over Camp Lewis, an Army team. Those “Marines” were, in fact, mostly Ducks, many of whom had helped Oregon defeat Penn in the previous Rose Bowl, 14-0. After that, they had reported for duty at Marine Barracks, Naval Shipyard, Mare Island, near Vallejo. The next city north of the camp was Napa.
The 1918 game was played in 86-degree heat, before an estimated crowd of 20,000, and the Mare Island coach was, naturally, Oregon’s coach, Hugo Bezdek, who actually was brought in late in the season to advise the coach in name, right tackle John Beckett.
After their victory, the Mare Island Marines, who scored first by drop-kicking a field goal, were given three days’ leave before heading off to war. Each winning player also got a kiss from the commanding officer’s wife.
Of the players taking part in that game, nearly half were eventually killed in either World War I or World War II.
The Mare Island Marines returned to play in the 1919 Rose Bowl, but with an entirely different team. The war had just ended and Mare Island was 10-0.
But its opponent was a Great Lakes Naval Station team from the Chicago area that had played a tougher schedule of college teams and had defeated Northwestern, Illinois, Notre Dame, Iowa, Rutgers and Purdue, as well as the U.S. Naval Academy.
Among the stars of that Great Lakes team was one George Halas, who intercepted a pass in the Rose Bowl game, played before 27,000 in cold weather, and led his team to a 17-0 victory over Mare Island.
The incentive for Great Lakes in this one was even larger than a three-day pass and a kiss from the CO’s wife. For a Rose Bowl victory, the Great Lakes team members were promised early discharges.
He wasn’t George Halas, but 56 years later, a star player of a different kind led his team, the USC Trojans, to a Rose Bowl victory and a national championship by throwing “the best pass I ever threw” in a career that included many great ones on both the college and pro level.
His name was Pat Haden and he remains among the more celebrated and also least likely heroes of Rose Bowl lore.
The year was 1975, and the happenings of the ’74 season put USC in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State, the Trojans needing a win and a later victory that New Year’s Day by Notre Dame over Alabama in the Orange Bowl to claim a national title for Coach John McKay.
In the closing moments of the ’75 Rose Bowl game, USC had crossed into Ohio State territory and had held onto the ball when Allan Carter made a key run on fourth and one. With time running out, McKay called Haden to the sideline and called “67X corner” to his son, receiver J.K. McKay.
“That was a pass to the corner that J.K. and I had been running since we were both 15 years old,” Haden recalled. “I knew it was his favorite route and I liked the call right away.”
Haden, now a prominent businessman in Los Angeles and a nationally known sportscaster, is among the leaders in the sports world in sense of humor and self-effacing fun. But he recalls this moment with pride and fondness.
“It was a magical moment, probably the best pass I ever threw in my life,” he said. “It had to travel 45 yards or so in the air--it was about a 35-yard scoring play, and it had a couple of yards’ window to get over the defender and still get to J.K. before he went out of bounds.
“There was just so much going on at that moment. This was my longtime best friend that I was hooking up with, in the Rose Bowl, possibly for a national championship. And I also thought this would be my last football game. I had already been picked for the Rhodes scholarship and I knew I was heading overseas for that and I didn’t expect a pro career to follow. So this was the moment.”
The ball got to McKay in the corner of the end zone, USC went for the two-point conversion that it would take to beat Ohio State, and Haden’s pass to Shelton Diggs in the back of the end zone was good for an 18-17 victory. Later, the Trojans watched Notre Dame beat Alabama, and the national title was theirs.
Haden also remembered the play and the moment with some sadness.
“The guy covering on the play was Ohio State’s star defensive back, Neal Colzie,” Haden said. “I just read recently [in August] where he died.”
You say you have an 8 a.m. tee time at Brookside Golf Course today, and all your friends are laughing at you? Can’t be playing golf just hours after they have parked 35,000 cars on the golf course around the Rose Bowl for Thursday’s national title game, right?
“We’ll play. Always have after games, always will,” said John Wells, director of golf at the two 18-hole layouts around the Rose Bowl.
Wells said that, although the course will play fine today and over the weekend, it will not recover totally for at least a week.
“They do a great job of parking the cars,” he said. “They keep them off the greens and tees and do the best they can to not park cars in the natural landing areas on each hole.”
And if your natural landing area is 125 yards off the tee?
Wells just smiled.
Wells was as interested in the purchasing power crowding his pro shop before the game as he was with his course’s shape.
“We’ll do maybe $70,000 in here today,” he said.
That would make up for the UCLA Saturdays when his shop is closed, because there is no interest in merchandising then. Wells also said that his shop had special national championship shirts ready for sale immediately after the game. Half of them will be thrown away, of course.
“The rules say I can’t show what they look like before the game,” he said, “but we are telling everybody who comes through that we are open afterward.”
Less than an hour before game time, the areas around the entrances were people-choked. That was caused by extremely tight security. Nobody was allowed to enter without a thorough check and, in most cases, a pat-down. The wait to just get to the turnstile was at least 45 minutes, if you were lucky.
One security guard said that the handicapped entrance became quite popular.
“One guy tried to fake having asthma, breathing heavy and gasping,” the guard said. “He was a terrible actor. We didn’t let him in.”
Nebraska running back Dahrran Diedrick summed up his disappointment in losing the national title: “We’re going home without a ring. We get nothing but a watch.”
Diedrick was already wearing a very nice watch.
At Least It Wasn’t a Shutout
Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch said the final score was “a credit to our team. It could have been worse than that.”
They’re Good Citizens too
During the postgame awards ceremony, ABC announcer Lynn Swann asked Miami Coach Larry Coker what played a bigger role in the Hurricanes’ undefeated season: talent, speed or character.
Coker didn’t hesitate, and said, “No doubt about it--character.”
That seemed a little odd, because there are probably a couple dozen teams out there that excel in character but couldn’t stay with the Hurricanes on the field--like Nebraska.
“It says a lot about our character the way we came back in the second half against Colorado and Miami,” Crouch said.
More character in the first half apparently is the answer to overall success.
More Than One Way to See It
Nebraska defensive end Chris Kelsay didn’t take kindly to the suggestion the Cornhuskers had played poorly. “I don’t think it’s an embarrassing loss. Miami is good.”
Packing Them In
The 93,781 at the Rose Bowl made for the largest crowd Nebraska has ever played before. The previous record was an estimated 92,000 that saw the Cornhuskers lose to Stanford in the 1941 Rose Bowl, 21-13.
The largest crowd Miami has played in front of was 105,834 on Sept. 17, 1988, at Michigan. The Hurricanes won, 31-30.
Gates at the Rose Bowl opened at 3 p.m. The first “Go Big Red” chant inside the stadium began at 3:30.
That’s Why They Were No. 1
Nebraska is 1-10 when playing teams ranked No. 1 in the nation. The Cornhuskers’ only victory over a top-ranked team was a 17-14 Big Eight Conference victory over Oklahoma in 1978.
Sore Toe and All
Shaquille O’Neal, who graduated from Louisiana State, wore a green and orange Hurricane jacket while standing on the Miami sideline. He watched the game along with former Hurricanes Lamar Thomas, Cortez Kennedy, Russell Maryland, Gino Torretta, Dan Stubbs and Damone Lewis.
End of a Career
Harriman Cronk, who worked for more than four decades as a member of the Tournament of Roses Committee and most recently chairman of the football committee, has retired.
Staff writers Bill Dwyre, Gary Klein and T.J. Simers and Associated Press contributed to this report.