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What a long, strange trip it was

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If Penn State players and coaches stopped anywhere on their way to Los Angeles, it was for a layover where they trudged through another concourse in search of another gate that would lead to another plane. They arrived at their Santa Monica hotel at various times over the weekend, having flown in from their hometowns to prepare for the New Year’s Day game against USC.

Not quite the same bonding road experience the first Penn State Rose Bowl team enjoyed in 1922.

Those Nittany Lions boarded a train Dec. 19 and spent five days riding the rails to California.

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“They wanted to make it an enjoyable trip,” Penn State football historian Lou Prato said. “At long stops, they apparently got out and worked out a little, ran up and down and around the train station, did some exercises to get in shape.

“In Chicago they ran into the West Virginia football team, a big Penn State rival. The West Virginia team was going to San Diego to play a game against Gonzaga.”

Before arriving in Pasadena on Christmas Eve, the Lions made sure to catch the panorama of the Grand Canyon. Later, in between practices, they went sightseeing, ran into Hollywood stars, and got their picture in the paper with comedic actor Harold Lloyd. During a tour of a movie studio, they also met Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Mary Pickford, who asked the players to appear as extras in a movie scene, Prato said.

Although Penn State took the time to enjoy what was most likely the players’ first trip to California, the meeting between the Trojans and the Nittany Lions was eagerly awaited, with journalists flinging hyperbole with abandon.

“In place of the sweet incense of freshly brewed attar, the smoke of battle will issue from the Rose Bowl in Arroyo Seco, hewn from the rock and today dedicated to that monarch among sporting events, the annual East vs. West struggle for moleskin supremacy,” wrote Harry A. Williams in the Jan. 1, 1923 edition of The Times.

The showdown, however, started late.

Penn State made the classic Los Angeles mistake: miscalculating traffic time.

After taking in the Tournament of Roses Parade in the morning, the Nittany Lions returned to their hotel, then left at 11 a.m. for the game.

The late Ridge Riley, a 1932 Penn State graduate and former executive secretary of the school’s alumni association, chronicled how the team had to maneuver through the streets in taxis in the book “Road to Number One: a Personal Chronicle of Penn State Football.”

“There was no police escort through the much heavier traffic on this nightmare strip to the new stadium,” he wrote. “They had to walk the last mile down through the gorge.”

When Penn State and Coach Hugo Bezdek finally arrived well after the scheduled 2:15 p.m. kickoff, the team was greeted by a fuming Elmer “Gloomy Gus” Henderson, the coach of USC.

“Bezdek already had a big rivalry with Henderson, going back to Bezdek’s Oregon days,” Prato said.

“They got into a big shouting match on the sidelines and went into the locker room. Henderson claimed that he deliberately held up the game, that it was a psychological ploy. Bezdek challenged Henderson to a fight, but they backed off.”

USC was victorious, 14-3, but the tale of that 1923 game is the stuff of lore, even retold in Penn State’s media guide: The Nittany Lions’ skipper successfully lobbied game officials for additional warmup time. The game finally started an hour late and ended in moonlight, with sportswriters lighting matches in order to finish their stories.

Times have changed, of course. Teams travel by plane. Police officers escort players on game day. Stadiums have lights.

But even in a modern world, the romance of the Rose Bowl has stayed the same.

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corina.knoll@latimes.com


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