Fifty years ago, Caltech pulled off a prank for the memory banks at Rose Bowl
Rarely had a Rose Bowl seen such flawless execution.
The preparation was inspired, the key players unwavering and a national television audience enthralled.
Fifty years ago this Sunday, an intrepid interloper made an uninvited, unprecedented and unforgettable appearance in the so-called Granddaddy of Them All.
Caltech made the Rose Bowl.
A small band of ingenious Caltech students made it happen, surreptitiously altering a University of Washington halftime flip-card routine so that it would spell out “CALTECH” in what became known as the Great Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961.
Their leader was Lyn Hardy, mastermind of a stunt that has been called the greatest collegiate prank of all time.
“That was never the intent, to make the world’s greatest prank,” Hardy says. “The thoughts of football, Rose Bowl and Caltech occurring together probably wouldn’t happen, so the idea was to somehow bring those three together.”
On Jan. 2, 1961, they did.
Hardy, 69, says the idea had been hatched a couple of weeks earlier as he watched the media buildup to the Pasadena showcase, which in 1961 matched Washington against Minnesota.
Making it happen, he notes, required duplicity, espionage, lock-picking skills and more than a little good fortune.
“There was a lot of luck involved,” the retired engineer says during an interview at his home in Torrance. “From a maturity of age looking back, what were the chances of pulling that thing off? I’d say zip. But you don’t know that when you’re 19.”
Hardy, after learning that the Washington band and cheerleaders were staying in dormitories at Long Beach State, showed up posing as a reporter for the Dorsey High student newspaper. (Hardy, a Caltech junior at the time, was a Dorsey graduate.)
The cheerleaders, who organized the flip-card routine, willingly shared the technical details of how it worked.
“Three very nice guys . . . talked me through the whole thing, showed me where they kept everything,” Hardy says.
Later, when the cheerleaders left for dinner, Hardy and another of Caltech’s so-called “Fiendish 14” broke into their room by picking the lock. Lifting a card-stunt instruction card, they took it back to Pasadena and had some 2,400 copies made.
Early on New Year’s Eve, while the cheerleaders were at Disneyland, Hardy’s group broke into their dorm room again, this time “borrowing” the master instructions.
Back at Caltech, the Fiendish 14 mapped out their own master plans on graph paper and, recruiting partygoers to assist, stamped out a new set of 2,232 individual instruction cards.
Returning to Long Beach once more, they picked the lock again, reentered the cheerleaders’ room and replaced the original master plans in the satchel where they’d found them.
Also, of course, they left behind the new individual instruction cards. The originals, they pocketed as souvenirs.
They had left the first 11 stunts virtually unaltered. So at halftime, with Washington holding a 17-0 lead on its way to a 17-7 victory over the No. 1-ranked Golden Gophers, nothing at first seemed out of place.
But the image shown in the 12th stunt, which was supposed to be a Husky, looked instead like a beaver, Caltech’s mascot.
The 13th stunt was supposed to spell out “Washington” in script flowing from left to right, as if being written from on high, but instead it flowed out backward, from right to left.
Finally, in the 14th stunt came the coup de grace: a block “CALTECH,” in black letters on a white background.
At a school known for its inventive student pranks — disassembling a Model-T Ford on the street and reassembling it in a student’s room; installing a fake cornerstone, upside down, nine stories up on the school’s library; hacking into the scoreboard at the 1984 Rose Bowl to make it read “Caltech 38, MIT 9,” etc. — Hardy and his cohorts pulled off the mother of them all.
“It was one of those classic moments when a prank comes together instantly, perfectly and dramatically,” applauds museumofhoaxes.com, which lists the “Great Rose Bowl Hoax” atop its list of the all-time top 10 college pranks.
Jack Briggs, Washington’s student body president at the time, was less appreciative, saying the prank was “not in the best of taste.”
“There’s a fine line there,” he says, “but I think we stayed on the right side of it. It could have been obscenities or something in very poor taste, but we didn’t do that. So I’m proud of that — that we acted responsibly and nobody got hurt.”
In 1997, the Caltech Alumni Assn. voted Hardy’s “Rose Bowl Card Caper” the No. 1 prank in school history.
By then, Hardy says, his hoax-planning days were long past.
In retirement, doting on his grandchildren, the author of three science-fiction novels calls himself “a pretty boring guy.”
Among his cohorts in the Rose Bowl escapade, Hardy notes, were Michael Lampton, later an astronaut; Reg Clemens, a consultant for research-and-development company Sandia Labs; and Lon Bell, chief executive of Amerigon Inc.
“As you mature and get older, I think you get more conservative,” Hardy says. “Life starts hitting you with brick walls. If I was approached tomorrow and somebody said, ‘Would you do this?’ I’d say, ‘No, you’re crazy.’ Here we were, 19 years old, committing felonies, breaking into this place.”
Laughing, he pauses.
“I hope the statute of limitations has run out.”