In 1917, Oregon changed the game


Oregon’s last Rose Bowl victory could be called the Great-Granddaddy of Them All.

It came in 1917, months before the birth of John F. Kennedy and the United States’ entry into World War I.

The Rose Bowl game was still in its infancy. Stanford had been so humbled by Michigan in the first game 15 years earlier that it conceded defeat in the third quarter of a 49-0 rout and soon abandoned football for rugby.

Tournament of Roses officials almost gave up on the sport as well. They opted for Roman-style chariot and ostrich races, among other events, over the next 13 years as a secondary attraction to their renowned floral parade.

A second Rose Bowl was held in 1916, and the bloom also fell off that game.

Brown came west to play Washington State only because powerful Syracuse couldn’t afford a second cross-country trip after having played Oregon Agricultural College in Portland. The Cougars’ 14-0 victory in sloppy conditions did nothing to diminish the widely held belief that East Coast teams were vastly superior to their Western challengers.

So when the mighty Pennsylvania Quakers traveled to Pasadena a year later, the Oregon Webfoots -- they were still 10 years from becoming the Ducks -- had no chance. Penn Coach Bob Folwell was so confident about the outcome that he welcomed Oregon counterpart Hugo Bezdek at one of his team’s open practices.

Bezdek asked Folwell if he would show him the Quakers’ reverse pass play, which was something of a novelty at the time. Folwell complied.

The gentlemanly gesture eventually qualified as a Rose Bowl fun fact, provided you were an Oregon fan.

“Imagine what we thought and said,” Penn quarterback Bert Bell would later lament, “when Oregon scored its first touchdown on our own play.”

It was a literal and symbolic reverse for Oregon and its West Coast brethren during a 14-0 victory that signaled a tectonic shift in the college football landscape.

Football historian Maxwell Stiles wrote that it was “more than just one western victory in an ebb and flow of the intersectional tides. It is a dog-eared leaf in the history book of American football, the first significant victory of a Pacific Coast team over a big-time team admitted to be truly representative of eastern football at its best.”

John Parsons Jr., whose father, John Sr., set up the Webfoots’ second touchdown with a twisting 42-yard run to the Penn one-yard line, said his father often regaled him with tales from the triumph.

“We talked about it quite a bit,” said Parsons Jr., 81, whose father was the last surviving member of the team when he died in 1986 at 96. “I would say he was very proud of his part in the game.”

Oregon wasn’t even universally acknowledged as the best team in the Pacific Coast Conference that season. The Webfoots had finished the regular season 6-0-1 after battling Washington to a 0-0 tie.

Oregon’s Rose Bowl selection was a matter of economics: Train fare for the team from Eugene to Pasadena was $250 less than it was from Seattle. Still, Oregon had to sell the campus bookstore to fund the trip.

In a complete departure from today, Oregon featured the power running game and Penn had the wide-open passing offense. The Quakers also had four All-Americans to the Webfoots’ none.

“I’ve got only overgrown high school boys, while Penn can field a varsity of big university strength,” Bezdek said. “We haven’t a chance.”

The Penn players also held sway in other arenas. Bell, the Quakers’ quarterback, was the son of Pennsylvania’s attorney general. He drove a Cadillac and eventually became commissioner of the NFL.

Oregon’s roster largely was made up of players who hailed from intrastate outposts such as The Dalles and Albany. John Parsons Sr. would go on to be a dairyman and a grocer.

As the game neared, Folwell wasn’t the only coach who fully expected Penn to win. Most of Bezdek’s PCC colleagues also picked the Quakers. “We are going to put a team on the field that won’t be licked and consequently can’t be licked,” Folwell said.

On a postcard-perfect Southern California afternoon, The Times’ Howard Angus wrote that an overflow crowd of 30,000 fans “banked tier upon tier in a solid black mass,” jammed into Tournament Park, the precursor to the Rose Bowl stadium.

The game was scoreless into the third quarter, but the turning point came before halftime when Penn reached Oregon’s 10-yard line. The Quakers tried to cut outside for a touchdown but were thrown for a loss. A subsequent field-goal attempt was no good. The momentum had shifted.

Angus wrote that the Webfoots “steadied as if someone had given them a shot of hop. A big grin spread over their faces that never was erased. From then on Oregon was unbeatable.”

And unashamed to use Penn’s own play against it.

The trickery came in the third quarter when Parsons took the snap, ran in one direction and handed off to quarterback Shy Huntington, who was sprinting the other way. Huntington then fired a 20-yard touchdown pass to Lloyd Tegart, and Oregon was on its way.

After the Webfoots scored again in the fourth quarter, they could be heard mocking the Quakers. According to an account in The Times, Oregon players said, “Are the city boys getting tired? . . . Came west to teach us football, did you?”

Delighting in the upset, The Times’ Harry A. Williams wrote that West Coast teams would “lick the stuffing out of every eastern team which ventures far enough away from home to make the discovery that all the football in the world is not bounded on the West by the Mississippi River.”

It hasn’t always worked out that way, of course. A victory over Ohio State today would give Oregon its first Rose Bowl victory in 93 years, after losses in 1920, 1958 and 1995. Parsons Jr., who has traveled from his home in Eugene to attend the game, will be rooting fervently for the Ducks.

“Oregon’s record in that 1917 game needs to be history,” he said. “I can’t wait to see dad’s record replaced.”