Back in March, the NCAA Tournament was just days away from tipping off when COVID-19 took hold in America and turned 2020 upside down, taking with it, among other things, college basketball’s championship.
Now it’s December, and the Rose Bowl has been moved to Texas, just the second time in the game’s history that the Granddaddy Of Them All won’t be played at its namesake stadium in Pasadena.
You may know that the other time the Rose Bowl was moved was on New Year’s Day in 1942, when the game was played at Duke, just a few weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And looking back at the historical record, it seems to make sense. Duke was the No. 2 team in the country, so why wouldn’t the Blue Devils get to host the big game, which they played against Oregon State?
In fact, Duke and Oregon State were supposed to play in California, and the Beavers planned to head south to Pasadena on December 15. When large public gatherings were banned on the West Coast out of fear of another Japanese attack, both the Rose Bowl and the East-West Shrine Game moved eastward, the latter from San Francisco to New Orleans, with one clever writer suggesting the Rose Bowl instead be called “Bowl Durham.”
After winning the Pacific Coast Conference title, the Beavers got to choose an opponent to invite to the Rose Bowl, and the Blue Devils were their pick. Proving that some things really never change, Jack Guenther of United Press wrote, rounding up the bowl matchups announced on December 1, 1941: “As always, the selections stirred a few dissents but the general reaction was favorable. All the tapped teams had been regarded as logical choices for the past month and the pairings produced no surprises.”
That did change somewhat when the Cotton and Orange Bowls filled their vacant spots with Alabama and TCU, respectively, snubbing Duquesne, Mississippi State, and Texas, but the oddity to modern eyes is not just that Oregon State got to pick its bowl opponent, but that nobody from the Big Ten — then the Western Conference — was in the bowl mix at all. That’s because, for a little more than two decades, the conference didn’t allow teams to participate in bowl games. In 1941, that didn’t stop Minnesota, featuring Heisman winner Bruce Smith (no relation to THAT Bruce Smith) from claiming the national championship with an 8-0 record. Also, in those days, the national champion was chosen with the final AP poll, a month before the New Year’s bowls.
That point that Guenther made about the “logical choices for the past month” rings true today and also hints at how college football’s postseason has been predestined for the past eight decades, even as the system has evolved from bowl games that were merely exhibitions to the BCS to the College Football Playoff.
While Guenther wrote that “Fordham waited until late Saturday night for a feeler from Oregon,” it had been reported more than a week earlier by Hugh Fullerton that “Fordham and Duke already have been signed for the Sugar bowl and Missouri can have the Cotton bowl or Orange bowl bid.”
Obviously, that turned out to be wrong, as Duke went to the Rose Bowl and Fordham beat Missouri, 2-0, in the Sugar. Still, the teams that were seen as in the mix for the big bowls went to the big bowls, while No. 4 Texas was left out of the bowl mix entirely, unable to make the Southwest Conference a two-bid circuit alongside champion A&M.
As it worked out, Alabama went to Dallas and won its bowl game, 29-21, over an Aggies team that only went to the Cotton Bowl after getting “faculty approval.” Such approval was not granted at Notre Dame, where the Fighting Irish went 8-0-1, ranking third in the country with wins over top-10 powers Navy and Northwestern, but stayed home for New Year’s. Can you imagine that?
So, it was Duke and Oregon State in the Rose Bowl, which only got moved to North Carolina after Pearl Harbor. Before that, things were still plenty familiar. On the day the Blue Devils accepted their Rose Bowl bid, Duke coach Wallace Wade (whose name is now on the stadium where that Rose Bowl was played) and assistant Eddie Cameron (whose name is now on the more famous sporting facility in Durham) were in Philadelphia to see the Eagles play the Bears. And, as the United Press reported, “while they were at the game, their traveling bags were stolen from their parked automobile.”