The 1966 Rose Bowl Controversy

    Week 14: Written by Ryan Nanni

The four-team College Football Playoff can be frustrating because it creates a hazy set of incentives and rewards. For many teams, there’s no foolproof path. Selection depends on things beyond their control, like how other possible contenders finish the year and whether or not the teams they faced were impressive that season. It all feels very disorienting compared to the stability of the pre-Playoff/BCS era when you knew the SEC champion would play in the Sugar Bowl, the Southwest winner would go to the Cotton Bowl, and the Rose Bowl would host the champs of the Pac-10 and Big Ten.

But, well, sometimes, it wasn’t as simple as that.

Let’s go back to November 19, 1966. 8-1 UCLA traveled to the Coliseum to play 7-1 USC. The Bruins had dropped a game to Washington, but the Trojans were still undefeated in conference play; their loss came against Miami. USC was favored by eight points, partly because UCLA’s star quarterback, Gary Beban, wasn’t going to play due to injury.

You may think this set up a pretty simple situation for the Rose Bowl bid. If USC won, they’d stay undefeated in conference and get the invitation. If UCLA pulled off an upset, the Bruins and Trojans would each have one conference loss, and UCLA would win the tiebreaker thanks to their head-to-head win. But this was not the case.

Because Oregon and Oregon State had only recently joined the Athletic Association of Western Universities – the Pac-8/10/12’s name after the original Pacific Coast Conference had dissolved in 1959 – teams played an unequal number of conference games. Washington, for instance, played seven, while Washington State only played four. That’s how UCLA entered this game with a 2-1 record in conference play against USC’s 4-0.

Mind you, that imbalance wouldn’t have mattered had USC won, but they didn’t. Backup QB Norm Dow, making his first start, led two touchdown drives in the second half to give UCLA a 14-7 win that immediately presented a problem for the AAWU.

The Monday after the game, representatives from the conference were scheduled to meet in San Francisco and select the “most representative team” to send to the Rose Bowl, an exceptionally unhelpful framework for dealing with this predicament. Amongst the arguments, they had at their disposal:

  • USC had better results between opponents they had in common with UCLA, sweeping Cal, Stanford, and Washington, while UCLA lost to the Huskies and beat Cal and Stanford by lower margins.
  • UCLA had been to the Rose Bowl the previous year. The AAWU didn’t have a rule against repeat trips to the Rose Bowl as the Big Ten did then, but the issue was raised anyway.
  • The AAWU had never given the Rose Bowl bid to a team that didn’t at least have a share of the conference title.
  • Right, that thing where UCLA beat USC with their backup quarterback.

They also had precedents to consider. Two years earlier, Oregon State and USC finished conference play with 3-1 records and hadn’t faced one another. At that point, the conference decided to delay the decision one week to see what happened when USC played Notre Dame, who was 9-0 and ranked No. 1.

USC came back from a 17-0 halftime deficit to ruin Irish hopes of a national title…and then the conference decided to pick Oregon State as the Rose Bowl representative anyway. Here’s what Oregon State’s coach, Tommy Prothro, had to say afterward:

“I’m pleased the faculty athletic representatives saw fit to vote on the results of the season instead of being emotionally swayed by the results of one game.”

Interestingly enough, by 1966, Prothro had left Oregon State to take the UCLA job, the school that was very much hoping to sway the conference by the results of one game.

This time, the AAWU decided not to let things wait until the Trojans could play the Fighting Irish. They prioritized conference titleholder status and anointed USC as the most representative team. Afterward, some USC students decided to go across town and talk a little smack, which was returned by UCLA fans throwing eggs, rocks, and bottles. They did not stop there, as they decided to set a few small fires and briefly marched onto a freeway and blocked traffic. These people were positively incensed!

What’s key to remember here is that there was no silver medal for UCLA. In 1966, there were only nine bowl games, and the AAWU didn’t send two teams to the postseason until 1975. It was Rose Bowl or bust.

Commissioner Tom Hamilton, however, was confident they’d made the right choice. He told reporters, “The Notre Dame game makes no difference. Besides, the Trojans will beat the Irish and continue their success in the Rose Bowl.”

Notre Dame beat USC 51-0, the largest margin of victory in the series at the time and through the 2023 edition of the rivalry.

And then USC lost the Rose Bowl to Purdue, 14-13, when they went for two late in the game and threw a pick. That remains the only Boilermaker win in the Rose Bowl to date. UCLA wouldn’t make it back for another nine seasons.

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