Spartan Rose Bowl History

11 12 2013

The 1954 Rose Bowl

The 1953-54 Michigan State College (M.S.C.) football season would prove to be an impressive Big Ten debut from the newly inducted Mid-Michigan team. Fighting through the regular season with only one loss to Purdue, the Michigan State Spartans were sure to show the Big Ten their worth in the conference. The Spartans’ successes led them to the 1954 Rose Bowl versus the University of California, Los Angeles Bruins in the first ever meeting between the two schools and first ever Rose Bowl appearance for the Spartans. Playing with the highest number of African Americans than any other Big Ten team, Coach “Biggie” Munn was eager to show Southern California his team’s Midwestern inclusiveness, granting press from all regions equal access to Spartan practices, allowing M.S.C. fans to meet the team in the days leading up to the game, and even saving Californians from a hotel fire! It was a beautiful day for a football game with clear skies and comfortable 70 degree weather. The Spartans were set to face off against the Bruins in the nation’s first broadcast program in color.

The Spartans started the game on the wrong leg, fumbling twice and throwing an interception and allowing U.C.L.A. to score 14 points. Only completing one pass and producing 56 yards of offense in the first half, compared to U.C.L.A.’s 154 yards, Michigan State sympathizers felt as if their roses were wilting. But with 4:45 remaining in the first half the tides turned. Spartan Ellis Duckett blocked and returned a punt for a touchdown giving his team the first points of the game. Duckett’s feat marked the first punt ever blocked under U.C.L.A.’s head coach Red Sanders and a major turning point for the Spartan squad. The green and white went into half-time hoping to monopolize on their momentum.

Munn approached the second half planning to utilize his weapons on offense better. Focusing on the productivity of his famous “Pony Backfield”, named for their atypically small four tailbacks averaging a mere 172 pounds each, Munn emphasized his team’s rushing abilities. Observing from film that U.CImage.L.A. was “likely to give up the 8, 4, and 5 hole”[1] he called a successful 14 straight run plays, each of which gained positive yardage. The 78-yard drive to the endzone concluded with a 1-yard run from LeRoy Bolden and a successful extra point conversion from kicker/fullback Evan Slonac, tying the game 14-14. Tacking on another seven points, and facing the Bruins with 21 unanswered points, was a 73-yard march down the field ending in a 2-yard touchdown run by Billy Wells. The Bruins recovered another Spartan fumble and scored to make the score 21-20. But their extra point kick failed. In response to U.C.L.A.’s attempts to compete, Billy Wells of Michigan State returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown with 4:51 left in the game, at the time, setting a Rose Bowl record for the longest punt recovery in bowl history. Wells’ trip to the endzone concluded the Spartans’ scoring and silenced U.C.L.A. with the game ending in a 28-20 score with Michigan State College the victors.

It was a team effort that day in Pasadena with 32 of the 44 of the Spartan football team seeing the field. The freshman Big Ten team was received warmly by national media. Bob Hunter of the Los Angeles Examiner reflects, “Never was anything crammed with more heart and hustle than those little green-shirted guys from Lansing, the newest dot on the Big Ten map.” Coach Biggie Munn was elated saying, “I’ve never been so proud of a game in my life. There are tears in my eyes, but I can’t help it.”[2] Michigan State College came away from the game crowned as the National Champions with tailback Billy Wells receiving the honors of the Rose Bowl Player of the Game. While this was Munn’s last year as head coach, Wells’ last year as a running back at M.S.C. (he goes on to be a lead rusher for the Steelers and Redskins, setting records that still stand at Washington), and Ralph Young’s last year as Athletic Director it also was the birth of a new Big Ten legacy, Duffy Daughtery’s head coaching career, and another Rose Bowl appearance soon to come.


The 1956 Rose Bowl

Spartan Rose Bowl hopefuls only had to wait two years to be in Pasadena yet again. This time around would prove to be even more exciting. The stage was set for another great game – U.C.L.A., the defending national champions, entered the game on the 2nd of January undefeated. Michigan State looked almost as daunting of an opponent, recording only one loss to its rival University of Michigan. Coach Daugherty was worried about the outcome of the game; his roster riddled with injury, facing a single-wing offense that revealed all of his defense’s weaknesses, and parading his new plays for the Rose Bowl in front of the press, he had genuine reason for concern. It would turn out to be quite the competition with the Spartans’ proximity to Los Angeles inspiring a Hollywood-esque ending to their ultimate victory over the Bruins.

It was also a historic game. Both teams had two of the most integrated teams in all of college athletics. It was the same year when African American player Bobby Grier was almost not allowed to compete in the Sugar Bowl in Georgia. Questions of race were being highlighted all around the country, one month before the Rose Bowl of 1956 in fact, was when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery. All of these factors combined to make the 42nd Rose Bowl one of the most watched bowl games in American history, with 41.1% of Americans owning televisions tuning in to watch the match as well as “the largest peace-time, non-military point-to-point mass movement by train in history.”[3]


The Spartans departed from the Kellogg Center in East Lansing on December 16th to be prepared for the game. Their opening drive, however, did not reflect their weeks of preparation. The Spartans opened their offensive play by throwing an interception to the hands of U.C.L.A.’s Jim Decker. U.C.L.A. scored early on with a 2-yard rush. Converting the extra point the Bruins sat with a 7 point lead over their adversaries. It was not until halfway through the second quarter that the Spartans could muster up a response. After 11 plays Michigan State concluded their 80-yard drive with a 13-yard connection between Earl Morrall and Clarence Peaks. The game went without a score from either party during the 3rd quarter. The second play of the fourth quarter, though, ended this silence. Spartan QB Peaks threw the ball 17 yards to John Lewis who caught the ball on the 50 and took it the distance. The Spartans lead was short-lived and was met with a decisive 56-yard drive from the Bruins. Eventually, Michigan State received the opportunity to take the lead but Planutis missed his 41-yard field-goal attempt. Tensions mounting, U.C.L.A. received the ball only to be called with three straight penalties within the last few minutes of the 4th quarter. The Bruins’ punt gave the Spartans the ball at the UCLA 40-yard line. After a few more penalties on both sides, Dave Kaiser of Michigan State was called in, replacing Gerald Planutis. This was Kaiser’s third ever field goal attempt in his college career, and it was to decide the Rose Bowl. Kaiser, who left his subscription contacts in the locker room, approached the placeholder with tentative confidence. While he was warming up his leg the placeholder snapped the ball. He hopped back surprised, and in a matter of seconds, lined up, and booted the 41-yard long kick. With seven seconds remaining in the game the ball soared through the uprights and the Spartans were the victors of their second Rose Bowl appearance.

The Planitus-Kaiser substitution was so surprising that announcers and reporters initially credited the game-winning field goal to Planutis. The combination of Kaiser’s poor eyesight, lack of preparedness on field, and little practice as a kicker makes his kick a true Hollywood moment for the Spartans. Bill Corum, a distinguished sports analyst for the International News Service says, “It was as good a football game, college or pro, as a fan could wish to see. A story-book finish that even Hollywood could not have duplicated with a script.” Without a script, equipped with only talent and fate, the Spartans were honored with another national championship and Rose Bowl Player of the Game (Walt Kowalczyk). There recent successes were to end until their next trip to Pasadena in another 10 years.

The 1966 Rose Bowl

The Michigan State University Spartans came into their third meeting with the Bruins with the utmost confidence. Ranked number one in the country, boasting a defense that was mistaken for the Green Bay Packers’, undefeated, and having beaten the Bruins that same season 13-3, it was the general consensus that the Spartans would be relatively unfazed by any tricks that U.C.L.A. may have in store for them.


It was a 65 degree and sunny day. The two teams donned their equipment and readied for what was supposed to be a straightforward win for Michigan State. The undersized Bruins managed to stave off the Spartans from the endzone for the first quarter. The second quarter answered to the stalemate and gave U.C.L.A. two scores. The first was a recovery of a muffed punt that only required two plays spanning 6 yards to score 6. Then the Bruin’s head coach Tommy Prothro selected an unexpected onside kick. It worked to their favor and caught the green and white off guard with Bruin Dallas Grinder falling on the ball. With the ball in their possession U.C.L.A. managed to score again in a short 5 play drive to the big house. The 3rd quarter was another scoreless quarter in which the Spartans slowly wore down their Californian opponents. Finally, midway through the 4th quarter, Michigan State scored a touchdown on a 38-yard run but, unfortunately, failed their 2 point conversion. Receiving the ball after a defensive stop Michigan State managed another successful drive to the redzone, eventually scoring on a 1-yard run. Now trailing 14–12 the Spartans were forced to attempt another 2-point conversion. All of the fans in the stands held their breath to see if a tie was in the near future. To the dismay of all persons rooting for the Big Ten’s Spartans, Apisa was stopped short of the endzone (despite knocking one of his tacklers unconscious), marring the Spartan’s undefeated record against the Bruins.

The 1966 Rose Bowl left all of Spartan Nation with a bitter taste in their mouths. Michigan State fought back with conviction and could have tied the game if they had not gone for the two-point conversion initially. But, the plays had been called and the game decided. It was time to wait for the fall where the boys could get back on the field and try to prove themselves.

The 1988 Rose Bowl

The 1987-88 season was a prosperous one for the Spartans. Led by ex-Steelers coach George Perles, the Spartans arrived at Pasadena the best team in the Big Ten. The last Rose Bowl to be aired on NBC before their 37-year contract expired with the NCAA as well as the last appearance that Michigan State would have in the Rose Bowl until 2014 was projected to be an amazing game.

The Spartans were slated to play the University of Southern California Trojans. The Greek and Roman warriors had already met that year in their season opener that resulted in a Spartan victory, 27-13. The Trojans, equipped with weapons like Rodney Peete, were projected to win in the Rose Bowl despite the Spartan’s game opener victory. The game was a defensive marvel, with Percy Snow, the Rose Bowl Player of the Game that year, earning 17 unassisted tackles, and 4 turnovers. The first quarter contained a completed field goal from the Trojans and a Spartan response with a touchdown and a successful extra-point conversion. The Spartans maintained their lead in the second quarter after an 80-yard drive that ended in a 3-yard rushing touchdown by Lorenzo White, his second touchdown of the game. U.S.C. decreased their deficit in the 3rd quarter, finding Ken henry in the endzone.  M.S.U. widened the gap with their first field goal of the game. The score was 17-10 with the Spartans winning until Peete threw to Ken Henry for a touchdown. Henry came down with the ball in an impressive display of athleticism, bobbling it while contested by a Spartan corner. The game, now tied, proved to be more competitive than many analysts had predicted.  M.S.U. expediently completed their game-winning field goal. Given a little over 4 minutes to come back U.S.C. had time to try to come back. Peete brought his team down the field only to fumble the snap, giving Michigan State the ball so that they could run out the clock.

The Spartans earned their 3rd Rose Bowl victory in Pasadena that January. The only team to beat Ohio State, University of Michigan, and U.S.C. twice all in one season, capping it off with a Rose Bowl victory, made for an impressive year. The Spartans would not experience major bowl success for some time to come. But the time is upon East Lansing once again. This New Year’s Day the Spartans will be facing another Californian team in their fifth Rose Bowl appearance. The Spartans have impressive weapons within their coaching staff, offense, and defense and should make for a good game against Stanford University. Go Green!!


[1] f. 57 b. 131 Rose Bowl Scouting Reports on UCLA 1953

[2] AP, Des Moines Register

[3] AP, Bob Voges




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