On Monday, Penn State will square off against the University of Southern California in the Rose Bowl for the third time in the more than 100-year history of the game, but the first matchup between the schools in 1923 was anything but rosy.
The ninth Rose Bowl game pitted the 6-3-1 Nittany Lions coached by Hugo Bezdek against the 7-1 Trojans coached by Elmer Henderson. The historic game offered a few firsts. It was the first bowl appearance by a Penn State team, the first Rose Bowl game played in the current stadium in Pasadena, Calif., the first matchup between the two schools and it was almost the first fist-fight on the 50-yard line between head coaches, said R. Scott Jenkins, Rose Bowl management committee chairman.
“The Penn State-USC matchup has a rich Rose Bowl history,” Jenkins said. “The stories surrounding the 1923 game are told often by committee members and historians.”
Penn State was staying a few miles from the stadium, and on the morning of the game the team loaded into several cars to make its way to the stadium. The game was slated to start at 2:15 p.m., but as game time approached the Nittany Lions were nowhere to be found.
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The Nittany Lions were stuck in a traffic jam after the Tournament of Roses Parade. Eventually, the Pasadena police chief allowed the team to drive on sidewalks and lawns in order to get to the stadium, according to Pasadena Star-News reports.
“It was a hot day and temperatures were near 90 degrees,” Jenkins said. “The SC players were waiting in the hot sun for Penn State to show up, and when they didn’t the SC coach accused Penn State of grandstanding to delay the game for cooler temperatures.”
Henderson was furious when Penn State arrived at about 2:30 p.m., according to the Star-News. As Bezdek made his way to the field, Henderson confronted him, accusing him of delaying the game as a psychological tactic. The two exchanged harsh words on the field.
“As legend has it, the Penn State coach challenged the SC coach to a fight on the 50-yard line,” Jenkins said.
The Tournament of Roses president, John J. Mitchell, stopped the two from fighting, putting an end to the thorny situation. Before he died in 1965, Henderson said in “The Trojan Heritage: A Pictorial History of USC Football” that he told Bezdek he would let the teams settle it on the field.
The game finally kicked off just after 3 p.m., and the Trojans defeated the Nittany Lions 14-3. The game ended in the Southern California twilight, and sports writers were said to have finished penning their stories by striking matches for light.
“It’s believed that Henderson never had any intention of fighting Bezdek after he heard that he was a former boxer,” Jenkins said with a chuckle. “I guess it’s a good thing for him that it didn’t come to blows.”