The year was 1930, when football players were nicknamed Foots, Turk and Tuffy, and coaches like Knute and Babe were legends.
Football heroes stood 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 178 pounds. Washington State College hadn’t graduated to a university. Players wore leather helmets - if they wore them at all.
Coach Orin “Babe” Hollingbery led his Washington State Cougars to an undefeated season that fall, vying with Notre Dame’s Rough Riders to be called the best team in the land.
The Cougars, with a hungry and moody mountain lion mascot in tow, fell short. The team was swamped by the Alabama Crimson Tide, 24-0, at the 1931 Rose Bowl.
That drizzling New Year’s Day game was the last time Washington State competed in the Rose Bowl game. Thirty-six players made the three-day train ride from Pullman to Pasadena and then back again.
“I did not play in that game,” said Henry Butherus, an 89-year-old former fullback. “I was on the bench, suited up, but I think Babe felt he had the best people out there. They were being beat to death. I sat on the bench and watched disaster on the field.”
Seven of the players from the 1930 season are still alive. None were stars, not like Mel Hein and Turk Edwards, and only a few saw any playing time against Alabama.
But the former Cougars are following this year’s team, headed for Pasadena to compete in the Rose Bowl against No. 1 Michigan Wolverines.
Former halfback Howard Moses can still demonstrate a drop kick in his Toppenish, Wash., living room. He fits - just barely - into his letterman’s sweater.
“It’s just like any other ball game,” said Moses, 87, who played in the 1931 Rose Bowl but doesn’t even remember the weather. “You have to play for 60 minutes. It’s the publicity everybody always gets excited about. To the players, it’s a ball game, period. We got to do the best we can.”
The Rose Bowl was by no means the highlight of their long lives, but now the yearbooks are being dragged out again and the yellowed newspaper clippings are being unfolded. Their stories are plucked out of long-dead memories. No two remember the game quite the same way.
Football back then was mainly a running game, with plays like the “Statue of Liberty” and offenses like the “double-wing back system.” The same players lined up on both offense and defense. At least one Washington State game was stopped to search for a player’s missing front teeth.
In 1930, Washington State was a rural school, a stepcousin of the University of Washington. Freshmen had to wear green beanies and mole-skin pants. Only juniors and seniors could wear real corduroys, which were the thing at the time. The upperclassmen were known to yank the pants off underclassmen who didn’t follow the rules.
That fall, a football player in the Midwest reportedly died from blood poisoning - because his shoes were too tight. A teenage high school football player was X-rayed to determine his real age, suspected to be 20. Two Alabama players were injured with “leg hurts,” according to the newspaper.
The Cougars were known for their defense. Opponents racked up only 32 points against Washington State in nine games.
The team beat the University of Southern California by a hard-fought point. “I kept yelling, ‘Stop the Musick,”’ said longtime fan Edith Meeker, the sister-in-law of Butch Meeker, a Cougar star from the 1920s and namesake of the team mascot. “They had some fullback named Musick.”
The Cougars slogged through rain against the University of Washington in a sand field that felt like wet concrete, winning by a field goal, 3 to 0.
“They really vandalized the University of Montana, 61 to nothing,” said Bill Munson Sr., a football fan and Washington State graduate who has two file cabinets and five scrapbooks full of Cougar memorabilia stretching back to 1929.
The Villanova game in Philadelphia was the last of the regular season. Before making the long train ride home, the team stopped in Washington, D.C., and met President Hoover at the White House for a photograph.
Later, at a party celebrating the victory over Villanova, a suitcase was stolen from Washington State at a New York hotel. The suitcase contained diagrams of the plays the Cougars planned to run against Alabama in the Rose Bowl. It wasn’t recovered.
The team left Pullman by train on Dec. 19, 1930, and arrived in Pasadena Dec. 22. Fans could ride a round-trip charter bus from Pullman to Pasadena for $45.
Players smuggled freshman Jerry Camp - who later founded Camp Automotive Inc. in Spokane - on the train. Clarence Franklin and his track coach drove to Southern California in a Chevy coupe.
The team stayed at the Huntington Hotel, a plush Pasadena spot, and members were treated like movie stars. They visited Gay’s lion farm to see nearly 200 caged lions. They toured motion picture studios, shopped in their letterman sweaters and picked fruit from the trees at the hotel.
“The hotel managers, they were very unhappy about us taking the oranges and grapefruits off the trees, because they used them for advertising,” said Myron “Mike” Davis, who played a few minutes in the Rose Bowl.
The Cougars spent Christmas Eve around a tree at the Huntington Hotel. Each player was given 50 cents to buy a gift for another player, assigned by a number.
That wasn’t much money. Back then, The Palace in Spokane sold Christmas ties for 95 cents. Boys’ Indian suits, leather helmets and children’s creepers cost $1 each at The Crescent. The majestic perfected screen grid superheterodyne radio cost $112.50, complete with tubes.
Both Alabama and Washington State practiced on Christmas Day.
“For most of us, it was probably the first time we were ever away from home on Christmas,” said Art Freeborg, who didn’t even suit up for the Rose Bowl. “I enjoyed every minute of it. I thought it was great stuff.”
The buildup to the Rose Bowl was fierce. The Crimson Tide was supposedly bigger, taller and stronger. The players were nicknamed the Red Elephants.
The Cougars were dubbed the Red Devils. For the Rose Bowl, team members wore red from their shoes to their helmets. Even their socks were red.
“The color is so flaming, albeit attractive, that persistent looking at it is not easy on the eyes, and that is said seriously,” a newspaper article said.
Not everyone took the uniforms as seriously.
“It worked against us, I think,” said Joe Hansen, 89. “The news media and everyone else made fun of us.”
Even the team mascots got into the hype. The Alabama mascot, named Poison, was a black donkey given to the team in Phoenix. The Washington cougar was caged and crabby.
“‘Poison’ will probably pay a call on Washington State’s cougar, ‘Butch Meeker,’ today or tomorrow,” a newspaper article said. “The meeting is expected to be very informal with no festivities planned, for the mountain lion has been hungry and moody since arrival.”
The Cougars team tried to get steaks from Alabama to feed the cat.
The teams attended a joint church service, with the pastor lecturing about “playing the game.” From Dec. 26 until the game, the Cougars weren’t allowed to receive telephone calls or open mail.
New Year’s Day itself was a blur for most players. They watched part of the Rose Parade before being spirited away to the stadium under gray skies.
The game was broadcast in Washington on the radio, just after Benito Mussolini’s New Year’s address.
“I was glued to the game at home, probably pacing up and down,” said fan Munson, who plans to see this year’s Rose Bowl live.
The game wasn’t very suspenseful. Alabama, which didn’t put in its first string until the second quarter, scored three quick touchdowns in the second quarter and a field goal in the third quarter.
“I remember they beat us bad,” Freeborg said. “They beat us 24 to nothing. And we couldn’t do anything right, and they couldn’t do anything wrong.”
Freeborg remembered Cougar Mentor Dahlen returning a punt during the game. Just before Dahlen caught the ball, Alabama star Freddie Sington plowed toward him.
“The second Dahlen got the ball this Freddie Sington hit him an awful lot,” Freeborg said. “You could hear him pop all over the stands. It jerked his pants down to his knees. He was hit so hard, his pants nearly came off.”
Or maybe not.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that one,” Butherus said. “I don’t think that’s possible.”
Washington State almost scored in the last quarter, but Cougar star Elmer Schwartz fumbled. Sington recovered.
In the dressing room after the game, Hollingbery patted his players on the back. “That’s the stuff,” he told them. “Let’s see the old smile.”
The Red Devils and the Red Elephants cleaned up for a dance that night. Butherus danced the first dance with the Rose Bowl queen, only to see her disappear onto the crowded dance floor for the rest of the evening.
“The night after the game, we all went out and raised hell,” Joe Hansen said. “We made all the shady spots.”
The team left the next day, returning to a rally in Pullman on Jan. 5.
They got souvenirs. Howard Moses, who refused to wear a helmet because it slowed him down, grimaces when he shows off a gold football pendant he used to wear from his vest chain. The Rose Bowl football is engraved with Washington State and Alabama.
“They put the score on it, too,” Moses said. “That was bad. I was gonna file that off.”
Fifteen seniors graduated that year, including most of the team greats, who have since died. Star Tuffy Ellingsen died this October, during halftime of Washington State’s home game with Arizona. A few went on to play pro ball, like NFL Hall of Fame member Mel Hein, nicknamed “Old Indestructible.”
Others never played football again, or maybe only in pickup games of has-beens and never-weres. The players who are still alive became football coaches, school superintendents and warehouse managers. They fought in the war. They count marriages by decades.
The remaining players don’t keep in touch with each other, except for the Hansen brothers, Joe and Sam. Joe Hansen can’t bear to watch or even listen to Washington State games, because it’s too stressful. He follows the team through relatives and the newspaper.
None of the players plans to attend this year’s Rose Bowl. They don’t have tickets, and they say Washington State hasn’t offered them.
“I’d sooner see them from the boob tube,” said former halfback Davis, who lives about 15 minutes from Pasadena.
The former players and fans are amazed at the finesse of today’s game. They’re proud of quarterback Ryan Leaf. They think Washington State can win, if the team plays hard, gives 110 percent and embodies any other sports cliche imaginable.
There’s just a little advice.
“I just sure hope they don’t wear all red this time,” Edith Meeker said. “It’ll be a jinx.”
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