Frank's Place: Penn once played in the Rose Bowl - and decided it had enough

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The Penn football team gets set to board the train to play Oregon in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1917.

They were representing the dominance of the Eastern establishment and its elite football schools, and Penn's confident players, from their snappy fedoras down to their polished brogans, looked the part.

But if, as they posed for photographers at Reading Terminal that Dec. 22, 1916, those Rose Bowl-bound Quakers could have foreseen the postman's code of miseries awaiting them, their smiles might not have been so broad.

Before their return to Philadelphia a grueling 21/2 weeks later, those players had traveled on six different trains; been stranded by a blizzard; been made to practice in the Southwest desert in suits and ties; trained in Pasadena's mud and smudge-pot haze; and been compelled to glad-hand virtually nonstop with Penn alums and civic dignitaries all along the way.

Worst of all, the favored Quakers were embarrassed in a 14-0 Rose Bowl loss to Oregon, a team whose coach, apparently believing what he'd read about Eastern football, had told reporters "we don't have a chance."

Afterward, as the team traveled slowly back to Philadelphia, dismayed Penn supporters found plenty to blame - the wearying 3,000-mile trek west, weather changes, a trick play they'd graciously taught Oregon, overconfidence, poor conditioning, even bad officiating.

"The East understands the game better, but there is one thing sure," wrote C. Newell Carns, Penn '12, in his alma mater's Alumni Register, "the West must get better officials."

A century ago Sunday, when Penn made its lone postseason appearance, the Rose Bowl wasn't yet the Rose Bowl. The Tournament East-West Football Game wouldn't acquire that name until the mid-1920s when Pasadena built the Rose Bowl Stadium to accommodate it.

Begun in 1902, then suspended until 1916, the football game - a pairing of a prominent Eastern visitor with the best Pacific Conference team - was a sideshow to the city's Tournament of Roses. In the 1902 game, Michigan's 49-0 thumping of Stanford confirmed almost everyone's low opinion of Western football.

For the New Year's Day 1917 game, the Tournament committee chose Penn as Oregon's opponent. It was an intriguing matchup - a private, big-city, elite Eastern school with Colonial-era roots vs. a 40-year-old Western state college with no national reputation in sports or academics.

At 2 p.m. on Dec. 22, Penn's 22 players, three coaches, team manager, and faculty representative departed on a Philadelphia & Reading train. They stopped in Scranton and reached Buffalo just before midnight. There, a blizzard hit. A scheduled practice was canceled, and their journey, now aboard the Michigan Central, was delayed 24 hours.

Midday on Dec. 24, the party got to Chicago, where they were met and feted by a group of city officials and Penn alums. Christmas was celebrated on a Santa Fe railroad sleeper car with each player receiving a silk muffler in Penn's red and blue.

Following another alumni gathering in Kansas City, the next stop was Albuquerque. There wasn't enough time for a scheduled Navajo dance, but to satisfy the assembled crowd, coach Bob Folwell had his nattily - and warmly - attired team run a few plays in the desert sun.

"[That was] much to the edification of the Indians who were selling baskets and pottery," wrote R. Tait McKenzie, an alum accompanying Penn. "Then after being decorated with sombreros by [University of New Mexico] coeds, we jumped on board and the train pulled out."

Arriving in Pasadena Dec. 27, they found muddy practice areas - a local golf course; the Hotel Raymond grounds; and Tournament Park, where the surrounding orange groves were being warmed by smoky smudge pots. Penn's publicity director Fred Ford conducted a marathon news conference at the hotel for local reporters.

"Mr. Ford held forth upon the steps of the Hotel Raymond for at least four hours straight," wrote Carns. "In fact, he overworked the reporters."

Ford's hype worked. No one gave poor Oregon a chance against 5-to-3 favorite Penn, including the coaches.

"I've got only overgrown high school boys," said Oregon coach Hugo Bezdek, later a successful Penn State coach. "Penn can field a varsity of big university strength."

Folwell vowed to "put a team on the field that won't be licked, and consequently can't be licked."

Penn's coach was so confident he allowed Bezdek to attend a practice. There the coach of the 6-0-1 Webfoots - Ducks would come a decade later - asked for details on a play he saw, one combining a reverse with a pass.

In the Rose Bowl, Oregon used the play to score its first touchdown.

"Imagine our surprise," said Bert Bell, the Penn quarterback who went on to found the Eagles and become NFL commissioner.

Between practices, players met with more alums, were the guests of honor at a Saturday smoker, and had to sit through a Sunday night recital by the hotel owner's wife.

On game day, Monday, Penn's players were loaded onto a float from where they watched the Tournament of Roses Parade. An hour before game time, as they practiced at Tournament Park, the sun finally appeared.

An overflow crowd of 24,000 fans - all, except for 100 Penn fans, in Oregon's corner - filed the makeshift stadium. They saw the Quakers miss a pair of field-goal attempts before Oregon scored TDs in the third and fourth quarters.

By then, Oregon players were razzing their ballyhooed opponents: "Are the city boys getting tired?" one reportedly asked.

It was a groundbreaking victory. A Los Angeles Times sportswriter crowed that it proved "all of the football in the world is not bounded on the west by the Mississippi River."

Disappointed, Penn didn't linger. Following a postgame hotel banquet - the owner's wife was again the entertainment - the players boarded an 8 p.m. train for San Francisco. More connections, banquets, and meet-and-greets followed until, six days later, they were back in Philadelphia.

Penn, not too surprisingly, has never played in another bowl game.

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz