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The Rose Bowl that wasn’t

Ohio State returns to Pasadena 60 years after infamous faculty council vote

On January 1, The Ohio State University will face off against the University of Utah in the Buckeyes’ 16th Rose Bowl appearance. Earlier this month, The Ohio State University Alumni Association hosted Todd Jones, senior writer for the Alumni Magazine, and Bill Shkurti, distinguished adjunct professor, John Glenn College of Public Affairs, to discuss the controversy surrounding the 1961 Rose Bowl.

Sixty years ago, the Buckeyes were invited to the game but, because of a faculty council vote, did not participate. This decision led to protests on campus and in downtown Columbus. The vote and its outcome were “second only to a chimp zooming around the earth,” Shkurti said, referencing the front-page coverage the controversial decision received.

In 1961, the university’s football team, coming off an 8-0-1 season, was invited to play in the Rose Bowl. The Woody Hayes-coached team included Heisman runner-up Bob Ferguson and starters Paul Warfield and Matt Snell, and outscored their opponents 221-83. The team was all but guaranteed a trip to Pasadena for the game known as “The Grandaddy of Them All.”

Jones said that at the time, regional games received more attention than national championships.

“What was important to Ohio State was to win the Big Ten and to go to the Rose Bowl,” he said.

The issues that led to Ohio State’s thwarted Rose Bowl trip began more than five years earlier when Sports Illustrated reported on a recruiting scandal involving Hayes. According to the reporting, Hayes had been providing financial assistance to players with his own funds.

In 1957, the university released what came to be known as the Fullington Report in response to this coverage. The report called for more athletic oversight, including the expansion of Ohio State’s faculty council to give it additional control of the athletics program. (The Athletic Council, a University Senate committee of faculty, students, alumni, athletes, administrators and staff, now carries out this role.)

Two years after the release of the Fullington Report, several Big Ten schools, including Ohio State, chose not to sign a contract with the Rose Bowl after tempers flared over game negotiations.

“[There was] a tiff with the Rose Bowl people about the contract and visiting schools not getting their fair share,” Shkurti said. “So the negotiations dragged on for two years and, as a result, there was no contract.”

With Ohio State lacking a formal tie to the Rose Bowl organization, the faculty council controlled whether the university could send a team to the game at all. At the same time, tensions over metrics for academic and newly created athletic scholarships left the faculty council frustrated by what they considered to be differences in treatment between students and student-athletes.

It is with this background that the faculty council voted against sending the football team to the Rose Bowl in 1961. Protests began on campus almost immediately, with a group of students eventually marching downtown to voice their frustrations.

Despite eventual statements from Hayes and team members supporting the decision, the university and Columbus communities became more hostile – spurred, at least in part, by what Shkurti called inflammatory coverage of the events by the Columbus Dispatch. The paper “stood to lose money by not selling papers related to the Rose Bowl, so it gave this decision big coverage,” Shkurti said.

Reporters leaned heavily into the drama of the event, going so far as to publish contact information for members of the faculty council, some of whom received death threats, he said.

In time, fans came to accept the outcome and the protests died down. Ohio State still finished the season in second place in national polls and headed into the 1962 season ranked No. 1. In an interesting twist, football recruiting was initially damaged by the vote.

“Players in Ohio think that Ohio State’s deemphasizing football: ‘They don’t want to go to bowl games,’ and talent started leaving the state,” Jones said.

This led to Hayes expanding his recruiting base, which ultimately resulted in Ohio State recruiting players like Jack Tatum, a North Carolina and New Jersey native and a member of the 1968 team’s “Super Sophomores.” That team took Ohio State back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1961 vote, where it beat the University of Southern California 27-16, earning the national championship.

To avoid a repeat of this situation, the faculty council voted 36-20 to approve a new Big Ten contract with the Rose Bowl the following year.

While the disappointment stung at the time, the Rose Bowl That Wasn’t is likely more well-known than the game would have been, with impacts that went far beyond the 1961 season.

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