By David Eskenasi and Steve Rudman
The University of Washington football team will participate in the Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco Friday night opposite Brigham Young University. This marks the fourth consecutive year the Huskies have qualified for the postseason and the 34th time in school history. The first was 90 years ago, when bowl matters were not determined by conference seeding, but by the educated whim of a committee.
In 1923, the college season ended with only one bowl game scheduled, the Rose, organized then, as now, by the Tournament of Roses Committee, which selected the team it deemed West Coast champion to play in Pasadena on New Year’s Day. Upon acceptance, the West Coast champion had the right to pick its opponent, and usually went along with the consensus of opinion as to the identity of the East Coast champion.
Four schools, Illinois, Michigan, Yale and Cornell, all finished 8-0 with a majority of sports writers convinced the Illini and Wolverines were the class of the East. But neither school wanted to make the long train ride to Pasadena over the Christmas holidays unless they could face California, the consensus West Coast champion on the basis of its 9-0 victory over Washington and a 9-0-1 record to UW’s 10-1-0.
So how, and why, did the 10th Rose Bowl feature Washington and Navy, when neither were “champions” and with players from both institutions adamantly opposed to the idea of participating?
At 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 3, 1923, Washington athletic manager (director) Darwin Meisnest, his assistant, Torchy Torrance, head coach Enoch Bagshaw, his assistants, Clarence “Hec” Edmundson and Tubby Graves, and team captains Leonard Zeil and Wayne Hall, arrived at the campus office of Dr. Henry Suzzallo, UW president, to debate whether to extend the football season by more than a month so the team could make the school’s first appearance in a bowl game.
When they had first been informed of the opportunity, Washington’s players expressed almost unanimous opposition, Zeil arguing that training an additional month constituted a financial hardship most of them could not bear. All but a handful held down jobs that enabled them to pay for their educations. Taking a month off would force a number of players to drop out of school for the quarter: They could not afford to pay for classes they would not be able to attend.
UW officials, especially Suzzallo and Meisnest, assembled the players in order to cajole them to make a “financial sacrifice,” as The Seattle Post-Intelligencer described it, for the “prestige” and “financial benefits” that would accrue to the school.
As Meisnest, who chaired the meeting, explained, Washington had two options: With California having rejected an invitation to play in Pasadena for most of the same reasons that UW players objected, Washington could either meet Syracuse in a new bowl called “The Los Angeles Christmas Festival,” or it could play in the more established Rose Bowl against an opponent of UW’s choosing.
Created by the Community Development Association of Los Angeles, whose main business was promoting the sale of Los Angeles-area real estate, The Los Angeles Christmas Festival would be played on Christmas Day in the Los Angeles Coliseum, which the Community Development Association had opened the previous June.
Charles W. Garland, the board’s president, wanted to pay Washington a flat fee of $10,000 for its appearance. In a telex to Meisnest, Garland offered, with USC coach Elmer “Gus” Henderson’s blessing, the use of USC’s facilities while the Huskies were in Los Angeles.
Meisnest told Bagshaw and his captains that he did not favor a Christmas Day game, believing it an inappropriate holiday for an athletic contest. He also said that accepting the Rose Bowl bid gave Washington the option of either playing for a flat fee larger than the Los Angeles Christmas Festival offered, or taking a percentage of the gate. Meisnest preferred the latter option, believing he could organize a ticket-selling campaign that would provide the school with a financial windfall.
As to the hardship the players would endure, Meisnest pointed out that if UW played in the Rose Bowl, the players would be able to spend Christmas at home and take a train to Los Angeles Dec. 27 for the Jan. 1 game and return immediately afterward. So the time away from Seattle would be minimal.
Meisnest also told the gathering that he’d convinced Navy to serve as Washington’s opponent. Naval Academy officials stated they would only play California, but Meisnest had prevailed upon Commander Byron McCandless, the Naval Academy’s athletic manager, to change his mind.
Meisnest and McCandless had met the previous spring when Washington became the first Western university to send a team to the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regatta – the collegiate championship event — in Poughkeepsie, NY. During the competition, won by Washington under the direction of head coach Rusty Callow, UW and Navy crews shared training and living quarters.
Mesinest read a telegram from McCandless: “We want to play Washington. We want to continue the fine spirit of camaraderie which grew up between our crew men and yours at Poughkeepsie. But we would not be put in the position in hunting a game, and will definitely give up the trip (to Pasadena) if your team decides it does not want to play.”
As Meisnest explained, if Washington’s players did not agree to play, Navy wouldn’t participate, either, and the 1923 Rose Bowl would be canceled.
That argument didn’t resonate much with either Ziel or Hall. While the Rose Bowl, created in 1902 to fund the Rose Parade and originally called the “Tournament East-West Football Game,” had a longer history than the smattering of other bowl games of the period – Fort Worth Classic (1920), Dixie Classic (1921) and San Diego East-West Christmas Festival (1921-22) – the logistics of playing in it would be a huge inconvenience in terms of practice and travel time. It would also interfere with preparation for final exams.
So Meisnest appealed to the players’ loyalty, arguing that Washington’s appearance in the Rose Bowl would not only add to the “great national publicity,” as the Seattle Times called it, that the school received when it rowed in Poughkeepsie, but provide a significant boost to Washington’s athletic programs. Meisnest made these points:
Washington’s football stadium, not yet known as Husky Stadium, had been completed three years earlier (1920) at a cost of $510,000, and was not entirely paid for. A Rose Bowl payday of $76,000, Meisnest’s estimate of Washington’s take, provided his ticket campaign worked out, would enable UW to retire a vast majority of the remaining debt.
The interest portion of the debt would enable the Associated Students of the University of Washington to proceed with numerous improvement plans it had based on the lifting of the stadium debt.
Mesinest told the group what it already knew, that the men’s gymnasium “is a disgrace, the poorest at any college on the West Coast, and barely suitable for basketball.” Money generated by a Rose Bowl appearance, coupled with the kind of fundraising effort that had helped build the football stadium, would provide the school with sufficient funds to start construction on new basketball facility (eventually Hec Edmundson Pavilion).
Washington also needed a student union building, Meisnest explained, and the Rose Bowl payout would help with that. Finally, the athletic department’s coaching staff was the smallest and poorest-paid in the Pacific Coast Conference. The Rose Bowl would improve that situation.
“Many of our alumni, the thinking ones at any rate, see the opportunity this game offers to their alma mater and are willing to see the Huskies go south for the game,” Meisnest said.
“With a Washington victory at Poughkeepsie and Washington’s participation in, and possible victory at Pasadena, our old school will be about the best advertised in the United States for 1923,” declared meeting guest Larry Smith, president of the King County Alumni Association. “I surely hope the players will vote to play, and that the faculty will see its way to clear the team to go south.”
After listening to Meisnest’s appeal, Washington’s captains voted on behalf of their teammates, giving a thumbs up to facing Navy on New Year’s Day.
The 1923 Huskies – nickname adopted in 1922 to replace the negative “Sun Dodgers” – were the first football team in school history to attract national attention, precisely because of the Jan. 1, 1924 Rose Bowl. Gil Dobie’s remarkable UW teams between 1908-16 had compiled a 58-0-3 record, still the longest unbeaten streak in NCAA history, but were largely a local phenomenon, generally averaging 3,000 fans per game.
The national perception of Washington began to change after Washington plucked Bagshaw out of Everett High School, installing him a head coach. Bagshaw was a Meisnest hire and didn’t disappoint. Bringing with him several star Everett players, notably halfback George Wilson, who became varsity eligible in 1923, Bagshaw’s team went from 6-1-1 in 1922 to 10-1 in 1923, although that 10-1 record, official today, is misleading.
Washington opened with victories over teams from the battleships Mississippi and New York, but because they did not represent colleges, they were not considered an official part of Washington’s schedule. Washington’s first official game ended with a 54–0 shutout of Willamette, in which Wilson tallied on a 50-yard punt return and a 67-yard run in a three-minute span.
Following Washington’s 22-0 victory over USC, which featured another long TD run and ferocious tackling by Wilson, USC end Hayden Pythian said, “I’ve been hit by a host of hard hitters, but there is only one George Wilson. He hit me three times, once low at the knees, again in the legs and the third time at the waist. And every time I got up numb. He’s the hardest-hitting halfback I ever met and I don’t want to meet anyone who hits harder.”
In the UW-WSU game, Wilson stripped Cougars quarterback Johnny Zaepfel, setting up the first of Elmer Tesreau’s two touchdowns in a 24-7 Husky victory.
Had it not been for a 9-0 loss at California Nov. 17, Washington would have been “West Coast champion” by acclamation. As it was, the Huskies, with baseball coach Tubby Graves serving as Bagshaw’s offensive assistant and basketball/track coach Hec Edmundson acting as the defensive assistant, recorded six shutouts and outscored their opponents 286-44
Washington became the favorite to beat Navy, coached by Bob Folwell, on the basis of UW’s 10-pound weight advantage per man and Navy’s less-than stellar record of 5-1-2. But Navy quarterback Ira McKee confounded the Huskies with a passing attack quaintly described by Rose Bowl historian Maxwell Stiles:
“From the first possession, the Naval Academy established a bewildering air attack that resulted in a perfect 6-for-6 passing in the first quarter. There were short passes behind the line, short passes over the line, passes thrown with one hand, passes thrown overhead with two hands, passes lobbed underhand with the motion of a man tossing a shovelful of sand. Occasionally there is a long one.
“The Washington Husky is driven to a frenzy, like a beast whose tail is all too short to swish away a darting, stinging horsefly.
“Due to this attack, it seemed only a matter of time before the Midshipmen would complete a pass for a touchdown. The Naval Academy had driven to the Washington 22-yard line as the gun sounded to end the first quarter. On the first play of the second quarter, quarterback McKee hit halfback Carl Cullen, who plowed into the end zone for the Middies’ score.
“The Huskies answered on the ensuing drive. The Midshipmen, attempting to confuse the Huskies further, tried an onside kick, but it was recovered by guard Jim Bryan near midfield. Two plays later, the Huskies went to the air, getting a 23-yard completion from Fred Abel to Kinsley Dubois on the right wing. The next play, halfback George Wilson took it 23 yards off-tackle to tie the game.
“A few drives later, the Navy air attack struck again, this time a 57-yard pass to the Washington eight-yard line. McKee then took a shovel pass from the two-yard line and plunged home for the 14-7 halftime lead.
“Throughout the first half, the Naval Academy completed a perfect 11-of-11 passes. They’d hit 14 straight before an incompletion. All in all, they completed 16 of 20.
“After a scoreless defensive stalemate in the third quarter, the Huskies got the break they needed to get back into the game. Out of punt formation, Navy snapped the ball over its receiver’s head, and Washington gained possession just 10 yards from pay dirt. Three downs and minus-2 yards later, they were faced with a fourth and goal from the 12. They needed something special, and they got it, completely by design (Tubby Graves suggested the play).
“The offense lined up unbalanced, so guard Bryan was an eligible receiver. Nobody ever bothers to cover a guard on a forward pass, and nobody covered Bryan now. Abel hit him for the score, tying the game.
“The Huskies actually had a chance to win, but a 33-yard field goal try from Leonard Ziel missed less than two minutes left.”
McKee won the Most Valuable Player award as Navy led in nearly every statistical aspect of the contest. The game’s “Ironman” award went to Washington’s Tesreau, the Huskies’ fullback and nephew of former National League star Jeff Tesreau, who pitched for the New York Giants from 1912 through 1918 (led the NL with a 1.96 ERA in 1912 and won 26 games with eight shutouts in 1914).
With boils covering one knee, coaches, teammates and medical personnel urged him not to play. However, Tesreau wouldn’t relent and told them to wrap his legs as tightly as possible. With less than one minute to play, Tesreau was complaining of pain in his unaffected leg. When his legs were unwrapped, it revealed that the unaffected leg was broken in two places.
The 1924 Rose Bowl drew 40,000 spectators, according to the Detroit Free Press, but 48,000 according to the Boston Globe and Rochester Evening Journal. Meisnest and Torrance sold all of Washington’s allotment (20,000 tickets) to UW fans and peddled the rest to the 20,000 officers and enlisted men in the Pacific Fleet, anchored in San Pedro Harbor on the day of the game. It wasn’t a tough sell for Meisnest with Navy playing and a top ticket price of $3.
“It’s the first big event of any kind put on hereabouts in years in which the public hasn’t been gouged to the limit,” wrote The Los Angeles Times.
Washington came home with nearly $75,000 and Meisnest put it to use in the manner he had outlined in Suzzallo’s office. Husky Stadium construction bonds were burned at halftime of the Washington-Washington State game Oct. 23, 1926, just about the time that construction began on the Washington Pavilion, ultimately named after Hec Edmundson. The Pavilion opened in 1927 and is still the home of the Husky men’s and women’s basketball programs.
Many of the historic images published on Sportspress Northwest are provided by resident Northwest sports history aficionado David Eskenazi. Check out David’s Wayback Machine Archive. David can be reached at (206) 441-1900, or at firstname.lastname@example.org