Rose Bowl never loses its luster

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There are few events on the American calendar that transcend time, that hold the same appeal today as they did decades ago. The Miss America pageant, once a cultural icon, has been relegated to cable backwater. The Soap Box Derby is dead, and heavyweight boxing might as well be.

The national appetite changes, yet the Rose Bowl thrives. The 100th Rose Bowl will be played Wednesday, New Year's Day, as it always has, give or take Sundays and the onset of World War II. The Pacific-12 Conference champion will play the Big Ten champion, as they have nearly annually since 1947.

As college football has evolved from a regional to a national sport, as it has adapted a championship format with an ultimate winner-take-all game, the Rose Bowl has retained its allure.

It is as evergreen as Christmas, as full of promise as Easter, as American as the Fourth of July. The Rose Bowl succeeds because it presents more than football. It has woven itself into the American fabric by selling what California always has sold: a better life, real (weather) or imagined (Hollywood).

The panoramic beauty of the Rose Bowl setting, nestled in the Arroyo Seco beneath the San Gabriel Mountains, has beckoned America west since Graham McNamee first described it to a national radio audience in the late 1920s.

After the war, as television transformed society, America could see the beauty for itself. In the early 1960s, RCA built an advertising campaign for its newly invented color televisions around the ability to see the Rose Parade in living color.

"It moved really from radio, silent films, films, color, black-and-white television, color television, 3-D television, high-def television," Tournament of Roses executive director Bill Flinn said. "We were the first live event to ever be televised in high def, the Rose Parade."

Californians of a certain age blamed the Rose Bowl for traffic jams and urban sprawl -- if an America frozen and shivering hadn't heard or seen of the beauty of California, the state wouldn't be so damn crowded.

Every few years, Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray would recycle a column suggesting new rules for the Rose Bowl to curb the influx of people. He suggested that no matter the weather, fans in the stands must wear ski masks, mittens and earmuffs. He might have been kidding.

Or maybe not. The Rose Bowl has been accused of arrogance. So have the New York Yankees. So has Apple. So has every institution that ever created its own category. All of postseason football -- the games, the traditions, the team reward -- emanated from the Rose Bowl. The other bowls held parades. They staged halftime shows. They promoted their communities. Yet the Rose Bowl remains a singular event. The nickname -- the "Granddaddy of Them All" -- establishes the bloodline, albeit with a softening touch of affection.

The Cotton Bowl is no longer played in the Cotton Bowl. The Orange Bowl abandoned its namesake stadium, which was torn down. The Rose Bowl stadium, 92 years old, has just received another face-lift, as any aging Hollywood star would.

The Rose Bowl and the entertainment industry latched onto each other early on. Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., the biggest stars of fledgling Hollywood, adopted the Harvard team that played in the 1920 Rose Bowl and sat on the bench during the game.

Alabama halfback Johnny Mack Brown became a cinematic cowboy because he took a screen test while at the Rose Bowl. The Tournament of Roses turned to Hollywood figures to serve as grand marshal of the Rose Parade, including 8-year-old Shirley Temple, the box office queen of the 1930s.

A biographer of legendary Tennessee coach Gen. Robert Neyland listed the movie stars sprinkled among the Volunteers fans at the 1940 Rose Bowl: Bing Crosby, Deanna Durbin, Clark Gable and his wife, Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, and on and on.

"We scarcely got to see the game," said Emily Faust, wife of Tennessee assistant coach Hugh Faust, "with all the fans coming to ask the stars for autographs."

Natalie Wood starred in a movie called "The Rose Bowl." Jerry Seinfield, in his animated "Bee Movie," saved the flowers of the world by taking all of the flora at the Rose Parade to pollinate them.

"George Lucas, who doesn't do public events," Flinn said, referring to the creator of Star Wars, "he'll come to be grand marshal of the Rose Parade, as Gregory Peck did, because his parents brought him to the parade and the game when he was a little boy."

In his 1974 autobiography, Alabama coach Bear Bryant recounted the excitement of his week as a player at the 1935 Rose Bowl:

"I remember there were movie stars all over the place. … A couple guys had cameras, and posed me with this good-looking, big-bosomed blond in a tight sweater. The blond was very attentive. She said her name was Lana Turner and she was just getting started in pictures. A starlet. She asked me what my plans were, but about the only place I could have taken her was to church because I was broke again."

Turner went on to become a major movie star. An aside from the 60-year-old coach revealed the 21-year-old within: "I still have that picture."

And then, Bryant explained what the Rose Bowl meant to him.

"It had all seemed like a dream come true to me -- the thrill of being invited, of going, of getting to play in front of all those people -- an ordinary football player among great players. All those things are rich in my memory."

No matter what age, the men who played in the Rose Bowl talk about it with a verve that makes them young again.

Seventy-five years after Washington lost the 1926 Rose Bowl, Huskies lineman Herman Brix, 94, came to see the Huskies practice for the 2001 game and told them he thought about the loss every day.

Six decades after he played in the 1943 Rose Bowl, Hall of Fame halfback Charley Trippi of Georgia told author Tony Barnhart, "I played in three bowl games, four college all-star games, and a pair of NFL championship games. But nothing has ever compared to playing in the Rose Bowl."

The same goes for coaches. Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has been a college and pro football coach for nearly 30 years. He has coached in one Rose Bowl, with Purdue in 2001.

"My biggest memory of that whole ballgame wasn't the game," Chaney said. "It was two nights before. They entertained the staffs in the press box of the Rose Bowl. And I will never forget … looking down on the field, and they [had] just painted Purdue on that one half and Washington on the other half, and how absolutely gorgeous, it was just perfect. It was like, 'My God! It just can't get better than this moment right here in a college coach's life. It just can't.'"

UCLA head coach Jim L. Mora served as a Rose Bowl ball boy in high school. He played in two Rose Bowls for Washington in the early 1980s. Three decades later, the team he coaches plays its home games at the Rose Bowl. Mora times his Friday night walk-throughs so visiting recruits will see the sun set on those San Gabriel Mountains. Mora has the recruits and their families visit the Rose Bowl on Saturday mornings for brunch.

"It's something they've watched their whole life," Mora said. "They're just in awe of it. They get to walk on the grass at the Rose Bowl. It's unbelievable. I mean, it's impactful. It's powerful. … It's like it's alive. It's amazing. I love going there."

Mora is selling UCLA. He is not objective. But when it comes to the Rose Bowl, so few of us are.

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