Arts & Entertainment

Rose Bowl has colorful history, but no chariot races

The 88-year-old Rose Bowl stadium.
The 88-year-old Rose Bowl stadium.
Susan Valot/KPCC

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Nearly 100,000 fans will pack the Rose Bowl for Saturday’s Wisconsin-TCU game. But there was a time when people wondered if New Year’s Day football in Pasadena would draw a crowd.

Before work crews ever laid the first stone in the Rose Bowl’s foundation, the first ever Rose Bowl game was played in 1902. Rose Bowl General Manager Darryl Dunn says it wasn’t pretty.

"The score was 49-to-0, Michigan over Stanford. So people didn’t think that was very much fun," Dunn says.

It was the first post-season college football game ever to be held. And given the lopsided score, officials weren’t sure if college football would take off.

"So they decided to do other things, such as chariot races and a whole bunch of stuff," Dunn says. "They didn’t do that here. They did it at Tournament Park, which is located now where CalTech is."

They even ran ostrich races. But in 1916, they decided to try college football one more time. And it stuck. It was so popular, they decided they needed to find it a permanent home. That’s how the Rose Bowl came to be, opening 88 years ago.

But the Rose Bowl initially wasn't the oval we know today.

"Originally, this stadium was a horseshoe and the south end was completely open," says Sue Mossman of the preservation group, Pasadena Heritage. "And that was because we weren’t too sure that football was going to be a success. So the south end was open so we could still have chariot races in the bowl. You could drive chariots in, whiz around the bowl and drive back out. But football quickly became the huge success that it has continued to be and eventually the south end was closed in."

The Rose Bowl never did host chariot races. But it will undergo a transformation once again.

The Rose Bowl will get a huge facelift starting in January. It’ll undergo a $152 million renovation, which includes widening the tunnels and adding a 1940s-style scoreboard.