In 1942, the Rose Bowl game between Oregon State and Duke was transferred from California to North Carolina in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Here’s a brief look back at one of the greatest upsets in Rose Bowl history.
Oregon State vs. Duke
Led by tailback Don Durdan and a suffocating defense, Oregon State College won the Pacific Coast Conference title in 1941. As was the custom at the time, the Beavers got to select their opponent for the Rose Bowl game to be held on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, California. Oregon State invited Duke, the undefeated and untied champions of the Southern Conference, and the Blue Devils, led by legendary head coach Wallace Wade, happily accepted.
Pearl Harbor Attack
Shortly after the Rose Bowl matchup was set, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The game, it seemed, would take on a much different feel, but the Blue Devils had no intentions of canceling their trip to the West Coast. “Heck, no; we’re not scared to go out there,” one Duke player told the Associated Press. “The war situation puts a little more glamour into the game.” Indeed, the demand for tickets increased in the days that followed. Duke planned to leave for Pasadena via train on Dec. 20, making one stop for practice on Dec. 22 in Lubbock, Texas, and arriving in Pasadena on Dec. 24. Fans could purchase a first-class roundtrip ticket with stops in New Orleans, San Antonio, El Paso, Mexico, and the Grand Canyon, on a special train called “The Duke” for $126.74. A week before the team was scheduled to depart, however, the military announced that it was canceling the game out of fear of another attack on the West Coast. Game organizers began looking into alternative sites. Chicago’s Soldier Field was considered, as was New York City. A third possibility was Durham, North Carolina.
Wallace Wade’s Invitation
Before the game in Pasadena was officially canceled, Wade sent the following telegram to Oregon State athletic director Percy Locey: “We regret that conditions have developed that have influenced the military authorities to suggest cancellation of the Rose Bowl game. Duke is ready to accept the decision of Oregon State and the Tournament of Roses committee. We wish to suggest for your consideration the possibility of playing the game at Durham in the Duke Stadium, either with Rose Bowl sanction or otherwise. We can accommodate about 50,000 spectators. Our climate at New Year’s is usually favorable for football.” The military granted its approval to relocate the game and the Rose Bowl Committee gave its blessing as well. Oregon State accepted the invite. “From a football standpoint, it is a tough assignment,” Beavers head coach Lon Stiner said. “But we’ll be in there doing our best even with these added odds against us.”
Duke Heavy Favorites, Home for the Holidays
Duke was a 12-to-5 favorite when the game was first announced and the odds increased to 3.5-to-1 after the game was moved to Durham. “I don’t quite understand why my boys should be rated so low for this game with Duke,” Stiner said. “They may be light, but they are poised and tough and not upset at the prospect of meeting high scoring Duke.” Despite its two losses, Oregon State was the first team to stop Stanford’s unconventional T attack. The Beavers’ 10-0 win over Stanford was the first of its five shutouts that season. Still, Oregon State didn’t get much respect from the media. As one East Coast scribe wrote, “The Oregon entry is undoubtedly a strong, steady ball club, but it’s doubtful if it has struck anything with the impact of Duke.” As Robert Coleman, a sophomore guard on Oregon State’s redshirt squad in 1941 (and my girlfriend’s grandfather) told me, “The Beavers of OSU were often the doormat of the league, and to be going to the Rose Bowl was considered a sure chance of failure.”
Duke’s players were so unhappy that their trip to the West Coast was canceled that they initially voted against hosting the game in Durham. To appease his team, Wade gave the players time off to go home for Christmas. Oregon State’s redshirt squad was equally disappointed with the change of venue, which squashed their hopes of traveling to the game with the starters.
Image credit: Duke University Archives
Duke’s stadium usually only held 35,000, which was much less than the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. North Carolina, North Carolina State, and Wake Forest loaned portable bleachers to help increase the capacity to 55,000. The game would draw the largest crowd since 52,880 packed the stadium for the Duke-UNC game in 1939. Tickets, priced at $4.40 apiece, sold out in three days. One reporter noted that “hotel rooms are scarcer than candid camera shots of J.P. Morgan.” Duke received more than 120 requests for working press, which was double the capacity of the stadium’s press box. “The lads who will be most disappointed are those who usually see the Duke games on complimentary tickets,” another reporter wrote. “There will be no Annie Oakleys except for the working press and radio.”
Two thousand spectators and the Durham High School band greeted Oregon State at the train station following their cross-country trip. Lampposts along Main Street in downtown Durham featured electrically lighted Santa Clauses with “Welcome Oregon State” scrawled across Santa’s waistline. Placards in the team’s breakfast room at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill read, “A merry Christmas to the Oregon State football team – with reservations about the happy New Year.” Oregon State’s players received gifts manufactured in North Carolina factories and took golf lessons one day at the Pinehurst Country Club. Duke’s players returned to campus to start preparing for the game on Dec. 26.
Tournament of Roses President Robert McCurdy, a quartet of committeemen, and 25,000 football programs printed in Pasadena made the trip East. Dolores Brubach, the Tournament of Roses Queen, was originally scheduled to attend the game with her Royal Court, but the plans fell through. “I guess it just couldn’t be arranged, and since we didn’t really plan on going, we’re not disappointed,” Brubach said.
Oregon State certainly had fun, but the trip was primarily business. “We feel that a lot of people around here are going to be mighty surprised,” Oregon State captain Marion Chaves said. There was a lot of buzz about the game, both locally and nationally. A few reporters dubbed it “The Pine Bowl.” Another wrote, “Tobacco town turned into Times Square with a southern accent today.”
Wet conditions in Durham slowed Duke’s vaunted offense and the Blue Devils never led. Oregon State’s Gene Gray caught a 68-yard touchdown pass from Bob Dethman in the third quarter that proved to be the difference in the Beavers’ 20-16 win, which is still considered one of the greatest upsets in Rose Bowl history. Oregon State varied its defensive looks, from a 6-2-2-1 to 5-3-2-1 and occasionally a 7-man line, according to the game recaps. The Beavers also recovered three Duke fumbles and intercepted four passes. “I guess everybody knows now that we play in a mighty tough league,” said Stiner, who received a 4-year contract for $7,000 a year.
According to Coleman, nearly the entire Oregon State team was in the ROTC or National Guard at the time. One newspaper account indicated that at least a couple Oregon State players enlisted after the game in Pasadena was canceled and were persuaded by Stiner to return to school to become eligible for the game in Durham. “We all knew we were going to be involved,” Oregon State tailback Bill McInnis told USA Today in 2001. One Oregon State player (Everett Smith) and three Duke players (Walter Griffith, Al Hoover, and Bob Nanni) died in the war.
This story originally appeared in 2011.