Michael Arace: Sixty years ago, Ohio State turned down Rose Bowl bid and students rioted

Michael Arace
The Columbus Dispatch
Ohio State students protest a vote by the university's faculty council in late November 1961 to turn down an invitation to play in the Rose Bowl.

Sixty years ago this week, a headline across the top of page 48 in The New York Times went like this

Ohio State Rejects Bid to Rose Bowl; Auburn Turns Down Gotham. 

“Gotham” references the Gotham Bowl, played at the Polo Grounds, former home of the New York baseball Giants. Auburn turned down the invitation because, its athletic director said, the date of the Gotham Bowl (Dec. 2) conflicted with Auburn’s end-of-quarter exams. 

Let us pause here and think about that for a second. 

OK. Never mind Gotham and Auburn and exams. The big news in the rest of the country was Ohio State’s Rose Bowl rejection. 

The headline in Sports Illustrated was a bit punchier than The New York Times: 


When Ohio State's faculty voted against sending its football team to the Rose Bowl, students erupted in wild demonstrations and for two days terrorized many of the school's professors. 

The Dispatch devoted most of its front page to the football news and the ensuing riots. 

Sixty years later — Tuesday night, to be exact — the Ohio State’s Varsity O club, in conjunction with a number of the school’s alumni associations, presented a wonderful webinar/retrospective called, “Rose Bowl Requiem – The 60th Anniversary of the Historic Faculty Council Vote.” (Alas, a recording of the program is not accessible to the general public.)

Students sit in the street in protest of Ohio State turning down a Rose Bowl bid in 1961.

Over time, those few crazy, autumn days of 1961 have been boiled down to a phrase or two, such as, “That was the university’s last stand against big-time football” or “Remember when Ohio State had its priorities in order?” 

Yet, what happened was more complicated and incredibly nuanced, as Bill Shkurti explained during the webinar. Shkurti is an economist by training, a longtime and distinguished employee of the university and an author of many books, including, “Ohio State University in the 1960s.” 

In 1961, Ohio State had 25,700 students (now 61,000), annual tuition was $300 (now $11,500) and the athletic budget was $1.7 million (now $239 million). 

Shkurti’s co-host, Todd Jones, a former Dispatch sportswriter who now works as a senior writer for the school’s alumni magazine, laid out the on-field landscape: Practice in 1961 commenced on Sept. 9, the first game of the season was Sept. 30, the schedule included nine games and every game started at 1 or 1:30 p.m. 

“There was little or no emphasis on the national title,” said Jones, a Big Ten historian.

Ohio State students hang the effigy of a faculty council member in 1961.

Goal No. 1 was to win the Big Ten. Goal No. 2 was to go to the Rose Bowl. Freshmen were ineligible. There were 10 black players on the team — progressive for the time — including the three stars: Fullback Bob Ferguson and two sophomores, fullback Matt Snell and halfback Paul Warfield. 

“The Old Man,” coach Woody Hayes, was 48 years old and in his 11th season, and he had some heat on him. The Buckeyes were 10-7-1 over their previous two years and, it was said, the Old Man didn’t know how to use his halfbacks. 

Bo Schembechler was the offensive line coach. 

The Buckeyes began the season by tying Texas Christian and then ran the table. They hammered Michigan 50-20 (and, yes, Woody went for two in the final seconds). A Minnesota loss on the last day of the season meant Ohio State was the Big Ten champion for the 12th time in school history. 

The Buckeyes finished 8-0-1, ranked No. 2 in the country behind Alabama and were off to the Rose Bowl.  

Things got complicated. The Big Ten’s contract with the Rose Bowl had lapsed; the bowl invitation was sent directly to the school. Conference rules said the faculty had control over the bid. 

An Ohio State student speaks on Nov. 30, 1961, at a protest of the school turning down a bid to the Rose Bowl.

To use wide brush strokes: At the time, a mid-50s recruiting scandal was still fresh; faculty were engaged to deal with the fallout; and there was a simmering controversy about different benchmarks being used for athletic and academic scholarships. Suffice, there were faculty members who chafed at the perception of a “football school.”

The faculty council voted 28-25 to reject the Rose Bowl bid, and the students took to the streets. One day, there was a march of 2,000 from campus to downtown. The next, students marched to the faculty club before heading back down High Street. 

Sports Illustrated described it: “They burned members of the faculty in effigy, snake-danced down the main street, surrounded the capitol building, broke windows, besieged and insulted their professors and generally raised the most hell that has been raised in Columbus since V-J day.” 

It was football co-captain Mike Ingram who took a police bullhorn and convinced the marchers to return to their dorms. 

The Old Man got the news in Cleveland, just prior to a speaking engagement. He disappeared for more than an hour to digest it. He returned to address his audience and said, “I don’t agree with those 28 ‘no’ votes, but I respect their integrity, if not their intelligence. We have to accept defeat under pressure and that may help us now.” 

Ohio State students climb on a memorial to famous Ohioans at the Statehouse on Nov. 29, 1961, to protest the school turning down a Rose Bowl bid.

Minnesota’s faculty voted 108-33 to go to the Rose Bowl. The Gophers beat UCLA 21-3.

Jones spoke with a number of Ohio State players, including Warfield, about 1961. It was among the most striking aspects of Jones’ research. 

“They were disappointed at the time," Jones said, "but they look back on it now through the lens of a full perspective of life. It's something they learned from. They had no control of what happened."

Sixty years ago.

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