On Jan. 1, 1963, Southern Cal quarterback Pete Beathard stepped up under center Larry Sagouspe, and 93,000 people roared their approval.
It was the start of the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl, and the Trojans, on the Wisconsin 12-yard line, threatened to bolster their 35-14 lead. The 5,500 visiting Wisconsin fans had nothing to say.
Beathard took the snap and rolled to his left behind guards John Ratliff and Pete Lubisich. Spotting end Fred Hill on a down-and-in route, Beathard threaded the ball between two Badgers defenders.
Hill made the catch near the goal line, shrugged off one tackler, dodged the other and fell into the end zone for a touchdown. After Tom Lupo kicked the extra point, USC led 42-14 with 14:54 to play in Pasadena, Calif.
USC seemed on the brink of winning the first-ever bowl game to feature the No. 1 and 2 teams in the country.
Looking back 50 years at that overwhelming lead, Beathard said in early December that his team felt comfortable at that point: “We were already on the bus to the hotel and the party.”
On the Wisconsin sideline, All-America end Pat Richter saw the challenge and thought only about achievable goals. “We wanted to get back to a respectable score,” he recalled in a recent interview. “We knew that we were not as bad as that score.”
Outside of a few optimists on the Wisconsin team, even fewer, either in the immense crowd or the millions watching on TV, gave Wisconsin a chance to come back from a four-touchdown hole.
Moreover, no one watching the game could have realized that they were about to witness one of the most exciting finishes in college bowl history.
Trojans coach John McKay had stacked his 1962 team with 13 junior-college transfers, several of whom had been JuCo All-Americans.
USC went undefeated during the season and won the Big Six Conference — the predecessor to the Pac-8/Pac-10/Pac-12.
The Badgers had finished No. 2 in the polls after winning the Big Ten title. Their only loss was to Ohio State and Wisconsin had beaten two Top 5 teams, Northwestern and Minnesota.
The East Coast newspapers favored Wisconsin by two points.
Coach Milt Bruhn knew that his young and relatively unsophisticated Midwesterners could be distracted by Bowl Week festivities.
That certainly had been the case in the 1960 Rose Bowl when the University of Washington shellacked his Badgers, 44-8.
So for the two nights before the game, he booked his young team into the local monastery, the Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center in the nearby city of Sierra Madre.
“We needed it,” tackle Andy Wojdula said. “It was easy to get so wrapped up in the hoopla, so it was great to have a place to ‘retreat.’ Most of us had never traveled that far away, and it was easy to act like kids in a candy shop.”
The day of the game was cool, and a layer of Los Angeles smog partially obscured the winter sun.
As game time approached, the Wisconsin team stopped in the tunnel, held back by an official.
Surprisingly, the pregame marching band show was still in full tilt.
The Trojans, however, remained comfortably in the locker room.
“We came out raring to go, but we stood around forever,” said Wojdula. “It must have been a mix-up, and we cooled down physically and psychologically. It screwed us up big time. Some of us thought it was a West Coast scheme to unnerve us.”
Wisconsin quarterback Ron Vander Kelen has no memories of the delay — he was simply too awestruck by the pageantry.
“As a teenager growing up in Green Bay, all I wanted to do was to go to the University of Wisconsin and play football, win the Big Ten and go to the Rose Bowl. As I came on the field, I dang near tripped and fell because I was so excited.”
Both teams scored early, with USC getting its first touchdown on a tackle-eligible pass play from Beathard to Ron Butcher.
“We had not run that play before, and it caught ‘em off guard,” Beathard said.
The Trojans scored two touchdowns in the second quarter, with the first following linebacker Damon Bame’s interception of a Vander Kelen pass. USC led 21-7, with the Trojans’ Lupo converting the extra points.
A clipping penalty nullified a Wisconsin touchdown by running back Louie Holland with four seconds left in the first half.
“That play was big,” recalled Badgers running back Merritt Norvell. “We didn’t know how big at the time.”
The Badgers entered the locker room trailing 21-7.
Coach Milt Bruhn, who several players have said was not a fiery locker room orator, sternly reminded the team that they were embarrassing themselves and the state of Wisconsin.
But Coach Bruhn’s appeal didn’t exactly work magic in the third quarter. Beathard and running back Willie Brown combined for a 57-yard pass-run for a touchdown. USC 28-7.
Wisconsin countered when Vander Kelen scored on a 17-yard run, but that momentum ebbed quickly when Beathard threw for another touchdown.
Defensive back Lupo intercepted Vander Kelen on the last play of the third quarter.
After the teams switched ends, Beathard hit Hill to take the 42-14 lead.
When asked today, players on both teams have theories about why Wisconsin had fallen so far behind.
USC’s All-America end Hal Bedsole, who had caught two touchdown passes by that point, gave this unvarnished opinion the other day:
“Wisconsin ran a slower, less sophisticated offense. They had no clue on defense, and they certainly couldn’t cover me. They seemed dazed and confused.”
“We made some big plays to build that lead,” said USC’s Hill in a phone interview. “Beathard, Bedsole and Brown — they made the difference.”
Guard Pete Lubisich seconded that view: “We were a quicker team.”
Across the line, Wojdula, Norvell and running back Ralph Kurek pointed to the delay at the beginning of the game as a source of their flat start — the standing around robbed their sharpness.
Vander Kelen was more self-critical.
“We weren’t doing our job. We were well-coached but didn’t perform. On top of that, USC was a whirlwind; they were scoring on almost every play. They never slowed down.”
Vander Kelen gave the offense a talking-to as it awaited the USC kickoff after the Trojans’ last score.
“I remember Ron reading us the riot act in the huddle,” recalled Kurek. He said, ‘Get your heads out of your butts. We gotta play ball here.’”
Unknown to his teammates, the Badgers’ quarterback had extra motivation at that point.
“I came off the field after the Lupo interception, and the backfield coach, Clark Van Galder, pulled me aside and said, ‘Coach Bruhn wants to take you out.’ I asked him to give me one more chance. I didn’t want my childhood dream to end this way.”
Vander Kelen, who called his own plays, knew he had to change something.
“We weren’t running or passing very well,” he said. “But I had to pick one or the other, and there was no time to run. I decided to pass more. Besides, I was headed for the bench, so what did I have to lose?”
On their first possession, the Badgers scored a touchdown on an 11-play, 80-yard drive.
Receiver Gary Kroner made the extra point, as he did without a miss all game.
The fans picked up the noise.
A buzz started on the Wisconsin sideline.
Southern Cal’s Ben Wilson fumbled on the first play after the kickoff and Wisconsin recovered.
Four plays later, Vander Kelen passed to Kroner for 4-yard touchdown.
“Big Mo” was shifting, and the crowd became engaged again. No trips for a Coke and a hotdog now.
“Nobody said a word in the huddle,” Vander Kelen said of the change in focus. “Everyone would race back to the huddle, keep quiet and wait for the play. No complaints, no talk about who was open, no suggestions. Everybody was focused on his job.”
USC’s Lubisich said that he and his teammates relaxed after going up 42-14:
“We sat on the bench, took our helmets off and talked about what we would do after the game. We lost our edge.”
Gary Winslow, a reserve Trojans running back, said they were short of lineman.
“When Marv Marinovich got ejected in the second quarter, we were then missing our three best interior linemen, who, like most guys, played both offense and defense. Gary Kirner got hurt before the game and didn’t play, and Mike Gale, who had broken his neck in the Notre Dame game, didn’t play either. The substitutes, who weren’t in game shape, couldn’t keep up the pace, and the restrictive substitution rules then made it worse.”
Bedsole gave a more pointed reason: “The coaches told us to shut it down when the score was 42-14. They told us to just run the ball straight ahead. John McKay didn’t want to embarrass the other team.”
Beathard recalled the coaches telling him to run more to eat up the clock but didn’t remember any instructions to ease up. Pete also played safety and saw an improved Badgers offense.
“They started dumping short passes to Holland and he was running past us,” Beathard said. “No long passes, but just picking away.”
The Trojans continued to sputter on their next possession.
After the Trojans’ Ernie Jones punted, the Badgers started on their own 32. Vander Kelen marched his team down the field to the USC 4-yard line.
But then it was Wisconsin’s turn to trip.
Vander Kelen used Richter as a decoy, and passed to end Elmars Ezerins.
But Willie Brown intercepted the pass.
“It should have been a sure touchdown, but it was the biggest error in the game,” the former quarterback said.
However, the USC offense stalled again. With the ball on the Trojans’ 25-yard line, Jones readied himself for the punt.
The long snapper, Lubisich, sent the ball over Jones’ head and into end zone.
Jones ran to the back line and picked up the ball to prevent a touchdown.
Wisconsin’s Ezerins arrived at about the same time and tackled Jones for a safety.
Lubisich explained his miscue.
“I had broken my wrist on the second play of the game. I didn’t tell the coaches because I wanted to keep playing.”
Wisconsin, now down only 12 points (42-30), was running out of time. And daylight.
By then it was 5 p.m. PST, and the winter sun had dipped below the stadium’s rim.
The 69 passes and numerous penalties frequently had stopped the game clock, but nature’s clock kept running.
Unfortunately, the Rose Bowl field lights proved about as dim as Wisconsin’s prospects had been at the start of the fourth quarter.
Legendary Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jim Murray described the situation at the time: “The Rose Bowl’s idea of lighting is two guys holding a cigar lighter at either end of the field.”
After the safety, and USC leading 42-30 with 2:40 left on clock, Jones punted the free kick.
The referees called it back on a USC penalty, and on the second try, Ron Smith returned the ball to the USC 43-yard line.
The Vander Kelen Express fired up for another run.
His first two plays took the Badgers to the USC 19.
The Trojans expected another pass to Richter, and that’s what Vander Kelen gave them.
After another Kroner PAT, it was USC 42-37 with 1:19 left.
By now, the stadium crowd and TV America had whiplash from the quick turnaround.
Wisconsin had just about surmounted Southern Cal’s insurmountable lead. One more Badgers touchdown could win the game.
Wisconsin attempted an onside kick, and the first Trojan to touch the ball muffed it.
The fans didn’t have time to gasp before USC’s Lubisich fell on it. At least that’s what the announcers told the TV audience, which was largely in the dark.
The Trojans had to punt after three plays for losses and too many USC players holding their breath. Only 11 seconds left. One last chance.
Three Wisconsin players, including Richter and Ezerins, raced toward Jones, the punter.
The snap was good this time, and the gathering dusk obscured the action for everyone except for the four players.
“From my vantage point,” Richter said, “it looked as if the punter’s foot was going to hit Elmars. But Jones got it off.”
Wisconsin’s Holland mishandled the punt, and guard Jim Schenk picked it up and took a couple steps before the relieved Trojans buried him as time ran out.
Final score: USC 42, Wisconsin 37.
Wisconsin’s magical run had ended.
Sportswriters voted Vander Kelen and Beathard co-MVPs of the game. Vander Kelen set a then-Rose Bowl record with his 33 of 48, 401-yard passing performance, and Richter caught 11 passes.
Southern Cal savored the win, but in a subdued manner.
“That game was the worst victory that I have ever experienced,” Bedsole said. “In the locker room afterward, you could hear a pin drop. That said, however, I have to give Wisconsin credit for not giving up. They didn’t quit.”
Coach McKay acknowledged Wisconsin’s heroic effort, but puckishly said to the news media, “We must have played one of our better games. We scored 42 points against the nation’s No. 2 team, didn’t we?”
Richter, who as the Wisconsin athletics director from 1989-2004 revitalized the football program, offered his long view: “The game is the most enduring thing that I have ever been associated with.”
In his mind, the game was less about winners and losers, and more about its value as a college football entertainment milestone.
“For years, people have come up to me and said, ‘That was a great game.’ But they never say, ‘Too bad you lost.’”
Bob Monk was a sophomore Wisconsin lineman that season, and he described the personal impact the game had on him.
“That game changed my entire life,” he said on the phone from the northern Wisconsin woods. “I married a Rose Princess, had two wonderful kids and four grandkids.”
Several players from both teams enjoyed success since leaving college. Nearly two dozen played pro ball, and the alumni include lawyers, dentists, entrepreneurs, college professors, business executives, teachers and coaches.
This season’s Wisconsin team meets Stanford in the 2013 Rose Bowl — the Badgers’ third appearance in three seasons.
Wisconsin is 3-2 in Rose Bowls since Richter invigorated the program, in part by hiring Coach Barry Alvarez in 1990.
The most recent coach, Bret Bielema, recently departed Wisconsin to coach Arkansas, so Alvarez, Richter’s replacement as athletics director, will be the interim coach for the Rose Bowl.
With luck, perhaps the storybook ending that eluded Wisconsin 50 years ago will reappear this year from the pages of history.
Michael K. Bohn is the author of “Money Golf,” a history of the gentlemanly wager on the golf course, and more recently, “Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports.”
Bohn also wrote “The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism” (2004), and “Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room” (2003). He served as director of the White House Situation Room, the president’s alert center and crisis management facility, during Ronald Reagan’s second term. Bohn was a U.S. naval intelligence officer from 1968 to 1988.