Rose Bowl, 1947

Written by Angela Jordan

The Rose Bowl, nicknamed “The Granddaddy of Them All,” has been played on January 1 or 2 every year since 1916. The Big Ten (then the Big Nine) did not allow their schools to participate in bowl games, until a Pacific Coast Conference agreement for the 1947 Rose Bowl. In the first Rose Bowl under the Big Nine-PCC agreement, the University of Illinois routed UCLA, 45-14, in an unexpected victory.

Ray Eliot, 1959. Found in record series 28/3/23
Ray Eliot, 1959. Found in record series 28/3/23

Winning head football coach Ray Eliot (Raymond Eliot Nusspickel, 1931) succeeded legendary Bob Zuppke in 1942 with little fanfare. The athletic board searched for seventy-two days before settling upon Eliot, and according to Tom Siler, “the applause was less than deafening.”[1] Though a non-entity to the public, the players were elated. His squad, predominantly war veterans, responded well to Ray Eliot’s principle: “This is your team; the coaches are only the guides.”[2]

Despite Eliot’s renown with his team, the Fighting Illini began 1946 in obscurity. The first month of the season was so chaotic, Eliot’s team “reeled around like headless chickens. Things got so bad that Ray offered to quit, and some Illinois rooters would have been pleased to take him up on it. He stayed on because the players went down the line for him, in fitting tribute to his rare big-brother coaching approach.”[3] The day after losing a game to Indiana, Eliot drove past the state psychiatric institution near Jacksonville, where he saw an inmate moving his arm as if throwing a football. After watching a few moments, Eliot realized he got a glimpse into his possible future. “It finally came to me that if we didn’t start to win pretty soon, I’d be out there catching those passes!”[4]

Fighting Illini, Rose Bowl, 1947
Fighting Illini, Rose Bowl, 1947

By November, teams in the Western conference started to call the Illinois football team “The Spoilers” for their steady winning streak. Despite the Fighting Illini’s increased ability to ruin the hopes of opposing teams, the Rose Bowl was a fantasy—the Fighting Illini could contend only by winning the remaining two games against Ohio and Northwestern. According to Gene Shalit, “The reward is problematic but delicious—the Western conference championship, first since 1928, and a shot at UCLA, in Pasadena’s Rose bowl. Pardon me, dreaming.”[5]

Less than a month later that dream was a reality. The University received 11,200 Rose Bowl tickets out of the 12,5000 allotted to the Big Nine, yet quickly ran out.[6] A special train, the “Illini Rose Bowl Special,” also operated between Pasadena and Champaign for the game. Sponsored with the sanction of the University Alumni association, the train consisted of standard Pullman sleeper accommodations for 250 passengers and became the hotel throughout the nine-day trip. For those football fans lucky enough to secure passage, the Tournament of Roses parade was viewed from reserved seats in the grandstand nearest the Rose Bowl.[7]

Rose Bowl game from the air, 1947
Rose Bowl game from the air, 1947

After the unexpected 45-14 victory, coaches and sports writers across the country expressed surprise at the routing of UCLA. Braven Dyer of the LA Times wrote:

When the Pacific Coast conference signed that famous pact with the Big Nine it neglected to write a law against murder, unfortunately. For that’s what it was out there yesterday as Illinois simply murdered the Bruins, 45-14…Some will call it a rout and, whatever it was, it was a nightmare the UCLA players won’t forget for a long time. Me either…Most of the afternoon I had a devil of a time trying to locate the Bruins’ tackles and ends. It was reported last night that UCLA coaches were looking for them at the bureau of missing persons.

Upon the team’s return to Champaign-Urbana, Ray Eliot was a community celebrity. The Illini Club of Chicago honored Ray Eliot and the rest of the team at a banquet with over 1,000 Illini in attendance.[8] Businessmen of Champaign-Urbana surprised Eliot with the keys to a 1947 Oldsmobile.[9] The Department of Intercollegiate Athletics raised his yearly salary $3,000 to $13,000 and made him associate professor of physical education.[10]

According to Tom Siler of the Saturday Evening Post, “While other coaches were fumbling the G.I. problem, Illinois’ obscure Ray Eliot hit the jack pot in the Western Conference and the Rose Bowl. His secret? He tries no top-sergeant stuff on veterans.”[11]


[1] Tom Siler, “A Coach Doesn’t Have to Be Tough” Saturday Evening Post, September 27, 1947, p. 152.

[2] Ibid., p. 153.

[3] Ibid., p. 23.

[4] Jim Brooks, “Babbling Brooks,” Daily Illini, February 23, 1947, p. 6.

[5] Gene Shalit, “What Shalit Be?” Daily Illini, November 3, 1946, p.5.

[6] 11,200 Rose Bowl Tickets Allotted to University,” Daily Illini, December 14, 1946, p. 1.

[7] “For Vacation, Rose Bowl,” Daily Illini, December 14, 1946, p. 1.

[8] Brooks, “Babbling Brooks,” p. 6.

[9] “Local Merchants To Present Car To Eliot Today,” Daily Illini, January 12, 1947, p. 1

[10] Siler,“A Coach Doesn’t Have to Be Tough” p. 154.

[11] Ibid., p. 23.

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