1949 Rose Bowl Retrospective: An inside look at Northwestern’s last bowl victors

Danny Daly

It might sound ridiculous to cancel classes after securing a second-place conference finish. In 1948, that’s exactly what Northwestern did – because it meant the school was headed for its first-ever Rose Bowl appearance.

The rules for what was then known as the Big Nine prevented the same team from playing in the Rose Bowl in consecutive years. Undefeated league champion Michigan won in Pasadena the previous year, opening a spot for the next best team: NU.

“When the Rose Bowl (invitation was announced), that was just like having Halley’s Comet collide with something,” said Glenn Opie, a drum major in the marching band who was also on the track team with several football players. “The excitement and the euphoria among the students were with us for several days.”

The achievement electrified Evanston and excited the students. The upstart Wildcats were thrilled to have an opportunity to represent the Big Nine.

“It was a magnificent experience,” said Gaspar Perricone, a junior backup fullback in 1948. “It was exhilaration for a week. I remember the team gathering on the roof of one of the sorority houses, and a big rally just before we went to California.”

There were impromptu parades down Sheridan Road and pep rallies at Scott Hall, the student union. Much of the student body, which Opie estimated was twice as big as it is today, tried to cram into Patten Gymnasium days later for a campus-wide meeting.That’s where University President Franklin Snyder delivered the stunning news.

“He went into about how great it was to be at a University where the academics and scholarship were of prime importance,” Opie remembered. “Finally, he just smiled and said, ‘On the other hand, let’s just dismiss class.’ It’s a wonder that the roof didn’t just blow off. Those kids just went ballistic.”

Looking back, maybe the hoopla to honor the 1948 squad wasn’t enough. In the six decades since, NU has failed to field a team that accomplished what that one did: win a bowl game. EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONSAt the start of the 1948 season, the Cats’ chances of playing in Pasadena seemed slim. They had finished the previous year with a 3-6 record under rookie coach Bob Voigts and were blown out against Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, the class of the conference, by a combined score of 115-42.

“There was no indication that we were going to go to the Rose Bowl that year,” said Ed Nemeth, a junior in 1948 who started at guard and played both ways.

It was also a relatively inexperienced team, as most of its key players were sophomores and juniors. But like other schools, the majority of the squad was mature beyond its years from having served in World War II.

The influx of veterans gave Voigts, a veteran himself, one of the deepest teams in the conference.

“With all these veterans coming back, and all the normal graduating seniors that had come in the last three years, we had a lot of depth,” said Ed Tunnicliff, the junior starting right halfback. “And that’s what made the difference – we probably had six or eight ends I would have put up against any six or eight ends on any team in the country.”

NU’s offense relied heavily on the run out of the T-formation, though quarterback Don Burson mixed in a few deep balls. The performance of three standouts – Art Murakowski, Alex Sarkisian and Frank Aschenbrenner – made the scheme effective.

Murakowski, the sophomore fullback and right outside linebacker, and Sarkisian, the senior center and left inside linebacker, were both named All-Americans in 1948. Aschenbrenner returned kicks and handled the punting duties during his senior campaign, in addition to being the Cats’ secondary ground threat.

Defensively, NU featured five down linemen, four linebackers and two cornerbacks. Pee Wee Day and Tom Worthington clamped down on the outside, and the team’s physicality in the middle created problems for opponents.

“We had a real tough defensive line, and those four linebackers were exceptional,” Tunnicliff said. “George Sondheim was on our left side, Sarkisian was inside on the left, and then we had Ray Wietecha and Murakowski.” SECOND-PLACE SURPRISEThe Cats didn’t take long to establish that putting points on the scoreboard would be difficult against their defense. In 11 of the season’s first 12 quarters, NU blanked its opponents, including shutout victories over UCLA and Purdue.

A disastrous start nearly doomed the Cats in the third game of the year. Minnesota jumped out to a 16-0 edge during the first quarter – a wake-up call after the previous two weeks. But NU got back on track and rallied to win, 19-16.

“We got in the huddle for the kickoff return, and Sarkisian, our captain, says, ‘Nuts, let’s start a new ballgame. The score is 0-0,'” Tunnicliff said. “By the end of the half, we were leading.”

Neither team scored in the final two quarters, preserving the three-point victory. Though that vaulted the Cats to third nationally, they couldn’t muster another comeback the following Saturday. They fell 28-0 at Michigan, their worst loss of the season, before recovering with a three-game winning streak. NU defeated Syracuse, Ohio State and Wisconsin by a combined 71 points to improve to 6-1.

A setback to one of the Cats’ key contributors marred their hot start. Aschenbrenner injured his leg against Minnesota and tried to conceal it.

“I really got hit hard in my thigh on one leg,” he said. “It was difficult for me to run – I told one of the assistant coaches and one of the trainers I had no feeling in one leg. … I never told anyone else about it. The guys never knew I was hurt in that game.”

Aschenbrenner was demoted to the second team for a few weeks, a shock for a player who had started every game since high school. He won the starting job back later in the year, but his relationship with Voigts was strained.

A close battle in South Bend, Ind., proved the Cats were not a fluke. NU put a scare in Notre Dame, but the Cats let a late lead slip away. The Irish kept their record blemish-free with a 12-7 nailbiter.

The nonconference loss didn’t hamper the Cats’ Rose Bowl chances. All they had to do was beat in-state rival Illinois, and they came through with an impressive 20-7 triumph. It was the fourth time in the last five games NU held its opponent in single digits. ROSE BOWL REUNIONHeavily favored California stood between NU and its first bowl victory. The unbeaten Golden Bears were ranked third in the final AP Poll and set a school record for total offense. Fullback Jackie Jensen, a multi-sport athlete that later starred for the Boston Red Sox, became the first player to rush for more than 1,000 yards for the Golden Bears.

NU players were also familiar with the coach roaming the opposing sideline. Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf, in his second year leading Cal, had preceded Voigts at NU and recruited most of its Rose Bowl roster. In fact, Waldorf mentored Voigts during his 12-year tenure in Evanston, molding the tackle into an All-American.

Facing their old coach as underdogs made the Cats focused, and Voigts did his best to eliminate any possible distractions.

“We were like prisoners – he kept us in that hotel,” Perricone said. “We got out on Christmas day for a little while. … We practiced in some sort of a municipal park somewhere, two times a day.”

Less than one week before the game, NU endured a setback when its quarterback came down with a sore throwing arm. The injury affected Burson during the game, preventing the Cats from taking their usual shots down the field. They didn’t try many short routes, either, and attempted just four passes. The lone completion wasn’t even thrown by Burson – Aschenbrenner found end Don Stonesifer on the final drive.

Fortunately for NU, the ground attack picked up the slack. Aschenbrenner put the Cats ahead early with a 73-yard touchdown run, a Rose Bowl record that stood until 1993.

“It was an off-tackle play,” Aschenbrenner said. “I gue
ss it surprised them, because usually our halfbacks didn’t run through the line too much, we tried to run around ends.”

NU led 13-7 at the half, giving up a long run to Jensen but adding another touchdown on a controversial call. As Murakowski fought his way in, he lost the ball and Cal recovered in the end zone. But field judge Jay Berwanger – also the first winner of the Heisman Trophy 14 years earlier – determined Murakowski maintained possession across the goal line before the ball came loose.

The Cats missed the ensuing kick, and it almost came back to haunt them. But Jensen left the game with a leg injury on his first carry of the third quarter, and Cal struggled without him. The Golden Bears still found a way to score after that, with halfback Jack Swaner’s touchdown and a successful extra-point attempt giving the Golden Bears a 14-13 advantage.

Then, with less than three minutes remaining, NU started the winning drive on its own 12-yard line.

“The guy I think won the game for us was Frank Aschenbrenner,” Tunnicliff said. “He completed one pass to Stonesifer that got us out of the hole, and then he just fought to the sideline. He’d get knocked out of bounds and just pop back up and go charging back to the huddle. He just picked the rest of us up, and we just took it from there and won the ballgame.”

After Aschenbrenner moved the chains early, Tunnicliff provided the go-ahead score. The Cats ran a trick play, and he received the direct snap. The Golden Bears were caught off-guard, allowing Tunnicliff to scamper 43 yards to the right corner of the end zone.

The game wasn’t over, as Cal advanced into NU territory on the following series. With just seconds to go, the Golden Bears’ desperation pass was intercepted at the 5-yard line. It was Cal’s fifth turnover of the day, allowing NU to close out an improbable 20-14 upset.

While the players were enjoying the fitting end to a magical season, they got a special visit from Waldorf.

“He was a real gentleman,” Tunnicliff said. “He came into our dressing room after the game and congratulated us. He said, ‘Well, this was one game I couldn’t lose.'”

The Cats couldn’t celebrate for too long, though. They were on a train back to campus at 10:15 a.m. the next day, since they were already late for the start of winter classes. LOOKING AHEADNU has been in position to break through for another bowl win, earning six postseason berths since that season. But it squandered fourth-quarter leads in both the 1996 Rose Bowl against Southern California and the 2008 Alamo Bowl against Missouri, losing the latter in overtime. The seventh opportunity will come against Auburn in the Outback Bowl, 61 years to the day after the historic win.

“We’ve been close too many times,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We have 60 minutes to go out and win one football game, and it’d be nice to get that monkey off our back, there’s no question about that.”

Twenty members of the 1948 team are still living. Many of them live in smaller towns and have a hard time following their alma mater, though they watch the Cats on TV whenever possible.

While they understandably take pride in winning the only bowl game in school history, they’re more than willing to embrace an NU team that duplicates the feat.

“You bet we would love to have someone else join us,” Perricone said.

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