Reflections on a Rose Bowl

Tyrone Willingham (Getty Images)

Given Tyrone Willingham's perpetual deadpan scowl, it was inconceivable that the former Stanford Coach would have tolerated any player hi-jinxes late in the season. As Washington fans have learned in the past year, Willingham can be as dry as a hotdog bun from a Husky Stadium concession stand. Nonetheless, with his Stanford team in the Pac-10 race in early November of 1999, the coach's tolerance level was put to the test.

One day the entire Stanford team assembled in the meeting room, and awaited the arrival of the coaching staff. Word was soon passed to the players that the coaches would be several minutes late. Cardinal star wide receiver Troy Walters took this opportunity to advance to the front of the room and launch into the team's favorite (and private) comedy routine.

"Troy Walters does the best impression of Coach Willingham," fellow wide receiver Dave Davis said at the time. "Other guys do him, but Troy has the glasses, and that little strut. Sometimes we egg him on. We were chanting, `Troy! Troy! Troy!'"

The relatively diminutive Walters put on his wire-rimmed glasses, stiffened his shoulders, and marched with the rigidity of a four-star general to the podium. He stood there for several moments, silent and deadpan, affixing his intense stare upon the entire team. Players were smiling wide and chuckling. Walters then launched into a speech about the need to be disciplined, and this provoked his teammates into fits of howling laughter.

Suddenly, with the immediacy of a light switch being turned on, the players fell silent. Willingham had slipped into the room, and was standing by the door, glaring at Walters with a facial expression that was as fixed as a statue.

"We all got quiet," Davis said, "And there is Troy, standing up in front of everybody."

Willingham allowed several seconds to pass, thereby inducing the players to stew in their rising anxiety, before, as Davis said, "We saw a little grin. He said, `I'm going to leave now so you guys can finish up.'"

The players again broke into peals of laughter and applause. Then it was time to get back to work.

A few days later, the players saw their Rose Bowl prospects dim. The Washington Huskies had just beaten the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson, to take sole possession of the Pac-10 conference race. Stanford players heard that the Huskies had a carousing celebration afterward on Arizona's field, complete with roses. The party was led by Washington Coach Rick Neuheisel, who had instigated things with a triumphant little jig in the end zone in front of the few hundred Husky fans that made the trip from Seattle.

It was on the following Saturday, however, that the tide began to turn in Stanford's favor. The players watched the TV with excitement as UCLA's field goal split the uprights, and the Bruins knocked off Washington 23-20 in overtime. This meant that it was now Stanford that controlled its destiny in the Pac-10 race. The Cardinal subsequently took to the field that night against Arizona State in Tempe and blasted the Sun Devils 50-30. Now, all that was needed to send Stanford to its first Rose Bowl in twenty-eight years was a victory over arch-rival California in the Big Game.

For the next six days, Bay Area newspapers and media outlets trumpeted the historic ramifications of this showdown. They also continuously mocked the Pac-10 by referring to it as the "Pac-2", given the conference and ABC-TV's decision to televise the USC-UCLA game instead. Speaking to a reporter, Troy Walters said, "This is for the Granddaddy. This will be the biggest game I've ever played in, by far."

90,000 fans were crammed like sardines into Stanford Stadium. The skies that day alternated between brief rain showers and brilliant bursts of sunshine. California entered the game with a 4-6 record and possessing an offense loaded with underclassmen. In the first half, with Stanford leading 7-0, Cal's Deltha O'Neal ripped off a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Awhile later, O' Neal did it again, returning a punt 58 yards for a touchdown, and yet again with a leaping interception in the end zone to stifle a Stanford drive. It was a brilliant one-man show that kept the Bears from being shut out.

But not even O'Neal could overcome his team's 20 penalties, nor do anything to mitigate Stanford's relentless defense. It was because of Cal's youth that Willingham and his staff devised a plan to attack with an assortment of blitzes and stunts. The results limited the Bears to an anemic 11 yards rushing and 130 total yards of offense. By the end of the day, with the final minutes of the game slowly winding down, the scoreboard glowed with the score: CARDINAL 31, BEARS 13. Stanford had just improved its Pac-10 record to 7-1. Along the Cardinal sideline, a laundry hamper was brought forth, containing a little gift for each player.

"It looked great to me," said Cardinal defensive tackle Willie Howard afterward. "To look in that basket and see hundreds and hundreds of beautiful roses in there for us ... it looked great."

Receivers Troy Walters and Dave Davis took a victory lap around the stadium as they waved their roses in the direction of the ecstatic fans. Colorful fireworks exploded overhead. The band thundered away. Defensive line coach Dave Tipton, a member of Stanford's famed Thunder Chickens of the early 1970s, cried and hugged everybody within reach. Former Stanford Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett talked to a reporter about the pride he felt toward Cardinal quarterback Todd Husak. The legendary John Elway stood on the sideline with his son, smiling. Meanwhile, Coach Tyrone Willingham took it all in with a smile that stretched broadly across his face.

Up in the stands, a 62-year old loyal alumnus named Michael Ghiorso, who had been driving 140 miles to attend every one of Stanford's home games for thirty years, attempted to talk to a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle. He was so overcome by happiness, however, that the resulting lump in his throat made it difficult to form words.

"This has been an impossible, fantastic year," he said, wearing his class of '59 ring along with red cap, red sweater, plastic poncho and binoculars. "I haven't seen such an important game in 30 years. The Rose Bowl, the millennium, who would have thought at the beginning of the year, when the team wasn't doing well, that they would be here? This win tells these kids to never give up on their dreams. I see in this team character and integrity. They never gave up."

In the aftermath, Willingham spoke with reporters and was asked about the Rose Bowl. "I'm telling you, this game is pretty neat," he said. "In some regards, I'd say it is just a couple of steps below the Super Bowl."

A reporter asked, "So how do you get ready for Notre Dame next week, Coach?"

"I don't know if you can get me to focus on Notre Dame tonight," Willingham said. "We just want to enjoy this."

At about that same moment, wide receiver Troy Walters was asked if the fact that no current Stanford player had been to the Rose Bowl before would be a factor come January 1st. Walters was quick to point out that he had attended the 1982 Rose Bowl when he was six years old and his dad Trent was an assistant coach at Washington. Walters had seen Jacque Robinson's historic performance, but unfortunately he didn't remember any of it. All he remembered was getting lost.

"I was going to the bathroom and I took a wrong turn," Walters said. "I was lost for 20-30 minutes. They had to use the public address system to find my mom."
Derek Johnson can be reached at derekjohnson1@verizon.net

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