John McGrath

John McGrath: It took a trip to City of Destiny for USC to enter world of big-time college football

On Thanksgiving Day in 1914, a college football team that had never traveled beyond the Los Angeles area faced Oregon Agricultural College at the Stadium Bowl.

That the Aggies, representing the school now known as Oregon State, prevailed in a 38-6 blowout is not noteworthy. What’s noteworthy is that the contest, played 100 years ago Wednesday, can be traced as the University of Southern California’s first dalliance with big-time football.

“I had heard USC once traveled to Tacoma for a game at the Stadium Bowl,” Tacoma Historical Society board president Bill Baarsma said Tuesday. “But I didn’t believe it.”

Baarsma, a former Tacoma mayor, was serving as co-chair of the Stadium Bowl’s centennial celebration committee in 2010 when he learned details of the Trojans’ original trip from newspaper archives at the library.

“The story behind the game,” Baarsma said, “is kind of complicated.”

Thumbnail version: The World War I invasion of Belgium caused hundreds of thousands of Belgians to flee their homeland in advance of the German army. Starvation among the refugees was common.

John Schlarb, trustee of the Tacoma Commercial Club, also happened to be the chairman of the local Belgium Relief Fund. Schlarb figured the proceeds from a Thanksgiving Day college football game at the Stadium Bowl could produce gate receipts ranging from $50,000 to $80,000.

“The Stadium Bowl in those days had a capacity of about 40,000, if you count standing-room tickets,” Baarsma said. “It was the largest U.S. sports venue west of Harvard Stadium.”

The Tacoma organizers’ obvious choice to fill the Stadium Bowl was a rematch between Washington and Oregon State, which had snapped the 39-game winning streak of Gil Dobie’s “Sun Dodgers” a few weeks earlier with a 0-0 tie.

Oregon State was amenable, but the UW administration, likely following Dobie’s orders, nixed the offer, as did Colorado. And while Montana was eager to take on anybody anywhere, Oregon State coach E.J. Stewart had no interest in a game against the Grizzlies.

On the other hand, the idea of taking on USC at a neutral field site appealed to Stewart, as long as the Tacoma organizers picked up the cost of travel and lodging. When the same pitch was made to USC — literally, a free ride — the Trojans were on board, too.

Southern California, which returned to competitive football in 1914 after a three-year fling with rugby, considered such Los Angeles-area schools as Pomona, Whittier and Occidental typical opponents.

“All the sudden they’re traveling to Tacoma on the Southern Pacific route,” Baarsma said. “Most of those kids had never been on a train. And when they arrived here, they stayed downtown at the Tacoma Hotel, one of the most luxurious hotels on the West Coast.

“Before the fire,” continued Baarsma, referring to the 1935 blaze that destroyed the building but was extinguished without any fatalities, “it was seen as a model for The Empress in Victoria, B.C.”

College football players in 1914 were not used to elegant trains and grand hotels with indoor swimming pools. In the case of the Trojans, they were not even used to football.

“The forward pass had just been introduced,” Baarsma said, “and the USC coach (Ralph Glaze) talked about using the players’ rugby skills — passing and lateraling — to counter Oregon State’s traditional style of keeping the ball on the ground.”

The Trojans’ 32-point defeat was minimal compared with the loss sustained by the organizers of the game. Despite a sunny afternoon ideal for football, the crowd was estimated between 6,000 and 7,000.

Tickets for the hastily arranged event were put on for 50 cents and a dollar for walk-ups, but because season passes to the Stadium Bowl were honored, no more than 3,000 fans paid a penny to aid the Belgium Relief Fund.

Years later, the Stadium Bowl would be home for more profitable college football ventures, such Texas A&M’s Tacoma visit in 1941 against Washington State. The Cougars returned to Tacoma to play Penn State in 1948.

But in 1914, while the Trojans and Aggies were swimming at the Tacoma Hotel, the sponsors of their Thanksgiving Day game took a bath.

Baarsma recently wrote a letter to Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll on behalf of the Tacoma Historical Society, filling the ex-USC coach in on the roots of the football program that rebooted his stalled career.

Although Carroll has more pressing items on his immediate agenda — a Thanksgiving night date against the San Francisco 49ers, for instance — he has been known to look at life through a wide lens. He’ll appreciate the fact the USC Trojans’ first road game beyond Los Angeles was played 100 years ago Wednesday, in a town with a moniker fit for centennial milestones.

The City of Destiny.