If you missed last week’s National Champions II, Part I, click here.
Florida’s upset of Tennessee made Tech the undisputed conference champions, and they would ultimately be honored with the ultimate prize - an opportunity to go at it with the best of the West in the Rose Bowl. Well, sort of. It’s slightly more complicated than that. With a national championship on the line and an opportunity for etching their names in the immortal annals of Tech history, the Jackets headed west.
The only way to tell this story is to start the wrong way - at the end. As Athletic Association legend will tell, when Roy Riegels was given his membership card into the Georgia Tech Lettermen’s Club, in 1971, he reportedly quipped, “Believe me, I feel I’ve earned this.” This is an interesting quote from a Tech varsity letterwinner, because, you’d think that a former Yellow Jacket would be gracious and proud of the years he gave to Tech, especially one showing up to Hall of Fame inductions, no less. Except there was the small problem that, in actuality, Roy Riegels never actually was enrolled at Tech. He never played a down of football for the Golden Tornado. Yet he was a part of perhaps the single most consequential play in Yellow Jacket history, bar perhaps Alabama player Darwin Holt’s literally-jaw-imploding hit on Chick Graning or Scott Sisson’s kick to seal the win against the University of Virginia. No, the Miracle on Techwood doesn’t count. Get out of here, millennials.
Anyways, Roy Riegels. He and his quarterback, Benny Lom were at the 1971 Georgia Tech Hall of Fame induction precisely because their actions for the other team in the 1929 Rose Bowl, the California Golden Bears of Berkeley. On that day a full 42 years after that afternoon in Pasadena, each member of the 1928 football team was being inducted to permanent enshrinement with the rest of the Tech greats. Riegels wouldn’t be elected into California’s hall of fame until 1998, five years after his death.
As you know by now, Tech was coming off a undefeated perfect season, with wins over powerhouse teams like Notre Dame, the school in Athens, Vanderbilt, and Alabama. Tech allowed just 40 points on the year, 13 of which were to Alabama alone, and they scored that many in just the Auburn game. After stunning the “Dream and Wonder” edition of the team of derivative hacks that don’t know the first things about actual derivatives from Clarke County the previous season in remarkable fashion, and under conditions blamed to be purposefully mud-riddled, the Jackets were an unstoppable force. Not once did they meet an immoveable object during the season. Even the Knute Rockne-coached Notre Dame team that had so thoroughly throttled the Jackets the year before in South Bend looked mortal on their trip to Grant Field in Midtown Atlanta. Unlike the last season’s squeaker of a win, the Jackets handled the Athenians with grace and deftness befitting their perfect record. The slugfest in the Swamp between Tennessee and Florida secured the uncontested Southern title for Tech. They would, in fact, be going bowling. At there was just the one, and when the Tournament of Roses came calling, the Golden Tornado was eager to pack up and head west for their first postseason appearance ever.
The story was a little bit different on the west coast. The Pacific Coast Champions, the University of Southern California Trojans, had gone undefeated that fall but sported a record with a single blemish - a 0-0 tie to the Golden Bears. Tech had also beaten their common opponent, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, so it isn’t like the game would have been a mismatch. They elected not to attend the Rose Bowl. Several sources still award them a national championship, though they declined to participate in the game that decided the best team in the country. Even worse, they claimed the title. Plenty of schools hoard dubious title claims - looking at you, Oklahoma State, what with their stake ina year that literally sported the greatest team ever to play the game in the form of the 1945 Army squad - even more suspect than this one, but unlike them, the Trojans had the opportunity to back it up and put it all on the line. They ever-so-cowardly decided not to. Can’t claim the prize if you don’t play the game, boys.
The Tournament of Roses was forced to call on a replacement in the form of the second place team from the Pacific Coast, one that lurks in the rugged Eastern foothills of the Bay Area. Fortunately, that team was the one that had given USC all it could handle and still walk away without a tarnished record, the one from Berkeley. The sons of California, decked in their blue and gold, had to this point just one loss on their schedule, to an Olympic Club team that wasn’t even a college. They had two ties to round out their record, one each against USC and Stanford, which had to be a frustrating result. At least they kept the axe, I suppose, but, in the meantime, they had done their work when it counted and they were gifted the spot the Trojans so carelessly tossed aside.
In lieu of finding play by play from this game, which I regrettably could not, we will just hit what we know. The first quarter was devoid of scoring. Midway through the second, Tech was driving down the field led by unanimous and unpenalized All-American Peter Pund, linemen Frank Speer and Tom Jones, and the star-studded backfield of Walter Mizell, Father Lumpkin, and Stumpy Thomason. Past midfield, at about the 30 yard line, with the Jackets firing on all cylinders for the first time all game, Thomason fumbled the ball. Big yikes. Roy Riegels - remember him? - recovered the ball for California, scooping it up and running with the ball. If you didn’t remember the name Roy Riegels, perhaps referring to him by his more famous nickname, “Wrong Way” Riegels will ring a bell. After carrying the ball a few yards, he gets turned around and takes off running towards his own endzone (listen with sound, if possible). Bigger yikes. His teammate Lom, one of the fastest players of the era chases him down, and even manages to get his attention ever so briefly, in order to tell him he’s going the wrong way. Riegels keeps running. Lom finally catches and tackles his own teammate at the one yard line, saving six points and even more mortification. After the game, Riegels told the Associated Press, “I was running toward the sidelines when I picked up the ball...I started to turn to my left toward Tech’s goal. Somebody shoved me and I bounded right off into a tackler. In pivoting to get away from him, I completely lost my bearings,” (Riegels). Fortunately, video of this play still exists today to investigate. Rather than risk running a play and being brought down in their own endzone and surrender the first two points of the game, the sons of California chose to punt. Ironically, the best way to fight for California, and indeed win, was to yield the ball back to the Yellow Jackets.
Tech blocked the punt anyways. Safety. The Engineers’ lead stands at 2-0.
Even the Wikipedia summary of the sheer madness that was the run puts it very succinctly, “During [the run], Coach Alexander told his excited players, who were jumping near the team’s bench; “Sit down. Sit down. He’s just running the wrong way. Every step he takes is to our advantage”. Broadcaster Graham McNamee, who was commentating the game on radio, said during Riegels’ run; “What am I seeing? What’s wrong with me? Am I crazy? Am I crazy? Am I crazy?” (Wikipedia, 1928 Georgia Tech Golden Tornado football team). Tech would add a touchdown after halftime, during which a still obviously distressed Riegels had to be settled by Coach Nibs Price and his loyal company, namely Lom. Riegels said, “Coach, I can’t do it. I’ve ruined you, I’ve ruined myself, I’ve ruined the University of California. I couldn’t face that crowd to save my life.” Price replied, “Roy, get up and go back out there—the game is only half over.” Tech would add a Thomason touchdown, but he would miss the extra point kick, before Lom passed for a touchdown himself and managed to send his own extra point through the uprights, bringing the Golden Bears within one. Riegels blocked a punt in the second half, but it wasn’t enough for the Blue and Gold as Tech secured its second national championship by a final score of 8-7. Call it glorious destiny, to some. After some fighting, and some strife, that safety was indeed the deciding score. “We’ll win the game or know the reason why,” goes one of Cal’s many fight songs. Well, this time, they knew the reason why.
Understandably, eventually college football would adopt a Riegels Rule, preventing fumbled footballs to be moved once they hit the ground. Riegels himself would go on to coach, run a chemical company, serve in the military, and provide wisdom and support through his motivational speeches and one-on-one interactions with players that went through similar blunders.
An important thing to note from this game is that this is the date that California attributes to the birth of Tech’s fight song “Up With the White and Gold.” The only problem with this is that the song had been sung on campus for more than a decade, and there is hard evidence of this fact. Obviously, there are differences of opinions on the matter:
“The tune appears to be unoriginal. The author of this report is aware of versions of this song at Georgia Tech and the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. Since Cal and Georgia Tech have had very few meetings, there is speculation that Georgia Tech may have acquired the tune after the 1929 Cal vs. Georgia Tech Rose Bowl,” (University of California Marching Band).
Most likely the tune is unoriginal. The first sentence is correct. This is certainly a situation in which Occam’s Razor applies. It would not be the first time a school has appropriated a famous tune, even one made famous by another university, to be their fight song or Alma Mater. Ever heard of “Son of a Gambolier?” Familiar, isn’t it? Sure does sound like the first fight song played in space to these ears. But it’s a silly debate, regardless. If it gets the crowd fired up and those emotions stirring, then that’s what matters, right? In the meantime, let’s get back to the football and history.
Tech would go on to have a decidedly less special season the following year as the Great Depression set in. It did, however, get granted the Daniel Guggenheim Grant in Aeronautics, the most prestigious recognition to date, a thorough recognition of just how far the Institute had come from being a small technical school on the top of a hill overlooking the town of Atlanta. California, led by senior captain Roy Riegels, would have a similar letdown year, finishing a shorter schedule at 7-1-1.
Infamously, in Tech lore, the team would be gifted a bear by local businessmen following the game, in recognition of the win over the Golden Bears. Bruin, as he would become named, was fed a diet heavy on Coca Cola by his primary caretaker Stumpy Thomason, becoming known as Stumpy’s Bear, and lived under the East Stands at Grant Field. The bear’s favorite drink was beer, sadly not whiskey clear or barrels of rum, he had multiple run-ins with the law, and was described by Dean George Griffin as, “smart as most Tech students with all the bad habits of modern youth.”
The massive payout, for the day, would come in great use to an athletic department strapped for cash. The strip land north of Fifth Street that became Russ Chandler Stadium, the Brock Indoor Practice Facility, Griffin Track, the tennis complex, and, fittingly, Rose Bowl Field itself, still the football practice field to this day, was purchased with the payout. It didn’t stop Tech’s financial woes a few years down the line as the depression brought the department to its knees, cancelling several seasons of sports like tennis, basketball, baseball, swimming, track, and cross country, while boxing and lacrosse disappeared for good.
That’s shouldn’t be taken to imply the lasting legacy of the Rose Bowl was negative, because to leave on such a dour note would be a disservice to the incredible achievements of the 1928 Tech football team and the memorable, well-played game against the boys of Berkeley. Ultimately, the Jackets prevailed. It was a special way to end a stellar season. National champions has a nice ring to it. One could get used to it. In the meantime, we can make do with the successes of today - men’s golf and their conference title - and cheer on the cross country women as they make their first appearance at the national championships in quite some time this weekend.
If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule (as the column is only planned out through Hate Week). What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.