Remembering the Salad Bowl; Precursor to the Fiesta Bowl
It’s New Year’s Day and it’s time for a large parade that will attract 200,000 people and line the sidewalks of Central Ave in downtown Phoenix. The event is highly anticipated for its pageantry and beautiful floats. Not long after, two universities will electrify a sellout crowd in a major college football game that has become a major tourist attraction for the Valley.
This sounds like the excitement that occurs every January for the Fiesta Bowl, only that isn’t the event being described. More than 20 years before the first Fiesta Bowl kicked off, another college football game captured the attention and hearts of local residents called the Salad Bowl. This groundbreaking game with the funny name was no joke and eventually served as a precursor for the wildly successful Fiesta Bowl.
In the years following the conclusion of World War II, college sports were going through a transformation and the future direction was unknown. During this time more bowl games were created, as many students who were off fighting the war returned to school.
One of those new bowl games was the Salad Bowl, which was the brain child of Herb Askins, a Valley businessman who was also president of the Phoenix Kiwanis Club. The game was intended to serve as a community-minded fund raiser with all proceeds going to local charities that helped handicapped children.
The game was played at Montgomery Stadium at the old Phoenix Union High School near the corner of 7th St and Van Buren, because it had a capacity of 23,000. Nearby Arizona State College in Tempe also had a football facility but the capacity at Goodwin Stadium was only 15,000.
Askins came up with the idea prior to the war but the inaugural Salad Bowl wasn’t played until Jan. 1, 1948. Nevada beat North Texas State 13-6 but not before some drama in the weeks leading up to the game. Back then, players yielded more power and collectively voted on whether or not to accept a bowl-game bid. Nevada initially accepted its bid but rescinded less than a month before the game when it was announced North Texas State Teachers School was its opponent.
One rumor stated Nevada declined due to eligibility issues after not adhering to the Pacific Coast Conference’s one-year transfer rule. Another said it was due to its perceived low level of competition. Either way, Nevada agreed to play as promised less than a week after pulling out, due in part to Salad Bowl officials considering a lawsuit.
Among the other schools that turned down bids were Utah and Pepperdine. Arizona also turned down an invite with the curt response “No Funds.”
Fans enjoyed the action as North Texas scored first before Nevada added a pair of touchdowns, with the second one coming late in the fourth quarter. A missed extra point kept North Texas within a touchdown, but a final drive stalled at the Nevada 28 when a likely game-winning score was dropped in the end zone. All players received a wristwatch after the game as a token of appreciation.
Another highlight of the event was a halftime spectacle that featured what was called the largest massed band in Arizona history, as 39 bands collaborated as one for a performance.
“The game has a name now,” Askins told The Arizona Republic. “And those who saw Nevada and North Texas came away highly satisfied.”
Financially, the game showed promise but fell short of its fund-raising goals, as it lost $8,000 after drawing 12,500 fans, fewer than the 17,000 they hoped for. The modest turnout didn’t stop the Kiwanis Club from agreeing by secret ballot to sponsor another Salad Bowl in 1949.
Bigger and better
Year two saw a significant expansion to the Salad Bowl festivities with the addition of the Salad Bowl parade. The theme was “Arizona on Parade” and it was geared as a statewide event. Phoenix high schools embraced the opportunity to participate and went all out to create colorful floats that represented what Arizona was about.
The route began at the corner of Encanto and Central, then headed south to Washington where they turned east to 7th St., before turning north to Montgomery Stadium. The parade featured nearly 40 floats and 2,000 musicians from area high schools. Governor Garvey and his wife, Johanna, served as Grand Marshals. Nearly 200,000 people, or almost 80 percent of Phoenix’s population, attended the parade.
The second annual Salad Bowl also saw the addition of the policy that the team in Arizona with the most wins earned an automatic invitation to play. The University of Arizona held that distinction in 1949 but drama surfaced again, as their arrival didn’t come without significant controversy.
The excitement began weeks before the game when rumors out of Phoenix stated that the University of Arizona players were discussing whether they should demand $175 each to play. Head coach Mike Casteel, who would later head the new Sun Angel Foundation, vehemently denied this claim and the players released a statement denying the report.
However, there was a list of demands including that at least $10,000 of the game’s proceeds had to go to the Kiwanis Children’s Fund whether or not the game was profitable. Also, they wanted all in-state officials to volunteer their work and for Montgomery Stadium to provide the facility at no profit.
Concerning the game itself, Arizona (6-4) was a nine-point favorite over Drake (6-3) in what figured to be a battle between two high-powered offenses. Arizona ran a variation of the wing T, which they would have to rely on as the Wildcats were without its two top receivers including Bob Larsen, who led the nation in receptions that season.
Six turnovers set the tone of this game as Drake stopped two University of Arizona fourth-quarter threats, including one on the 1-yard line, to win 14-13. Arizona outgained Drake 355 to 206 but had costly turnovers and missed an extra point. The loss helped cost Casteel his job, as he was fired three weeks later.
The game also featured more star power as John Barrett, who was the director of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, conducted the bands while they played the national anthem before the game. Introduced to the crowd at halftime were notable celebrities, including former world boxing champion Jack Dempsey and Hollywood western star Hopalong Cassidy.
The game was a financial success as 17,500 attended the Salad Bowl, which made $10,000 and generated $60,000 in ticket revenue. This was an accomplishment considering tickets were priced at $2.40, $3.60 and $4.80 and an ad ran in the paper the day of the game saying plenty of good seats were available.
“This year’s game, parade and all the trimmings were a huge success,” Askins said. “I am certain the 1950 New Year’s Day affair and the events leading up to the Salad Bowl game will be bigger and better.”
The Salad Bowl was gaining momentum but trouble was brewing. Shortly after all the bowl games were played, reports came out that the NCAA was considering reducing the number of bowl games because it was getting to commercialized. In 1947, the idea of eliminating all bowl games was floated but rejected. Reform appeared to be a certainty but a decision was put off until the following year.
By 1950, the Salad Bowl was considered one of a dozen major bowl games, although still a level below the Rose, Cotton, Sugar and Orange Bowls. Arizona State College (ASC) in Tempe earned automatic bids in 1950 and 1951 but the Bulldogs lost both games to Ohio schools.
This was a classic battle of a strong offense against a strong defense. Xavier was 9-1 and allowed just 89 points in its 10 games, yet hadn’t received an invite to a bowl game until the Salad Bowl reached out. ASC scored 294 points and possessed one of the top rushing attacks in the nation, led by legendary halfback Wilford “Whizzer” White.
A record crowd of 18,500 watched the small, but speedy, ASC team lose 33-21 to the bigger, stronger Xavier squad. The score was tied 14-14 in the third quarter, but Xavier scored three touchdowns in the final 20 minutes. White ran for two touchdowns and had a third called back by penalty.
“I remember that they were a really big and tough football team,” White recalled. “They hit hard and tackled hard and we played them straight up but they had a good team and took us to the woodshed. They were huge.”
Best of times
In 1951, the Kiwanis Club considered putting the Salad Bowl on television but voted against it as the committee believed the game would earn more money for the charities through ticket sales if the game remained off television.
ASC looked to break a jinx when they faced Miami of Ohio, as local teams were 0-2 in the Salad Bowl. This senior-laden ASC team was arguably its best ever and boasted the top offensive team in the nation, leading in both rushing and total offense. The game was also the final one for White and popular head coach Ed Doherty, who recently resigned.
White performed double duty by playing in two games in 48 hours, as he first participated in the East-West Shrine Game on Dec. 30. The Salad Bowl flew White from San Francisco to Phoenix on a private plane, assuring he had time to practice and would suit up for ASC on New Year’s Day.
Woody Hayes coached his final game for Miami of Ohio, which upset ASC 34-21 in a game that wasn’t even that close. The victory helped catapult Hayes into the national spotlight and he was hired as head coach at Ohio State few weeks later.
Whizzer White scored two touchdowns for ASC and he tearfully left the field after his final college game to a standing ovation.
“He was a great guy,” White said of Hayes. “He came out and talked to me after the game and complemented me. He gave me some nice accolades and said he was looking forward to seeing me play in the pros.
“They were a well-coached team and had a multiple-type offense,” White said of his opponents. “We weren’t able to cope with them with our defense. We couldn’t get going and they were tough. They were a good size team.”
A sellout crowd of nearly 24,000 attended; nearly doubling the turnout for the inaugural game. The game generated almost $25,000 for charities and the sky appeared to be the limit for the Salad Bowl, which grew into a major tourist attraction. In a confidential letter from Dr. Paul H. Case, chairman of the 1951 Salad Bowl to ASC President Grady Gammage, he called the game, “the most successful of all the bowl programs we have held.”
Little did everyone know a storm was brewing that would change the course of the game as everyone knew it.
By 1951 college sports were under assault. Multiple scandals erupted in basketball and football. The press leaned on universities for putting too much emphasis on athletics, driven largely by the increasingly lucrative bowl games, which paid out substantial sums to these schools and the emergence of television.
Walter Byers took the reins of the NCAA in 1951 and he earned a reputation as a hard-hitting leader with a clear vision of how to clean up college sports.
The turning point arrived when a new NCAA regulation governing postseason football games was passed during the 1951 NCAA Convention, which was held two weeks after the Salad Bowl was played. The new by-law stated 75 percent of the gross receipts in all bowl games must be paid to participating teams. The intention was to reduce the commercialization of the games and instead stream more revenue toward the schools. This was a crippling development for all but the major bowl games that generated enough revenue to survive.
Sponsors of the Salad Bowl believed their game should be exempt since their event turned over 87 percent of its gross revenue to charity, the highest percentage among all bowl games. The NCAA disagreed and said the only way they could sidestep the new by-law was to invite non-NCAA members, of which there were few.
“The regulation was adopted as a by-law,” said then-NCAA president Dr. Hugh C. Willett. “And there is no way a by-law can be waived except by a vote of the NCAA convention. The next convention is January 2, 1952.”
The only exception was for charity contests, which did not fall under NCAA regulation. All-star games such as the Shrine East-West Classic, North-South Game and the Blue-Gray Game, which were made up of college seniors, were safe.
This ruling hurt the smaller bowl games, most of which operated with a charity angle and didn’t draw large enough crowds to satisfy the new ruling and leave anything for the charities.
“I don’t see how we can operate under these conditions,” said Bill Ladow, chairman of the Kiwanis club team selection committee. “But if we go on the same basis as the East-West Game it might work out.”
Beginning of the end
The NCAA also ruled teams could only play in bowl games it endorsed and the Salad Bowl was one of them. Some conferences took it a step further by limiting the bowl games their teams could participate in. In 1948, Hardin-Simmons played in three bowl games.
The 1952 Salad Bowl featured Houston against Dayton, which was led by future NFL coaching legend Chuck Noll at tackle. There was no Arizona representation in this game and there are conflicting reports why. One report stated ASC declined the invite because the football team had too many freshmen who were “not sufficiently mature” for a bowl game. This seems unlikely though as ASC President Grady Gammage was an ardent Salad Bowl supporter. Another newspaper report a few years later stated that the Board of Regents voted to discontinue participation in the Salad Bowl by any Arizona school.
The lack of a local draw hurt attendance, as 16,000 fans watched Houston rally in the second half for a 26-21 win behind halfback Gene Shannon, who scored four touchdowns.
The Salad Bowl was still a local attraction but the decline was underway.
With the increasing difficulty in attracting teams to play and no local draw, the Salad Bowl shifted its philosophy and reformatted into a championship game for military teams. That format held for two years, but each game was a blowout and attendance continued to decline.
Despite the smaller crowds, the game was still profitable. Lower operating costs enabled the game to profit more than $21,000 in 1953 and $10,000 in 1954. In an attempt to stave off the attendance declines, the Salad Bowl again reformatted and became an all-star game featuring the top 25 seniors from the Border Conference and Mountain States Skyline Conference.
Players from both Arizona schools represented the Border Conference but that wasn’t enough to bring fans back to the game. The 1955 Salad Bowl only drew 8,000 and the popular parade was canceled due to its operating cost. The 1956 game, which was actually played on Dec. 31, 1955 to avoid conflict with the big New Year’s Day games, profited a meager $338.
The Salad Bowl raised nearly $100,000 overall but community interest clearly waned. The Kiwanis Club reached out for more support but received little feedback and on Sept. 15, 1956, announced the Salad Bowl was folding. The Tucson Kiwanis Club briefly considered hosting the game there but decided against it.
The demise of the Salad Bowl was ultimately caused by bad timing. The restrictive NCAA by-law and absence of local teams made it impossible to maintain the large crowds. That led to the Salad Bowl missing out on television revenue when television networks began signing contracts with bowl games on a limited basis in 1952. The big money strengthened the major bowls, while most of the smaller games folded.
The absence of a large stadium also hurt, as the marquee schools wouldn’t come to the Salad Bowl where the payouts were dwarfed by the major bowls. The smaller capacity forced the hosts to charge $6 a ticket, which was more than the Rose Bowl was charging.
Sun Devil Stadium was built in 1955 but that was too late to save the Salad Bowl. Phoenix remained without a bowl game until multiple local business leaders began the multiyear effort to launch the Fiesta Bowl beginning in the late 1960s. The first game was played in 1971 and it has evolved into an elite bowl game.
Today, the Fiesta Bowl is one of only four Bowl Championship Series sites and hosts the BCS National Championship once every four years. Its leaders deserve the credit for growing the game into what it is today but the road it traveled was paved by the Phoenix Kiwanis Club and the long forgotten Salad Bowl.
– Sidebar 1 –
What’s in a name?
The new games adopted names that were reflective of the region. The Salad Bowl was an appropriate, albeit strange, moniker because at the time the Phoenix region was among the nation’s leaders in growing lettuce and vegetables. The game was sponsored by the Phoenix Kiwanis Club and its primary partner was the Arizona Vegetable Growers Association.
This name was no worse than other bowl games that existed at the time. Tampa, Fla. hosted the Cigar Bowl, Houston, Texas hosted the Oil Bowl and Fairbanks, Alaska hosted the Ice Bowl. Other strange names of the era include the Yam Bowl, the Raisin Bowl and the Optimist Bowl.
– Sidebar 2 –
Queen for a Day
Each year, a queen of the Salad Bowl was named. Dozens of high schools from around the state would select their representative for the competition. Finalists for Queen meet at a luncheon each year at Camelback Inn where the winner is selected by a panel of winter visitors with the queen announced during halftime of the game. The 1948 queen was Jacque Mercer of Litchfield Park, who went on to become Miss America the following year.
Beginning in 1949, with the addition of a parade, the Queen was announced at halftime as she rose from the center of a 30-foot wide copper-shaded salad bowl float that was created by the Kiwanis Club and sponsored by the Arizona Vegetable Growers Association.