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Take 2

A different spin on sports by The Seattle Times staff and readers.

January 1, 2015 at 8:00 AM

Covering the 1961 Rose Bowl and the greatest prank in college sports history

A card prank by Cal Tech students led to Washington students spelling this at the 1961 Rose Bowl. The Associated Press file, 1961

A famous card prank by Caltech students led to Washington students spelling these words at the 1961 Rose Bowl.
The Associated Press file, 1961


The card-stunt prank executed by a band of Caltech students at the 1961 Rose Bowl is widely regarded as the greatest hoax in collegiate history.

It is so celebrated that many overlook the game in which the Washington Huskies defeated the No. 1-ranked Minnesota Gophers, 17-7. That game, on the heels of the Huskies’ stunning 44-8 win over the Wisconsin Badgers in the 1960 Rose Bowl, would mark the end of the Big Ten’s dominance over Pacific Coast Conference teams in what has long been called The Granddaddy of All Bowl Games.

Don Duncan, the longtime Seattle Times reporter, 37 years he nearly missed the big story. Seattle Times file photo, 1999

Don Duncan, the longtime Seattle Times reporter, 37 years after he nearly missed the big story.
Seattle Times file photo, 1999

I was a young Seattle Times general-assignment reporter at the ’61 Rose Bowl, sent to Pasadena by my editor, Mel Sayre, to find stories that “wouldn’t be covered by the sportswriters.” “Human-interest stories is what I want, Dunc,” Sayre said. “Don’t miss a thing!”

In those primitive no-cellphone, no-internet days, I flew south five days before the Rose Bowl game, spent hours taking notes with a stubby pencil, wrote my stories on a typewriter loaned by my L.A. hotel, and hand-delivered each piece of copy to a nearby Western Union office, where it was telegraphed to The Times.

Hey, Bill Gates was only 5 years old.

There was much to write about:

The famous Rose Bowl Museum devoted considerable space to the Huskies’ one-eyed quarterback Bob Schloredt, co-Player of the Game with George Fleming in the 1960 Rose Bowl (Schloredt would repeat in ’61). A trip to MGM studio with the Husky “royalty” who chatted with actor Glenn Ford. A behind-the-scenes tour of the area, where floats were being adorned with thousands of roses for the Tournament of Roses Parade. A visit to that new wonder of the world, Disneyland (which had opened only five years before). Along with assorted quotes from band members, yell leaders, an attractive baton-twirler and Husky alums who arrived early and were living it up.

The only story I missed was THE BIG ONE.

While the great card-stunt hoax was unfolding before 100,000 fans in the Rose Bowl and an estimated 30 million listening to Mel Allen and Chick Hearn on NBC television, Gov. Albert D. Rosellini was telling me he had bet a box of apples and the governor of Minnesota a fish of some sort on the outcome of the game. The governor added helpfully, “They’ve got a lot of lakes in Minnesota you know, Don.”

My game-day story would appear in Tuesday’s Times (New Year’s Day 1961 fell on a Sunday, when no bowl games were played). The final addition to my notepad would be a post-game ride with the Husky team back to their Long Beach hotel. For the record, a jubilant coach Jim Owens talked a bit during the bus ride, but the weary, sore players were more interested in sleeping than answering questions.

Back in my hotel room, the typewriter hummed. The stories were dropped off at Western Union and, my stomach growling because I hadn’t eaten since 6 o’clock that morning, I heard the telephone ring. It was 8 p.m.

“Hi, Dunc,” Mel Sayre said, chuckling. “I’m looking forward to reading your story. It must have been something to see!”

“Yeah, sure, Mel,” I replied, trying to hide my confusion. “You know me. Never miss a good story.”

I hung up and screamed to the walls: “What the hell happened at the game that would prompt Mel to call.” It must have been something truly out of the ordinary, and I had better find out what it was, because to him “failure” is a four-letter word.

Jim Owens, the Washington coach, is carried off the field after his Huskies upset Minnesota in the 1961 Rose Bowl.  The Associated Press file photo, 1961

Jim Owens, the Washington coach, is carried off the field after his Huskies upset Minnesota in the 1961 Rose Bowl.
The Associated Press file photo, 1961

Racing from the room, my stomach in a knot, I boarded an elevator and shouted, “Hey, any of you folks who attended the game, did anything out of the ordinary happen that you’re aware of?” Dead silence.

In full-blown panic mode, I bolted into the lobby. “Please, did anyone here who attended today’s game see anything out of the ordinary or maybe humorous? At length, one man smiled and said, “I think maybe the card-stunts are what you mean. They got screwed up somehow near the end and quit abruptly. I think they spelled Caltech in the last stunt. Pretty funny.”

That must be it. I rushed out, bought an L.A. Times and flipped through the pages. I found a very short story. The University of Washington’s halftime card-stunts were cut short, it said, after the cards started coming up with apparently unplanned images. It is believed some Caltech students were responsible.

Back in my room I asked the hotel operator to dial Caltech, preferably someone connected with student housing. The phone rang a few minutes later. I told the woman at Caltech what I wanted.

“Oh, I think I know just the boys who might have done that,” she said. She dialed a number and I explained my dilemma to the young man who answered.

“Hey, you want to talk to the guy who planned it?”

Giddy with delight, I replied, “Yes! By all means.”

The next voice on the line belong to Lyn (Lyndon) Hardy, ringleader of a tiny band of techies who had assured themselves a place in the Great Hall of Fame reserved for people who think way outside the box.

Hardy had posed as a reporter for the Dorsey High School (L.A.) newspaper and called on the yell leaders who had the UW stunt cards and directions in their Long Beach hotel room. He said he wanted to write about how the stunts were done. They told all.

A short time later – when the yell leaders were gone from their room – Hardy and two fellow students picked the lock on the door and stole the direction sheets. There were to be 15 card stunts at halftime. They decided to let the first 11 go off as planned. They would tamper with 12, 13 and 14 and also leave stunt 15 alone.

Back at their student housing, they and their friends went to work. There were 2,232 instruction sheets, each with its own set of 15 directions. And each would have to be modified.

Stunt No. 12 was supposed to be a slow spell-out of “Washington”. Wouldn’t it be much better if it spelled “notginhsaW“? Of course, it would.

No. 13 was supposed to be the head of a Husky dog (the UW mascot ). Since Caltech’s mascot was a beaver, why not modify it a bit, giving the dog beaver-like buck-teeth?

No. 14 was reserved for the dagger in the heart. Whatever the yell leaders had planned was dumped and “CALTECH” was substituted.

It’s a shame the UW called off the card stunts after Caltech appeared, because the final stunt – showing an American flag – had not been altered.

Hardy said Caltech students had been pulling pranks for years. Among them were disassembling a Model T Ford and reassembling it in its owner’s room, and putting a fake cornerstone upside-down on a nine-story building.

You can find a list by going online to Caltech Legends. You will learn that when UCLA played Illinois in the 1984 Rose Bowl, Caltechies – no doubt inspired by the ’61 hoax – hacked into the scoreboard to show the halftime score as Caltech 38, MIT 9.

I called Hardy at his home in Torrance, Calif., the other day and introduced myself as the “no-longer young man” who 53 years ago had called him in desperation the night of Jan. 2. He had, he said, gone on to earn a PhD in physics, work in aerospace and write “fantasy novels” under his full name (Lyndon Hardy). His first book, “Master of the Five Magics,” was published when he was in his late 30’s, and has sold over 300,000 copies. He recently finished his fourth book.

Washington's Bob Hivner (with ball) cuts around end for a against Minnesota in the 1961 Rose Bowl.  The Associated Press file photo, 1961

Washington’s Bob Hivner (with ball) cuts around end against Minnesota in the 1961 Rose Bowl.
The Associated Press file photo, 1961

Now a grandfather, Hardy said he seldom talked to his daughters about his memorable college prank, although he was occasionally reminded of the stunt when someone doing a history of famous pranks gave him a call.

Breaking into the room where the cards and directions were stored were heart-pounding undertakings, Hardy said. On the eve of the Rose Bowl game, he and his two partners in crime noted that there although there were no lights on in the Long Beach hotel room he needed to break into, he couldn’t be sure the yell leaders weren’t inside asleep or wouldn’t be coming down the hall and catching him inside the room.

It had, he said, taken many hours to make the changes on the instruction sheets and then exchange the new sheets for the old ones. He and others in his dorm were still working at it during a dance they hosted on New Year’s Eve. A girl at the dance learned what they were doing and was so excited she ran out the door, intent on calling all her friends.

“We begged her not to do it,” Hardy said. She turned out to be from Minnesota and agreed to keep quiet because the joke was on the other school.

I told Hardy I’d written my story of the hoax on an empty stomach, walked it over to Western Union and then flopped on my bed, fully clothed, only to be awakened at 5 a.m. by a ringing telephone.

It was Mel Sayre, my editor. “Helluva story, Dunc,” he said. “Sure glad we had an eye-witness down there.”

“Thanks,” I said, feeling slightly guilty as I hung up. Should I have told him?

I never did.

Hardy said he was now 73. I said I was nearing 89.

We laughed. Two old guys reliving youthful sins.

Don Duncan was a longtime reporter, editor and columnist for The Seattle Times who describes himself as the “world’s oldest general-assignment reporter.” He still lives in the Seattle area.          

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