|That Sweet Smell of Roses/1949
Expectations at the start of the 1948 football season were not high. The team had finished eighth in the Big Ten the previous year, and head coach Bob Voigts (WCAS39) (see his obituary) was in just his second season, having replaced the fabled Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf. But it was a veteran team and a team of veterans, many of whom had served during World War II, and there was hope for improvement.
After a strong start to the season, Northwestern took a 6-2 record into its final game with Illinois. The Illini had the better record and had gone to the Rose Bowl the previous year, but Big Ten rules prevented them from repeating. A Wildcat victory over the downstate rival would ensure a trip to Pasadena against California, now coached by Waldorf.
Three first-half touchdowns sealed the victory. The Wildcats went on to win 20-7 and triggered a celebration on campus like none seen before. Classes were canceled. More than 3,000 students paraded through Evanston with the school band. And 500 more took the el to downtown Chicago and did a snake dance through Marshall Field's!
The team headed to Pasadena with a sense of mission. "We had every expectation of winning," says Ed Tunnicliff (S50), then a junior halfback. "We were representing the Big Ten, and we had a feeling of confidence and loyalty."
The game started out with Northwestern halfback Frank Aschenbrenner (EB49) sprinting 73 yards for a touchdown in the first minute of play. California responded two plays later with seven points of its own. It was a seesaw affair, and with the clock ticking down Northwestern trailed 14-13.
With less than three minutes remaining and the ball on Cal's 43 yard line, Northwestern called a trick play. Center and team captain Alex Sarkisian (S49, 71) snapped the ball past the quarterback into the hands of Tunnicliff, who took advantage of the confusion and raced for a touchdown and a Wildcat victory.
"The play was borrowed, stolen, maybe leased from the Chicago Bears," Sarkisian remembers with a laugh. "We practiced it all year."
Tunnicliff credits a perfect snap and tremendous blocking. "From a ball carrier's standpoint," he says, "it was a great play and great trickery."
Though the team made the train trip back to Evanston with little difficulty, the same was not true for 300 students, including the band, who took the northern route home. Their train was stranded by a blizzard and drifting snow and 60-mile-an-hour winds in Cheyenne, Wyo., for nearly a week.
But they weren't exactly roughing it. According to the Daily Northwestern, "The group took over Cheyenne's Lincoln Theater Thursday afternoon for a dance and impromptu talent show. Monday they dined in the swank Wyoming Room of the city's finest hostelry, the Plains Hotel."