The Rose Bowl is arguably the most famous annual college football game there is, often referred to as “The Granddaddy of Them All.” Every year, it is attended by tens of thousands of fans, and watched on television by millions. This was also true forty-four years ago, in 1961.
On that particular year, on January 2nd, the Minnesota Golden Gophers were taking on the Washington Huskies. The Rose Bowl stadium was filled to capacity, and almost 10 million viewers tuned in to NBC’s live coverage from homes, restaurants, and bars. The game itself was not particularly remarkable, and would have become just another smudge in the blur of history were it not for the unexpected events which unfolded during the halftime show. That day’s game has lived on in infamy ever since.
The Rose Bowl stadium was just a stone’s throw from a little technical college in Pasadena called Caltech. The Caltech football team occasionally played in the Rose Bowl stadium, but despite their proximity and merit, their college (and its mascot the beaver) had never been represented in the hype that surrounded the game each year. A group of fourteen Caltech students, unhappy at being left out of the famous annual event, took it upon themselves to correct the unjustified oversight.
The group sent one of their members to speak to the head cheerleader for the University of Washington. Operating under the guise of a reporter for a local high school newspaper, he asked the head cheerleader how their school intended to execute their half-time flipcard show. The flipcard show is the classic method of showing huge images in a stadium by having a block of students hold large colored cards of over their heads to form images visible to the rest of the stadium, and to the television viewers. The Caltech spy learned that Washington’s plan called for a series of fifteen images to be created by the flipcard-wielding students, and that each of the 2,232 seats involved would have a set of colored cards and a specific instruction sheet.
In the days that followed, when the Washington cheerleaders left their hotel to spend the day at Disneyland, a handful of Caltech students snuck into the hotel and broke into the cheerleaders’ rooms— disturbing nothing— and hunted until they located the stack of instruction sheets. They slipped away with a single sheet to use as a guide, and smuggled it to a local printer where they had 2,232 copies made. Back at Caltech, their co-conspirators awaited their arrival, at which time the fourteen students began the long, carefully planned process of altering each seat’s instruction sheet by hand. It took a better part of the day, and there was some concern over the fact that the new sheets were considerably less worn than the originals. Once the task was complete, three Caltech students were sent back to the hotel to sneak into the cheerleaders’ room and swap the original stack of instruction sheets for the modified ones. They were successful, managing to get in and out before the cheerleaders returned from their outing. Their changes had been complex and hasty, so naturally the fourteen students were nervous about how their prank would play out.
Game day soon arrived. At the end of the first half, the Washington Huskies were ahead 17 to 0, and the University of Washington marching band marched onto the field to begin the halftime show. NBC trained their live camera directly towards the flipcard bleachers as the flipcard show began.
As the band accompanied with music, the first image was met with approval from the Washington fans, having been unmodified by the pranksters. The second, third, and fourth were met with similar enthusiasm as the huge, colorful images materialized at the cheerleaders’ beckoning. It wasn’t until the twelfth image that something appeared awry. The image— which was supposed to look like a husky— had rounded ears and buck teeth. This distressed the cheerleaders, who attributed the malformed image to their own design error, and they gave the signal to change to the next image.
Image number thirteen was even more distressing. Rather than proudly displaying the word “HUSKIES,” the text had somehow been reversed to read “SEIKSUH,” in full view of the entire stadium and millions of television viewers. Mortified, and hoping that subsequent images would be without embarrassing errors, the cheerleaders signaled the next image as the band played on.
The subtle modifications to all previous flipcard images had been a buildup to the fourteenth. When the image materialized, the crowd’s cheers fell silent. The band’s music quickly petered out. The television commentators were momentarily speechless. The stadium was gripped in an unnatural silence as a single word towered over the field, and was displayed on millions of TV sets across the country: “CALTECH.”
There was a long pause as the crowd absorbed this, but soon the silence was broken. The band marched off the field to the sound of laughter, refusing to signal for the next image (which, as it turns out, was unmodified by the Caltech pranksters). The football teams returned to the field, and the game ended with Washington winning 17-7.
The fourteen Caltech students who organized the prank came to be known as the Fiendish Fourteen. Their prank was so beautifully orchestrated— and in front of such a large audience— that it has become the yardstick against which all other college pranks are now measured. Despite the ingenuity of Caltech’s subsequent efforts, the Great Rose Bowl prank is still unequaled.