The Great Rose Bowl Hoax (1961)
Bill Long 12/29/10
A Problem Telling the Story
In the past week or so, the story of the greatest football prank ever, the Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961, has been all over the Net. In a word, it was engineered by Caltech students who, miffed at being left out of Rose Bowl parades and other season-ending recognition, decided to get back at the "system." They focused on the upcoming Rose Bowl game between Univ. of Washington and Minnesota and decided to infiltrate the Husky "flip card" half-time show. This show consisted of more than 2,000 fans from the Husky cheering section turning over marked cards when instructed by on-field cheerleaders, and the sea of cards would show pictures or spell out words, such as "Huskies" or "Go UW" or something like that. It used to be a very popular thing to do at football games, but I don't think it is often done now.
My interest in this story is not purely nostalgic. In fact, my interest grew as I realized, reading all the stories, that I really couldn't understand exactly what the pranksters did to make it all happen. And, this is after I read about 10 stories, all of which tried to explain exactly what happened. Thus, my interest in the story became driven by my larger commitment to the importance of clarity in communication--as well as the need for completeness of information. I have argued elsewhere that lack of clarity is probably the biggest money drain in American business and life; now I will add to it the failure to tell enough of a story really to make things clear.
Let me tell you where the problems lie in the story of the great Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961.
Telling the Story
All the stories mention three common facts.
1. The hoaxsters met with the Husky cheerleaders a few days before the Rose Bowl, posing as news reporters, to find out how the flip card system worked.
2. Later, either that day or the next day, they broke into the cheerleader's room, took a single instruction sheet, made 2232 copies (the number of flip card sets), changing the wording or instructions for the people who flipped cards.
3. On New Year's Eve (the game actually was played on Jan. 2), the hoaxsters broke back into the cheerleader's room, replacing the stack of old sheets with the new.
Thus, the hoax happened.
Well, you understand everything until you actually sit down and try to think about it. Then, you see how this explanation really explains nothing. Here's why.
Problems with the Explanation
1. We learn that there had to be not only 2232 instruction sheets but also 2232 sets of cards. Since some of the articles mention 15 different flip card routines, one can assume that each of the 2232 people had 15 cards. Thus, we have an issue of the number of cards...and where all 34,000 of them were stored.
2. The pranksters only changed three of the fifteen cards in each set--cards 12, 13, and 14. The first 11 routines or card series were unchanged, as was card 15. Number twelve came out looking like a beaver (the Caltech mascot); thirteen was "Huskies" spelled backwards; and then fourteen was the famous one: where "CALTECH" appeared instead of "WASHINGTON." So, it seems to me, the real problem was not so much altering each of 2232 instruction sheets (why did they need to do that, or even have any instruction sheet at all, since all you really needed were numbered cards?), but measuring, cutting, altering every card numbered 12-14 on all 2232 sets of cards. Am I missing something?
3. So, I suppose you could have altered instruction sheets, but you also needed altered cards--numbers 12-14--in order to pull it off. But you had to make sure that all the cards and sets were placed on the right seats. Who did that?
[*My friend and former law colleague, Ross Runkel, has this interesting observation: "I was at this game. It was quite a nice tric. Complex, but not as complex as you seem to suppose. You don't need 15 cards each for 15 tricks, unless you are using 30 colors. Two cards each gets you 4 colors, which works pretty well. And you don't need to know in advance where each human will be sitting because everyone has the same set of cards, and you hand out the instructions to whomever is sitting there. Also, for the CALTECH trick, most cards are background so you don't need to change everyone's instruction sheet." Thank you, Ross, for such a helpful explanation...]
So, my basic question is still how the pranksters did their work. The reporters all got down the fact that there were a couple of break-ins. Indeed, that might not be so hard to write about, since even the dullest reporter knows what a break-in is. But this notion of stealing one piece of paper, making 2232 pieces of paper and then replacing the 2231 pieces of old instructions with 2232 pieces of new instructions seems to be quite beside the point to me. The crucial thing is the proper replacement of cards 12-14 in more than 2200 card packs. How did they know where people were going to sit? And, were there just 2232 pieces of paper in the cheerleaders rooms or 2232 sets of cards?
The more I try to understand this, the more it is all screwed up in my mind. And, it is all screwed up because reporters and others writing about the event couldn't take the time to be clear and be complete. I still support the idea of a Nobel Prize for clarity. Now, we need one for relative completeness, too. Maybe the NPCC--Nobel Prize for completeness and clarity.
So, if any of you can write and explain exactly how the prank took place, please do so. It will really make my New Year's Day.