Phoenix’s Salad Bowl football game and parade debuted in 1948, only to wilt nine years later.
Valley sports fans who revel in the prestige and glamour of the Fiesta Bowl every holiday season might not be aware of the tasty gridiron appetizer once served up in Phoenix. Although the name sounds like a heart-healthy restaurant, the Salad Bowl was a postseason college football extravaganza that brought Arizona together upon its debut in 1948 and was a major event until rulings by outside entities led to its demise.
What the game lacked in top-tier teams and glitz, it made up for in homespun promotions. Participants still reminisce about the most memorable “food truck” to ever grace Phoenix’s streets. “The bowl organizers took a cement mixer from the Arizona Sand & Rock Company and filled it with lettuce and other fixings,” says 88-year-old Emery Harper, who played linebacker for Arizona State University, then Arizona State College, in 1951. “My brother-in-law, J.H. Robbins, was the truck driver and turned on the mixer, creating a tossed salad everyone enjoyed.”
This marketing flair, along with controversy, kept the Salad Bowl on the college football postseason menu for an eight-year run after World War II. At the war’s conclusion in 1945, the nation hungered for fun pastimes, triggering a renaissance for college football. Numerous postseason collegiate games launched, with odd names that reflected their host cities. Fresno hosted the Raisin Bowl, Toledo had the Glass Bowl and Oklahoma City had the Will Rogers Bowl.
The Kiwanis Club of Phoenix added another bowl game to this pigskin cornucopia. After tossing around names like the Cactus, Vegetable and Lettuce bowls, they settled on the Salad Bowl to reflect the Valley’s abundant variety of crops. Football and festivities would be combined at the city’s then-largest venue, Montgomery Stadium, on Van Buren and Seventh streets, to raise money for disabled children. Tickets were sold at Hanny’s department store (now a chic watering hole).
Big-time football schools were courted for the inaugural Salad Bowl in 1948. Officials settled on two unranked teams in the Associated Press Top 20 football poll: the University of Nevada-Reno with an 8-2 regular season record, and North Texas State with a 10-1 record. Much of the game’s drama, however, took place before kickoff. Nevada-Reno initially accepted the bid, but rescinded when North Texas was announced as their opponent, deeming them uncompetitive. The school finally agreed to play under threat of legal action. Nevada-Reno won the game 13-6 before 12,500 fans on January 1.
In 1949, the Salad Bowl was revamped, with 18 other Arizona Kiwanis Clubs co-hosting the event for statewide
participation. A Salad Bowl parade was attended by an estimated 200,000 spectators. The procession to Montgomery Stadium featured former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey; 40 floats; 2,000 high school musicians; and cars carrying local school children with disabilities. Since proceeds from the Salad Bowl went to assist disabled children, event organizers made sure to include them in the parade. The bowl queen was announced at halftime, as she rose from the center of a salad bowl surrounded by fresh produce on a float sponsored by the Arizona Vegetable Growers Association.
The Salad Bowl granted the in-state school with the most victories an automatic invitation, which in 1949 was the University of Arizona. The team’s players allegedly wanted $175 each to participate to compensate for the fact that they weren’t making money working holiday jobs. UA subsequently accepted the bid, declaring pointedly in a letter to the Arizona Republic that they “do not play football for hire.” Arizona lost the game to Drake University, 14-13.
ASU teams led by Wilford “Whizzer” White played in the next two Salad Bowls, losing to Xavier University, 33-21, before 20,000 fans, and to Miami University, 34-21, to a crowd of 24,000. Each set attendance records. “Miami of Ohio was coached by Woody Hayes, and they had a great fullback called Jim ‘Boxcar’ Bailey,” Harper says. “He got his nickname by running over tacklers back when we didn’t have face masks, only open-faced leather helmets.” Harper recalls the toughest opponent, however, was the field. “The turf at Montgomery Stadium was like concrete; my cleats wouldn’t even go in,” he says. “I could barely walk by the end of the game from hitting the ground.”
The Salad Bowl appeared to be a permanent fixture in college football’s pantheon of postseason games, but these years were its pinnacle. Two rulings doomed it.
In 1952, the University of Houston beat the University of Dayton, 26-21, before 16,000 fans. No Arizona school played, because the Arizona Board of Regents discontinued participation in bowl games by state schools. The Sun Devils didn’t want to sacrifice their holiday season for a third straight year. To save face from backing out of a charity game, the team requested the ruling from the regents, according to the Republic.
The Salad Bowl suffered a second setback when the NCAA passed a bylaw dictating that 75 percent of a bowl game’s gross receipts must go to participating schools. Since most of the Salad Bowl’s revenue went to charity, the game was reinvented as a championship for military base teams. By inviting military teams instead of college teams, the NCAA bylaws didn’t apply and proceeds could continue going to charity.
After two years of blowout games and declining attendance, the Salad Bowl became an NCAA all-star game featuring the top 25 seniors from the Skyline and Border conferences, which included UA and ASU. This format failed to revive the Salad Bowl, and the Kiwanis Club canceled the parade in 1955 and the game the following year.
The Valley would be without a postseason contest, except for the Copper Bowl (1958-1961), until the Fiesta Bowl emerged in 1971. Although the Salad Bowl would be largely forgotten, at least it didn’t suffer the ignobility of title sponsorship, Republic columnist David Casstevens wrote in 1993.
“If the game were alive today, it would be called the Seven Seas Salad Bowl or the Hidden Valley Salad Bowl or the Taco Salad Bowl brought to you by Taco Bell.”
First Phoenix Fiesta
Fans of the Valley’s Fiesta Bowl, established in 1971, might be surprised by the 1934 headline “Fiesta Grid Battle Holds Wide Interest” in the Republican. The newspaper was referring to the Fiesta del Sol, Phoenix’s first collegiate bowl game. The contest pitted the University of Arizona against the College of the Pacific in what was touted as the “greatest grid classic in Arizona football history.”
Both squads had 8-2 records, but Pacific, led by legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, was the favorite based on victories over the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley. Fiesta del Sol festivities included a morning parade in Downtown Phoenix, a 31-7 Wildcat upset victory at Montgomery Stadium that afternoon and an evening Victory Ball in the Riot Room of the Hotel Adams.
The Fiesta del Sol was to be an annual event sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Phoenix, led by famed attorney Frank Snell. The 1935 game pitted Arizona and Texas Christian University on December 8. Five days before the kickoff, TCU abruptly announced it wouldn’t make the trip to Phoenix because its players would miss too many classes. Later that same day, TCU accepted a sweeter bid to the Sugar Bowl, which was played during the school’s holiday break on New Year’s Day in New Orleans. Concurrently, nine members of the Wildcats team, including the starting quarterback and halfback, were placed under quarantine after their fraternity brother contracted scarlet fever.
Unable to find two teams on short notice, the Kiwanis Club canceled the game, ending the short-lived but precedent-setting postseason contest. “The lineage from Fiesta del Sol to Salad Bowl to Fiesta Bowl is not direct, but it’s there,” wrote Arthur M. Lee in The Kiwanis Club of Phoenix: 75 Years of Community Service.