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A Rose Bowl first-timer on the ‘Granddaddy of Them All’

PASADENA, Calif. — A lone “Roll Tide!” sounded across the parking lot of our Pasadena hotel 45 minutes after landing in California on New Year’s Eve. It was answered with an overwhelming chorus of “Go Blue!” 

And so began my first trip to the iconic Rose Bowl. 

The oldest bowl game in the nation, the Rose Bowl first kicked off in 1902 with teams from what would become the PAC-8, -10, and eventually -12 and Big Ten conferences. Monday’s game was the 110th Rose Bowl and featured a matchup between the University of Alabama Crimson Tide and the University of Michigan Wolverines. 

I have been lucky enough to attend many football games. Three college football championships, lots of regular season games, playoffs, bowl games, and even a handful of NFL games at various stadiums throughout the country. But the Rose Bowl takes the cake and then some.

The spectacle, the setting, the people – it all made for a truly glorious football experience. 

But before the game got underway on New Year’s Day, there was the Tournament of Roses Parade. I’m a sucker for parades, be it a candy-tossing celebration past the caboose in downtown Elkmont or watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade on TV. I love them all. 

But the Parade of Roses is unlike any other. It’s wildly extravagant, more than 60,000 roses are used, and adorably sweet such as witnessing the parents who made the trek to Pasadena proudly cheering as their kids marched by.  

Rose Parade float and staff decked out all in white. (256 Today)

The 135th annual Rose Parade, began with a picnic in 1890 and “thrilling” foot races according to the parade program I bought for $15. Attendees of the original event arrived in carriages outfitted with flowers, thus began the floral tradition of the parade.

According to NBC News, around 800,000 people attended the 2024 New Year’s Day event. The night before, on New Year’s Eve, the parade route was lined with people, including children and babies, camping out to get a good spot. There were tents, hot plates, air mattresses and strollers along the sidewalks and tucked into alcoves. One overnighter wrapped in a sleeping bag told me this was her first Rose Parade.

“I’m just happy to be here. It’s like a big party and we will all celebrate the new year together at midnight,” she said.

A camping set-up at the 2024 Rose Parade (256 Today)

The next morning, she and hundreds of others along the five-and-half mile route were rewarded with a front-row view of 23 floral-adorned floats, 18 equestrian groups, including one featuring square dancing horses, and 20 marching bands. For those not interested in camping out on the street, there are grandstand tickets available at various price points that are basically bleacher seats near the beginning portion of the route.

The parade lasted more than two hours before the final floats made their way down the hill. A tsunami of people headed back toward downtown while the college football fans started making their way to the iconic Rose Bowl. 

Shuttles were available but the walk was pretty and winds its way through Pasadena neighborhoods before turning a corner for a first view of the stadium outlined by the San Gabriel mountains. 

The Albertville High School Marching Band, University of Alabama float and the Toho Marching Band from Japan (256 Today)

Thousands of fans descended on the stadium for tailgating, a few pay parties, and a free fan area. I haven’t seen an official count but it felt like Michigan fans outnumbered Alabama fans 2-1.

The free fan area was an enormous area with food, drinks, and an enthusiastic DJ revving up the fans. Former Alabama running back Trent Richardson also made an appearance much to the delight of Crimson Tide fans.  

The festivities included skywriting presumably from Alabama or perhaps the Alabama businessman credited with anti-Trump messages at the Rose Parade.  

Skywriting above the Rose Bowl (256 Today)

About an hour before the game, most of the fans had entered the stadium through short lines and ushered along by friendly and helpful faces. The stadium was a breeze to access and easily navigated.

Recognized as a National Historic Landmark, the Rose Bowl stadium is by no means modern in comparison to places like Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas which oozes slick tech and looks like a spaceship landed in the desert. 

But it’s the history and the beauty that makes it so iconic. In 2019, Sports Illustrated declared the Rose Bowl the best college football stadium in the country, writing that every football fan should visit in their lifetime.    

We all saw the game so I’ll skip the recap or lament about bad snaps. After a nail-biting four quarters Alabama lost to Michigan 20-27 in overtime.

As far as the game goes, I will say the Michigan fans were very nice and gracious. The closest thing to trash talk was from a chuckling Michigan dad sitting next to me saying, “But isn’t 18 enough? Alabama already has so many championships”. 

To be honest, some of our opposing SEC brethren have been, shall we say, much less mannerly when playing Alabama (I’m looking at you, Georgia).

The close of the game was marked with confetti cannons, an amazing drone show, and again, a long walk back.  

Drone display at the Rose Bowl (256 Today)

Despite the Alabama loss, the Rose Bowl was an incredible venue to experience and many people agree. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit posted on X that the Rose Bowl should host the National College Football Championship every year. 

There are two people who would no doubt agree with Herbstreit. Diane and Dan who made the trip from Atlanta. Diane, a lovely Georgia fan, said they started planning in September and, even without the Bulldogs’ presence, the Rose Bowl was a bucket list item.   

Diane and Dan from Atlanta at the Rose Bowl (256 Today)

Dan, who played for Vanderbilt University in the ’60s during the time of Joe Namath and Bear Bryant at Alabama, said they were happy to be here.

“It’s a one of a kind place and experience.”

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