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April 19, 2010
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.; - By Lou Prato
The festive atmosphere of the Blue-White games that have drawn enthusiastic crowds of more than 75,000 and national TV audiences since they began is far different from the ambiance surrounding the first game on May 5, 1951.
There were just an estimated 500 or so people on hand when that initial game was played on a cold and windy Saturday afternoon in a high school stadium for the benefit of Penn State's general scholarship fund. An old fashioned water bucket was presented to the winning team as a trophy, thanks to the school's student newspaper, which dubbed the game "The Bucket Bowl."
Now, it's true that the Blue-White game is nothing more than a glorified scrimmage. Teams have scrimmaged in practice virtually from the time college football began. But formal intrasquad scrimmage games that wind-up spring practice are a product of the post-World War II period.
Before 1951, Penn State and other schools marked the final day of spring practice unceremoniously with a scrimmage against another college team. In fact, on the same day of Penn State's inaugural Blue-White game, arch rival Pitt finished its spring practice at St. Bonaventure, winning 60-17.
In that era, the fans were usually allowed to watch all the practice scrimmages. In 1949, Penn State had two such scrimmage games, with 2,000 fans watching one against Duquesne on a Saturday afternoon in mid-April and another few hundred there the following Tuesday afternoon when Bucknell was the opponent on the last day of practice.
A year later, the team went through spring practice without a head coach following the resignation of Joe Bedenk. After the scrimmage game against Duquesne on the final day of practice, April 22, 1950, the players were stunned when Rip Engle was introduced as their new head coach. Earlier that day, Engle had been hired from Brown University, and in his initial meeting with his new players he asked them to return for two more weeks of practice to learn his new Wing-T formation. Surprisingly, they readily agreed but there were no additional scrimmages against outside teams.
Engle changed the spring practice custom the next season. The Nittany Lions still had two scrimmages against other teams in 1951, against Navy in Annapolis on April 14 and two weeks later against Bucknell on the Penn State practice field before approximately 200 fans. But to wind up practice, Engle agreed to an intrasquad scrimmage sponsored by the Alumni Association for the benefit of the scholarship fund.
New grass had just been planted on Beaver Field, so State College High School agreed to let the game be played on Memorial Field. General admission was $1.00 with half price for students. "The Lion gridders have been split into two squads, with one wearing blue jerseys and the other white," wrote the young sports editor of the Centre Daily Times, Ed Watson, who is still a Penn State season ticket holder. "This is the reason for the fray being called the Blue-White Game, and it will probably become an annual affair after this."
To spice up the event, the sports staff of The Daily Collegian proposed that a water bucket be presented to the captain of the winning team on the field after the game. For the next four years, the Collegian referred to the game officially as the "Bucket Bowl," although the Centre Daily Times made no reference about a "Bucket Bowl" until the second game in 1952 and then never again.
The Collegian also did its best to entice the students to be there, with an editorial on the first game day under the headline: "Blue-White Game Worthy of Support."
"The game will be the first of what is hoped to be an annual series of Blue-White clashes. Student, alumni, and town interest in today's game will determine whether a Blue-White clash is to become a permanent feature of the Penn State picture....The cause the game supports is a good one. It deserves student backing."
"Blues Rate Tops For Bowl Game," chimed the headline back in the Collegian sports pages.
"Head coach Rip Engle yesterday selected the Blues as his choice to win the Blue-White intrasquad game and capture the `old water bucket," the Collegian reported. "Next year's gridiron captains, Art Betts and Len Shephard, will captain the teams. Betts will captain the Blue team and Shephard will lead the Whites."
Assistant coaches Al Michaels and Earl Bruce were in charge of the teams, and Michaels had jokingly complained that Bruce "took the best players" for the White team. "My team has a lot of injuries," Bruce retorted, "but if I can muster my forces the Whites should win."
Alas, Engle's prediction was accurate, but the game wasn't exactly a financial bonanza, perhaps because the 77th Kentucky Derby was being run on the same day.
"Blues Triumph In Water Bucket Bowl, 7-0," read the Collegian headline on May 8. "The small crowd which gathered to witness the alumni-sponsored intrasquad game saw new sophomore Paul Anders go 15 yards off left tackle for the (only) touchdown," the Collegian reported, "climaxing a drive which started on the Blue eight-yard line and carried 92 yards in eight plays. Bill Hockersmith kicked the extra point."
"Blues Eleven Defeats Whites, 7-0; Anders Tallies Touchdown," read the three line headline in the Centre Daily Times on May 7, reporting that "Al Michaels was carried off the field Saturday at the conclusion of Penn State's spring football drills in which Michael's Blues took the first annual Blue-White grid fracas, 7-0."
There was no mention of the game before or after in the Pittsburgh Press, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette or the Harrisburg Patriot-News, although the Patriot-News did have a story on the University of Pennsylvania's spring practice game in which an alumni team beat the varsity, 14-0.
That first Blue-White game touchdown that Anders scored came late in the first half and the White team could never get past the Blues' 20-yard line. Anders went on to be one Engle's best running backs in the 1951 season, but he left school before his junior year and went into the Marines. He never returned to Penn State but became a builder in California and passed away a few years ago.
The team tried again to raise money for a scholarship fund at the second Bucket Bowl in 1952 but it wasn't too successful, either, maybe because there was a baseball game against Lafayette going on at the same time in the adjacent Beaver Field facility. In 1953, Engle decided to have a clinic for high school coaches in the morning with the game following in the early afternoon, and competition, once again, from another baseball game. The next year, the coaches' clinic continued and the game followed a track meet against Navy on the football playing field.
By 1955, the Blue-White game had become a tradition but the Collegian no longer made any reference to a Bucket Bowl. Perhaps they just ran out of water buckets.
It was in 1955 that the White team won for the first time--ending the losing streak for one particular young Engle assistant who had been helping coach the White team each year. After the 7-0 win in the first game, the Blues had won by 18-6 and 12-6 before a 12-12 tie in 1954. The Whites broke the scoring record in 1955 with a 24-12 victory and, finally, 28-year-old Joe Paterno was on the winning side.
**Lou Prato is the retired director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum. His fourth book about Penn State football, Game Changers: The Greatest Games in Penn State Football History, was published in October 2009.