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ASU football legends remember the 1997 team before Sun Devils' last game at Rose Bowl

Members of the last Rose Bowl team in ASU history Juan Roque, Keith Poole and Vince Amey talk about their history with the stadium


Then ASU junior linebacker Pat Tillman (42) and senior cornerback Jason Simmons (10) celebrate clinching the Rose Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium. ASU won 35-7. 

Echoes of the 1997 ASU football team still ring through the Rose Bowl more than 25 years after the Sun Devils lost to Ohio State in a tight game, finishing 11-1 in arguably ASU's best season.

The Sun Devils haven't made it back to the Rose Bowl game itself, traditionally played between the winner of the Pac-12 and the Big Ten conferences. Nowadays, it is sometimes part of the College Football Playoff, making it more difficult to participate in the legendary game. But, ASU has played in the stadium consistently for decades against UCLA, who use it as their home field.

On Saturday, that tradition will come to an end for the foreseeable future. ASU and UCLA are both moving out of the Pac-12 to go to two different conferences. At least for the next four seasons, ASU will not only not play in the Rose Bowl stadium, but won't even play a game in or against a team from California.

This leaves the 1997 ASU football team with the distinction of being the last team in ASU history to go to the "Granddaddy of Them All."

"You think of all the players and all the programs and the coaches and the people that have coached and played in that game — just to be able to say you played in it, you're part of that and that's something that never will go away," Juan Roque, offensive lineman on the 1996-97 ASU football team, said.

Roque joined a star-studded roster that included quarterback Jake Plummer and linebacker Pat Tillman on the team, coached by Bruce Snyder. The team finished one win away from the National Championship in the 1996-97 season. That season included arguably the biggest win in school history, a shut-out of undefeated No. 1 Nebraska at the then-named Sun Devil Stadium.

Then ASU senior quarterback Jake Plummer (16) evades a Nebraska defender at Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 21, 1996. ASU upset No.1 Nebraska 19-0.

It also included a double-overtime win against USC in a sold-out home game, a game that stands out to Roque and the team's leading wide receiver, Keith Poole.

"That USC game was the biggest crowd we've ever had," Poole said. "It's because they were really one of our rivals. Everyone is from California. I'm from California. There's a lot of guys that are from California."

Both Roque and Poole said the volume at Sun Devil Stadium that day was so loud that the USC quarterback would complain to the referees that he could not hear anything. 

"He kept hitting his helmet to the referees like 'I can't hear' and the referees just kind of had enough, because every time he would do that the crowd (would) get louder," Roque said.

In the 1996-97 season, the Sun Devils played two games in the Rose Bowl. Their first one, against UCLA, was a turning point for the Sun Devils.

Roque said the team was down at halftime 28-7, and said Snyder rallied the team to a victory by saying, 'You will not be back here January 1. If you want to be back here January 1, you need to get your act together.'

Despite the season ultimately being a one-off success rather than a sign of sustained growth for the program, Roque was proud of the accomplishment. He also said the campus was buzzing during that season. His professors would tell him to leave class to rest for upcoming games, and he felt like a celebrity on campus.

"I mean, walking around on campus, we were like freaking Tom Cruise," Poole said.

Roque grew up in southern California and said he grew up watching Pac-10 football, specifically USC and UCLA. For Roque, the Rose Bowl game on New Year's Day was the pinnacle of sports every year as a young football player who grew up as a USC fan.

He said he got emotional before the 1997 Rose Bowl, but once the ball kicked off, it was just like any other football game.

ASU fans hold signs saying "Rose Bowl ASU vs OSU" and "I can smell the roses" during a game against Cal at Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 9, 1996. ASU won 35-7. 

"I got a little bit, you know, 'oh my gosh, I can't believe we're here,'" Roque said. "But once that ball kicks off, and we start playing football, maybe for a series or two, you might feel that, but then it just kind of becomes another game where you got to focus on your assignment, you got to focus on where your guys lined up."

Poole, who also grew up in California, said he was not able to go to USC or UCLA, so he chose ASU, which he described as an "average" team at the time. He said at his going away party that his mother baked a cake with decorative icing that said "Rose Bowl bound."

"I almost got mad at her like, dude, that's embarrassing," Poole said. "Like we're never going to make the Rose Bowl. When we did it, it was crazy."

Current ASU defensive line coach and defensive lineman on the 1996-97 ASU football team Vince Amey said both the game and the team bring back special memories for him.

"It took me probably a series of two or three, then I got my breath just to come back into my own as a player because it was the adrenaline rush was so high," Amey said. "Then you kind of start gathering yourself. I'm here to play a football game, you know, stop looking around and everything and stuff like that. But yes, you know, it was a great memory."

They agreed that the Rose Bowl's meaning has diminished in past years after losing its tradition through the College Football Playoff and significant conference realignment.

"It was a tradition, and that tradition is gone," Amey said.

Poole said he thinks the Rose Bowl is missing the legacy it once had, and it will lose its Grandaddy of Them All feeling. 

"There will be times it'll be the national championship game every fourth year or whatever they do ... it's going to be another bowl game, which is sad," Poole said.

Roque has a more optimistic approach. He said while it won't be the Rose Bowl that he grew up with, it will change in accordance with the times.

"I think the bowl game is going to be fine, it'll just never be what it was," Roque said. "There's been a lot of changes in that landscape, but long term and big picture, I think the Rose Bowl is going to evolve, but it's still going to be the Rose Bowl."

Then ASU senior quarterback Jake Plummer (16) interviews the media surrounded by fans after clinching the Rose Bowl in a win against Cal at Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 9, 1996. ASU won 35-7. 

ASU plays in the Rose Bowl for the last time for a while on Saturday night at 6 p.m., and Amey is carrying memories of the 1996-97 ASU football team with him into Pasadena. He said the loss to Ohio State in the last minute of the 1997 Rose Bowl still hurts, but the season and ultimate game is still a special memory. 

According to Amey, the Sun Devils have stepped up and battled all season, and hope to leave the Rose Bowl one last time with a win.

"It'd be good to go play in there because we know we might not play in there for a while, but so long ago, especially with the memory for me, I want to win," Amey said. "But new day, new era, I just want to go in there and win the ballgame for these kids."

Edited by Alfred Smith III, Sadie Buggle and Caera Learmonth.

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Shane BrennanEditor-in-Chief

Shane Brennan is the Editor-in-Chief at The State Press. He was a sports and politics reporter, before becoming the editor of the politics desk. He has covered local and state politics for the Arizona Capitol Times and Cronkite News.

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