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As Rose Bowl approaches, players are digging in — for some prime rib

For the last five decades, the participating teams have taken part in the 'Beef Bowl' at Lawry's the Prime Rib in Beverly Hills. The restaurant says it's fed more than 75,000 pounds of beef to about 19,000 players and coaches.

December 29, 2010|By David Wharton

At some point after Ed Muransky had consumed three or four slabs of prime rib, along with vegetables and Yorkshire pudding, a waitress mentioned that he was halfway to the record.

An offensive lineman of suitable proportions -- 6 feet 7 and 280 pounds -- Muransky had room for more. He glanced across the table at his pal, Bubba Paris.

"We should try for it," he said.

It was December 1978 and the Michigan football team had gone to Lawry's the Prime Rib in Beverly Hills for the "Beef Bowl," an annual dinner for players competing in the Rose Bowl game.

This meal has become a Southern California tradition, a holiday staple not unlike the Hollywood Christmas Parade or the lighted boats off Newport Beach.

The numbers are mind-boggling, if not artery-clogging: Lawry's claims to have served more than 75,000 pounds of Midwestern corn-fed beef to about 19,000 players and coaches over the last five decades.

"There's pressure on everybody getting ready for the game," said John Robinson, a former USC coach. "The Beef Bowl is one of the things you can really enjoy."

Muransky -- who resembled an oversized version of Wally Cleaver back then -- got swept up in the moment. The freshman did not figure to play much in the game, so he wanted to leave his mark another way.

The waitress brought a fifth cut, then a sixth. Paris soon dropped out but Muransky persevered and word circulated around the dining room.

"I was 18 and I didn't know any better," Muransky recalled. "I got to seven and needed just one more for the record."

Just one more piece to stamp his name on the peculiar history of the Beef Bowl.

The 55th annual Beef Bowl commenced Monday evening when the Texas Christian team and its boosters -- the competitors always dine on separate days -- pulled up to the restaurant in five buses.

They entered by way of a red carpet to a dining room of dark wood and booths and tables with crisp linens. Waitresses stood ready in aprons and starched hats; carvers donned white gloves to check on roasts kept warm in gleaming stainless-steel carts.

Rumor spread among the players that there might be some type of competition, so center James Fry devised a strategy.

"Cut it in big chunks," he said, "and have an open mouth."

A low rumble arose when the food arrived, scores of large athletes digging in and mumbling their approval.

Seated at the head table was Richard N. Frank, the man who started the whole thing. Frank attended his first Rose Bowl game in 1930 or '31, and while he cannot recall the details, it must have been impressive.

"I've missed only three since then," he said.

His father, who co-owned Van de Kamp's bakery, opened the first Lawry's in 1938. As soon as Frank took charge of the restaurant, in the mid-1950s, he sought to create a tie with his favorite college football game.

Tournament of Roses officials liked the idea of a fancy dinner, as did the Pacific 10 Conference, known as the Pacific Coast Conference then. The Big Ten, which has sent its champion to meet the Pac-10 champ in the Rose Bowl for most of the last 60 years, was not entirely convinced.

"A couple of coaches didn't want to come to the restaurant," Frank said. "They saw it as too much of a distraction."

A compromise led to the first Beef Bowl in 1956 -- Lawry's trucked its food and carvers, not to mention those massive carts, to the Big Ten practice field. A photograph shows Iowa players fresh from drills, wearing T-shirts and shorts, receiving their plates from servers in tall, white hats. They ate at tables beside the grandstands.

But this arrangement proved cumbersome -- "Do you know how much those carts weigh?" Frank asked -- and in the 1960s, the Big Ten coaches agreed to make the trip to Beverly Hills.

Well, most of them did.

Robinson attended his first Beef Bowl not as a coach but as a player, a senior end for Oregon at the 1958 Rose Bowl. Like many college athletes over the years, he recalls being starry-eyed.

"I'd only had prime rib once or twice in my life," he said. "It was just a different level than you're used to."

So it made sense that, as a USC coach from the 1970s through the '90s, he brought his teams back every time they won the conference championship. In preparing for bowl games, he followed the lead of his former boss John McKay who, he recalls, "was big on letting the kids have fun."

Not everyone believed in that policy.

Several Big Ten coaches, in particular, continued to view the events surrounding the game -- news conferences, a luncheon, an afternoon at Disneyland -- as disruptions.

The legendary Woody Hayes allowed his Ohio State team to eat prime rib before the 1958 game -- on the practice field -- but declined subsequent invitations to the restaurant. Former Iowa coach Hayden Fry brought his team to the Beef Bowl before the 1982 game and complained, "My guys probably gained 10 pounds each."

The Hawkeyes skipped the meal four years later. Fry snapped: "I don't think Lawry's beef is as good as Iowa beef anyway."

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