With the 88th incarnation of “The Big Game” taking place this Friday, it’s time to take a look back at the city’s oldest rivalry. Long Beach Poly and Wilson have been playing each other annually since 1932, making the series older than 26 of the 32 NFL franchises.
The two teams first played in 1932, more than 30 years before the first Super Bowl and just ten years after the Bears and Packers (considered the NFL’s oldest rivalry) had their first clash. Back then, the clash was always referred to as “the Big Game,” a moniker that faded over the last few decades.
The series has become a premier event again, and has sold out the last several times it’s been hosted at Wilson.
According to legendary Wilson coach Skip Rowland, the reason the two teams didn’t meet until ’32, despite Wilson’s first season being in 1926 (and Poly’s in 1908), is that school officials were afraid of potential unruliness. Turns out, they were right—the first game ended in a 0-0 tie, sparking an on-field student riot, which lasted for some time until a wise school official turned on the sprinklers and played “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Poly dominated the early years of the rivalry as they have the latter years, with Wilson not even scoring their first TD against the Jackrabbits until 1936, when Norm Standlee crashed into the end zone. By the late 30s, the game had been moved to the Rose Bowl, with crowds regularly reaching 30,000 plus.
Finally in 1943, Wilson’s “Jinx Busters” team got their first win against Poly, in a game that is still among the city’s most talked about. The Bruins, who were the clear-cut better team, won 37-7—Wilson’s team and fans marched up and down 2nd Street, and in and out of Long Beach’s theaters, holding an all-night impromptu victory parade.
One phenomenal game between now and then was in 1950, when the Jackrabbits and Bruins met in the first game played at Veterans Memorial Stadium. Wilson was coached by Poly alum Jim Lineberger that year; Lineberger was one of the Poly and Wilson servicemen who wrote a letter home from overseas in World War II, begging the city to build a football stadium in honor of the war dead from among Long Beach’s ranks. In Vets’ first game, Lineberger’s Wilson squad beat his alma mater 13-12.
The late 50s and early 60s were the golden period for Wilson, with the Bruins winning their only back-to-back Moore League titles ever in ’60 and ’61. In that day, only league champions went to the CIF playoffs, which often left second-place Wilson (even if they were ranked second or third in CIF) out of the fun.
Mike Giers was an All-American lineman for Poly in that era, and he said, “By today’s rules, I’m pretty sure we would have played them for a championship.”
Since Poly revived their program in 1980, with a CIF title won by Jim Barnett, it’s been more or less all Jackrabbits—in fact, the last time Wilson beat Poly on the field was 28 years ago, in 1991. Poly has won comfortably in most of the intervening years–but Wilson has never been 6-0 and has never been No. 1 in their CIF-SS Division either. That’s a big part of why the schools had sold close to 1,000 tickets more than a week before the game–fans old and young are excited to see what should be a thrilling incarnation of The Big Game.