By Andy Shultz
The Fiesta Bowl experienced great success during its first 10 years as a college football bowl game, featuring nine top 10 teams and nine coaches currently in the College Football Hall of Fame.
This success in a short period would satisfy most organizations. But the Fiesta Bowl knew that to be considered a “major bowl” game, it must challenge current tradition and join the established Cotton, Orange, Rose and Sugar Bowls on New Year’s Day.
To lead this effort, the Fiesta Bowl turned to a man who dedicated his life to building bridges as its new board president – Dr. Morrison Warren. Not only was Warren’s focus to elevate the Bowl, he also became the first African-American to lead a major bowl.
“We were very good friends and when he became our board president, it was one of my proudest moments as a member of the Fiesta Bowl organization,” said Fiesta Bowl Founder Bill Shover.
After the initial request was denied, the Fiesta Bowl won an NCAA Council appeal and a fifth bowl was added to the New Year’s Day slate.
“Phoenix was always viewed as a place that was kind of a second-tier city,” said Kevin Warren, Dr. Warren’s youngest child and life Fiesta Bowl board member. “The Fiesta Bowl had competitive people who were smart, iconic in their own business areas and thought outside the box.
“There was nothing etched in stone that only these four games could be played on New Year’s Day. I remember even my dad having these kinds of conversations just looking for an opportunity.”
The Fiesta Bowl could not have asked for a better match-up for its inaugural New Year’s Day game. Joe Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lions, led by first team All-America Curt Warner, faced John Robinson’s USC Trojans, led by Heisman Trophy Winner Marcus Allen, who would be playing in his final collegiate game.
A record crowd of more than 71,000 fans at Sun Devil Stadium saw the Nittany Lions win their second straight Fiesta Bowl, 26-10.
“It was a special, magical moment to see it come together,” recalled Warren. “So exciting to watch the game.”
For Dr. Warren, this was another accomplishment in a successful career of dedicated service.
“I think my dad looked at the Fiesta Bowl as really a major step in the movement of civil rights and the fairness and equity to bring people together for common good,” said Warren. “It also provided positivity to the state of Arizona under the auspices of basically college football.
“The Fiesta Bowl was important to him. He would come home energized after board meetings. These were good business people, but they were really his friends. It held a special place in my father’s heart.”
Dr. Warren attended Booker T. Washington Elementary School and graduated from Phoenix Union Colored High School, where he was class valedictorian and excelled in athletics. After graduation, he attended Phoenix College and two years later was drafted into the United States Army during World War II.
Stationed in Europe, he was assigned to work with a quarter master group that was responsible for the transportation in General George Patton’s Third Army. He was the top non-commissioned officer in his unit, earning the rank of Sergeant Major.
Following the war, he returned to Arizona and enrolled in Arizona State College (ASC) – now Arizona State University – where he studied elementary education. He also returned to the gridiron as a star running back on the football team.
During his senior year, ASC was scheduled to play a road game when they were notified that they could not guarantee the safety of Dr. Warren and his teammate and brother-in-law George Diggs. So ASC played the game, but Dr. Warren and Diggs did not travel with the team.
After that experience, ASC decided it would only play games if the entire team could travel together. This meant everything to Dr. Warren and started a close relationship with ASU that would last for the rest of his life.
Following graduation in 1947, Dr. Warren moved east to play professional football with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the All-American Football Conference, a rival league of the National Football League. He selected Brooklyn over the Los Angeles Dons since Branch Rickey broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball by signing Jackie Robinson.
His professional career was cut short with a separated shoulder. After he decided to end his career and return to Arizona, the Pittsburgh Steelers reached out to Dr. Warren to see if he would like to continue his football career in the NFL.
He declined the offer since he had a young family and already started his career as a teacher in the Phoenix Elementary School District.
In 1951, he received his master’s degree in school administration and supervision. Two years later, he was later named principal of Booker T. Washington Elementary School.
During his time as principal, Dr. Warren revolutionized the school. He upgraded the building, empowered students, worked closely with the faculty, expanded the curriculum and most importantly partnered with the community.
“That was my dad, giving back so much to people,” said Kevin Warren. “He felt if he provided people with an education, not only in the classroom, but also daily in the community, that you could survive in any context and you could last forever. You could carry that education forward and provide it to your family.”
In the mid-1960s, Dr. Warren entered politics and became the first African-American to serve on the City of Phoenix City Council. He served two terms and was Vice Mayor in 1969.
He would also join the faculty of Arizona State University in 1968 in the College of Education and also served as the director of the ID Payne Laboratory (research division for the College of Education at ASU) from 1968-84.
Son Kevin followed his father with a commitment to education, earning his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Grand Canyon University in 1986, his MBA from Arizona State University in 1988, and his Juris Doctorate degree from the University of Notre Dame School of Law in 1990. He currently serves as Chief Operating Officer for the Minnesota Vikings of the National Football League.
Kevin also followed his father as a member of the Fiesta Bowl’s Board of Directors, joining in 2004, and shared the same pride that his dad had when he was on the board.
“It meant just a sense of responsibility,” said Warren. “I take all meetings seriously, but it was something about those (board) meetings to be able to go see a lot of things that even we were doing when I was on the board that are even done now.”
Dr. Warren died in 2002. His legacy and impact can be felt by every Arizona resident and out of town college football fan who attends the annual Fiesta Bowl.
“He was our Jackie Robinson,” said Shover. “He was a master at bringing people together.”
Editor’s Note: Dr. Morrison Warren was honored as an Arizona Historymaker in 1997. On September 5, 1996, he provided an extensive Q&A interview with the Historical League, Inc. Historical content from Dr. Warren’s life was referenced in the writing of this feature.