The Washington Huskies were the first conference champions of the newly formed Athletic Association of Western Universities (AAWU), commonly referred to as the "Big Five" at the time, and now as the "Pac-10". The conference formed in the wake of the "pay for play" scandal and collapse of the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC) after the 1958 college football season. As a result of the demise of the PCC, the Rose Bowl had no contractual agreement with either the Big 5 or Big 10 to send their champions to the game: both teams received "at-large" invitations and accepted.
Washington came entered the game as the West representative, the first champions of the newly formed AAWU conference. Washington was led by quarterbackBob Schloredt, a 20 year-old junior who "conspicuously lack[ed] his trade's traditional egotism", stating "I consider myself just adequate." Remarkably, he was also 90% blind in his left eye.
Wisconsin came to the game as the Big Ten Conference champions and a 7–2 overall record, with losses to Purdue and Illinois. Despite the similarity in the poll rankings, Wisconsin entered the game as a 6½ point favorite due in part to recent dominance of the Big Ten Conference in Rose Bowl games. Big Ten representatives had won twelve of the last thirteen.
Washington quarterback Bob Schloredt and halfbackGeorge Fleming would be named a co-Players of the Game. Schloredt was subsequently named the Player of the Game in the 1961 Rose Bowl, becoming the first player in the history of the Rose Bowl to be twice-honored as the Player of the Game.