Penn State Legends: Dick Harlow


Throughout Penn State's storied history there are certain men who we hold in higher regard than others. If you ask someone to tell you who they would consider to be the Godfather of Penn State football, most people would tell you Joe Paterno without hesitation. Though the legendary coach can lay claim to nearly half of Penn State's wins all time, there were many great men who came before him. Most people know of Rip Engle, Joe Paterno's mentor who hired him to the Penn State staff in 1950 after coaching the young Italian at Brown. Some people have probably heard of Bob Higgins, the head coach that preceded Engle. But few people could probably tell you much about Dick Harlow.

This is a shameful injustice for a man who had a major impact in shaping the program and the men who would go on to lead it for a century. Today, we are going to correct that. Go get a cup of coffee and pull up a chair. You are about to learn of the amazing life of a great Penn Stater: Dick Harlow.

Richard C. "Dick" Harlow was born on October 19, 1889 in Philadelphia, PA. He was recruited to come play at Penn State by Pop Golden. Golden also recruited future College Football Hall of Fame players Dex Very, Shorty Miller, and Pete Mauthe to play alongside him. Harlow played tackle, and was pretty good at it. He had decent athletic ability, but his greatest asset was his gift for understanding the game of football. He was a student of the game that understood that inferior athletic ability could be compensated for with proper preparation and technique.

After playing as a reserve in 1908 and 1909, he lettered in 1910 and 1911. Being a lineman, there isn't much record of his playing days at Penn State, but he did somehow catch a touchdown pass from Shorty Miller in a 34-0 laugher against St. Bonaventure. The game was apparently so ridiculous that Dex Very and Al Wilson both scored touchdowns...on onside kicks. In Harlow's senior year Penn State went 8-0-1 and scored 199 points while only giving up 15 for the entire season.

In 1912, head coach Bill Hollenback hired Harlow, who had just graduated with a degree in forestry, as an assistant coach of the line. The pair made a good combination with Hollenback developing the gameplans and Harlow coaching technique along the line. Penn State went 8-0 in 1912 to extend their unbeaten streak to 17 games, but the media recognized unbeaten Harvard as the national champion that year. Even back then the media apparently had little respect for Penn State.

The highlight, or lowlight, of the 1912 season was the 37-0 beatdown that the Nittany Lions put on the Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus. The game erupted into a brawl when Ohio State walked off the field with nine minutes to go in the game. Buckeye fans came down out of the stands to confront the Penn State players for what they felt was "unnecessary roughness", but Dick Harlow showed them what unnecessary roughness was all about when he knocked out a fan with a single right fist.

Things didn't go so rosey in 1913 and Penn State went 2-6 in a rebuilding year. Things got better in 1914 and Penn State went 5-3-1, but alumni were starting to grumble about Hollenback's coaching decisions. After the season the Penn State Athletic Committee announced some new rules. Freshmen would no longer be eligible to play, and players who transfer into the program would have to sit out a year. Hollenback didn't think Penn State could compete under these new rules, and the alumni were getting on his nerves with their grumbling, so he quit after the 1914 season to take a job with a Philadelphia coal company.

The Athletic Committee wasted no time in hiring Harlow as the next head football coach after an informal interview. On January 2, 1915 Dick Harlow became the first former Penn State player to be named head coach. He was just 26-years old.

His youth helped him relate to his players as well as high school kids he recruited to come play in State College. His players adored him and were extremely loyal to him. He was truly a "players' coach." His coaching style was simple, but effective. He believed it was more important for a team to practice a few plays over and over and execute them perfectly rather than overload the playbook with plays that the players could not run consistently. (Sound like anyone we know?)

People didn't expect much out of Harlow's boys in 1915, but Penn State had a good season going 7-2 with losses to powerhouses Harvard and Pitt. The Panthers claimed the national championship that year, but there was a dispute as many writers felt Cornell was more deserving for going 10-0 and breaking up Harvard's four-year unbeaten streak.

But by all accounts the 1915 season was a tremendous success. In Harlow's first year he exceeded expectations and delivered Penn State their second All American in school history, Bob Higgins. The Penn State Athletic Committee rewarded Harlow with a two-year contract extension and a raise of $300 a year. But they gave him a warning that beating Pitt was a high priority. Harlow agreed.

On the surface the 1916 season looked like a success as well with Penn State going 8-2. But in the last game of the season the Nittany Lions fell to Pitt by an embarrassing score of 31-0. Even though it capped off another undefeated season and a National Championship for Pop Warner and the Panthers, the loss infuriated the PSU alumni in the Pittsburgh area. Many of them demanded Harlow be fired, and Harlow was so distraught he almost tendered his resignation. But Harlow didn't want to do anything to upset his alma mater, and the alumni worked out a plan to keep him on board but strip him of authority.

In the spring of 1917 the Athletic Committee appointed Zen Scott as Field Coach with full responsibility for coaching the team. Harlow was given the title of "resident coach", and given very little authority. It was a severe demotion for Harlow, and the Committee fully expected him to resign, but Harlow was loyal to his alma mater and did not want to quit.

The players adored Harlow, and they nearly all quit in protest of the Athletic Committee. But Harlow convinced them to make the best of it and just play football. As you can probably imagine, the 1917 was full of turmoil as Scott and Harlow butted heads over everything. Penn State stumbled out to a 5-3 start, and nobody was happy. The night before the Pitt game Harlow confronted the Committee and gave them an ultimatum: either Scott goes, or he goes. The Committee agreed with Harlow. Scott was fired, and Harlow was reinstated as Head Coach with full authority over the team.

After the 1917 season they offered Harlow a 12-month contract. Harlow said, "Thanks, but that's not enough." He demanded a three year contract and a raise. The Committee relented and gave in to his demands, and they shook on it. Harlow had earned the vindication he felt he deserved. And then he quit.

In 1917 the First World War was raging in Europe, and Harlow felt his country calling him to serve. In July of 1918 he asked for a release from his contract to join the military and fight in the war. The Athletic Committee was shocked, but granted him his release. They told him they could not promise to hold his job for him, and he said that's fine.

"Doesn't matter," Harlow said. "I love this place. I'll be back."

Harlow joined the military and went off to fight the war much like many of the men in America. The 1918 season was a total mess as young men all over the country dropped out of school to support the war effort. Many teams cancelled their seasons all-together. Penn State played a short four game season going 1-2-1.

Harlow's time in the military was short as the war came to an end in November of 1918. So Harlow returned to Penn State, but the committee had already replaced him with Hugo Bezdek. Bezdek was also very busy serving as Penn State's first Athletic Director. So the Committee was proud to hire a war hero and former Penn State player like Harlow as an assistant coach to manage the day-to-day operations of the team so Bezdek could focus on other duties as well.

Bezdek and Harlow were completely different in personality. Harlow was a players' coach. He was loose on discipline and preferred to motivate his players by befriending them and offering praise. Bezdek was more like a dictator. He motivated through intimidation and fear and did not tolerate challenges to his authority. His practices were notoriously brutal as he forced the players to beat up on each other, and he hated the way the players related to Harlow while they openly revolted against him.

The two men struggled for control of the team and butted heads for three seasons, but by the time the season of 1922 had come, Dick Harlow had had enough. He accepted an offer to become the head coach at Colgate, and when he left he took over a half-dozen Penn State players with him, most of them being starters. It was a bitter end to his relationship with the school he loved, but Dick Harlow's influence on Penn State was far from over.

Harlow coached at Colgate for four seasons amassing a record of 26-9-3, and went unbeaten in his final year. Then he took a position as head coach at Western Maryland in 1926. There he coached for nine seasons with a record of 60-13-7, and had three unbeaten seasons in 1929, 1930, and 1934.  During his time at Colgate and Western Maryland, Harlow revolutionized the way offensive and defensive lines operated. He developed elaborate schemes for offensive line blocking and defensive line stunts that are still used to this day. While at Western Maryland, Harlow also coached a player named Rip Engle.

His head coaching success drew the attention of one of the premier programs in the nation, and in 1935 Dick Harlow became the head coach at Harvard. But by that time, the Ivy league had seen it's glory days come and go. The Crimson had decided to focus their attention on being the premier academic institution in the Western Hemisphere. Fielding a competitive football team was very low on the priority ladder.

Coaching at Harvard may not have been the dream job it once was for every football coach in America, but being part of such a prestigious institution gave Harlow the opportunity to pursue his second love. Interestingly, Harlow was a professor of Ornithology (the study of birds) an expert in oology: the study of bird eggs. In 1939 he was named the curator of oology at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, and remained in the position until 1954.

In 1943 the country was once again pitted in a great war, and once again Dick Harlow felt the duty to serve his country. At the age of 54, Dick Harlow joined the Navy and went off to defend his country. Unlike Penn State, Harvard held his job for him, and he returned to Harvard as head coach in 1946.

But things were not the same as they were. Harlow contracted a strange digestive disease while over seas. He was placed on a strict diet and could only eat rice and fruit juice for the rest of his life. Still, he coached Harvard to a 7-2 record in his first year back, but his days of coaching football were numbered.

His health was clearly deteriorating. He couldn't jog more than a few yards without becoming weak and winded. He toughed it out through the 1947 season, but then he hung up his clip board on the advice of his physician. At the age of 58, he ended his career with an overall record of 149-69-17 at four schools.

Though Harlow could no longer handle the rigors of a head coach, he couldn't stand to be away from the game he loved. So he called up a former player of his who was the head coach at Brown University, and he offered to help out any way he could. Rip Engle gave Harlow a job as a scout and adviser on the team. So Harlow spent the 1948 season hanging around the Brown team, helping put together game plans, offering advice, and coaching up a scrawny Italian kid that played quarterback and cornerback. You might have heard of him. His name was Joe Paterno.

In 1950, the Penn State head coaching job came open and they extended an offer to Rip Engle, who wasn't sure he really wanted it. Penn State had suffered a few years of turmoil with their head coaches, and they were insisting that the current staff stay in place. Engle didn't know any of them and wasn't sure how it would work out. Engle had also turned down other jobs at Wisconsin and Pitt. What made Penn State so special?

For advice, Engle turned to his old football coach and mentor, Dick Harlow. He knew Harlow had left Penn State on rocky terms, but he always spoke fondly of the institution. Harlow convinced Engle to take the job even though he could not hire his own staff. Engle went back to the people at Penn State and accepted the offer on one condition: he wanted to bring one member of his staff from Brown University along with him. The two parties agreed, and the deal was done.

But then Engle ran into another problem. None of the members of his staff wanted to move to the hills of Pennsylvania. So Engle convinced a young graduate assistant on his staff to put off going to law school for a year and come along. As you probably know by now, that graduate assistant was Joe Paterno.

Dick Harlow eventually retired to Bethesda, Maryland where he died in February of 1962 after being admitted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954. Though he was mostly recognized for his accomplishments in football after he left Penn State, the effect he had on shaping the Nittany Lion football program is undeniable. He molded players like Bob Higgins and Rip Engle who went on to later become Penn State head coaches. He played a crucial role in convincing Engle to take the Penn State job, and this opened the door for Engle to bring Joe Paterno along with him. Without Dick Harlow, it's difficult to imagine what Penn State might look like today.

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