A Popular History of Penn State Football Part 3 - The Public Enemy


Penn State football from 1913 to 1930

No connection to this post (well, maybe); I just love this song and Steve Young in particular.

Do you remember what I said in the previous post about Pop Golden's importance as a recruiter? In 1913, Bill Hollenback, the first great coach of Penn State football coming off of the greatest season ever in Penn State history, had a mixed bag. Quarterback Shorty Miller returned, as did a few very fine linemen like Red Bebout, but Big Bill knew that back Pete Mauthe and end Dex Very would be badly missed. There was no pipeline with which to reload. Then as now, State was no Virginia Tech.

The season's schedule was a solid one. Among the tougher competitors would be, in a three week stretch, Harvard, Penn, and finally, Knute Rockne and Notre Dame at Beaver Field on November 7th. Things started well enough. Shorty Miller ran for 250 yards (a record that stood for decades) and several touchdowns in a trouncing of Carnegie Tech. Next week Pete Mauthe, the new head coach of Gettysburg, lost to the Lions 16-0.

The next three games were not so nice. Washington and Jefferson 17, State 0. Harvard 29, State 0. Penn 17, State 0. Shorty had nowhere to run, and Hollenback had lost his first games as coach. Harvard had been a last minute addition to the schedule, as State hoped to beat the biggest dog in college football. Huh, yeah, where is Pop when we need him?

For the second year in a row, a big inter-sectional game loomed.

The Fainting Fighting Irish were actually kinda like Penn State (1). They were successful against local opponents, but they were not nationally well known. And so in 1913, Notre Dame scheduled road games with national contenders Texas and Army and our Nittany Lions, fresh off an undefeated perfect season.

Notre frickin' Dame rolled into Centre County having catapulted themselves into media and popular prominence one week earlier with a 35-13 over previously undefeated and heavily favored West Point. This was the biggest win ever for the Irish. This game is said to have totally changed the fate of football for it was the game in which Notre Dame supposedly invented the forward pass (in reality, they just were the first to use it effectively). Despite the way the rules were then rigged to make passing a gamble, Notre Dame gunned it. They completed 14 of 20 passes for over 200 yards and 2 touchdowns. Considering the high stature of the Army's football team, this victory represented the beginning of the Notre Dame legend.

Hollenback's boys were primed and ready. Their coach had devised defensive schemes to help neutralize the Irish passing attack. But the balanced nature of that offense still opened up some holes. The Irish scored first when Rockne closed a drive by faking a limp to fool the Penn State defense. He then caught a pass from quarterback Gus Dorais and ran into the end zone from about 30 yards out. Faking injuries - a Notre Dame tradition!



Notre Dame's next touchdown was at least fair and square. Taking the opening kickoff of the second half out to good field position, the drive ended with a short run past the goal line by their fullback. 14-0.

Later in the 3rd quarter, the Lions forced a stop and Dorais shanked a punt. Miller then passed to Levi Lamb for a touchdown and kicked an extra point. 14-7.

Penn State's defense, good all year, began to get truly mean. After several 4th down stops, punts, and turnovers by both teams, the line finally opened things up. Penn State drove from their own 40 to within the Irish 5. There, with only a bit of time, Shorty Miller handed the ball off to "Yeggs" Tobin .... touchdown!

But there was a penalty.

Offsides against Penn State. Notre Dame wins. 14-7.

One week later, Penn State lost to a very powerful Navy squad (that was even possibly the equal of Notre Dame) by a score of 10-0. Two weeks later, they lost to Pitt 7-6. Once again, missed opportunities marked the losses. The Pitt game especially utterly sucked, for our hero Shorty missed the extra point on a tying touchdown - the difference in the game. Hollenback was as mad as anyone. He vowed to never have another losing season, and he went out hard on the recruiting trail.

Before moving on, I must admit that as a younger man I imagined Shorty Miller being thrown by our linemen. I'm not sure if it's necessary to explain my meaning, but basically, it made sense that the most effective play would be for a strong player to pick up tiny Shorty Miller and throw him as far as possible. There is no mention of any such play in any written description of Penn State football, but darn it, I won't let that get in my way. That tiny little short son of a gun was thrown farther than anyone else in our history, and I am proud of him.

1914 has never been surpassed for explosiveness. This is not a statement about World War 1's opening, but rather a bad pun made in reference to the fact that some of Penn State's best players were seriously injured when an explosion occurred during the lighting of a celebratory bonfire in the aftermath of a tie with Harvard. The bonfire was absolutely huge, almost as big as those ones the crazy rednecks at Texas A&M used to construct. Stupidly, someone used gasoline as the propellent instead of kerosene, and the injurious aftermath cast a pallor over the rest of the 1914 season. Seriously, reader: a bonfire blew up in our faces. Stuck in the shadow, Penn State lost their last three games. The second of those three was, for the 3rd straight year, a big inter-sectional game. This time it was the Aggies of the Michigan Agricultural College (today's Michigan State University). In one of the more controversial decisions ever made by a Penn State coach, Hollenback, who had made it perfectly clear that he would do everything necessary to win the game, put in "Yeggs" Tobin. Nothing wrong with this, other than that Tobin was one of the injured players from the bonfire explosion. His hands were still bandaged. Tobin played bravely and well, but the second-guessing was intensely against Big Bill. State lost 6-3 as the offense could accomplish nothing. A fumble ended one of the few promising drives, late in the 4th.

Why had we played an injured man just to lose? While it is not typically a point of emphasis for me to ever be an armchair quarterback, it seems clear that Hollenback was wrong here. Tobin had no business playing in such a state.

A week later, Penn State lost to Pitt for the second year in a row. The score was 13-3. A promising year ended with a frustrating record of 5-3-1. All, it would seem, because of a weak-ish line and an absurd accident. Afterwards, Hollenback left for two reasons: First, he was tired of the criticism. Second, the college had decided to eliminate the eligibility of freshmen and restrict the use of transfers. With such rules in effect, Big Bill did not believe he could compete at Penn State anymore, and he left for the business world.

The decision to eliminate freshmen, while a good one in my mind, presaged real troubles coming down the road for the football program.

Next batter! Dick Harlow, a graduate of 1912, a star lineman, and Hollenback's chief assistant. His team didn't have much talent left over, and while gents like Charlie Way and Red Griffiths waited in the wings, they were.....say it with me.....ineligible freshmen. Yet somehow, while the Germans, French, and British were killing each other in France and Belgium, Harlow's first team began 1915 5-0, including a surprising upset win over Penn (yes, we had still yet to reach the place where beating Penn wasn't an upset). The two losses on the season were frustrating, but to good teams: 13-0 to Harvard and 20-0 to Pitt. A crucial touchdown play was overruled by the officials at Harvard, and (haven't you heard this one before?) the team blew a few opportunities to make the game even closer. Pitt's Pop Warner, a champion coach for Cornell and the Carlisle Indians, already had his team as possibly the best in college football. Pitt was more talented and more experienced than Penn State. They were simply better. Nonetheless, a somewhat substantial reason for Pitt's victory was that PSC was badly banged up. And while I'm not here just to bash Pitt, one of PSC's guards was injured during the game because he was kicked in the spine. Whether or not this kick was intentional, well, I don't know. Pitt went on to win their first of ninety-nine mythical national titles.

Did I mention that important things were happening in Europe during 1916? Well, they were, but anyway, Penn State was kind of like an attrition-ravaged British unit in that Harlow constantly rotated players throughout the lineup. One of the few constants was Bob Higgins, an All-American at end the year before. Against such opponents as Susquehanna, Bucknell, Gettysburg, and Geneva, Penn State won by margins like 50-7 and 79-0. The Lions played three teams with a pulse in 1916: Pennsylvania, Lehigh, and Pitt. Each game was on the road.

Penn was first up. At this point in our rivalry with the Quakers, the farm boys from "State College" were growing into the superior program. The Lions had destroyed everyone; the Quakers had struggled with West Virginia 3-0 and lost to the perpetually bad Swarthmore. But arrogance and Penn State are two things that don't work well together. We discounted Penn as mediocre and they beat us 15-0.

As an aside, the Penn players (speaking about the dirty play used by both teams - and blaming PSC for instigating), quoted in Prato, exemplifies why we wanted to beat them so badly:

"For a time we did not begin to repay State with its own tactics..."

The players said Penn State would be "permanently dropped from Penn's schedule" and that also would mean "State will almost automatically forfeit its chances of being scheduled with Harvard, Yale, Princeton or any of the other large institutions in the East in the future."

Penn State didn't play Harvard until 1932, and has not played Princeton again to date (though we hadn't played them since 1900 anyway). The Penn players also claimed that Harlow had specifically egged on his team to "get" the star Penn player, Howard Berry. The truth of this is unverified, but despite the rhetoric, Penn and State played again in 1919.

Harlow, in a move reminiscent of Paterno's finest press conferences, publicly berated his players: "We took second to Penn in brains and brawn." After that, his green team went on a four game winning streak, including a tough 10-7 win over Lehigh. However, against what Pop Warner described as one of his best teams ever, State lost 31-0. The game was never in doubt. Again, State was simply an inferior football team. Pitt won their second consecutive national title.

According to Prato, influential alumni in western Pennsylvania schemed in the background to create a truly convoluted "solution" to State's losing ways against their biggest rival. These gentlemen were not able to gather enough power to fire Harlow, but they were able to hire the wonderfully named Xeonphen C. Scott "as the 'field coach' with the responsibility for development of the 1917 team.'" They hoped that Harlow would give in and quit, leaving Scott as the head coach, but ol' Dick stuck around. Gettysburg (my gosh, does Gettysburg suck) went down 80-0 and St. Bonaventure (who sucks worse!) went down 99-0. Then they lost to Washington & Jefferson 7-0! My gosh, boys! Show some consistency!

No, not consistency in losing! Well, ok, have it your way: a 8-7 victory over West Virginia Wesleyan, followed by defeats at Dartmouth and versus Lehigh. And, of course, the usual end-of-season loss to Pitt. Wow, Pittsburgh alumni, sure am glad you humiliated Harlow and emasculated him as a coach so we could lose to Pitt again anyway!

On the plus side of things, Penn State beat Maryland. This is a phrase you had better get used to hearing. Also, Dick Harlow turned out to be the glue that held things together. Despite his wicked cool name, George Xeonphen C. Scott was basically useless.

During the summer of 1918, Harlow, being a right cool dude, felt called to sign up for the military. Hugo Bezdek was the next coach for the Lions, and he would hold the position through 1929. Bezdek was a disciplinarian and he did things by his way. He was like Captain Queeg, but less crazy. Still, he was brutal and sarcastic. Many chafed under his methods, and the 1919 squad almost mutinied in spring. He was also the former coach at Oregon and Arkansas, and, bizarrely, was managing the Pittsburgh Pirates upon his hiring. And he still managed them for a year after State called! At Oregon he had won two Rose Bowls. This was, in truth, the only "big time" Urban Meyer-to-Ohio State sort of hire Penn State has ever made.

His first season, overshadowed (to say the least!) by America's entry in the war, had only four games: home games with something called a Wissahickon Barracks and Rutgers, and road games with Lehigh and Pitt. We beat Lehigh, but tied whatever Wissahickon Barracks is (2), lost to Rutgers, and yet again lost to Pitt. Despite the middling record, Penn State showed tremendous balls and pissed off Pitt by, like, not just rolling over and dying. People were optimistic that Bezdek was gonna be a good one. His 1919 squad was extremely veteran, and had a bunch of guys returning from the war. Among the best were, Bob Higgins, Glenn Killinger, and Charlie Way. State went 7-1, with good wins over Penn, Lehigh, and - YES YES YES FINALLY - Pitt. Pitt was beaten in the "first two minutes of play", according to one paper. Why? Because Penn State scored on the longest pass reception - still a record today! - in our history.

As was common at the time, after a Panther possession ended deep in Lion territory, Penn State chose to "punt" on first down to improve field position. But it wasn't a punt! As ten Pitt players rushed, the punter threw to a wide open Bob Higgins downfield. A blocker knocked out the remaining Panther, and Higgins ran all the way.

Let's repeat this: in the first quarter, Hugo Bezdek called for a fake punt from his own 8-yard line. Absurd! Top that, O'Brien.

Since beating Pitt was, for Penn Staters, almost as important as any other objective you can name for a football team, Bezdek soon had a new contract and was toasted throughout the realm of Pittsburgh alumni. Higgins, by the way, added to his 1915 honors and in 1919 became Penn State's first two-time All-American.

Here's the thing, though: Bezdek never beat Pitt again. Not something you could do at Penn State back in the day.

With the heroics of Glenn Killinger and that year's All-Americans Charlie Way and Percy "Red" Griffiths, the 1920 Lions destroyed everyone in their path but for Pitt and Lehigh: both games ended in ties. For those of us who justifiably hate Nebraska (then of the Missouri Valley Conference (not that Missouri Valley Conference - confused yet?)), a 20-0 win does certainly suffice in making us happy (4).

1921 had one of the better two-week stretches in our history: a thrilling and morally victorious 21-21 tie with Harvard, and then a 28-7 win against "national power" Virginia Georgia Tech. The eastern season ended with, for the 2nd year in a row, a scoreless tie in Pittsburgh. Why the scoreless tie? Imagine field conditions worse than the 2010 Capital One Bowl (if that's even possible....) and you have your answer.

The full season was not over yet though! For the first time, Penn State played on the West Coast. They taught Washington a lesson in Eastern football", 21-7. Killinger, by the way, earned a spot on the All-American team as a result of his great play against great teams like Tech and Harvard.

SIDE NOTE THAT'S KINDA COOL: Glenn Killinger coached the North Carolina Pre-Flight Cloudbusters in 1944. Among his assistants was a man named Bear Bryant.

Glenn Killinger was a boss.


Bull Halsey was a pussy compared to me.

In 1922, Penn State beat absolutely no one of their note and tied in their first game ever with Syracuse. They also lost to Navy, Penn, and Pitt. But because the media had begun to notice them during the undefeated seasons of 1920 and 1921, they were somehow a natural choice for the Rose Bowl. It really doesn't make sense. Anyway, hot weather, Bezdek's perhaps overly eager conditioning, a mile-long walk down a gorge to the stadium, and a long journey across the country, these all contributed to Penn State's defeat by a score of 14-3.

Oh, but before I move on from 1922, I would like to mention that Penn State lost to Navy in part because a player was ruled ineligible after a whiny complaint from whiny Pitt officials. Who does that? Pitt does that. Was the complaint true? I honestly have no clue. /football culture'd

Despite Hugo's ambitions, the next four seasons were marked with meh. They lost to Syracuse four out of four tries and Pitt four out of four tries. A win over Michigan State and a muddy inoffensive tie with Notre Dame were the best things to happen. Well, that and All-American honors for Harry Light Horse Wilson (best nickname ever? close) and Joe Bedenk in 1923. This, however, would be the last time an All-American would play in State College for almost two decades. /FORESHADOWING

The spring of 1927 shouldn't be entirely unfamiliar to the modern Penn State fan. And, to be truthful, as I was writing this, I realized that the events of that time would be the most important part of this fanpost.

To a young person growing up with football in the background of life, college football was something sent by God to make me happy. To many others, it is a kind of public enemy. One man's Light Horse Harry Wilson was and is another man's James Cagney.


I have always wondered how the range of college football players feel about the system within which they work. Do they feel that they are exploited and, if so, do they resent it? How does the popular attention affect them? And so on.

The next few statements are not ones I like to make, for, as Mike Reid once worried that his own reflections would sound like "pretentious horseshit", I don't want to write pretentious stuff either.

Johnny Manziel is a fine encapsulation and example of the very words "football culture." He has a free ride at what I am assuming is a fine research institution. He is undoubtedly the most popular athlete ever at Texas A&M, possibly the most famous person ever to attend the school. He has his sexual choice of a vast array of women - a luxury that is really important to emphasize on account of its relative rarity(5). He will be making lots of money very soon. He can already make lots of money while technically a student-athlete. Who among us wouldn't consider living such a life? Even if we didn't make the exact choices as Manziel did, are there really very many young men who wouldn't enjoy possessing his ability and position (even if we used them differently as each of us saw fit)?

But - and here's where I worry about sounding like a pretentious Michigan Man or something - I can't escape wondering if Manziel himself is unsatisfied, whether he realizes it or not, with the effect that the current post-modern culture of spectacle and sport has on him.

I quote some online article:

"Bulls--- like tonight is a reason why I can't wait to leave college station...whenever it may be," he said on the popular social networking site Twitter.

It is still uncertain what the Heisman winner is referring to, and so far he has yet to clarify his remarks. The tweet was taken down soon after it was posted, but that did little to quell the immediate worry going through the hearts of Texas A&M Aggies across the nation.

The last sentence is, of course, what I'm really after and what the NCAA pretends to be after: the "football culture" of the nation's great programs.

Last summer, Mark Emmert and company hauled Penn State in before the tribunal and leveled the punishment. But the punishment, though it was the most harmful thing, isn't what insulted us most. What insulted us most was the assertion that it was Penn State's football culture which had helped create and enable the crimes of Jerry Sandusky and the alleged cover-up. What insulted us most was the assertion that our program was all a fraud. That Guido D'Elia (quoted somewhere in Posnanski) was wrong about Joe; he was fake, he was a fraud, and the Grand Experiment was all a lie. That was the implication of the NCAA's assertion.

Few things have angered me more.

In part, I will admit that it stung to be branded with the same brand I used to brand places like Ohio State, Alabama, and, yes, Texas A&M. After all, even George Paterno said Joe was a bit holier-than-thou. That rubs off on a fanbase. Above all else, what angered me the most, I guess, was the implication that I was lied to by Paterno, his players, and the entire program. And, of course, I disliked strongly the implication that I lied to myself - that I lied to myself by believing and preaching that the Grand Experiment was something real and critical. As Father Zosima said, there is no worse lie than lying to oneself.

Of course, the NCAA and all of their words, it's all a bunch of crap. I don't have to tell you that, now do I?

There is a strong and vibrant football culture surrounding Penn State. We have the second largest stadium in America, for crying out loud. And it's in rural central Pennsylvania! My father and I used to wake up at 5:30 AM or earlier to drive the hours-long haul from Adams County up the isolated roads to State College. And we were not at all unique! Because the football culture of Penn State made it unique! It made our desire to make that drive happen.

Penn State's football culture and the Grand Experiment are one and the same. I will liberally quote an email to me from jtothep:

But for as far back as these twenties you're digging into, the leaders at Penn State have made huge efforts to emphasize that academics are higher on the food chain than football--while they shaped and guided and defined that culture. That's what has separated Penn State from the other huge CFB microeconomies. Our football culture = high graduation rates + not cheating + all the other fun things the other majors did also have: winning, massive fanbases, and awesome traditions. ... It's what's irked all the other fanbases combined and what inspired the holier than thou accusations and what, among many other things, exacerbated the public outrage at the scandal.


That's what's gotten twisted. The size of our culture and the public's familiarity with the shortcomings of nearly every other football culture out there led to the preposterous notion that our football culture was the cause of something bad.

In the 1920s, Penn State's administration decided, under outside influence, that our football program was the cause of something bad.

I quote an article from the Harvard Crimson of 1932:

In its twenty-third bulletin, issued in 1929, the Carnegie Foundation published a detailed study of athletics as practiced in American colleges. The report made clear the fact that in the colleges of our country organized athletics, and particularly football, had ceased to be games played for sport's sake, and has been transformed into shows for the public, through which the colleges received huge sums in gate receipts, comparable in some cases to the income from tuition fees.

This report aroused varied emotions in the breasts of those responsible for the conduct of college athletics. There were some quick denials, but the facts in detail were always made available, and in the end the accuracy of the report was generally admitted. Some colleges proceeded to 'clean up', but in general this process, even when the intentions were of the best, has not been easy.

Penn State was one of the colleges that "proceeded to 'clean up.'" In response to the allegations (which emerged first about 1926), the young college's alumni committee, appointed by the state of Pennsylvania, recommended the elimination of all athletic scholarships. This recommendation was followed beginning in 1928. All financial aid was suspended and, in addition, the athletic department clamped down on such common competitive measures like the scouting of opponents. During the first year of this new way of doing things, State went 3-5-1 and only defeated terrible squads such as Lebanon Valley, Gettysburg, and George Washington. Penn State was quite willing, though, to reduce itself to the level of Gettysburg if it meant the elimination of athletics as a wrong.

As an aside, the most horrific thing, if you read my earlier posts, is that our MOST HATED OLD RIVAL Bucknell defeated us in both '27 and '28. This was important. Pitt, our biggest rival, had surpassed us. Syracuse, a new rival, was equal with us if not better. And now Bucknell, a team Penn State should have been beating, was once again a thorn. To egregiously paraphrase Reagan, Penn State was declining from the stars to the swamps (death to Lewisburg).

The 1929 Penn State team had probably the best game-winning play in a whole century of Lions football. Against Lafayette, during punt by Lafayette in the last seconds, Cooper French lateraled the ball to Frank Diedrich just before being tackled. Diedrich avoided a few opponents and ran more than 60 yards for the score. 6-3. As one newspaper writer hysterically put it, "Strong men wept and old men suddenly became strong under the emotional stimulus of the victory. Hugo Bezdek hugged the waterboy." The momentum carried through for two good wins against Syracuse and Penn, but Pitt and monkey-fighting Bucknell won again.

Bezdek was always an eccentric type for the fans and alumni. He won a few big games, but never enough. He seemed a bit nutty, and he made Joe Paterno look like a nice guy. Bezdek was a cranky old Czech who made his players dance the Charleston for "agility" (I am not bullcrapping you, people, there is a picture of this in Prato - they are seriously dancing the Charleston with each other like flapper girls) when he wasn't pushing them too far and too fast with crazy drills. But, really, it was the new lack of talent that helped cause his final downfall.

The Harvard article I linked above declares that football is impossible. That is, it is impossible to expect there to be any way to have a sport that is both financially lush and academically solid. The author, fittingly for an aristocratic school like Harvard, concludes bizarrely that football should be replaced with college horse racing. This really has nothing to do with my main point, but this justifying quote is awesome:

In the first place, it is a better money-maker than a football show. Secondly, it is the sort of event on which the old grads and the undergrads can bet in more way than they can even in football. In the third place, it has the great advantage that the whole audience, including the feminine part, can understand it.

That's right, ladies: you can't possibly understand football, but you can understand horse racing.

Anyway, absurdities aside, on October 29, 1929 (a date familiar to historians) the Carnegie Foundation issued yet another scathing report. It condemned Penn State and other schools for issuing athletic scholarships despite the fact that Penn State had changed policies two years earlier! The Foundation quickly made an addendum praising Penn State for, um, actually doing what it had done. But the media had already bashed Penn State before the addendum, and it made little news. Penn State was now, more or less, popularly considered to be still just an Aggie-like cow college with low academic priorities. Ah, media. Ah, critics.

Regardless, the die was already cast. It can be said that the foundation for Paterno was being lain: Penn State decided in the 1920s that some things were more important than football. But the vision of great football with great schooling was not being seen. The Great Depression began on October 29, 1929. A similar dark period for Penn State football had already begun.


1 - Please let me never write that sentence again.

2 - In all seriousness, Wissahickon Barracks was a U.S. Navy installation in New Jersey. Its players were college men serving in the Navy. As per usual, my info here comes from Prato. In this case because Wissahickon Barracks was so obscure even my internet skillz sucked (3).

3 - note: my internet skillz in this case consisted of a single Google search, after which I gave up and turned to Prato.

4 - Bezdek made his men do an "intense and hard" conditioning drill just a half hour before leaving their dressing room for Beaver Stadium. This is the kind of stuff for which players hated him, even if the methods were effectice.

5 - Manziel is not single; his girlfriend is a very beautiful woman. Nonetheless, he has been photographed cavorting with other women.

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