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On This Day In Penn State History

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BSD - One of the things I want to do this summer is explore Penn State history so we all understand the rich tradition that is our Penn State roots. Since this is a slow news day I thought I would re-run this post on Hugo Bezdek. This post originally ran on August 25, 2008.

August 25, 1918

On this day in 1918 Penn State hired Hugo Bezdek, manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates in Major League Baseball, as the head football coach and Director of Physical Education and Intercollegiate Sports (modern day Athletic Director). He would go on to coach football at Penn State for 12 years and also coached the basketball team in 1919 as well as the baseball team from 1920-1930. He stepped down from coaching in 1930 but continued to serve as athletic director until 1937.

Hugo Bezdek - Penn State Football coach from 1918-1929

Bezdek's teams from 1919-1922 went 30 straight games without a loss (3 ties). The 1922 team was the first Penn State team to play in a bowl game when Penn State lost to USC 14-3 in the 1923 Rose Bowl. Bezdek led Penn State to an overall record of 65-30-11 in his 12 years at the helm.

1922 Rose Bowl Team - Bezdek stands far right

Besides leading Penn State to their first ever bowl game, Bezdek made a major impact on the university athletic program. In the wake of World War I, the US Army conducted a study finding that young American males were in poor physical condition and suggested that American universities had a responsibility to shape young men's bodies in addition to their minds. As athletic director, Bezdek was tasked with completely reshaping the physical education department and athletic program for Penn State. He formed Penn State's first intramural program and put together the first physical education curriculum. He upgraded the varisity sports facilities in golf, baseball, and track and created special housing facilities for student athletes. But his crowning achievement was Recreation Hall. Bezdek oversaw the planning, fund raising, and construction of the building that would be the home of many varsity sports programs for the next 70-plus years. Today it is still the home of the many Penn State sports like volleyball and gymnastics.

But some say there was a dark side to Bezdek. His football practices were notoriously bloody and brutal and his players openly revolted against him on several occassions. In the spring of 1922 Bezdek had a fallout with assistant coach Dick Harlow. Harlow was the former head coach that preceeded Bezdek before going off to fight in WWI. Upon his return as a war hero he was appointed as Bezdek's top assistant. Harlow was an alumni favorite and had a knack for forming a special bond with the players that the dictatorial Bezdek despised. Harlow left the program in 1922 to become the head coach at Colgate and in leaving took over a half dozen Penn State players with him.

Penn State football players search for their missing teeth as Hugo Bezdek (middle in white) oversees another brutal practice scrimmage.

Bezdek ran the athletic department much like he ran the football team, with an iron fist that would make Fidel Castro proud. His attitude and arrogance were tolerable when the football team was winning, but after Harlow left they began to struggle and patience with Bezdek's antics began to wear thin. By the mid-1920's there were many alumni and officials within the university that began to conspire to have Bezdek removed.

In December of 1926 Penn State had elected a new president, Ralph Hetzel. Shortly after he took office the alumni committee delivered a report with several shocking recommendations. They recommended all financial aid to athletes be eliminated and a Board of Athletic Control be formed consisting of trustees, faculty, students, and alumni to oversee the Athletic Department. They also recommended the Director of Physical Education and Athletics no longer be allowed to coach in any sport. Though they were not successful in removing Bezdek right away, they did eliminate financial aid for athletes and banned Penn State coaches from scouting opponents.

I suppose even Bezdek could see the writing on the wall before the 1927 season began. After leading State to a 6-3 record in 1929, his tenth straight failure to beat arch rival Pitt gave his enemies the ammunition they needed to convince the Board of Athletic Control to remove Bezdek from his coaching duties. He was replaced by assistant coach Bob Higgins in January of 1929. Bezdek would continue to serve as the Athletic Director until 1936 when he was given a one year leave of absence with pay and dismissed from the university.

Combined with his other college football coaching jobs at Oregon (1906, 1913-1917), Arkansas (1908-1912), Mare Island (1917), and Delaware Valley (1949) Bezdek amassed a total record of 127-58-16. In addition to his coaching experience with the Pittsburgh Pirates he also coached the Cleveland Rams of the NFL giving him the distinction of being the only person to ever hold positions as a head coach in both the NFL and Major League Baseball. Bezdek was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954, two years after his death in Atlantic City, NJ.