Pittsburgh Panthers' Players Turned Down 1938 Rose Bowl As National Champs, the Money Wasn't Right
By Mark Schipper
As conditions for a revolution from within continue to germinate in college football, threatening to transform the sport into a semi-professional feeder league and media property severed from its oldest traditions, it becomes increasingly productive to examine the artifacts that reveal how we reached this moment.
Even with a deep well of incidents that illustrate the troubles to draw from, one scandal from the gray past has a lurid glow. In this case, which blew up in 1937 on the campus of the mighty Panthers of Pittsburgh University, players struck not for money, but for more money, and better treatment from the university's administration.
In an era prior to the full-ride athletic scholarship, when special arrangements were made for football players based on what a university was comfortable facilitating, Pitt had decided a strong team was a priority and accepted any compromises that might entail for their academic culture.
While subsidizing athletes was against both the law and spirit of the NCAA's amateurism program, a central enforcement mechanism did not exist to bring the hammer down from Chicago, where the association was headquartered. The bad fit and ineffectiveness of the association's rules led to schools flouting and degrading their amateurism platform from the beginning, causing integrity issues within the sport that have proven all but intractable.
But for Pitt the returns on their investment had been immense, as the football program won eight national championships between 1915 and 1937, averaging a title almost every third season for twenty-two straight years. The Panthers had been awarded back-to-back titles after the 1936 and 1937 seasons.
When the demands of the players on the two-time national champions were rejected by the school's administration at the end of the 1937 season, the team refused to travel and play for a second-consecutive year in the prestigious Rose Bowl Game, and in the process scandalized the college-football world. The players’ decision would lead to the resignation both of an athletic director and one of the iconic head football coaches of the era. In the bitter wake of the fiasco, one of the country’s most-dominant programs plummeted from championship heights into obscurity.
But what happened at Pitt could have happened yesterday in college football, and may happen again, in a similar style, in the coming years as the taboo around athletes sharing in the sport's profits is vaporized from the culture.
THE PITTSBURGH PANTHERS
Dr. John Bain Sutherland, Pittsburgh's head coach, with his square jaw, prominent forehead, and ram-rod straight posture, appeared to be both athletic and studious. On the football field, with his good height and obvious physical power, there was no question he was amongst his own kind. But, in his highly professorial school portraits, the man they called Jock wore round, wire-framed spectacles and a friendly smile, which is how he looked as faculty at Pittsburgh’s school of dentistry, where he taught a course on the proper construction of the bridge and crown when he wasn't coaching football.
Sutherland, who was referred to as the Developer of All Americans for his production as a coach, was more than a program chief and college faculty at Pittsburgh. A generation earlier he had played for the Panthers under the immortal coach Pop Warner, winning three All-American awards from 1915 through 1917 and starring on the 1916 national championship team. That squad was nicknamed the Fighting Dentists because they took the field with eleven men who would go on to earn their doctorates in dentistry.
Sutherland competed in one of the NCAA's least dysfunctional eras of amateur football, which all happened prior to the arrival of television. The sport, for the most part, worked in tandem with a college education into the 1950s. Only after the NFL and AFL began challenging college football’s supremacy in the 1960s, using wide-open television policies and a more exciting offensive game, did the professional leagues surpass the college version in ratings and revenue numbers, which in turn caused the colleges to further commercialize their sport.
The AFL-NFL merger at the end of the decade, which spawned the monstrously successful Super-Bowl era, slowly transformed college football into the NFL trade-school so many assume it is today. It was not always like that, even as Sutherland coached deep into the 1930s, but the game never was a flush fit with the core mission of the university, either. It was a strange hybrid watched over by the esoteric NCAA.
After graduating from Pitt, Sutherland coached several seasons at Lafayette University before replacing Warner at his alma mater in 1924. By 1937 Sutherland's squad was being voted national champions for a second straight year and a fifth time in the preceding thirteen seasons. The Panthers finished the campaign undefeated at 9-0-1, having tied the Fordham Rams out of New York for a third straight year.
The year prior to that, in 1936, a Fordham athlete named Vince Lombardi, a pillar in the fabled Seven Blocks of Granite, had saved the season for Fordham against Pitt. Lombardi had been knocked out early in the game but made a heroic return late in the proceedings and, with a mouth smashed and bleeding, dug in for a goal-line stand that preserved a scoreless a tie that left both teams in contention for the Rose Bowl.
But the Rams fell off the pace the following week when they were upset by New York University, opening the door for the Panthers to represent the East in Pasadena. Pitt went on to drub the Washington Huskies, 21-0, and claim the national championship. Twenty-five years later Lombardi would go on to immortality as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, orchestrating the most dominant championship run in the history of professional football.
Lombardi and Fordham aside, by the end of the 1937 season the Panthers were 17-1-2 over their last twenty games, cutting down opponents with their famous double-wing offense known as the Sutherland Scythe. They were invited back to Pasadena to defend their crown on New Year's Day 1938, this time against the undefeated California Golden Bears. While the assumption was no serious football program would turn down the prestige and payout of the Rose Bowl, the conditions within Pittsburgh's pinnacle-tier football program were deteriorating quickly.
The Associated Press clouded the moment further when they declared Pittsburgh the poll’s second-ever national champion prior to the bowl game, a tradition that would cause annoying ranking issues well into the 1960s when they began voting after bowl season ended. The mythical title rendered a second train trip across the continent less urgent, turning the bowl into an exhibition for its own sake, just as the idealized English amateur would have had it. Rather than jumping at the invitation, the players called a team meeting to draw up their next play, one they would not need the coaches to help execute.
It had been the teams' experience at the Rose Bowl the year before that made them suspicious. According to Marshall Goldberg—the running back who anchored Pitt's Dream Backfield and finished third and second in Heisman voting over the preceding two seasons—the miserly administration at Pitt had stiffed the athletes. While Washington arrived in brand new suits purchased by the university, with a hundred-dollars cash in the pocket of every athlete, Pittsburgh’s players had come as poor college students wearing whatever clothes they had in their dorm closets.
“We got nothing but a sweater and a pair of pants,” said Goldberg. “When we showed up for a reception with them, imagine how we felt.”
The players spent the week embarrassed for their situation, feeling like working stiffs sent to fetch a $100,000 paycheck on behalf of the university. On the other hand the situation did lead to an incredible gesture from Sutherland, who was known for being tight with his own finances. Realizing his players were in Southern California with barely a dollar to their names, Sutherland liquidated a limited number of bonds he’d brought on the trip, collected pocket change from the assistant coaches, and scrounged up enough currency to give each player $7.50 folding money for the week.
When the Rose Bowl organized a trip to swanky Santa Anita racetrack in nearby Arcadia, the Pittsburgh players decided to pool some of their cash and set up a series of bets on the horse races, hoping to build a bigger pot for themselves to use during the week.
"We all threw in a dollar to make pools to bet with,” said Goldberg. "And we tapped out quickly. You know what it's like to stand around a racetrack with no money?”
The Panthers went on to dominate the game, but the week spent in one of the beautiful spots on earth had been a bummer. So as New Year’s Day 1938 and another Rose Bowl loomed, the players boiled down their options and took a hard look. The irony of the jam up was that Pittsburgh was considered one of the “professionalized” football schools of the era. For at least the preceding decade the players had been subsidized for room and board, issued a monthly stipend during the season, and given a free education in exchange for competing on the gridiron.
This was almost twenty years before the full-ride scholarship rules had been standardized, before there was a strong NCAA enforcement system in place to police booster organizations, and still a decade-and-a-half before the NCAA’s first television contract. They were the last of the wide open days when either a conference, a university’s conscience, or the men in charge, decided how much money a great football program was worth to their institution, amateurism rules be damned.
But now the administration at Pitt, represented by its domineering chancellor John Gabbert Bowman, and the football program, were getting at loggerheads over how much and how often wealth could be distributed to the athletes. The hard-working football players were caught in the middle. At a climactic moment, with a cross-country trip to the nation’s most prestigious bowl game on the line, the administration opened its playbook, authored by Ebenezer Scrooge, and executed its offensive dictates.
“Sutherland was a brilliant coach but when he was at Pitt he ran into another brilliant and self-absorbed fellow in Chancellor Bowman,” says Rob Ruck, a tenured professor in sports history at Pitt. “Bowman was fairly autocratic and forceful, but both of those guys saw the university as their fiefdom, and they each were going to determine what would happen and brook no opposition.”
The players on the 1937 team had stepped into this breach to fight for their own share. The team meetings held in the weeks preceding the bowl game addressed issues being battled over today. From excessive practice time to extra benefits that did not match the players’ contributions, the Panthers could have been arguing with a university administration in 2021. Those meetings also demonstrated an increasing awareness of an employer/employee-style relationship that had developed between athlete and university, an issue that is going to become critical across college football in the near future.
The '37 Panthers were a veteran team with a lot of seniors at the tail end of three-years sacrificing for the program, and they had lost their illusions about the sport as some kind of magical undertaking.
“We were sick of football,” said Goldberg. “Spring practice in those days ran from March to May."
The players left their meetings with three demands of their university. They liked coach Sutherland, particularly after what he had done for them the year prior, but they wanted to put the university itself in a tight spot.
1. The first demand was for $200 spending money for each player—an amount that appeared to be based on the $100 Washington got the year before, plus another $100 for the current trip. This was the tail end of the Great Depression and $200 had the spending power of more than $3,000 today.
2. Second, they demanded the entire roster get to travel to Pasadena. Everyone had practiced and contributed to building up the team but the year before only 33 of 66 athletes got to make the trip. This time they wanted to make the long, cross-country trek as a complete team. This, of course, would double the number of $200 stipends that would have to be issued.
3. And third, they wanted two weeks vacation after the Rose Bowl to enjoy Southern California. After all, they had won two national championships and brought home a $100,000 Rose Bowl check the year before, and were being sent out to bring home another one. Did they not deserve a good rest on the company's dollar?
When word leaked about the players'-only meetings the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette branded the confrontation a "sit-down strike" on behalf of the athletes. The provocative choice in terminology gave the face-off an explicit connection to labor-management relations, a context college football had always battled to avoid. When Pittsburgh’s athletic director, Don Harrison, received the list of demands, he immediately said 'No' to everything and told the players to prepare to play.
Harrison’s relationship with coach Sutherland had become increasingly acrimonious. The athletic director had decided that because he'd hired Sutherland, he also was responsible for the coach’s success. Harrison believed Sutherland had grown too big for his own good and as a consequence dragged him into a power struggle over the football program. When the coach began pushing back against steady cuts and reductions to his operating budget, Harrison warned him to be grateful for what he had.
“I made you and I’ll break you,” Harrison allegedly told Sutherland.
Immediately after Harrison had rejected the team’s ultimatums, Sutherland publicly sided with the players, telling the team he would respect whatever decision they made about the Rose Bowl. At yet another team meeting, one in which the younger athletes begged to go West for the experience, the upper classmen voted 17-16 not to go back to Pasadena.
“To our surprise, Jock was jubilant about our decision not to go to the bowl game,” Goldberg said for a book on the history of Pitt football.
Because the decision to turn down a major bowl had been made by the players—and not the school’s administration or coaches—the news caused a minor scandal. Harrison, stunned by the fact players had dug in and won, and still in open conflict with a legendary football coach, resigned his position.
Harrison was replaced by a man named James “Whitey” Hagan, who had played under Sutherland at Pittsburgh in the early days of his tenure. But Hagan, despite a perceived loyalty to Sutherland, had been picked by Chancellor Bowman as the vessel to cut football down to size. Hagan's connection to the program was going to be used to imply an institutional approval of what was to come. A once shadowy campaign under Harrison to gradually de-emphasize football became both explicit and public knowledge. It took on a derisive nickname of its own: Code Bowman.
Bowman always claimed he did not hate football, but there was no denying he was jealous and fearful of its power on his campus. He also was staunchly opposite a marketing axiom that prevails to this day about a highly-visible, successful program being the best way to advertise a university to the public. Bowman believed the more ethereal measures of an educational pedigree were the way to showcase an institution. Behind that mantra he led a campaign to build the $10 million, 535-foot high Gothic tower called the Cathedral of Learning, the largest academic building in the Western Hemisphere, to serve as the centerpiece of the school’s main campus.
It certainly is a beautiful building, and shoots far higher into the firmament than any football stadium ever has, but few people outside of Pittsburgh know what it's called or what it's for, and never have 75,000 souls arrived on an autumn afternoon, cash in hand, to watch it go to work.
Author Ronald A. Smith, in his book Pay for Play on the history of reform movements in college athletics, described Bowman’s position:
“Bowman was not opposed to winning football games, but he thought that Pitt was doing it in the wrong way, that was in a professional manner rather than amateur manner.”
Through Hagan, Bowman drained the football budget. Coaches lost their recruiting funds and the university took scheduling prerogatives away from the program, a drastic power grab that few coaches of that era would have stood for, and certainly not one like Sutherland, who had brought home seven Eastern championships and five national championships in fourteen seasons. In a matter of months the crisis at Pittsburgh became acute.
At the beginning of the next season chancellor Bowman, always operating through athletic-director Hagan, announced that incoming freshmen would no longer be paid their promised stipends. Instead, they would have to work full-time jobs outside of practice to cover their room and board. Everyone outside of Bowman, and whatever academic support he enjoyed, was apoplectic.
Not only did the players feel they had been lured to Pitt under false promises, the Panthers' fans, alumni, and boosters were enraged. This program was their championship avatar on the American scene, which at the time was dominated by college football, baseball, and boxing. Pittsburgh was a college-football kingpin and appeared to be throwing it all away for . . . . a couple of bucks and school? It was beyond belief.
The Panthers enjoyed the kind of fanatical and cultural support the NFL's Steelers have today. In 1938 Pittsburgh's professional football team was called the Pirates, same as their baseball club, and was a minor affair at best. The Panthers were the region's football team, the pride of western Pennsylvania, and a stalwart representative of the strength within the Appalachian land. The idea of shoving football to the back burner did not appeal to anyone not living in the penthouse suite of the Gothic Tower.
Predictably, the freshmen players revolted over the new order, refusing to pay their tuition or work full-time jobs in addition to the almost full-time job of football. They had signed on with Sutherland under what was in essence a contract, and now the university was in breach of its end. Sutherland stunned the country by resigning the post and walking away just one year after winning the national championship. He was done battling the chancellor of the university over the football program. After making the ultimate case for the power of football to advertise a university, bringing Pittsburgh national recognition and glory on a level they had never experienced, Sutherland realized the score on his own campus and decided the game had been lost.
Bowman, who believed he knew what was best for everyone, worked to paint a rosy picture of the situation, assuring students, alumni, and boosters that Pittsburgh would continue to compete at the top of college football, but this time with a clean conscience and a strictly amateur foundation. Players would not be subsidized, they would work for their room and board outside of football, and the Panthers would do it the right way. It was a vision only an entrenched, detached academic could deliver and truly believe.
The Panthers, who had compiled an astonishing record of 111-20-12 over fourteen campaigns with Sutherland, went 37-56-2 over the next decade, surrendering their position on top of the sport and plummeting into an obscure and half-forgotten mediocrity.
Bowman would retire in 1945 after twenty-four years as chancellor. Three years later Pittsburgh would ramp up their football program once more in an attempt to reclaim ground they had been forced to surrender. By the middle 1950s the Panthers were back in play as one of college football’s formidable programs. In 1976 they would win the program’s ninth national championship.
Sutherland was finished with college football. He coached the Brooklyn Dodgers professional football team for the 1940-1941 season before leaving to serve as a Naval officer for the duration of World War II and one year beyond. He left the Navy in 1946 with the rank of Lieutenant-Commander to return home and coach the renamed Pittsburgh Steelers. He stayed with the franchise for three years, building the first winning teams in franchise history, before retiring for good.
Sutherland, who had coached Lehigh University to an Eastern football championship in his first coaching job before moving to Pittsburgh, finished with a college record of 144-28-14, with eight Eastern championships, five national championships, and four Rose Bowl appearances, with the fifth scrapped by his own players. His NFL teams went 28-16-1 over three years, but he did not stay long enough to build another champion.
For anyone who might believe those days of strife in college football are through, with players pushing for more rights, and a better stake, while management and governing bodies battle with them over who is in control, they are only just beginning.
"The scandal of collegiate athletics keeps playing itself every few years in a different form,” says Ruck, the Pitt professor. “The NCAA has been so ridiculously slow in dealing with this. Instead of getting out ahead of the curve, they got absurdly behind. I don't know where things are heading, but the blowup of college sports appears to be on the agenda."