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 change the sport into a semi-professional minor league and media-entertainment property sundered away from the traditions that built it, it becomes increasingly profitable to look back at what led to this moment. The amassed economic and cultural forces now taking apart the hundred-year-old NCAA model of college football have been gathering strength for ages.
That brand-new order is in the process of manhandling and throwing out the NCAA’s obsolete, despised, and authoritarian governing model, which the Association had used to enforce a draconian style of amateurism created in the 19th Century by English gentlemen of the sporting type. The original intention of those English had been to preserve athletic competition for the wealthy few by outlawing compensation for the mere mastery of a sporting craft. Competitive athletics were meant to be a "pure" type of amateur recreation for the leisured class to pursue, and not a pathway for the underclass to acquire a pile of filthy lucre.
American colleges and their presidents adopted that model as their own in the late 19th Century and have clutched it close to their chest ever since, this despite billions of dollars pouring in for everyone associated with the game of football except the athletes. But that massive hypocrisy, which has threatened the NCAA for decades, has finally been removed. The vast new freedoms granted athletes to profit off of their accomplishments, with control over their Name, Image, and Likeness rights, alongside the rising stipends, perks, and scholarship money that the Supreme Court's Alston decision cleared the decks for, have already fundamentally changed the sport forever. This new way of doing business is only just beginning.
Beyond the compensation question there is a looming battle over the number of practices and games athletes are going to agree to participate in each fall as a new post-season playoff format will eventually be installed to replace or severely alter the traditional holiday bowl season. The necessary organization of the major football schools into a small number of Super Conferences to compete for that playoff in an entertainment marketplace will lead to some type of trade association, or form of union, through which athletes will collectively bargain their compensation and protection rights for as long as they are eligible to play ‘college’ football. At that point an NFL-like, professional structure of labor negotiating with management will have come to the sport after decades of fitful, unsuccessful attempts to make it happen.
With an almost bottomless chest of historical incidents that point to this moment one day arriving, one scandal from the gray past stands out. In this curious case, which blew up in 1937 on the campus of the mighty Panthers of Pittsburgh University, winners of five national titles over an eight year period, players struck not simply for money, but for more money, and better treatment by the school’s administration. When their demands were predictably rejected, the team refused to travel and play for a second-consecutive year in the prestigious Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, scandalizing the college-football world.
The players’ decision led to the resignation both of an athletic director and one of the iconic head coaches of the era. In the wake of the fiasco one of the country’s most-dominant football programs spiraled into a swift decay.
It was the hell of a mess, but it could have happened yesterday, and may happen, in some way, in a coming tomorrow.
Dr. John Bain “Jock" Sutherland, head coach at Pittsburgh, was athletic and studious looking, with a square jaw, prominent forehead, and ram-rod posture. But in his highly-professorial school portraits he wore round, wire-framed spectacles and a friendly smile, which is how he looked as a faculty member at Pittsburgh’s school of dentistry, where he taught a course on the proper construction of the bridge and crown.
Sutherland, who was nicknamed the Developer of All Americans for his production as a coach, was far more than just a program chief at Pittsburgh. A generation earlier he had played for the Panthers under the immortal Pop Warner, winning three All-American awards from 1915 through 1917, and starring on the 1916 national championship team. That championship squad was nicknamed the Fighting Dentists because, in that iron-man era, they frequently took the field with eleven men who would go on to earn their doctorates in dentistry.
At the point Sutherland played the amateur game, and for the most part on into the late 1960s, college football largely worked with a college education. Only after the NFL began challenging college football’s popularity in the 1960s, and then surpassing it after the AFL-NFL merger spawned the highly lucrative Super-Bowl era, did college football become the NFL trade-school and proving grounds that so many take for granted it is today.
In 1937, Sutherland's thirteenth season as head coach, the Panthers finished the campaign at 9-0-1, having tied the Fordham Rams out of New York for a third straight time. The year prior to that, in 1936, a Fordham athlete named Vince Lombardi, a pillar in the fabled Seven Blocks of Granite, had returned to the field after having his mouth smashed and broken open earlier in the battle. Lombardi had dug in during a late-game goal-line stand that preserved a scoreless a tie and left both teams in contention for the Rose Bowl, which was considered the de-facto national-championship game in those days.
But the Rams would fall 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 a national championship, their fourth overall under Sutherland and their third in a decade that had just passed the half-way mark.
The Panthers' were 17-1-2 over the preceding two seasons, cutting down opponents with their famous Dream Backfield, which operated out of a double-wing offense known as the Sutherland Scythe. Following that undefeated 1937 campaign they had been invited back to the Rose Bowl to defend their crown.
While the assumption was that no serious football program would turn down the Rose Bowl, the situation at Pittsburgh was much more complex than it seemed. The Associated Press clouded up the situation further when, prior to the Rose Bowl, they'd declared Pittsburgh the poll’s second-ever national champion, an award that remains to this day one of the benchmarks for official national titles. The AP championship made the second-straight cross-country train trip to Pasadena less important, turning it into just another football game to be played for its own sake.
At that point, rather than jumping at the invitation, the players called a meeting amongst themselves to draw up their next play, one they would not need the coaches to help them execute.
It had been the teams' experience at the Rose Bowl the year before that fouled the lines. According to Marshall Goldberg, the swift running back who anchored the Dream Backfield and finished third, and then second, over the preceding two seasons in Heisman Trophy voting, the miserly administration at Pittsburgh had stiffed the athletes on the trip. While the Huskies had arrived in new suits purchased by the university, with a hundred-dollars cash in the pocket of every athlete, Pittsburgh’s players had arrived as poor college students wearing whatever they had in the 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 in a state of embarrassment, feeling like a bunch of working stiffs sent by their school to fetch a $100,000 dollar paycheck on behalf of the university. The situation had led to an incredible gesture from Sutherland. Realizing his players were in Southern California without a dollar to their names, Sutherland had liquidated a limited number of bonds he’d brought on the trip, collected pocket change from his assistant coaches, and scrounged up enough currency to give each player $7.50 folding money for the week.
When the Rose Bowl organized a team trip to the swanky Santa Anita racetrack in nearby Arcadia, the Pittsburgh players decided to pool some of their cash to 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 stone bummer. So as New Year’s Day 1938 and another Rose Bowl loomed, the players discussed their options. 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 with payments 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 free-wheeling days when either a conference, a university’s conscience, or the men in charge, decided how much a great football program was worth to them.
But now the administration, represented by the domineering chancellor John Gabbert Bowman, and athletics, best known for coach Sutherland and his elite football program, were getting at loggerheads over how much and how often the wealth could be distributed. The hard-working football players were caught in the middle. At a climactic moment, a cross-country trip to the nation’s most prestigious bowl game, the administration had pulled out their own Ebenezer Scrooge playbook 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 the University of Pittsburgh. “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, and 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 were not commensurate to 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 athletes and their universities, an issue that is going to become more critical in the coming years.
Those Panthers were a veteran team with a lot of seniors at the tail end of three-years sacrifice for the program, and they had lost their illusions about how the sport worked.
“We were sick of football,” said Goldberg. “Spring practice in those days ran from March to May."
The players came out of the meetings with three demands for their university. They liked coach Sutherland, particularly after what he had done for them the year prior, but they wanted to put the university in a tight spot.
The first demand was for $200 spending money for each player—an amount that appeared to be based on the $100 from the year before, plus another $100 for the current trip. This was the tail end of the Great Depression and $200 was the equivalent of more-than $3,000 today.
Second, they demanded that the entire roster got to travel to Pasadena. Everyone practiced and contributed to building up the team but the year before only 33 of the 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.
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 for the school the year before. Did they not deserve a nice rest on the company’s dollar?
When word got out about the player’s meeting the local newspaper, the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, described it in labor terms as a “sit-down strike.” When Pittsburgh’s athletic director, Don Harrison, got word of the demands, he said no to everything.
Harrison’s relationship with coach Sutherland had become acrimonious. The athletic director decided at some point that, because he had hired Sutherland, he was responsible for the coach’s success. Harrison didn’t like thinking that Sutherland’s head had got too big for his hat and dragged him into a power struggle. When the coach began pushing back against steady cuts and reductions to the football program, Harrison advised him to be grateful for what he had.
“I made you and I’ll break you,” Harrison allegedly warned Sutherland.
When Harrison rejected the team’s demands, Sutherland sided publicly with the players. He told them he would respect whatever they decided about the bowl game. At yet another team meeting, one in which the younger athletes begged to go to the Rose Bowl 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 coach—the news caused a minor scandal. Harrison, stunned by the fact the players had held their ground and won, and in open conflict with a legendary and beloved football coach, resigned his position.
Harrison was replaced by a man named James “Whitey” Hagan, who amazingly enough had played under Sutherland at Pittsburgh, but was picked by chancellor Bowman as the vessel to cut football down to size. Almost immediately the once-sneaky campaign to de-emphasize football at Pittsburgh became public knowledge. It took on a derisive nickname of its own: Code Bowman.
Bowman always claimed he did not hate football, but he clearly was jealous and fearful of its power. He was also staunchly opposite a marketing axiom that prevails to this day. While many believe a highly-visible, successful football program is the best way to advertise a university to the public, Bowman believed it was done by showcasing the more ethereal educational pedigree of an institution. Behind that mantra he had led a campaign to build the $10 million dollar, 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 did, but few people outside of Pittsburgh know what it's called or what it's for, and never have 75,000 souls showed up 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 grabbed scheduling prerogatives away from the program, a drastic, power-seizing move 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 over fourteen seasons. In a matter of months the crisis at Pittsburgh had become 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 sporting 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?
The Panthers had the kind of fanatical support of the Pittsburgh community that the NFL's Steelers enjoy today. In 1938 Pittsburgh's professional team was called the Pirates and was a minor pro 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 putting football on the back burner did not appeal to anyone not living in the penthouse sweet of the academy’s highest 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 on a strictly amateur basis. That was important to him. 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 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 the 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 sixth 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 in the pro game to give himself a chance to catch on.
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 in every venue 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."