- Mark Schipper
Hugo Bezdek Led Three Teams to Rose Bowl, Managed a Major League Baseball Club, & Coached in the NFL
By Mark Schipper
In the misty twilight that spread quickly after a blazing sun had set behind a shoulder of mountain near the end of the 2012 Rose Bowl, the cerebral, stocky, and florid-faced head coach at the University of Oregon wanted to take everyone back in time in order to better appreciate the present moment.
“For all of our fans out there!” shouted Chip Kelly into the stadium's public address microphone. “It’s been ninety-five years since you could say: Oregon Ducks, Rose Bowl champions!”
A far-away-sounding cheer went up from what remained of a crowd of 93,000 that had watched Oregon defeat the University of Wisconsin, 45-38, in one of the most exciting, and highest-scoring Rose Bowl Games ever played. How many people in that crowd, drunk on new Rose-Bowl glory, knew anything of the ancient team called out by coach Kelly? For many of them it was just a number from a dim past, perhaps symbolic of their long exile, and a span of years beyond any practical comprehension—but the story corked in that old bottle was worth letting out.
Ninety-five years earlier, at a site about three-miles away called Sportsman’s Park, a cerebral, stocky, and florid-faced head coach named Hugo Bezdek had led his undefeated Oregon Webfoots to an upset victory over the mighty eastern champions from the University of Pennsylvania, giving West Coast football a name and a reputation for the first time ever. The exhibition, then in its third edition, was being called the Tournament East-West Game by the civic fathers in Pasadena. The ticket revenues from the game were wanted to cover expenses for the Rose Parade, the day's most-important event by a wide margin.
The new football concept, which some organizers believed stood a fair a shot at supplanting the ostrich races, called for the tournament to invite the best or near-best team from the prestigious Eastern circuit to play on New Years Day against the champion of the new Pacific Coast Conference in the Far West. It was billed as a sporting exhibition for sectional supremacy, and for the next two decades, because of its unique place as the sole post-season game, the winner would be regarded as the sport’s mythical national champion.
Coach Kelly might have recognized the most obvious connection between the two Oregon teams—the only two Rose Bowl champions in school history—but there was a deeper affinity between two coaches separated by a gulf of ninety-five seasons, two World Wars, and a commercialization of the game that Bezdek had helped clear the decks for. In both scenarios, a short, barrel-shaped, intellectual type hailing from somewhere far east of Oregon had migrated across the country toting something precious: An innovative and startling new offense that gave the Webfooted-Ducks a decisive tactical advantage over opponents who, like they say about generals, were fighting the last battles over again.
Kelly, more than anyone else in that stadium, might have looked across the ages and felt a shock of recognition at the sight of Bezdek.
Bezdek was a forceful 32-year-old when he led Oregon to victory at the new exhibition in Pasadena, and about half-way through a triumph-filled and novel career in major athletics. Bezdek, who began as a teenage professional football player before becoming an amateur champion, went on to make his name as a generation-defining college coach, a professional baseball scout and then manager, and a top-level university administrator. From an amateurism scandal as a college athlete that whiffed on the real infraction, to a short flirtation with an intellectual life after earning a degree as a chemist, Bezdek would become not just the only man to lead three different programs to the Rose Bowl Game, but the only one to manage a Major League Baseball club and coach a team in the National Football League.
AMERICAN AS APPLE PIE
Bezdek was a first-generation American immigrant from Bohemia, a region in central Europe that slowly transformed across the twentieth century into the Czech Republic. His parents had sailed for America in 1891, when Bezdek was six-years-old, and by 1900 had found a permanent place amongst skilled Irish, German, and Czech butchers and meat packers in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, the meat-processing nexus of the United States.
Like millions of kids who grew up in America but felt foreign because of the old-world style that reigned at home, Bezdek participated in American athletics to assimilate into American life.
“I have been interested in athletics since I came to America, and I am more interested in them now than I was as a boy or young man,” Bezdek said for a magazine feature that ran in The Ogden Standard . “It is in me. I generate a lot of energy from my food and air and I must have physical exercise. I would die if I pursued a sedentary occupation.”
At the same time Bezdek trodded the athletic path to assimilation on the South Side, a young Norwegian immigrant named Knute Rockne was on the North Side doing the same thing, playing football for a neighborhood team called the Logan Square Tigers. Just a few seasons later Rockne, who was four-years younger, would become a fan of Bezdek’s, and a worshipful admirer of his backfield teammate, Walter Eckersall, when the pair won a national championship playing for Amos Alonzo Stagg at the University of Chicago. For the rest of his life Rockne would credit Eckersall’s on-field style for a sudden epiphany that inspired a life-long fascination with American football.
As an athlete Bezdek had a semi-comical but extremely powerful body, kind of like a hogshead barrel grafted with the arms of a blacksmith and the hind legs of a draft horse. The running joke was that Bezdek’s body was wider than it was tall, but his physical coordination and athletic ability consistently proved to be elite, and the strength built into that stocky body was dangerous to trifle with.
“Football suited me to a nicety,” Bezdek said. “It gave me room for hard physical work. I was so rough and awkward and strong that most young men did not like to box or wrestle with me. So football, where I could cut loose with all my energy, was a great relief for me.”
Bezdek had been nicked by an amateur eligibility scandal at Chicago after representatives from the University of Illinois, a charter member of the new Big Ten Conference, had accused him of fighting for purses as a professional boxer during his youth. Bezdek never had boxed for money and cleared his name of the charges, but his days as a teenage semi-professional football player, which he certainly did have hidden in his past, somehow went un-discovered.
In 1900 as a 16-year-old with the strength of a full-grown Bohemian field hand, Bezdek signed on for two seasons with the Morgan Athletic Club, a neighborhood social organization that put together a traveling football team. Prior to games against other clubs from around the city, pots and baskets were passed around like it was a church service and stuffed with bills and coins, with the winners and losers dividing the proceeds afterward.
In the months before Bezdek’s second and final season with Morgan the organization remade itself into the Cardinals Athletic Club. The Cardinals went on to win the 1901 city championship with an undefeated record against its neighborhood challengers. In just a few lines of newspaper coverage about the championship game, Bezdek was singled out for a run he made to help set up a score in the victory.
That club was not an obscure organization, and in 1920 they would sign on as the Chicago Cardinals alongside other neighborhood and factory teams from around the upper Midwest and Northeast, making them a founding member of the American Professional Football Association, known today as the National Football League. The Cardinals would play forty seasons in Chicago before relocating to St. Louis in 1960, and later Phoenix, where the franchise plays out of today.
The rules agreed to in Chicago just ten years earlier at the founding meetings of the Big Ten Conference, which remained the first and only faculty-controlled league in college football, stipulated that any athlete who had accepted money to compete in a sport was permanently ineligible for amateur competition in the new conference. It was unlikely that coach Stagg, a highly-erudite Yale graduate tapped into every athletic line in Chicago, had not heard about Bezdek’s school-boy days with the Cardinals.
Stagg harbored an open contempt for professionals, once describing them as “overpaid loafers who needed real jobs,” and “a hard-bitten lot surrounded by shady hangers on and ready sex and alcohol.” The famous coach was a self-righteous prig when he felt he had the high ground, scolding other programs and accusing them of treachery in the newspapers, but in this case he chose not to say anything to the Big Ten about Bezdek unless they accused him of professionalism in the right sport, which they never did.
Stagg apparently made a moral exception for young Bezdek, who was one of the smartest and strongest players on the best team Stagg had ever built at Chicago. Michigan coach Fielding Yost was coming Thanksgiving Day with a Wolverines team riding a four-year unbeaten streak and a reputation for near-invicibility. What were a couple of beautiful extra dollars between competitors, anyway?
During the spring Bezdek played second base for the Maroons’ baseball team, a fact that would become significant years down the road, but he was far-better known as the vicious fullback and stout defender on the school’s 1905 national championship team. That squad had in fact halted Michigan’s four-year, 56 game unbeaten streak during a frigid holiday battle in H yde Park, later dubbed college football’s first Game of the Century. That 1905 team won for Stagg the first of seven Big Ten championships and two national titles.
THE THINKING MAN AS COACH
Following the 1905 season, the highly-intellectual, 22-year-old Bezdek left for Oregon to coach their remote and unknown football team. He stayed in Eugene for a single season, leading the team on a 5-0-1 campaign, before returning to Chicago and completing a degree in chemistry. For a moment Bezdek, who spoke the better part of five languages, ruminated on life as an intellectual before deciding that being indoors all year would kill him. He saw it as a good plow horse left in the barn when the spring fields needed turning over—there was work to do and he was equipped to do it.
For the massively energetic Bezdek this was barely a metaphor. There were times, when he spoke at length, he began to sound like a sad monster, or beast of burden, cursed with human consciousness and a fine intellect that he was not sure how to satisfy.
“I dare say it is in self-defense that I stick to athletics and keep away from the chemist’s retort and the physician’s chair,” Bezdek said. “Football more than any other sport gave me the freedom of physical action that my body and spirit craved. I was born strong. That is no credit to me. In fact, I am a little ashamed of such brutal physical power. Sometimes I feel as if I was too much of an animal to be much good to myself or to others. My vitality is sometimes terrible to me. I crave action, pulling, mauling, hauling. I could have acted as a mule in a call boat or heave a rock but that would satisfy only the physical craving, and not the desire for mental enjoyment.”
Seeking both physical work and mental enjoyment, the now 24-year-old Bezdek set his compass south for Fayetteville, Arkansas where he had been invited to coach the football and baseball teams at the state's top university.
Arriving in the summer of 1908, Bezdek immediately invited Stagg to help teach his new team the fundamentals of passing football, a tactic legalized only two years earlier after Teddy Roosevelt, as president of the United States, had intervened to stop the sport from killing and maiming too many more undergraduates and getting itself abolished forever.
The opening up of the game, largely accomplished by eliminating the deadly massing plays that had trampled so many athletes, led to a new perspective on throwing the football. Stagg, who was the Thomas Edison of college football’s early decades, had within a single season invented nearly seventy passing plays out of multiple formations, and was glad to share them with his former star player.
Bezdek built up Arkansas’ football team quickly, taking it from one of the laughable programs in the emerging southwest-football region to one of its best. In addition to the new passing tactics, Bezdek borrowed insight from the lightning-war Michigan teams “Hurry-Up” Yost had sent at him twice while he was a player at Chicago. Bezdek modified and implemented an ultra-uptempo offensive attack, using both the pass and run to strike downfield, that was a novelty across the entire country.
“Bezdek sort of woke things up,” said Will F. Thomas, an old-timey Arkansan who had watched the young coach go to work.
“He was a driver,” was how a former play described Bezdek’s coaching style. “Playing the other team on Saturday was the easiest thing we did all week.”
Bezdek orchestrated high-tempo practices that frequently appeared more like basketball conditioning drills than football activity, with his offense chasing the ball downfield as it went so they could line up and snap it again as fast as possible. They did not huddle—a technique developed by Stagg at Chicago—and the quarterback called out the next attack as the team ran to the line.
“I guess it was the forerunner of Oklahoma’s hurry-up style in the Split-T days under Bud Wilkinson,” said Steve Creekmore, Bezdek’s first great quarterback, in 1960.
Creekmore would not live long enough to see Kelly’s Blur offense at Oregon, which was a truer and more closely-related descendant of Bezdek’s style, but the comparison with Wilkinson's team worked. There were sequences in games when Bezdek’s boys got moving so fast the referees momentarily lost control of the game.
“I know we’d often run four or five plays and then find the official had penalized us back down field for the first one,” Creekmore said. “He’d catch up, and we’d have to go back.”
By his second year, in 1909, the Cardinal—named after the color—would battle through the only undefeated season in their first seventy years of football. When the team train screeched home after a victory over LSU that saw the squad reach 6-0 with one game left to play, they found a large crowd of students, alumni, and fans gathered at the station to salute the victors.
On that day, according to the lore, Bezdek stepped out onto the platform and made a speech. Impressed with how aggressive his team had been against the Tigers in a 16-0 win, Bezdek compared the boys to the savage-tempered hogs that ran wild in the local timber country, attacking most of what moved. Your boys “played like a band of razorback hogs out there!” he shouted to a return volley of triumphal cheers.
Almost immediately Arkansas football dropped the Cardinal and began calling themselves the Razorbacks. That nickname became official before the next football season and has been synonymous with the university ever since.
Because of Stagg, Bezdek knew how to use a football team to promote a university, understanding the two would feed off each other. This was an approach that Stagg, with the backing of president William Rainey Harper, employed unapologetically at Chicago after the pair helped found the university in 1890. It is a precedent that endures into the 21st century and continues to drive controversy and tension, particularly on campuses where academics and athletics consider themselves more antagonists than partners.
“He understood the importance of placing his program in front of the public,” said Phil Huntley, who played on the undefeated 1909 team. “He had cards printed and distributed in towns like Rogers, Springdale, and Fort Smith advertising his home games. It was the first athletic advertising the school ever did.”
Over four seasons at Arkansas Bezdek’s football record was 29-13-1, by far the best stretch in school history, including its only undefeated campaign. His baseball teams ran up a record of 81 wins against 37 losses, giving Bezdek a .657 winning percentage, which remains the second best in school history.
ROSE-FILLED DAYS AND WEST COAST TRIUMPHS
Following the 1912 season the University of Oregon enticed Bezdek back out west with a significant raise in salary. Coaching just the football team from 1913-1917, Bezdek did it again at Oregon, quickly building a winner out of a collection of punching bags.
Significantly, Bezdek was the first to do what ever Oregon head-football coach has had to do since, which is stand up to the University of Washington, their bully and tormentor to the north. For Bezdek, who had vanquished the dominant, cocky Yost and his ostensibly unbeatable Michigan teams as a player, it meant squaring up with the Huskies menacing head coach, Gilmour Dobie.
Dobie, during a nine year run in Seattle, never lost a football game. His teams went 58-0-3 from 1908 through 1916—including a 40 game win streak that has been surpassed only once, by Bud Wilkinson and the Oklahoma Sooners, during their 47-game run in the 1950s.
Bezdek’s Webfoots played the Huskies three times in five seasons, losing twice in tight, low-scoring games, and tying them during the undefeated 1916 season to get to 7-0-1. Few teams during the Dobie era, particularly in the Northwest, ever got close to Washington and their powerful store of resources and athletes in Seattle. Oregon's yearly, toe-to-toe battles with the prohibitive favorite were a massive validation of Bezdek’s ability as a program builder and coach. That was why, with two undefeated teams in the Pacific Coast Conference, the committee in Pasadena picked Oregon to represent the West in the New Year's Day bowl game.
Like the long drought between Rose Bowls, the Webfooted-Ducks would not truly stand up to Washington again for nearly eighty seasons. While the program had sporadic success against their rival, it was not until 1994, on a warm October Saturday, that they upset a powerful Huskies’ team on their way back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1917. While the Ducks were handled by Penn State on New Year's Day, the run to Pasadena had shocked the world and changed almost instantantly the trajectory of Ducks football. That 1994 victory led in a direct line to the Kelly era and the return to Rose Bowl glory ninety-five seasons down the road.
But Bezdek was not finished in Pasadena. Exactly one year after the Webfoots beat Penn in the 1917 game, he would coach another team to victory at Sportsman’s Park. While it was not exactly Oregon, it was close. The Mare Island (San Francisco) Marines were a military-service squad featuring the best firepower from Bezdek's Rose Bowl team alongside a mixed group of college stars assembled from around the region.
In 1917 the United States had entered World War I, and military bases around the country were using football both as part of their training and to showcase the armed forces around the country. For two years the Tournament East-West game was played between service squads made up of college all-stars and former All Americans. In year one the Marines from Mare Island played the Army men from Camp Lewis at Tacoma, Washington.
The Pasadena tournament was kept on the calendar to boost civilian morale and allay fears about the country’s role in the massive European conflagration. Many Americans wanted to steer clear of what they saw as European folly and calamity, but with the country’s entry on the allied side it was thought best to keep the culture state-side as normal as possible. The sport itself was in no danger of going away, even if it shifted from universities for several seasons. Football was considered excellent and unique training for the fighting men and, at wars end, would begin its viral spread and deep entrenchment in the culture of the country.
Bezdek himself believed in football, offering reporters long commentaries on American athletic culture and why it gave the country an inherent advantage over European powers that were strong, but grim in their duties and therefore beatable.
“I think athletic sports are essential to the vitality of a nation,” Bezdek said during one interview “I think that had the Germans tuned themselves up on athletic games instead of laboring twelve hours a day from dawn to dark, they would have put up a much more lively, dashing fight than they have put up. The Germans are enduring and they are strong, but they lack the life, the vivre, the elan, the git up and git of the Americans.”
By his middle-thirties Bezdek, the Bohemian emigre, had developed a mindset around sports and competition that was almost more American than American when it came to the inherent value in athletics.
“I do not mean that you can make men strong or action great on athletics alone. Hard work gives a power that no athletics can impart. But too much hard work slows men up,” said Bezdek. "Then comes athletics to enliven them, to give them dash and go. I set a high value on the use of athletics to a nation. So, when I teach and help to propagate athletics I feel that I am in my small way doing a public good”
The newspapers announced Bezdek’s arrival at Mare Island in early-December like the arrival of a conquering hero. The early articles noted he spent much of his time over the first few weeks either in the marshes around San Francisco Bay, making use of the duck blinds, or on the golf course putting in his rounds. The marines were in great physical condition and, like race horses, Bezdek did not want to get them ready to run too early.
“Give me three weeks to work with them and I will put them up against any team in the United States,” Bezdek told The Los Angeles Times
In the second half of December the drilling began.
“Today Coach Bezdek is going to start hammering at his squad,” wrote the Pasadena Star-News on Dec. 18. “And when it comes to hammering in the approved football-coach style, Bezdek makes a pneumatic riveter look like a kid’s tack hammer. There will be no more golf for the coach and no more ‘playing around’ for the boys. From now on it’s going to be a very business-like campaign."
Bezdek made good on his cocky proclamations about taking all comers, coaching Mare Island to a 19-7 upset victory over the Army squad from Camp Lewis that several newspapers believed would prove too strong. With most of the critical roles for Mare Island filled by his best players from Oregon, it was in a way back-to-back Rose Bowl victories for Bezdek, and apparently that had been enough for him on the West Coast.
The stocky, energetic, and restless coach surprised everyone when he announced he was resigning from Oregon, effective immediately, and had accepted an offer from Pittsburgh Pirates' owner Barney Dreyfuss to manage the Major League Baseball club back east.
A FOOTBALL MAN GOES BATTING, & FIRST TO HAPPY VALLEY
Bezdek had been hired by Dreyfuss almost from his arrival on the West Coast to scout the region for the Pirates in the off-season. For the last five years he had been at it, staying in regular, direct contact with an owner who got to know Bezdek’s intensely cerebral approach to coaching athletes and managing programs.
The Pirates had been wallowing in the doldrums until finally, in the middle of the summer of 1917, with manager Nixey Callahan’s club at 20 wins and 40 losses, Dreyfuss fired him and made Bezdek the offer. With Bezdek, Callahan was running a timeless experiment in which the generally talented organizer and executive officer gets a crack at running something in which his first-hand experience is limited.
A long, contemporary magazine feature on Bezdek described the hypothesis Dreyfuss was trying to answer:
“Is an educated man who has attained some reputation as a handler of men more likely to score success in professional baseball, a game of which he has only a superficial knowledge, than the old-line baseball player who is not particularly well educated and who knows little of anything but baseball?”
While the legendary Pirate Honus Wagner returned from retirement to manage the club before Bezdek could pack up and get across the country, the football coach inherited a roster with bad habits and a losing attitude. There was not much to do in that partial first season and the Pirates finished 30-59 after Bezdek took over, 51-103 overall, and dead last in the National League.
But Bezdek’s leadership qualities tested out again, and by the following season he was returning better results than the club had seen in years. In an era of fluctuating schedules based on the number of teams in the league, Bezdek finished his first full manager’s campaign in 1918 with a record of 65-60, good for fourth place in the National League, and the Pirates’ first winning season in six years. The next summer, which would prove to be Bezdek’s last as manager, he did it again, with the team finishing above .500 at 71-68, good for another fourth place finish and consistent winning momentum heading into the next summer.
What many people around Major League Baseball had considered a shocking and even disgraceful experiment had brought back profitable returns. Bezdek took over the worst team in the league with no prior professional experience and orchestrated back-to-back winning seasons, finishing in the upper division of the National League both times with a roster Major League managers could not win with. Bezdek’s final record of 166-187 was respectable but misleading, because he had taken over a club midway through a doomed season, opening up 29 games under .500 before he had been given a chance to manage the club. In the two years he was in charge his record was 136-128. Pittsburgh had not been over .500 for six full seasons before he arrived.
But for Bezdek baseball—a sport he said did not have “action enough” to keep his enormous energies occupied—always had been a form of busy work between football seasons. When Penn State University approached during the summer of 1919, offering him the positions of football coach, baseball manager, and athletic director, along with a substantial pay raise, Bezdek took it. Decades before Joe Paterno’s Grand Experiment and the honor and glory that accumulated at Penn State, the championship standard for the athletic department had been set by Bezdek.
Over twelve autumns Bezdek’s Nittany Lions football teams compiled a record of 65-30-11, a mark that included an astonishing 29 game unbeaten streak from 1919 through 1922—two undefeated seasons—and an appearance at the 1923 Rose Bowl against the University of Southern California. It was the first edition of the sport's greatest game to be staged at the brand new, and iconic stadium bearing the game’s name. It would turn out to be the only tournament loss of his career, as Gloomy Gus Henderson's USC team knocked off Penn State, 14-3.
With his final New Year's Day appearance in Pasadena as a coach—this time at the head of the Eastern school—Bezdek stood alone as the only man to bring three different squads to the sport’s first and most-prestigious bowl game. He had become part of the Rose Bowl's early genetic code.
Bezdek was a successful baseball manager at Penn State as well, putting together a 129-76-1 record and coaching multiple future Major Leaguers along the way. He served as the school’s first basketball coach in its inaugural 1919 season, and finished with a record of 11-2. In 1930, after twelve autumns, he resigned his football post but stayed on as athletic director. Over the next seven years he helped organize 11 Penn State national championship teams at a time when the number of intercollegiate sports on campus was extremely limited.
In 1937, at age 53 and seventeen years in Happy Valley, Bezdek resigned his post to give professional football a shot. The Cleveland Rams, who were moving from the first edition of the American Football League to the NFL, brought on Bezdek on to organize and lead their transition. But the Rams were badly run and totally unprepared to compete in the National Football League.
After starting 1-13 as head coach, Bezdek was fired to start the 1938 season before there had been time for him to build anything. In 1946 the Rams would relocate to Los Angeles, leaving the city to the fledgling Cleveland Browns of the All-American Football League.
Bezdek retired from football with a national championship as a player, a 127-58-16 record as a college coach, and two Rose Bowl victories in three tries. Bezdek would pass away in 1951 in Atlantic City, aged 68-years. Three years after his death he was inducted into the new College Football Hall of Fame.
When Chip Kelly stood on that stage in Pasadena and shouted back ninety-five years into the past, that was who he was calling down to enjoy a final cheer in Pasadena.