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article number 308
article date 01-16-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Football Becomes a Huge Part of our Roaring 20’s
by Lamont Buchanan

From the 1947 book, The Story of Football in Text and Pictures.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Nothing does justice to this great book like reading the book itself. The book is laid out where pictures usually precedes the text and the pictures have no captions. We usually put the pictures after the text. Captions are added where the reference to the picture may need clarification. Enjoy this article!

* * *

Far from Pennsylvania’s campus, scene of Lou Little’s early football efforts, another coaching great to-be was playing football after the war. The school was tiny Centre College of Kentucky and the player was star quarterback Bo McMillin who is seen slamming through Harvard’s line for a big gain.

The “Praying Colonels” represented a small school but what they lacked in size they made up for in every other way. The big fellows never looked on a Centre team as an easy touch; certainly not when McMillin was toting the leather.

Kentucky Centre’s Bo McMillin slams through the line.

In the dark ages of football, the early years, little attention was given to umpires or referees. All that really mattered was the winning of the game, and the precise way this came about didn’t seem too important. But as the years passed it was evident that there must be more rigid supervision of play. Rules governing officials were strengthened, their powers defined, although their exact number changed almost yearly.

In 1915 the four man lineup we still have today was prescribed. These officials were referee, umpire, linesman and field judge.

Below, Tom Thorp, referee, watches closely as offense and defensive formations mesh. Thorp, former star footballer and coach, was one of the game’s best whistle-blowers. Opinion was growing then that, aside from speeding up the game, careful officiating was a factor in avoiding injuries.

Tom Thorp, referee, wearing white suit.

A fan did not need to sit in the football stadiums in the early twenties to realize that the forward pass was becoming increasingly prominent. The newspapers spoke of it; Monday morning quarterbacks had a new standard by which to judge a player: “Can he pass?”

The Army-Navy game of ‘22 was an example. Pigskins filled the air. Here Navy star Steve Barchet fires a long one, as two Army men come in fast to hustle the throw and the Middy cheering section prays for completion.

Navy prayers were in vain that day as the Cadets’ stupendous center Ed Garbisch played a game that earned him a Walter Camp berth, and the Point came through 17-14.

There were other linemen to be talked about in those early twenties. Stan Keck of Princeton was one of them. He was a powerhouse at tackle and opponents often played two men against him. His smiles were saved strictly for pre-game handshakes. Once the battle got underway Keck was a terror. Yale and Harvard found out.

Stan Keck of Princeton.

Three thousand miles away from Nassau Hall another player, an end, was attracting attention. He was California’s Harold Brick Muller. Muller has often been called the best all-around player the Coast ever produced. Certainly he was the first Far-West player to force his way onto the “All” lists; Warner, Roper, Rockne, Godfrey and Camp all named him, and Muller is also a leading candidate for an all-time end berth.

California’s Harold Brick Muller, 1921.

Muller, although an end, was an expert chucker, and figured on the throwing end of one of the most famous pass plays of football history when he threw a pass, reputedly for 70 yards, to Stephens in the Rose Bowl, 1921.

Coaching staffs were expanding; the coach was a more important man on the campus than he had ever been before. The habit of stars returning to their alma mater—as Paul Robeson did at Rutgers in 1922, four years after playing end for the Scarlet—continued; but the head-man, the big coach was becoming a professional, rather than an ex-luminary prolonging his football connections with some casual coaching.


Tad Jones of two-time Yale coaching fame (first in 1910, later in the ‘20-’27 period) had that professional touch, and his brother Howard was at least equally efficient. Tad held the Elis coaching reins that memorable Saturday in 1924 when the Bulldogs fought one of Dartmouth’s all time great teams boasting such aces as Eddie Dooley, Bjorkman and Oberlander to a 14-14 tie as the Yale Jinx over the Green foiled the potentially stronger White Indians.

Tad Jones, Yale Coach.

Chicago, long benefitting from a top-drawer career coach like Stagg at the helm, also had the biggest drum in captivity.” And plenty of reasons to thump it! Reasons like splendid victories over Purdue, Ohio State, Northwestern and Illinois.


Chicago pointed for the Illini under Bob Zuppke, for an intra-state victory meant a successful season. The 1922 Chicago-Illinois score was 9-0. For Illinois this was the B. G. year—Before Grange!

Football needed more space, and if it had to, it moved right into the ball parks and let its fans sit on wooden benches rather than concrete. This 1923 Syracuse-Pitt game was played in New York’s Yankee Stadium. The Orangemen enjoying their brightest football era, ran nearly two years undefeated, taking 14 games. Traditional opponents Penn State and Columbia were beaten.

Syracuse-Pitt played at Yankee Stadium, 1923.

But although an Eastern power boasting a record of 8 games out of 9 in ‘23, Syracuse had trouble with the Panthers, winning on a field goal. The Smoky City Panthers were not yet to their golden years but the time was not far off when the thundering “Hail to Pitt” would reverberate across the land from where the Ohio, the Monongahela and the Alleghany meet.

A good piece of country beyond Pittsburgh, at South Bend, Indiana, a man believed far and wide to have been football’s greatest and most, beloved coach was drilling his team for their first Rose Bowl game. The year was 1924, Notre Dame and the man was Knute Rockne.

Rock had a great team that year, and a super great backfield of Jim Crowley, Harry Stuhldreher, Elmer Layden and Don Miller. Grantland Rice labeled them the “Four Horsemen” and this apt name swept the country along with the fame of a quartet whose valiant efforts had already swept the Irish to nine victories.

Before the game at Pasadena, Coach Rockne posed with Glenn Warner and Christy Walsh. Everyone wanted to know how Rock thought his boys from Indiana would do. Knute Rockne was never one to boast, but he wasn’t worried.

Coach Rockne with Glenn Warner and Christy Walsh.

And as the game went, he had no need to worry. Stanford was a fine team that day. The Palo Alto Indians had a great player in Ernie Nevers. But Notre Dame had those Four Horsemen and, incidentally, the Seven Mules up front who knew how to spring the ball-carriers loose.

When Rock got up from the bench that January day in Pasadena, he was smiling. His boys had done it, 27-10.

1924 Rose Bowl. Notre Dame 27, Stanford 10.

Knute Rockne is best known to the public for his winning ways, his championship teams at Notre Dame. Rockne, the “coach of coaches,” had that extra spark that makes a great coach greater. He was deeply interested in his players, on and off the field, and they, in turn, worshipped him.

Rock and Notre Dame had many stars, many All-Americans but the story of one of these, the immortal George Gipp, is probably the best of all. The story is well-known; it has been repeated over and over.

How the great Gipp took sick at the very zenith of his spectacular grid career, and how as he was dying with Rockne at his side he said: “Some day, Rock, some time when the going isn’t so easy, when the odds are against us, ask a Notre Dame team to win one for me—for the Gipper.”

Notre Dame’s George Gipp.

Rockne remembered and in 1928 when an underdog, outclassed Irish eleven came East to play a mighty Army team, he told his boys simply and quietly of George Gipp’s request. “Men,” concluded Rockne, “this is the game.”

The rest of the story is one of the brightest pages in South Bend history. How a desperate Notre Dame team outfought a superior Army squad and won 12-6. And how each man at the end, exhausted but victorious felt the exhilaration of knowing he had kept faith with the Gipper.

But Notre Dame never seemed to lack great footballers. The school’s teams were always prime favorites of the public and if the press wanted a good football story, why old ND was the place to go. “What a terrific idea,” some early sports press agent thought, “to pose the four horsemen on four horses!” The press and public ate it up.

Notre Dame’s four horsemen carrying the ball … on four horses!

Not so with pictures of Rockne at the blackboard. When Rock, a meticulous teacher, started drawing circles and X’s on the board, he meant business—not for photographers, but for his boys. Opponents quaked.

Coach Knute Rockne Rockne marks X’s and O’s on the blackboard

Back East, in the early twenties a pessimistic little man who had once played quarterback for Minnesota, silently packed his belongings at Annapolis. It wasn’t that Gloomy Gil Dobie hadn’t done well at Crabtown on the Bay. He had. But he’d received a call from the North. To an ex-Minnesotan, isn’t Ithaca a lot more like home than Maryland?


Dobie went “far above Cayuga’s waters” and the climate apparently agreed with him, for he was destined to stay there for fifteen years. More, he agreed with Cornell. The Big Red went on a three year rampage starting in ‘21, winning every game with such great stars as Kaw and Pfann carrying the mail.

Even Walter Koppisch Columbia’s All-American back of this period could do little against the Dobie steamrollers. Loyal Blue and White fans, when they watch a long punt soar down the field still say “Yes, but did you ever see Koppisch?“

Walter Koppisch, Columbia’s All-American back.

Going to the football game, now, was the big thing to do of a Saturday afternoon in Fall. The tally-hos were cars now, but the special trains still rattled. Calvin Coolidge took time out to watch Army-Navy. Some say that “Silent Cal” made a goodly noise during exciting moments. He and Mrs. Coolidge waved enthusiastically at the players from their flag-draped box at Philadelphia.

Enthusiastic Mr. And Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, President of the United States, watch the Army-Navy game.

One Midwest reporter wrote jokingly that perhaps that section should discontinue football, now that the spectacular Four Horsemen had galloped from the scene. But there were some other pretty fair youngsters coming along.

Fielding “Hurry Up” Yost took two of them to meet President Coolidge when Michigan went East to play Navy in 1926. “Mr. President, I’d like you to meet Friedman and Oosterbann, the best quarterback and end in the business today.” Even if Yost didn’t put it that way, it was nevertheless true.

Friedman and Oosterbann meet President Coolidge.

A licking by Navy changed nothing, either, for wasn’t this the greatest team Navy ever had, the 1926 National Champions? This was the Middy team with that great tackle duo, Captain Wickhorst and Eddy, and Tom Hamilton in the backfield.

And this was the Navy team that kept defeat from its unblemished record by tying a fine Army eleven 21-21 before 110,000—the largest crowd ever to see a football game—in Chicago.

Yet another Midwest paragon was churning up the gridirons of the land and making opposition coaches frown. But Bob Zuppke smiled. Didn’t he have Harold Red Grange for himself and Illinois? Grange, probably the most devastating ball carrier the game has known, toted the pigskin nearly 4000 yards in his three seasons at Illinois.

“But Bob Zuppke smiled.”

He fought a great duel in 1925, his last year, with Benny Friedman in the big new stadium at Urbana. Rain poured down, the field was a mire. Friedman had trouble passing, Grange had trouble running.

The line smash below was prophetic. It’s Friedman carrying and he gained. 68,000 people made a lot of noise but “Hail to the Victors” was played last and longest. Yes, Michigan won 3-0.

Benny Friedman of Michigan (right), carries the ball in a 3-0 win against the University of Illinois, 1925.

That 1925 season saw a plethora of fine backs, several of whom rate the appellation of all-time greats. Friedman chucking the leather around up at Ann Arbor; the incomparable Grange, leather tucked in his right arm, left hand ready—and could he straight-arm!—running around ‘em and leaving ‘em dizzy.

In the 1924 game with Friedman’s Michigan, Red put on football’s greatest one man exhibition: he carried the ball exactly five times, and scored exactly five touchdowns, four of which were in the first 12 minutes! But this was a triumvirate in 1925.

Red Grange, 1925.

The third player was a West Coaster. His name, Ernie Nevers. “Nevers of Stamford,” they used to say. He can do just about everything a fullback has to do, but when in doubt, he just runs right over them, right through them.” Old timers saw visions of Ted Coy when this Palo Alto Indian crunched into the line.


Stanford, even without Nevers, continued to do all right. In 1928 they ranked fourth nationally, played a mightily exciting 13-13 tie with California.

Here is an Indian pass chucked out by Captain Hoffman with three Cal defenders trying to break it up.

Stanford-Cal, 1928. Final score 13-13.

Stanford played intersectionally against Army in ‘28 and ‘29, won so handily both times that one wouldn’t have thought a young man named Christian K. Cagle was wearing the Black and Gray and Gold. Grantland Rice and the All-American board picked Chris Cagle three years running, ‘27-‘29, as left halfback.

Christian K. Cagle.

As one general remarked, the “tragedy” was that in only one of these Cagle years did Army have a chance to play, and beat, Navy. The service schools did not play in 1928 and ‘29 due to differences of opinion regarding requirements for eligibility.

Meanwhile, in the Buckeye State there was a fine gridder who never worried about his eligibility. Wes Fesler, “All” end from Ohio State, was one man his coach could count on not to be “on probation” for the big game. Fester was a brilliant student, a genuine Phi Beta Kappa; he could crack those books as well as an opposing tackle.

Phi Beta Kappa scholar, Wes Fesler, “All” end from Ohio State.

There were other great players in this era. One was New York University’s brilliant Ken Strong, the top gridster in Violet annals, and a versatile back who could do everything and well.

Another tremendous performer was Minnesota’s Bronko Nagurski. The Bronk could play in the line or behind it. His greatest fame was won from the fullback slot where his giant bulk constituted an awesome threat to opposing teams. Of the unstopable Bronk they said, “He runs his own interference.”

A thumping important intersectional series had started rolling in 1926 between the University of Southern California and Notre Dame. The games were nearly always close, invariably hard fought.

This is the ‘28 fracas with such fine Irish performing as Moon Mullins, Jack Elder and Frank Carideo, such Trojans as Hibbs and Barragar.

U.S.C vs. Notre Dame, 1928.

U.S.C. won 27-14 as the white-outlined rooting section of Troy whoops it up in the Los Angeles Coliseum, that mighty concrete saucer built five years earlier with cozy accommodations for 105,000 people.

Linemen play the game too. They do the dirty work, are seldom spotted by the crowd, taking their lumps unsung. Occasionally one comes along to force his way to the front. Ben Ticknor, Harvard’s “psychic” center in ‘29 and ‘30 was one of these.

Ben Ticknor of Harvard.

Radio listeners to Crimson games in the late 20’s used to think it funny the way the announcer would repeat “Tackle by Ticknor” over and over but opponents didn’t laugh.

Ticknor had an uncanny gift for diagnosis, was without equal in the land in backing up a line. His neck tackles of Albie Booth, Yale’s “Little Boy Blue” featured games in which the two met. Yale always went home empty handed.

Against Dartmouth, Ticknor proved just as much of a nuisance to another top-flight back, Al Special Delivery Marsters.

Here Marsters gets underway with that deceptive gait of his, cutting inside the defensive end, ready to gun for the end zone. But if this picture had been taken a few seconds later, Marsters would be down—”Tackle by Ticknor.”

Marsters gets underway but will be tackled by Ticknor.

Southern California again, this time with Stanford; the Mr. Big of West Coast football. A plague on both your houses, said other Pacific conference members, for if it wasn’t one, it was the other school leading the procession.

Southern California with Stanford, 1928.

This game, won by the Trojans 10-0, decided the National Championship for 1928. USC ended up as number one, Stanford was fourth.

Two “charmed-circle” teams fought it out in 1929 when the Mustangs of Southern Methodist traveled to Nebraska to take on the Cornhuskers in 1929. Both went into the game rated among the first nine of the country’s best. Both came out right where they’d started after a 0-0 tie.

Southern Methodist at Nebraska, 1929.

The Big Six conference, organized the previous year, had a fine champ in Nebraska and the Cornhuskers were to put their name on top again and again in ensuing years. SMU had been crowned in the Southwest circuit in 1926 and more laurels lay just beyond the horizons.

A talented trio in New Haven town took up the weighty subject of the forward pass in September, 1930. It was Yale’s pre-season practice, and little Albie Booth watches raptly as Benny Friedman, ex-Michiganite turned to coaching, gets set to let one fly.


Eli’s mentor Mal Stevens, standing by, might well wish he had a Friedman in his backfield when the tough ones like Army, Princeton and Harvard came along.

But no loyal Yale man who ever saw Booth play would have replaced him with anyone. Little Albie was a fine, elusive runner; despite an unprepossing physique he had unquenchable courage. While he was in a game he was always a threat; among many accomplishments he ran wild against Army in ‘29 and two years later scored several touchdowns against Dartmouth, all on long, twisting runs.

It was bad for the Bulldogs when “Little Boy Blue” couldn’t play. Against Army one year, they took him off on a stretcher. The cheerleader with the big Y sweater was calling ‘All right, Yale, three cheers for Booth, let’s hear it . . . now, everybody up!” But everybody already was up, standing in tribute to the Mighty Mite.

Albie Booth being taken off field on a stretcher.

As the twenties ended, football had grown through its period of roaring adolescence; it was colossal-size now, but carried itself with new dignity. Relations and friendships on the gridiron were beginning to take on the added prefix “old.”

Symbolic of the times was Chicago’s grand old man of football, Amos Alonzo Stagg, celebrating his fortieth year of coaching at that school. To do him honor, Yale was to travel the farthest West any Eli team had ever ventured—to play football at Stagg Field in 1931.


Also symbolic, Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, basking in the California sun at decade’s end, held memories of past football glories enacted within its saucered shell.

Held too, perhaps, whispers of the greater deeds-to-come as hundreds of colleges and thousands of young Americans actively began to prove that, in the 1930’s and beyond, the grid game would be a bigger and greater King Football than any of its followers could yet imagine.

The Rose Bowl, Pasadena California. “Held memories of past football glories enacted within its saucered shell.”
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