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chapter 5 Hugo Bezdek’s Saga—Alumni, Trustees, and Presidents “Penn State College . . . illustrates absolute alumni control.” —Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, American College Athletics (1929) One can argue that the two most significant football coaches in Penn State’s history have been Joe Paterno and Hugo Bezdek. The two had a number of similarities. Both were outsiders from private universities; Bezdek from the University of Chicago and Paterno from Brown University. Each was a star on his collegiate team, Bezdek as a pile-driving fullback with the famous Amos Alonzo Stagg teams at Chicago in the early 1900s and Paterno as a brainy quarterback under a future Penn State coach, Rip Engle, at Brown in the late 1940s. Both in their early coaching careers had stretches of being undefeated for thirty or more games and with that gained power and prestige as outstanding coaches of their time. Both were very opinionated and often hard to endure. Both could make demands upon Penn State, with threats of leaving Penn State early in their careers. Both had very dark periods ending their careers as coaches. Yet both left legacies that would last for generations, while only Joe Paterno is likely to be remembered. Hugo Bezdek, as important as he was, resonated little among the alumni or the general public before, during, or after the Joe Paterno era. Bezdek was mostly forgotten even though he was more successful earlier in his career at Penn State than was Paterno. While the war in Europe raged in the summer of 1918, and after Dick Harlow had left coaching football for the military, the Alumni Advisory Committee of the Athletic Association recommended to the Board of Trustees that it hire Hugo Bezdek to be director of Physical Education and to coordinate all intercollegiate sports. Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, he and his parents emigrated to the tough south side of Chicago, where he engaged in professional boxing and attended the University of Chicago in the early 1900s, playing fullback for Amos Alonzo Stagg’s dominating teams. One of those teams ended Michigan’s and coach Fielding H. Yost’s undefeated streak of fifty-six games. Upon graduation, he began coaching, assisting Stagg for one year at Chicago, and then serving as a successful head coach Smith_text.indd 43 12/7/15 11:11 AM 44 chapter 5 attheUniversityofArkansasandtheUniversityofOregon.AtOregon,hisunbeaten Ducks went to the Rose Bowl and defeated the University of Pennsylvania 14–0. During World War I, he coached the Mare Island Marines, located north of San Francisco, to another Rose Bowl victory, this time over the Fort Lewis Army team from the state of Washington.1 Achieving star-quality coaching status at a younger age than did Joe Paterno, Bezdek was asked in the midst of the summer of 1917 to manage the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, a major league baseball team he had scouted for since 1909. He took a last-place team to fourth place in a year. At the same time that Bezdek was achieving some success in Pittsburgh, Dick Harlow stepped out of coaching to enter the First World War. Bezdek was available. He was offered the position at Penn State and was allowed, at the same time, to continue his three-year contract to manage the Pirates. As soon as the wartime baseball season was over, he moved to State College to coach a war-debilitated team, which a number of team members had left to volunteer for military service. All Penn State games during September and October were canceled, and the team won one of four in November. Bezdek was not off to a strong start, but when the war concluded in November, a group of war veterans returned, including Lieutenant Dick Harlow, now as assistant coach.2 Bezdek did not come cheaply, but the Alumni Association was willing to pay dearly for someone who, though not the most beloved, might be able to defeat Pittsburgh. His associate professor contract for 1918 as coach and director of Physical Education was $4,500, $1,200 coming from Penn State and the rest paid by the Alumni Association. Harlow was retained at a salary of $2,100, and the new graduate manager, Neil Fleming, class of 1914, was at $1,800.3 Winning, however, would greatly raise the value of Hugo Bezdek to Penn State and its athletic program. In Bezdek’s second season, after an early loss to Dartmouth, Penn State’s team went thirty games without a...


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