Football, which had its share of highs and lows since its introduction to college campuses in 1869, was regaining the traction in 1920 that was lost three years earlier.
World War I had put a halt to virtually all of the programs in the country as young men from sea to shining sea were thrust into battle around the globe.
But 1920 saw the game regain some of its stronghold across the nation as the game continued making its way back on college campuses across the nation.
The disputes that reigned over college football at the end of the season for many years just might have gotten its start 100 years ago
The Official NCAA Division 1 Football Records Book lists five national champions in 1920. But not all of those five claim the crown today.
CALIFORNIA GOLDEN BEARS
Coached by Andy Smith, the Golden Bears’ “Wonder Team,” became the first team from the Pacific Coast to lay claim to a national championship in football.
And it would be hard to argue with that claim.
More than 100 candidates, including 13 letter winners, reported to the opening of fall camp in preparation for the 1920 season. Ten days later the season got underway and when the curtain fell on the season, the team’s place in Cal history was secured.
Cal, which had played rugby for many years prior to Smith’s arrival at the school, steamrolled its nine opponents 510-14 in compiling a perfect 9-0-0 record in Smith’s fifth year at the school.
The Bears won the first three games of the season by a combined 236-0, highlighted by a 127-0 trouncing of the Gaels of St. Mary’s. The win put Cal in the talk of a possible PCC championship.
Nevada ended the shutout streak the following week, but still came out on the lopsided short end of the scoreboard as Cal posted a 79-7 triumph. The Bears scored three times in the first quarter to set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
Oregon State was the only other team to score against the Bears on the year as the Beavers held Cal to its lowest output of the season in a 17-7 win by the Bears on a frost-tinged afternoon in Corvallis perfect for football.
The Big Game was already a Big Game 100 years ago and this one went the way of the homestanding Bears.
A crowd estimated at more than 30,000 filled California Field to watch the local warriors battle Stanford.
It didn’t take long for Cal to set the tone of the game.
After a fumble on the opening possession Stanford was forced on the defensive for the rest of the game.
The Golden Bears took over following the fumble and marched down the field in six plays before Albert “Pesky” Sprott scored the first touchdown of the game for Cal. Toomey’s conversion kick put the Bears in front 7-0 with seven minutes gone in the game. Irving Toomey kicked a 20-yard field goal later in the first period to put Cal in front 10-0.
The Bears extended their lead to 17-0 in the third quarter on a touchdown run by Jesse “Duke” Morrison.
If Stanford had any designs on mounting a comeback those hopes were wiped out in the final quarter as Cal put the game out of reach.
Sprott scored a pair of touchdowns in the quarter and Morrison added his second scoring run of the day as the Bears used a 21-0 spurt to seal the win.
It was the third straight win for Cal in the series that had resumed in 1918 playing by American football rules instead of rugby, which had been the norm for nine seasons (1906-14). The series was halted for three years (1915-17) before being rekindled.
The 1920 season was also void of the abundance of bowl games at the end of the regular season. There were just three such contests at the time and Cal continued its domination on the year by blanking Ohio State 28-0 in the seventh annual Tournament East-West Football Game. The game would not take on the moniker of Rose Bowl until 1923 when Southern Cal defeated Penn State 14-3..
Sprott rushed 20 times for 90 yards for the Bears and scored a pair of touchdowns against the Buckeyes. He scored on a one-yard run in the first quarter to put Cal in front and added a five-yard scoring run in the second period to help the Bears build a 21-0 halftime lead.
Spott also figured in the second touchdown of the game when he pitched the ball to end Harold Muller, who then hurled the ball downfield to Brodie Stephens for a 53-yard touchdown. Muller was voted to outstanding player of the game.
Ohio State’s All-American Gaylord Stinchcomb led the Buckeyes with 82 rushing yards in the loss.
Cal’s win over the Buckeyes would be the only triumph by a Pacific Coast Conference team in Rose Bowl until the 1953 Rose Bowl when Southern Cal, making its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1948, defeated Wisconsin 7-0. It was the first-ever bowl game for the Badgers.
CAL BEARS ~ 1920 (3-0-0 PCC/9-0-0 Overall)
W-OLYMPIC CLUB 21-0
W-MARE ISLAND MARINES 88-0
W-ST. MARY’S (Calif.) 127-0
W-at Oregon State 17-7
W-WASHINGTON STATE 49-0
Rose Bowl at Pasadena, Calif.
W-vs. Ohio State 28-0
Other Bowl Result
Date Bowl Location Results
Jan. 1, 1921 Fort Worth Classic Fort Worth, Texas Centre College 63, TCU 7
Like California, there was little doubt that Princeton was one of the top teams in the nation in 1920.
The Tigers were declared the co-national champions, along with Harvard by the Board System and by Parke H. Davis after winning six of the seven games played and tying arch-rival Harvard on the next to last weekend of the regular season.
Coach Bill Roper’s Tigers opened the 1920 season with a 17-6 win at home against Swarthmore before shutting out the next three opponents by a combined 83-0. West Virginia snapped that scoreless drought by Tiger opponents thanks to a field goal in a 10-3 loss.
PRINCETON TIGERS ~ 1920 (6-0-1 Overall)
Coach: Bill Roper (7th year)
W-WASHINGTON & LEE 34-0
W-WEST VIRGINIA 10-3
T-at Harvard 14-14
Georgia earned recognition as the top team in the nation by Clyde Berryman after the Bulldogs went through the 1920 season undefeated and finished 8-0-1. It was the first undefeated season for Georgia since posting a 4-0-0 record in 1896 under legendary coach Pop Warner.
Georgia, along with arch-rival Georgia Tech, and Tulane shared the championship of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1920. Georgia and Tech, which did not play each other during the 1920 season, bot went undefeated in SIAA play, along with Tulane.
The Bulldogs were coached by Herman Stegeman, a former assistant who had been elevated to the top position just prior to the start of the 1920 campaign following the resignation of former coach W.A. Cunningham after eight seasons. Stegeman was a former standout at the University of Chicago under legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg.
No team scored through Georgia’s line in 1920, and its backfield was known as the “ten second backfield”.
Georgia opened the season with a 40-0 trouncing of The Citadel, which managed just one first down in the contest.
Hartley sparked Georgia to a 37-0 win at South Carolina the following week by returning the second-half kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. Two minutes later he sprinted 75 yards for another score for the Bulldogs.
Stegeman’s squad won for the third time in as many outings the following week with a 7-0 win on the road in nearby Greenville, S.C., against a talented Furman team. It was the only loss of the season for the Paladins.
A scoreless tie at Virginia on Nov. 6 was all the prevented the Bulldogs from a perfect season.
Georgia would win each of the final three games of the season by a combined 152-14, including shutout wins over Florida (56-0) and Clemson (55-0).
Alabama nearly ended Georgia’s hopes for an undefeated season, but Bulldog star guard Hugh Whelchel had other thoughts. He blocked a pair of Crimson Tide punts that sparked Georgia to a 21-14 win over Alabama at Ponce de Leon Park in Atlanta as the UGA defense accounted for all three touchdowns in the game.
End Paige Bennett got things started in the first quarter when he returned an Alabama fumble 40 yards for the first score of the game. Whelchel tallied his first punt block later on Alabama’s next possession and teammate Artie Pew picked up the loose ball and ran in from 24 yards out as Georgia extended its lead to 14-0 after the first period.
Alabama would respond by tying the game with touchdowns in each of the next two quarters.
Whelchel rose again in the fourth quarter by blocking his second punt that was recovered by Buck Cheves, who returned it 87 yards for what proved to be the winning points.
On the year Georgia’s “Ten-Second Backfield” helped the Bulldogs outscore their opponents 250-17. No team managed to score through the Georgia line on the season. Quarterback Buck Flowers averaged 10.2 yards per carry to lead the nation in that department.
Georgia Tech, meanwhile, was coached in 1920 by William Alexander, who was in his first season.
The Yellow Jackets had defeated Centre College on Oct. 30 by a 24-0 score in front of 15,000 fans at Grant Field. It marked Centre’s first loss to a southern team since 1916.
Tech’s only loss on the season came on in a controversial game at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh against the Panthers.
GEORGIA BULLDOGS 1920 ~ (8-0-1)
Coach: Herman Stegeman (1styear)
W-THE CITADEL 40-0
W-at South Carolina 37-0
W-at Furman 7-0
W-at Oglethorpe 27-3
W-vs. Auburn 7-0 (at Columbus, Ga.)
T-at Virginia 0-0
W-vs. Alabama 21-14 (at Atlanta – Ponce de Leon Park)
High-scoring Harvard, coached by second-year mentor Bob Fisher, blanked each of its first four opponents in 1920. The Crimson outscored those foes 93-0 before powerful Centre College (Danville, Ken.) snapped that scoreless streak in a 31-14 setback to Harvard.
The Praying Colonels finished the season with an 8-2 record after crushing TCU 63-7 in the Fort Worth Classic, the only other postseason contest of the time. TCU had entered that contest 9-0-0, including wins over Arkansas (19-2) and Baylor (21-9).
Fisher’s Harvard team would defeat Virginia the following week to improve to 6-0-0 on the season. The undefeated streak would come to an end the following week when rival Princeton battled Harvard to a 14-14 tie on Harvard’s home field.
The Crimson would triumph in each of the final two games to close the season.
HARVARD CRIMSON (8-0-1 Overall)
Coach: Bob Fisher (2nd year)
W-HOLY CROSS 3-0
W-at Yale 9-0
The Irish finished the season 9-0-0 and were declared national champions by the Billingsley Report and shared the title with Princeton according to Parke H. Davis.
But, it may be death of one of the first college football icons that is remembered most about the 1920 season.
Notre Dame was led on the season by end Eddie Anderson whose 17 catches and 293 receiving yards were both tops in the nation. He was later named to the All-America team by United Press International (first team) and the NEA (second team).
Following Notre Dame’s 33-7 win over Northwestern on Nov. 20, Gipp became ill and setting the stage for one of the most remarkable stories, whose accuracy has never been fully determined.
One report is that a few nights after returning to South Bend from the win over the Wildcats in Evanston, Gipp missed curfew following a night out. He was reportedly unable to enter his residence and went to the rear door of Washington Hall, which was the school’s theatre building where he worked as a steward knowing the door was often unlocked.
On that night, however, the door was locked and Gipp was forced to sleep outside. By morning the Notre Dame star has contracted pneumonia and died less than one month later.
Gipp had enrolled at Notre Dame to play baseball, but his athleticism was reportedly seen by Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne who encouraged him to play football for the Fighting Irish.
Gipp would go on to lead Notre Dame in rushing each of his last three seasons and finished his career with 2,341 yards rushing. That mark would stand for more than 50 years until Jerome Heavens surpassed it in 1978. Gipp, a six-foot, one-inch, 180 pound fullback, finished his collegiate career with 1,789 passing yards and 21 touchdowns. He added five interceptions during his time in an Irish uniform and averaged 38 yards per punt in his career.
Gipp still tops the Notre Dame charts with 8.1 yards per play in a career and leads the way with an average of 128.4 yards of total offense per career game.
Gipp died on Nov. 14, 1920 at the age of 25 just two weeks after becoming Notre Dame’s first-ever Walter Camp All-American.
Years later Rockne delivered a rousing pep talk to his squad during halftime of a game against Army where he used the famous “win one for the Gipper,” line attributed to the former Notre Dame star.
NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH (9-0-0 Overall)
Coach: Knute Rockne (3rd year)
W-WESTERN MICHIGAN 42-0
W-at Nebraska 16-7
W-at Army 27-17
W-vs. Indiana 13-10 (played in Indianapolis, Ind.)
W-at Northwestern 33-7
W-at Michigan State 25-0
Some other schools also shined bright in 1920, especially Virginia Military Institute and its famed “Flying Squadron.”
Led by running back Jimmy Leech, the Keydets led the nation in scoring. VMI, coached by Blandy Clarskson, outscored its opponents 431-20 on the season.
Leech himself led the country in a number of categories. Despite standing just five-feet, eight-inches tall and weighing just 155 pounds, Leech rushed for a nation-best 1,723 yards and totaled 1,771 yards of total offense. He ran for 26 touchdowns and the year and ended with 210 points.
One sports writer of the time called Leech “one of the greatest broken field runners the country has ever seen.”
Conference Champions ~ 1920
Conference Champion Coach
Big Ten Ohio State John Wilce
Missouri Valley Oklahoma Bennie Owen
Pacific Coast California Andy Smith
Rocky Mountain Colorado State Harry Hughes
South Atlantic VMI Blandy Clarkson
SIAA Georgia Herman Stegeman
Georgia Tech William Alexander
Tulane Clark Shaughnessy
Southwest Texas Berry Whitaker
Other Undefeated Independents
Boston College 8-0-0
Duke (Trinity at the time) 4-0-1
Penn State 7-0-2
Southern Cal 6-0-0
Photo credits: University of California Athletic Communications, University of Oklahoma Athletic Communications, University of Texas Athletic Communications, Ohio State University Archives
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.