A tale of two Rose Bowl teams: Nittany Lions head to Pasadena a century after 1922 team

Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times, file

There are a few curious parallels between Penn State’s 2022 Rose Bowl-bound team and the Nittany Lions of exactly a century ago who also played in the Rose Bowl.

For Coach James Franklin’s 2022 squad, the trip to Pasadena is a chance for redemption after losing to the two teams that matter most to the fan base: Michigan and Ohio State. The 1922 Lions were in a similar spot. They had dropped games to the two foes that counted to their fan base: the Penn Quakers and the Pitt Panthers. And the alumni were not one bit happy about it.

Franklin, operating in the first year of a 10-year contract, makes his second trip to the Rose Bowl. In 1922, the Penn State coach was Hugo Bezdek. He also was in the first year of a 10-year contract and it was his third visit to Pasadena. Bez remains the only coach to take three teams to the Rose Bowl: Oregon, the Mare Island Marines and Penn State.

Right there, Franklin has to hope, the parallels need to end. The 1922 Nittany Lions lost their Rose Bowl game, the first to be played in the current stadium in Pasadena, by a 14-3 score to Gloomy Gus Henderson’s Southern Cal Trojans.

Throughout Franklin’s tenure at Penn State there has been annual speculation that he is headed to other universities to coach their teams. The rumor mill, however, has been quiet in 2022. But that was not the case in 1922 for Hugo Bezdek. During the second half of that season, he had a live job offer in hand from another team.

The Philadelphia Phillies of baseball’s National League were looking for a replacement for manager “Kaiser” Wilhelm. The Kaiser had been forced to abdicate after leading his team to a seventh-place finish. The Phils offered the job to Bezdek.

Why would a baseball team try to hire a football coach? Because Bez was a rare bird indeed. He had not only coached undefeated football teams at Oregon, Arkansas and Penn State, he had also been a successful manager in major league baseball, leading the Pittsburgh Pirates to winning campaigns in 1918 and 1919. He later embedded himself in the record books by being the only man to manage a major league baseball team and coach a team in the NFL (the Rams).

Football coaches hate distractions. Bezdek’s Phillies flirtation was a major disruption, impeding his ability to go 1-0 against the opponent of the week. Just like this year’s Penn State team, the 1922 Lions started the season 5-0. The acceptance of the Rose Bowl bid was announced Oct. 27 and the Phillies’ job offer was revealed shortly after.

From that point on, Penn State won only one game and headed to Pasadena with a 6-3-1 record. The Rose Bowl committee must have wished they had waited and given the bid to Princeton, which went 8-0 that year against a tough schedule. Cornell was also undefeated.

Still, despite the late-season swoon, the Lions were not far removed from a 30-game unbeaten streak, which ended in November 1922 and included one win and two ties against archrival Pitt.

Just as a segment of the Penn State fan base today is never going be satisfied unless Franklin’s team beats the Wolverines or the Buckeyes, a portion of the 1922 alumni, particularly those from Pittsburgh, were steamed over Bezdek’s season-ending 14-0 loss to Pitt.

We can’t know for certain if Bezdek was serious about taking the Phillies job. Like prominent coaches of his day and ours he was an experienced job hopper. The more likely explanation is that he used the offer to solidify his position at Penn State. If it was indeed a staring contest between Bezdek and the alumni, the old grads blinked first.

In a Nov. 28 telegram, a prominent Pittsburgh alumnus, James Milholland, wired Bezdek saying: “LISTEN OLD FELLOW WHEN I SAY I’D LIKE TO HAVE YOU AT PENN STATE ALWAYS I AM SPEAKING FOR THE VERY GREAT MAJORITY OF THE ALUMNI MAY YOU SEE YOUR WAY CLEAR TO STAY WITH US.”

Within days of receiving Milholland’s mollifying message, Bezdek made his choice to stay at Penn State. Students, who had been carrying banners that read, “Don’t You Go, Bezdek” were jubilant. The decision was framed as a triumph of educational idealism over crass commercialism. That was a stretch. Bezdek earned $20,500 dollars in 1922, according to Ridge Riley in his “Road to Number One” book. That’s equivalent to $362,000 in 2022 money — top shelf compensation for a football coach in those pre-television days.

Bezdek never did find success against Pitt, winning only once in 12 tries before he “resigned” under pressure from the Pittsburgh alumni in 1929 and became the equivalent of athletics director at Penn State, a post he held through 1936. He died in 1953 and no official representative of Penn State attended his funeral.

Another obvious parallel: In 1922, being a major college football coach was a highly lucrative but extremely uncertain way to make a living. In 2022 it’s pretty much the same.

Dick Jones is author of a 2,400-word profile of Hugo Bezdek that appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of “Mansion Notes,” the newsletter of the Centre County Historical Society.