Penn vs. Oregon: The 1917 Rose Bowl

Oregon's Shy Huntington runs around the right end.

The Oregon Ducks won their third Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day over Florida State. Their first win in the Rose Bowl came against a local squad, the powerful Penn Quakers.

The Quakers were led by quarterback Bert Bell, who would later found the Philadelphia Eagles. The Webfoots were led by brothers Hollis and Shy Huntington. Shy was not only the QB, but also a star defensive back, and had been named All-American.

The Quakers came into the game heavily favored, as the East was known for a more physical brand of football than the West. The Quakers also featured four All-Americans. Before the game, Oregon coach Hugo Bezdek lamented, “I’ve got only overgrown high school boys, while Penn can field a varsity of big university strength. We haven’t a chance.” As humble as Bezdek was, Penn’s coach Bob Folwell was equally as boisterous: “We are going to put a team on the field that won’t be licked and consequently can’t be licked.” Aw snap!

Penn's backfield, from L to R: QB Bert Bell, FB Ben Derr, and HB Joe Berry (Berry would later play 13 games in the Major Leagues.)

Penn’s backfield, from L to R: QB Bert Bell, FB Ben Derr, and HB Joe Berry (Berry would later play 13 games in the Major Leagues.)

It was a very different brand of football than we watch today. The forward pass was nothing more than a gimmick. In fact, if a team passed into the end zone and the ball fell incomplete, the other team got possession. The QB had to be at least 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage when passing. You could only throw the ball once per series of downs. The ball was stubby and nearly round, much closer to a rugby ball than a modern football.

It was also a very different world. Many of the players on the field that day would later serve in WWI, including Bert Bell. It took the Penn team almost two weeks to make the cross-country trip. And there was no radio yet, so it was impossible to hear the game live. But it was possible to watch it live…sort of. In Eugene, a vaudeville theatre advertised that they’d be carrying the Rose Bowl live, and an overflow crowd packed the theatre to “watch”. Here’s how: there was a guy backstage who received play by play via telegraph. He then relayed that info to an announcer onstage, and there was a large plywood board onstage that looked like a football field, similar to the one below.

football field

There was then a production of the game onstage. There was a system of ropes and pulleys that sent the ball back and forth across the field as the announcer described the action he was receiving from the telegraph operator. (You can learn more about this contraption in an excellent piece on Benzduck.com) The telegraph operator, Mac McKevitt, would describe the excitement of that game in a 1931 newspaper piece:

ShyMcKevitt took the results of that game play-by-play off the wire and gave them to the announcer at the Heilig theater. The house was packed, Eugene fans were standing in the aisles and clear back to the top of the balcony. The little gridiron was rigged up on stage, and the miniature football was being worked back and forth with the plays. “Mac” remembers getting the message and giving it a word at a time to the announcer: “HUNTINGTON …. MAKES …. TOUCHDOWN!” Pandemonium broke loose, and Mac couldn’t find out whether Oregon converted the [extra] point because the place was so full of noise that he couldn’t hear the ticker, even with his ear down against it. McKevitt was sitting on the stage, with the footlights turned on, and he said as he looked out over the glare of the lights, the theater looked like a giant fountain with hats, coats, sweaters, everything being thrown into the air.”

The Huntington in question was the Oregon stalwart Shy, who would turn out to be the star of the game. The QB would run for 69 yards and a TD on offense, throw for a TD, secure three second half INTs on defense, and the Webfoots pulled off a 14-0 upset.

It was a turning point for college football, as it proved that West Coast teams, which had been held scoreless in the previous two Rose Bowls, could compete with the East Coast teams. As for the two teams involved, it would be Penn’s first and last appearance in a bowl game, though they would be named co-National Champions in 1924 along with Notre Dame. Oregon would lose their next four appearances in the Rose Bowl before finally getting over the hump in 2012.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with Facebook