IDAHO vs. USC –The 1920s Series (Part I)

From the Pacific Northwest to the National Stage, the Idaho Vandals came to play during the roaring '20s. In 1922 Idaho became a member of the Pacific Coast Conference (the predecessor to today's PAC-10) and began a seven-game series with mighty USC. Writer/historian MARLIN SMITH rolls the clocks back in this multi-part quest looking back at the USC series. Inside, we flash back to 1922.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This Saturday night Idaho faces USC in a game televised on the Pac-12 Network (5:00pm PT kickoff). At one time these teams met as members of the Pacific Coast Conference, the predecessor to the Pac-8/Pac-10/Pac-12 Conference. This is the first of a multi-part story looking back at the seven game series between the University of Idaho Vandals and the University of Southern California Trojans, which ran from 1922 through the 1929 season (the teams did not meet in 1927). Vandal "historian" Marlin Smith has compiled a fascinating and in-depth look back at those Vandal teams and that era of Vandal football, with a special focus on the USC series.


FROZEN IN TIME - University of Idaho quarterback Vernon L. "Skippy" Stivers, a Second Team All-American (1924), takes it around end against USC, in a game played at the Rose Bowl in 1922.

The USC Trojans and the Idaho Vandals. Those are two names that haven't been tied together very often in recent decades. The last time Idaho played USC was 2007, a 38-10 loss to the No.1 ranked team in the America at the time. However, that wasn't the case in 1922 when the University of Idaho and the University of Southern California joined what was then known as the Pacific Coast Conference together. The Vandals of Idaho, who earned their nickname due to the destructive power of Hec Edmundson's basketball team in 1917, got their invitation after years of being a major player on the Northwest's athletic scene. Now, as a member of the PCC, Idaho would be venturing into new territory and for the first time be battling the coastal football powers in California. This meant that the Vandals would soon be meeting their new conference brethren, the USC Trojans, on the field of competition for the first time. It didn't take long for the trash-talking to start.

When the Idaho Argonaut (UI's student newspaper) first announced the scheduling of Southern California in February of 1922, it did it in the following manner. "All precedents will be broken next fall when the Idaho football squad will journey to the land of the prune pickers to engage the University of Southern California at Pasadena for the first battle between these two new members of the Pacific Coast Conference." Not to be outdone in the smack department, in a caption underneath a photo of Idaho's coaching staff that was printed in the official 1922 Idaho-USC game program, the Trojans had this to say. "Here are the four athletic wizards of the Russians at Moscow. These men teach the spud growers how football is played in the Pacific Coast Conference."

Talking aside, the Vandals knew the importance of their new rivalry with USC from the start. In a preseason report published on September 17th, 1922, the Argonaut had this to say about the Vandals upcoming game with the Trojans. "Probably the biggest game Idaho will play as regards to conference importance will be the contest with the University of Southern California at Los Angeles. This will be a battle between the two newest members of the Pacific Coast Conference, and will be watched with great interest throughout the country."

The USC Trojans hadn't always been a big name on the national football scene. In fact, they were pretty new to the game. It wasn't until Elmer "Gloomy" Henderson took the reins of the program in 1919 that it looked like that the Trojans were going to be anything special. Henderson received his nickname from a sportswriter due to his characteristic downplaying of the Trojan's chances prior to ballgames. In reality, he seldom had much reason to worry. He coached the Trojans to an undefeated 1920 season, which included wins over Stanford and Oregon. This got the attention of the Pacific Coast Conference and USC was voted into the league under his direction. They'd use it to their full advantage and almost immediately transform themselves into a major player in the world of college football.

Vandal Head Coach Robert L. "Matty" Mathews

For Idaho, the 1922 season would be filled with newness. In addition to playing in a new conference, Idaho would also have a new coach and a new system of play. This was the result of Coach Thomas Kelly's decision to resign his Idaho position after a moderately successful 1921 football campaign and return to the University of Missouri, where he would become their new athletic director. The Vandals would turn to Robert L. "Matty" Mathews to direct their athletic program and coach their football team. Mathews came to Idaho from the University of Washington where he coached the freshmen football team to an undefeated season and a top national ranking. Prior to his stint at Washington, he had been a successful coach and administrator at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. His football pedigree could have hardly been better since he had a successful playing career at Notre Dame, where he was on the same team as Knute Rockne for one season. After his first look at his new Vandal team, he called his players "natural fighters" and said that he had enough experience to know what he was talking about.

As the 1922 Idaho football season approached, no one really knew what to expect. The well-known sportswriter for the Portland Oregonian, L.H. Gregory, said that "Idaho could not have found a better man" than Coach Mathews. However, I'm sure that not every Vandal was immediately sold. Matty had his own ideas and ways of doing things. One of his first decrees was to ask the Idaho student body to do everything in their power to help him enforce the training rules that he set for his team. Some of them were no doubt sensible such as having his players in bed by 10:30 pm. He was also probably ahead of his time when he banned smoking. But, when he said no drinking, he meant it! He wanted his players to limit their consumption of milk and if possible drink no water during meals. He did want them to drink as much water as possible in between meals, and allowed one cup of coffee or tea a day. He was a believer in having a team that was light and fast. Therefore, he absolutely forbade his players from eating sweets or eating anything at all for that matter in between meals. He even asked them to limit their meat consumption and said that they could have no pork whatsoever. But, hey, at least he demanded that the players shower after practice, as long as they went straight home to avoid the possible chance of exposure. Such was the life of a Vandal football player in 1922.

STARS OF THE DAY - University of Idaho leaders Sylvester "Syb" Kleffner, Vernon L. "Skippy" Stivers, and Frank Kinnison.

The first game in which the Vandals represented the Pacific Coast Conference was played in Walla Walla, Washington against a Whitman team that had upset Idaho in the last game of the previous season. A lot of Idaho fans wanted the Vandals to teach the Missionaries a lesson in revenge. But, that wouldn't happen against a tough Whitman team. The only scoring in the contest would be when Idaho's Bob Fitzke dropkicked a 30 yard field goal. The Vandals would escape with a 3-0 win in Matty's first game as head coach. His job as the new Idaho mentor wouldn't get any easier. The second game on the schedule involved a trek to Seattle to face a powerful Washington team. The Vandals weren't given much of a chance to come away with a victory.

In front of 20,000 Seattle fans, Coach Mathews and his Vandals put forth a performance that would get the attention of football fans around the region. Idaho was outweighed by almost 20 pounds per man but that didn't stop them from shutting down Washington's offense. The feat was all the more impressive because Matty didn't make a single substitution during the entire game. The only scoring in the contest came about when Idaho was punting out of its own end zone. Captain Beany Breashears lost the handle on the ball after a poor snap. He recovered the fumble but the play resulted in a safety for Washington. The final score was Washington 2, Idaho 0. The Argonaut called it "nothing short of a technical victory" under the headline "Superb Playing Of Vandals Startles All The Northwest." However, Idaho's fine performance still didn't stop them from puzzling over what the score would have been had field goal kicker Bob Fitzke entered the game.

The outcome of the Washington game caused Vandal spirits to soar. The timing couldn't have been better because Washington State was coming to Moscow in style. It was reported that WSC had arranged to have a train with thirteen coach cars carry the Cougar contingent across the border to Idaho. The game itself was called "a fight from start to finish." Idaho's quarterback Syb Kleffner scored first in the game and the Vandals would go into the half up 9 to 5. After a scoreless third quarter, the tide turned in favor of WSC when Bray scored for the Cougars in the fourth. This made the score 12 to 9 in favor of Washington State. Then, on a day when the breaks seemed to go against Idaho, moments later WSC's Hickey intercepted a Vandal pass and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown. The Cougars missed the extra point but still won 18-9.

Idaho's loss to Washington State didn't prevent them from going into the Oregon game, played in Portland, as the favorites. The two teams had tied in 1921 and the Webfoots hadn't done much to impress the critics at that point in the 1922 season. However, the experts would turn out to be wrong about the Oregon team that would eventually end the season with a 6-1-1 record. The Vandals would find this out front of 10,000 fans at Portland's Multnomah Field, where the Idaho contingent was reported to be well-represented and rivaled their Oregon counterparts in the cheering department. The game itself was played on a wet field with a slippery ball. Idaho out-gained Oregon in the yardage department. The most impressive statistic was that Idaho had 128 yards of passing to Oregon's 25. But, while the Vandals could move the ball, they couldn't find a way to score. Oregon did manage a second quarter field goal though and that would prove to be enough. The Webfoots defeated the Vandals 3-0. From the Idaho perspective, the "Oregon Jinx" had held true to form.

Idaho would have no time to reflect on historic jinxes because soon they would leave on a long trip that would take them to Southern California for the first time. The Vandals began their trek south by stopping in Boise and beating a previously undefeated Utah team 16-0. They then traveled by train to Pasadena where they would face the Trojans. At least in the eyes of the Moscow bunch, a berth to the Rose Bowl was on the line. The reasoning was that the best team in the PCC in 1922, the California Bears, said that for unknown reasons that they would not accept an invitation to the game. Stanford had already scheduled a New Year's Eve game against Pittsburgh and they weren't going to change their plans. This left Southern California as the only likely Rose Bowl representative out of the West. This lead the Argonaut to conclude, "If Idaho defeats her (USC) this coming Saturday, Idaho will more than likely get the opportunity of her lifetime by playing Penn State on New Year's Day at Pasadena."

But, to make a return trip to the Rose Bowl stadium, Idaho would have to get through the Trojans first. Even ardent Idaho supporters knew that Idaho had their hands full with a USC team that came into the contest with a 7-1 record. Ironically, the one loss that USC had may have scared Idaho more than the Trojan's wins. A week after USC lost to a very powerful California team 12-0, the Bears routed Washington State 61-0. Since the Cougars had defeated the Vandals 18-9 earlier in the season, the results of the Cougars foray into California was shocking. It was hoped that the Vandals would fare better, but they were in unknown territory.

PAYBACK - Washington State won the 1922 game played in Moscow, but Idaho returned the favor by beating he Cougs in Pullman in 1923, 14-0.

Idaho entered their 1922 game against USC as 2 to 30 point underdogs, depending on whose prediction you wanted to listen to. Back at the Argonaut, they didn't want to hear it. "Idaho is the great upsetter of dope (akin to beating the spread these days), and the upcoming game is no exception. The Idaho team is going to Pasadena with the determination of fighting, and they will fight. Inspired with the victory over Utah, they will face the Trojans to fight over every inch of the gridiron, and a Southern California player will never cross the Idaho goal line without knowing that "Idaho Fights." Southern California may win, but they will win only by fighting and fighting hard every minute, against a team which may be outplayed, but never outfought." On the USC side, they said "The Vandals are determined to defeat the Trojans and the bitterness of their narrow defeats will urge them to play beyond their strength. Back in 455 the Vandals sacked Rome. Will they sack the Trojan camp today?"

A crowd of 12,500 football fans showed up to watch Idaho and Southern California face off for the first time on November 18th, 1922. This was the largest USC home crowd of the season for a non-California PCC opponent. At the time, both Idaho and USC appeared to be up and coming PCC teams so the inaugural match-up between the two attracted additional interest. The crowd at the Rose Bowl that day would not go home disappointed because the Vandals had come to play. According to the Argonaut, "The Vandals astounded the football critics of the coast by forcing Coach "Gloomy" Henderson's men to resort to the forward pass to win. The Vandals battled the Trojans from the start to finish and the USC eleven knew that they were in one of the hardest football games of their season. The crowd of Southern Californians witnessed a football game in which the outcome was in doubt from the very start of play. Even the most rabid USC well-wisher thrilled at the gallant fight of the Idaho men…."

What was so impressive about Idaho's 14-0 loss? Well, for starters the Vandals marched to the USC 5 yard line on three different occasions only to lose the ball on downs. Then, one of USC's touchdowns occurred early in the game after an Idaho fumble deep in their own territory. The Vandal line held until fourth down. That was when a Trojan named Galloway whipped a pass to Pathian for a TD. Later, the second Trojan TD was made by Pathian on a pass from Tiernan. To sum it up, Idaho's lines held up all day but they got beat by a couple of pass plays. On offense, Idaho was led by Skippy Stivers. He often startled the crowd by making good gains on end runs. The Vandals lost the game but opened up a lot of eyes in Southern California. As the Argonaut said, "USC may well look out for Idaho next season."

To end the 1922 season, Idaho would lose a tough game to Gonzaga, 14-7, but soundly defeat Montana 39-0. The team finished the season with a disappointing 3-5-0 record, but never lost by more than 14 points. This young team could play defense, and they would set the stage for the next few years.

UP NEXT.... The Vandals go into the 1923 season as one of the favorites to win the PCC Crown, as USC moved into the newly completed Memorial Coliseum.

IDAHO AND THE PCC: A brochure describes Idaho athletics during the '20s.

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