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

THE 1925, '26, AND '27 SEASONS WERE A PHENOMINAL ERA of Vandal football. During that stretch Idaho hosted USC in 1925, beat Oregon for the second year in a row in 1925, broke in a new coach in 1926, and won a share of the Pacific Coast Conference title in a one-loss season in 1927. Inside this edition writer Marlin Smith touches on each year, focusing on the 1925 UI-USC game played in Moscow.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In this, the third installment of Marlin Smith's four part analysis of Idaho's 1920s series with USC, the 1925, '26, and '27 seasons are explored and reveal that the Vandals hosted the Trojans in Moscow and claimed a share of the Pacific Coast Conference title during that span.

Vandal Football Formation (1925)

THE 1925 SEASON - Idaho hosts USC in Moscow

The 1925 Vandal football season would be different! On the downside, Idaho would lose 9 important players from their 1924 team. However, this did little to dampen enthusiasm around Moscow and elsewhere. The Argonaut stated "There is every reason to believe that Idaho will turn out as good a brand of football as ever-and this has made Idaho one of the most feared teams up and down the Pacific coast. There is a wealth of material left from last year's squad, with the addition of freshmen who won the freshmen championship of the conference."

As usual, it wasn't just Idaho's Argonaut that was impressed with the Vandals. L.H. Gregory, special sportswriter for the Portland Oregonian, visited Moscow and wrote a comprehensive and mighty optimistic report after sizing up Idaho's football material. Gregory noted that while Idaho was the smallest school in the conference that they were also the fastest growing. Enrollment in the fall of 1925 was 1800 students, a gain of 400 over the previous year. This growth helped out on the football field. When Coach Mathews arrived at Idaho in 1922, he had a team of 33 men with only 14 being first string material. However, in the fall of 1925 Idaho had 120 freshmen turn out for football and 70 players on the varsity team, with around 40 of them deemed as being starting material.

Optimism surrounded the Vandal football camp in 1925 but perhaps the most confident man of all was Coach Mathews himself. This is perhaps why he turned down offers of up to $10,000 a year to leave Idaho during the off-season, even though he only made $2,500 a year serving as Idaho's football coach and athletic director when he was hired in 1922. He said "There is something more than more dollars involved. Idaho has had her troubles. We have had lean years. The University has withstood hard knocks. Every man associated with its leaders has endeavored to share them. The student body radiates loyalty. Hence, I am glad they want me to stay with them and fight. They have given me wonderful cooperation. And, I am proud of the boys who have given their best so that Idaho might win. They have been a part of me." On his part, Idaho's President Upham stated "We are immensely gratified that Mr. Mathews is willing to continue at Idaho."

Coach Mathews went on to say prior to the season "We will start with the most willing material that has ever stepped into cleated shoes. I say we shall have a good team despite the loss of so many competent veterans-why not? The material is here. If we don't, it will be because the coaching staff falls down on its opportunities. But, as far as material and replacements, we are better off than ever before. Can we teach them smart enough football to take advantage of their breaks? That's the only question."

The biggest change for Idaho in the 1925 season was that the Vandals wouldn't have to face USC in Los Angeles because the Trojans were coming to Moscow for their only road game of the season. As the Argonaut states, "Idaho's biggest football game in years will be Oct. 30 when the Trojans come up from Southern California to battle the Vandals. It will be the first time a California team has played on MacLean Field and it's also the Homecoming game, so the largest crowd in the history of Idaho football is expected to pack the bleachers." In a different article, it was stated that "The game with USC at Moscow will be the gridiron feature of the Northwest."

During the previous season, Idaho had practiced in the snow before traveling to Los Angeles to play in 93 degree heat. Sportswriters in the west also noted that Idaho seemed to play stronger in the first half before wilting in the second. So, it's no wonder that one Idaho fan was quoted as saying in a preseason article that he hoped that the temperature would be 60 degrees below zero when the Trojans came to town. As for the Argonaut writers, they didn't care what the weather was going to be like on October 30th. They just wanted revenge. "The Vandals are out to seek revenge on USC, and they are seeking it hard. The Trojans have won during the last two years by narrow margins with favorable playing conditions. Idaho will be waiting for retaliation against the Trojans."

On the Trojan side, Gloomy Henderson would not be traveling to Moscow with the team. Sometimes it's not how many times you win but who you lose to. By the end of the 1924 season, Henderson boasted a 45 and 7 win-loss record during his time with the Trojans. He had led Southern California into the Pacific Coast Conference and coached them to their first Rose Bowl win over Penn State in 1923. So, what didn't he do? He didn't beat California. In fact, 5 of his 7 losses were against the hated Bears from Berkeley. Henderson's season ending loss to another powerful California football program, St. Mary's, also helped to seal his fate. Therefore, it was decided by USC to buy out his contract at the end of the 1924 season and replace him with Howard Jones. Jones had a long history of coaching success and no doubt one thing that caught USC's attention was when his Iowa club ended Notre Dame's 21 game unbeaten streak in 1921. At first glance, it would appear that the Trojans made a risky move when they fired the biggest winner in the history of their program, Gloomy Henderson. However, the move would turn out to be anything but misguided. Howard Jones would lead USC to unprecedented heights before he died of a heart attack following the 1940 season.


In the lead up to the first game of the 1925 season, it was said that Idaho's football outlook had never been brighter or rosier. That was the feeling before the first game against the College of Idaho, anyway. In that contest, the Vandals were surprisingly only able to eek out an alarmingly close win over the Coyotes, 16 to 14. However, the following week the team began to jell. In front of 7,000 fans in Eugene, Idaho beat Oregon for the second year in a row by the score of 6 to 0. In spite of the low score, the Vandals had twice as much yardage as the Webfoots. The next game on the schedule was the Battle of the Palouse against Washington State in Pullman. A confident Coach Mathews simply said, "We will win!" Before a crowd of 10,000 onlookers, Idaho did, but barely. Washington State's Butch Meeker kicked two 25 yard field goals in the second quarter. Idaho's only score in the game came in the third period when Neal Nelson returned a Cougar fumble 65 yards for a touchdown. Idaho's Reget dropkicked the extra point and that was enough for a 7-6 Vandal lead. The Cougars didn't quit though and made a desperate final drive. Washington State drove to the Idaho 40 yard line where a Meeker pass was picked off by Idaho's Cameron. However, he fumbled the ball and after the dust was settled on the play the Cougars ended up with the ball on the Idaho 28 yard line. With time running out, Meeker attempted a 28 yard field goal. Idaho blocked the kick and ran out the clock on the next play to hold on for the 1 point victory.

At this point in time, Idaho was alone in first place in the Pacific Coast Conference. The only problem with that is that when you're on top there is only one way to go, down. With the USC game looming and the Argonaut reporting there were no rooms to be had in Moscow "for money or affection" because 20,000 people were expected to be in town the following Friday for the game, Idaho had to first travel up to Spokane for a Saturday showdown against Gonzaga. Curiously, Coach Mathews picked the Wednesday before the game to cut his varsity squad from 65 down to 40 men. One has to wonder what effect this had on the morale of his team. In any case, the Bulldogs always seemed to play good Idaho teams great and this fact was not lost on Coach Mathews who said "We expect a battle to win from the Bulldogs." The game itself was played in a blinding dust storm. It was said that it was impossible to see the play from the grandstands during the first and last quarters. In the end, Gonzaga adapted to the harsh conditions better than Idaho did. The Vandals lost the game 12-3. This wasn't the confidence booster that Idaho had hoped for with USC coming to town only six days later.

Idaho hosts USC

On Sunday night like a bad omen on cue, the rain started to fall and the weather would be rainy all week. In spite of the loss and the inclement weather, the show had to go on. Early in the week, the Argonaut had this to say. "Idaho's Vandals, leaders of the Pacific Coast Conference, buckled down last night in preparation for their greatest football game, the battle Friday with the University of Southern California Trojans. A driving rain did not deter the Vandals and they drove through formation work until darkness made play impossible. While the coaching staff is putting the finishing touches on the team, the athletic staff is working at a feverish pace to complete arrangements for the handling of the huge crowd expected for the game. Bleachers are going up on the south side of the field and temporary fencing is being strung up to hold back the crowd."

How big would the crowd be? There was certainly reason for optimism, and concern. The University had reported that 8,500 reserved tickets had been sold prior to the Gonzaga game and they continued to sell fast. They were selling for $3.00 a piece. In contrast, you could watch the Washington State-Washington game the next day in Pullman by paying $2.00 for a reserved seat. Where would the Cougars and Huskies be on the afternoon before their game? In Moscow, of course! All of the regional papers were predicting a crowd of between 12,000 and 15,000. The 10-25-1925 Sunday edition of the Lewiston Morning Tribune said that the Idaho campus was "buzzing" with anticipation and that the Idaho athletic department was working at a "feverish speed to complete arrangements for staging the game, which promises to be the greatest in Inland Empire football history." By Thursday, the paper was announcing that the students of Lewiston High School would be dismissed in order to see the big game. Superintendent Joel Jenifer made the decision with the full backing of the school board. Evidently, it wasn't just the students who wanted to watch some Friday afternoon football!

In 1920, Moscow, Idaho reportedly had a population of around 4,000 people. So, you can imagine the problems that could occur if up to 20,000 football fans hit town at once. Idaho officials certainly did! For starters, they asked fraternity and sorority members to sleep two to a bed. This freed up 50% of their beds for football fans. Then, they divided up Moscow into 8 districts and had teams from the University canvas the entire town in order to make a thorough listing of all possible available rooms and beds. Moscow businesses and stores were asked to make all of their restrooms public on the day of the game. But, they didn't stop there! They also created special traffic regulations and rules. The Moscow police made University students involved in the military official policemen to handle the crowd and the traffic. Traffic control officers would be placed at every major intersection. In addition to this, Moscow citizens were asked to clear the streets of their cars and park them in their garages. If they wanted to see the game, they were asked to walk to it. Yes, the news of all this spread and the word was that if you went to the game you could expect problems due to the enormous crowd that was expected to be on hand.

In an edition published just prior to the ballgame, the Argonaut reported that 12,000 people were already in town. The huge headlines read "Vandals Await Trojans-We Are Determined To Win!" On the field, the sportswriters in Lewiston and Spokane expected an aerial show. On the day before the game, the Spokane Chronicle reported that Moscow was "aquiver" with excitement and predicted "a spectacular battle in the sky." See, in 1924, Idaho had been the premier passing team in the PCC. However, so far in the 1925 season that title had shifted to USC while the Vandals had turned into being more of a running team. It was thought that Idaho would open up their offense against the Trojans. Savvy football fans also knew that winning the contest would be a daunting task for Idaho. It's true that the Trojans came into the Idaho game with one loss on their record, to Stanford 13-9. But, other than that one game, the Trojans had run roughshod over the other five opponents on their schedule to date by a whopping combined score of 270-2. The Vandals though thought that they'd have a different fate.

The USC Trojan contingent arrived in Colfax, Washington on the Thursday before the game. Their traveling party consisted of 33 players, Coach Jones, 2 assistant coaches, 1 physician, 1 trainer and 1 manager. At Colfax, the Trojans were met by an Idaho delegation led by Coach Mathews and were taken by automobile to Moscow. They then practiced on a MacLean Field that had been kept in the best possible condition given the rain. The Vandals had been holding their practices in other parts of campus so as to keep the turf together. This wouldn't be the only change that Idaho would make for the USC game. In that era, Idaho wore crimson jerseys when they played home games. However, the Trojans would be wearing their traditional red uniforms so the Vandals decided to make a change in order to avoid confusion. As a result, the Idaho Vandals would take the field wearing "sweaters of striking blue and white stripes."

As dawn broke on the day of the game, a misty fog had replaced a slow drizzly rain. Then, a chilling west wind came up to clear out the fog. The clouds were threatening but it wasn't raining as the time of the game approached. Nevertheless, the playing surface of MacLean Field would be slippery due to all of the prior precipitation. Fans continued to arrive in town on special trains that were coming in from around the Northwest. Others came in a long stream of mud encrusted automobiles. When the fans arrived, according to the Spokane Chronicle they found a festival style Homecoming spirit "with flags flying along the streets and an air of excitement over all despite the imminence of rain and the presence of a chilling wind."

With the buildup over and the Homecoming festivities completed, the Vandals and Trojans kicked the ball off at 2 pm. In a game in which about everything went wrong for Idaho, USC left no doubt about who the better team was on this particular day. As the Argonaut described in a small article at the bottom of the page, "A mighty cavalcade of Trojans swept over Vandal land from the south and mercilessly trampled Idaho 51-7, in the most crushing defeat it has suffered in years." In the "Gem of the Mountains" yearbook, it said that Idaho met up with a Howard Jones team that was "one of the most aggressive aggregations on the coast, and they demonstrated clearly that they were a powerful and versatile team, completely overpowering their lighter and more inexperienced rivals." The Cougars were more kind. In their student newspaper "The Evergreen," they said "The large score does not necessarily indicate poor playing on the part of Mathew's men. They played hard to hold the California line but were outclassed by a team who had more knowledge of the technical points of football." The Spokane Chronicle seemed agree that Idaho played well saying "It was not Idaho's fault that such a defeat was handed to her, for the Vandals fought and scrapped as they never had before. It was a heartbreaking loss for the big Homecoming crowd."

AT LAST! - After three consecutive tremendous defensive battles against USC, the Vandals finally scored against the Trojans.

Idaho did have one thing go right in the game. For the first time, the Vandals scored against USC and they did it in impressive fashion. In the second quarter, Idaho intercepted a Trojan pass and they started their drive with the ball on their own 5 yard line. A series of passes moved the ball to the USC 30 yard line. Then, a sudden switch in the line allowed Idaho to run the ball down to the 20 yard line. On the next play, Cameron ran far to the side of the field and tore through toward the California goal. Idaho's QB Powers, who had been substituted in for Reget, made a mighty heave and Cameron caught it at the 10 yard line. He then ran it the rest of the way to complete a 95 yard Idaho touchdown drive. The stands went wild as they realized that the Vandals had for at least momentarily conquered the Trojan defense. I'll let the Spokane Chronicle describe the atmosphere that day. "The big Homecoming crowd watched the bearers of Idaho's hopes being pushed back, fighting tooth and nail, but never did for one minute did the volume of encouragement from the loyal rooters who were massed in the University stands flutter. Always they were behind their team with thunderous support at the bad breaks, and when the good breaks came there was a veritable tornado of sound rolling across the field."

How big was the crowd? Well, for starters the student stands were packed with almost everyone affiliated with the school in attendance. It's just that Idaho was a small campus in 1925 and school spirit only went so far. When it came to filling the stadium, Idaho was counting on a lot of people coming into town from Southern Idaho and all over the Northwest. However, this wasn't an easy thing to do in 1925 when the rain was falling and paved roads were a luxury. In addition to this, there had been published reports about how hard of a time Moscow was going to have dealing with the big crowd. When it came to Moscow people, I'm sure that some had to have been miffed enough about the quasi martial law that had been imposed and decided not to walk to the game. This was probably even truer considering the threatening clouds and the cold wind blowing that day. Plus, the loss to Gonzaga right before the game didn't help matters. So, what this boils down to is that for various reasons a great number of people said the heck with it and there were a lot of no-shows. The actual attendance turned out to be less than just the number of reserved tickets that Idaho had reported selling 10 days before the game, which as previously mentioned was 8,500. The current USC media guide lists the crowd as being 5,000 but that is also incorrect. The Moscow and Spokane papers both agree that the actual attendance turned out to be 6,000. Although the crowd was boisterous, the team and the University had to have been disappointed when the game started without the stadium being full. Idaho had been building additional bleachers since the summer break and MacLean Field was set up with seating for 12,000 people at the time of the contest. Even with all of those seats, it was expected to be standing room only as fans spilled out onto the nearby hillsides. But, like a Vandal victory over the Trojans, that was something that simply didn't happen.

There is no way of sugarcoating the fact that USC came to Moscow and dealt the Vandals a demoralizing blow, a hit to the psyche that I'm not sure that the Vandal Nation has ever fully recovered from. There have been many big football games for Idaho since that day in the autumn of 1925, when the powerful USC Trojans came to Moscow to face the Pacific Coast Conference leading Idaho Vandals. However, I'm not sure that there has ever been a time since the moment before kickoff on October 30th, 1925 when the Idaho faithful have more truly believed in their hearts the words to the popular old Idaho song that proclaims the Vandals as being "The Queen Of All The West."

Idaho's season was effectively over even though the Vandals had three more games on their schedule. They would all be losses. The Vandals lost to Montana 20 to 14. Prior to that contest, the once confident Argonaut wrote in a piece called "Preparing For Montana" that "The Vandals have been grimly silent since their defeat last week by Southern California and have no prediction to make on the game." Idaho then went on to Boise where they lost to Oregon State, 16-7. Finally, the Vandals season ended in Omaha, Nebraska with a 34-19 loss to Creighton in a game that was originally set up to be an intersectional battle between Idaho and an Eastern team.

Idaho's once promising season finished up with five consecutive bitter losses. I'm sure that it didn't help Idaho's spirits or state of mind when the Washington State Cougars traveled to USC on November 28th and defeated the Trojans 17 to 12 in front of only 12,000 fans in Los Angeles.

Coach Mathews remained popular but things weren't quite the same. There is a fine line between a genius and a fool and some of his own preseason words came back to haunt him. In addition to his boasting about how well Idaho was going to do during the 1925 season, he also had gotten pretty cocky about his own unorthodox coaching strategies. For instance, in L. H. Gregory's Portland Oregonian piece that was designed to be flattering, Coach Mathews made some comments that didn't sound so smart after a few losses. For instance, he quit using the tackling dummies and stated that he would "waste no time at all on defense." He put it like this. "What Earthly use is there in spending half to two-thirds of a season, or one, building up a bomb-proof defense, when you will be licked three or four times meanwhile through inability to advance the ball when you get it, and your team moral is shot all to pieces. You may have a great defense by that time, but what good is it? The season is nearly over and you're through."

He also went on to declare that football fundamentals were rubbish. "As for all the so-called fundamentals of football, I have no time to fool with them. I won't do it. Two-thirds of the talk about stressing fundamentals is rubbish." So, did prior success go to Mathew's head a little and cause him to lose it? Or, was he a true genius who simply overestimated his hand going into the 1925 season? In any case, his win over WSC would be his last at Idaho. Before the end of spring, Idaho's esteemed Coach "Matty" Mathews would basically leave town on a southbound train to become the new coach at St. Louis University without making any public comments.

THE 1926 SEASON - Idaho gets a new coach

When Mathews left town in April of 1926, Idaho had to scramble to find both a new head football coach and athletic director. After a search when there were over 100 applicants for the position, the Vandals eventually chose Charles F. Erb to be their new leader. Erb was best known as being a three-time All-PCC quarterback during California's glory years in the early 1920s. At first glance, he seemed like a strange choice. His main coaching experience was when he had been the head man for Nevada during the 1924 season. However, Nevada chose not to renew his contract at the end of it. Nevertheless, something about the play of the Wolves in Boise when Idaho beat them 23 to 0 must have been impressive. Many Vandals may have remembered that Coach Mathews had called Nevada the best coached team that the Vandals had faced all year. The Argonaut didn't appear too smitten with their new coach of small stature at first saying that "with his horn rimmed glasses and natty dress, it's easy to mistake him for an undergrad or young professor. He looks like anything but the traditional public perception of a coach."

Football expert L. H. Gregory of the Portland Oregonian was much more kind. He heaped on the praise in favor of Idaho's new coaching choice. He complimented his heady play while at California and said that he has "a fiery spirit." He did warn though that he was in a tough position coming in to the 1926 season and would "have to take a few" at first. But, he went on to say that the PCC had better watch out for Idaho in 1927 when Coach Erb had a chance to fully implement his system. For his part, Erb said that he knew of no better football system than that of his mentor, the recently deceased legendary California coach Andy Smith. Therefore, he was going to teach the Vandals Smith's "Percentage Ball" style of play. To run the system properly, he would need to recruit a good kicker. Curiously, Coach Mathews didn't believe in scoring by the dropkick method. This had been a sore spot amongst the Vandal faithful who more than once saw Idaho fail to win a game because they couldn't kick a field goal.

In addition to other problems like not being at Idaho during spring football and needing to teach an entirely new style of play in the fall, the winter meetings of the PCC had not been kind to Idaho with regards to scheduling. Idaho's lone conference home game would be against Washington State. Although Coach Mathews had been working on getting the Husky game in Spokane, the Vandals would have to travel to Seattle to renew their rivalry with the powerful Washington bunch. Other conference games would have the Vandals traveling to Corvallis and Missoula, but there would be no game with Oregon for the first time in several years. Finally, the Vandals would travel to Los Angeles for their annual clash with the Trojans to finish out their conference play.

Idaho had lost 9 veterans off of the 1925 team and with a new coach and system Vandal fans didn't really know what to expect when the season started. The answer would be not much. In Erb's first game, the Vandals played Montana State to a 0-0 tie in Moscow in a game described as being "three hours of punting, line-building, and fumbling." However, Idaho began to get the feel of "Percentage Ball" in their second game and defeated the University of Montana 27-12. Next, after dispensing with the Coyotes of the College of Idaho 30-6 in Moscow, Idaho outplayed Oregon State on the road but lost on a dropkick after an OSU player picked off an interception and ran it back to the Idaho 13 yard line. The Vandal line didn't budge but the kick made it across the crossbar sealing Idaho's fate by a 3-0 score. From there, the Idaho team traveled to Seattle to face the Washington Huskies on a slick field. They put up a battle early but eventually fell by the score of 26-0.

Idaho vs. Washington

Idaho's next game was the big one at home against Washington State. The Vandals had won three in a row in the series but this time weren't able to score on a very muddy field. After 12 hours of rain, the center of the field was described as a "pool" and the rest of it "an oozing mess." The only scoring in the contest turned out to be two more field goals from WSC's Butch Meeker. The writer in the Argonaut sounded a little disgusted when he wrote "It is coincidental that the Cougars' score last year came from two place-kicks by this midget, eel-hipped football flash." In any case, Meeker's kicking was enough for the Cougars to escape a soggy Moscow with a 6-0 win.

After the Washington State game, Idaho had two weeks to prepare for their upcoming game in Los Angeles against USC. The Argonaut was far enough removed from the previous year's game in Moscow that they were cautiously optimistic going into the contest. "Coach Jones has a more powerful outfit this fall, but Coach Erb and the squad feel confident that no repetition of the 1925 calamity is anywhere near possible. Judging from the spirit shown thus far this season by the Vandals, the Trojans will have to expend every ounce of their strength to win." As for Coach Erb, he predicted that the USC game would be Idaho's toughest battle of the season. To fight it, he would take a team of 20 players into the L.A. Coliseum to take on a 6-1 Trojan team. Their only loss was by one point, 13-12, to an undefeated Stanford club.

For once, Idaho supporters were hoping for sunny weather in California. Why? Well, because Idaho had played much better throughout the season on dry fields. However, when it came to the climate in Southern California, the Idaho people would have been well advised to be careful about what they wished for. Yes, it was another very hot day when the Vandals met up with the Trojans in 1926. I'll let the Argonaut explain. "The grid-graph reports had Idaho calling timeout for Idaho to cool off because the Idaho men are playing with their tongues hanging out from the heat. During one timeout, Coach Erb called the men to the sidelines and stuffed ice down their backs." In spite of the dire sounding reports, the Vandals put up a decent battle that day against the Trojans. However, at the end of the third quarter USC led 28 to 0. The Vandals only score of the day came in the fourth period against USC reserves. The final score would be 28-6 in favor of Southern California.

In researching material for this piece, I've read no accounts of how the boys from Southern California were treated when they ventured up to Moscow, Idaho in the fall of 1925. However, I'd say that the evidence indicates that the answer is very well. I base this on the extra warm dose of Southern California hospitality that USC showered upon the Vandals when they played down there in 1926. Again, I'll let the Argonaut describe it. "A Vandal team on foreign soil never was extended a more genuine hospitality than Coach Erb and his squad received in Los Angeles, according to the player's own reports. Everywhere they went other activity was immediately dropped in order that proper welcome and entertainment might be provided." One of the perks of the trip that was mentioned is that when they got there they found out that USC had arranged to have two buses give them a tour of the motion picture industry. Whatever they did, they quickly made some new friends in Idaho. In fact, special arrangements were made so that the upcoming game between USC and Knute Rockne's Notre Dame squad on December 4th could be shown on grid-graph at the Idaho gym.

Idaho's season was not over, however. Right after the USC game they left for Omaha, Nebraska to play Creighton on Thanksgiving Day. It was a long trip and a short week but that didn't stop the Vandals. Sore from losing to Creighton the previous season, Idaho left Nebraska as 12-0 winners. This ended the Idaho season on a positive note and the new consensus was that the team was better coached under Erb. A postseason Argonaut article gushed "A banner winter is in store for the football stove league at Idaho. Never has there been more food for gossip and speculation or more cause for optimism." There was reason to be positive. Idaho would lose only three lettermen from the 1926 team and "the finest crop of freshmen that Idaho has ever had will be available." In addition to that, Coach Erb would have ample time to solidly establish his "California System."

THE 1927 SEASON - Idaho wins share of PCC Crown Salutes Idaho's 1927 Championship Team

November 19th, 1927. That's the day of the Pacific Coast Conference championship game that was never played. That was the day when Idaho was originally scheduled to play the USC Trojans in Los Angeles. It's just that neither side knew this during the PCC winter meetings when the schedules were being hashed out. USC asked Idaho to move the date of the game to November 5th. However, Idaho felt that this would be ill-advised because that would be only one week before their big game against Washington State. So, negotiations broke down although hope was retained that there would be a way for Idaho and USC to meet in 1927. The Vandals had similar troubles when dealing with Stanford and California. Neither one of those schools wanted to schedule Idaho in 1927, although California promised Idaho a game in 1928. (It didn't happen)

Coach Erb turned out to be much different than his predecessor at Idaho. In his first year of spring ball, he decreed that there was to be no contact to speak of and no scrimmages. Instead, he wanted to spend all of his time on defensive work and fundamentals. He also wasn't about to get caught up in the excitement surrounding Vandal football. He said, "I don't see the reason for all this bally-hooing up and down the coast and in Southern Idaho about us having such a wonderful club this fall." After mentioning several players lost due to graduation, defections and injuries, he went on "I am very much disappointed in Idaho's football outlook for 1927." After spring ball, Coach Erb softened his stance a bit. He said that it was simply unsafe to try and forecast the outcome of any game, much less a whole season that was many months away.

With Memorial Gym under construction, there was a lightness of step on the Idaho campus in the fall of 1927. This feeling of optimism was certainly apparent on the gridiron. Well, if you stayed away from Coach Erb! As for the Argonaut, they ran a big preseason football article in their first fall issue with a headline proclaiming "Banner Football Year Is Vandal Prospect For 1927." It went on to say that the phrase "Watch out for Idaho!" was the word being heard in PCC football camps. "Idaho next to Stanford appears to be the most talked of college in the conference as the 1927 football season, Idaho's sixth in the conference, nears. Everyone agrees that Stanford will repeat and that "Pop" Warner will get another pennant but after Stanford the word seems to be "watch out for Idaho!"

Meanwhile, Coach Erb said that he was at a loss to know where the specialists get their data to justify this prediction. When he was asked to pick the teams in the conference in probably finishing order, he reserved last place for the Vandals. "I'm afraid someone is trying to kid Idaho," he said. "As I see it now we are going to have a tight conference race and any propaganda to make Idaho a second favorite or a leading dark horse is hardly justified." He stayed pessimistic as Idaho's first game with a tough Montana State team approached. (Victims of the Bobcats during the 1926 and 1927 seasons included Colorado, Wyoming, BYU and Utah State so he did have some reason for worry.) He said that if the game was played on a wet field that the "best Idaho can expect is another tie." He did think that Idaho could win on a dry field but said "a loss is not at all unlikely."

With the experts predicting great things from Idaho, the Vandals took care of business in their first game of the season when they beat Montana State 19 to 12. Next up for Idaho loomed a showdown with the University of Oregon in Eugene. The Vandals wouldn't be heavy favorites in the game, but they would be heavy. L. H. Gregory of the Portland Oregonian had traveled to Moscow to witness Idaho's game against Montana State for himself. He had been hearing impressive reports from other coaches in the conference and wanted to see what the fuss was about. As he wrote, "We drove into Moscow fully convinced that Charles Erb would attack Oregon with a line composed of the Cascade Mountains, with Mount St. Helens at quarterback, Mount Hood and Mount Adams for halfbacks, and Mount Rainer for fullback. Having seen Idaho in action, we can say that is a trifle exaggerated---but not much at that."

Idaho on the move against Oregon

Gregory went on to convey his awe of the Idaho team. "Material? Idaho has so much of it for once, and she can hardly use it all. The exceptional thing about it is that these big burly regulars all seem to have unusual speed for their weight, and there are reserves for every position." So, how big and deep was this Idaho team? Well, in 2007 we can chuckle about it. Idaho's two biggest giants on the line weighed 225 lbs and 220 lbs, respectively. Idaho's Mount St. Helens at quarterback, Red Jacoby, tipped the scales at a whopping 150 lbs. As for depth, Coach Erb had cut the varsity squad down to a mere 23 players. On the other hand, at 210 lbs Idaho's Big Bill Kershisnik would probably be a load at fullback in any age. And, of course, one has to judge each team in the time period in which they played. In 1927, Idaho had a team averaging close to 200 pounds and was the heaviest in the PCC. The Vandals' rare combination of speed and power had caused the rest of the league to take notice.

In every account of the 1927 Idaho-Oregon game that I've read, the words "bitterly contested" are used. It was one heck of a battle that started in the first quarter with Oregon stopping Idaho on their 1 yard line. It ended with the Vandals twice throwing back the Webfoot advance on their own 2 yard line as time expired. In between, the two teams played hard and moved the ball all over the field in a seesaw battle. Numerous injuries were reported on the Oregon side as Idaho's "terrific smashing attack terrified the home fans," according to the Gem of the Mountains yearbook. In the Argonaut's account, it said that "startling plays by both teams featured the whole game." Both teams had numerous chances to score. Yet, neither side could get the ball across the goal line or the crossbar. The game ended in a hard-fought 0-0 tie.

The Vandals had a much easier time of it during their next two games, beating Whitman 40 to 0 and Montana 42 to 6. It was said that the Oregon game had changed the Vandals. Prior to the game, the Idaho team had been a joking bunch full of horseplay. After the battle in Eugene, they became a serious group. They knew that winning the PCC would be no easy task. The next game on their schedule would not be easy either. In fact, it was probably going to be their hardest game of the year.

Idaho's opponent was going to be the then college football powerhouse St. Mary's. The game would be played in Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, and it was expected to be sold out. How good was St Mary's? Well, good enough to decisively beat the team that was thought to be the best in the PCC, Stanford, by the score of 16-0.

I'll let the Gem explain how the game went. "Smashing the old dope pail into a thousand bits, the fighting Vandals held the famous St. Mary's gridders to a 3-3 tie. Matching the powerful St. Mary's line in speed and aggressiveness, the Vandal forwards smothered every line play before it got started, and smeared the Saint's brilliant passing game. The whole Idaho team shared the glory that afternoon, coming from behind in the last few minutes to tie the score." The Argonaut called the game "Idaho's greatest achievement." They didn't specify if they were talking about that season, or in history. In any case, it was a big deal for the Vandals to not only play well against a California powerhouse, but battle to a tie on their home field.

The winds of football change were blowing on the Palouse in the fall of 1927. Over at Washington State, Coach "Babe" Hollingbery was working at building up the Cougars into a formidable team that would eventually play in the 1931 Rose Bowl. However, on November 11, 1927 the Vandals refused to budge from their recent position as the most glorified Palouse program. The result was a classic war raged in front of the largest crowd ever assembled at WSC's Rogers Field. The 15,000 in attendance would watch the favored Vandals out-gain the Cougars 231 yards to 72 yards and Idaho had 13 first downs compared to 2 for WSC. Yet, the Vandals could muster only one touchdown in the game when Big Bill Kershisnik went over the Cougar goal line in the first quarter. It looked like that score would be enough but an Idaho player muffed catching a punt. The ball rolled into the end zone and when the pile was cleared Jenne of WSC had the ball. That made the score 7 to 7, which held until the final gun. The Vandals had tied the Cougars. It would take Idaho until 1950 to equal this feat against their archrivals from across the border and it wouldn't be until 1954 that the Vandals would once again taste victory in the series.

Idaho drives against OSU

The next game scheduled for the undefeated Idaho Vandals was a contest at Multnomah Field in Portland against a formidable Oregon State bunch. The team that was beginning to call themselves the Beavers (other nicknames were Aggies and Orangemen) hadn't lost a game against Northwest PCC foes in three seasons and were coming off an impressive win over archrival Oregon by the score of 21-7. This game was to be a big one! The demand for tickets caused the construction of new bleachers shortly before the game. For Idaho, a guaranteed share of the PCC football title was on the line because the crown went to the school with the best winning percentage in conference play. By this measure, Idaho remained in a tie with Stanford and USC since none of the three schools had lost a game on the year.

To boost Vandal spirits and entertain the crowd, the famed Idaho pep band went along on the trip. The band was a tremendous hit with the Portland people who were calling the organization the best of its kind in the country. So, the stage was set for a great day for the University of Idaho in the city of Portland. The Vandals would not disappoint. After giving up a stunning touchdown to the Oregon State on the fourth play of the game, the Vandals went on to dominate the action. As the Argonaut described it, "The powerful Idaho eleven conquered Oregon State 12-7 Saturday in a contest which was hard fought and full of thrills. The score in no way tells the story of the game, for after the first two minutes of play the Orangemen failed to carry the ball past the Idaho 30 yard line, while the Vandals were ever threatening. The Vandals outclassed the Beavers in all departments of the game and the Orangemen were fortunate to keep the score low." Another article said that the Vandals put on the best exhibition of football that Multnomah had seen in years, and that included the Stanford team that had played there earlier in the season.

L. H. Gregory of the Oregonian was very impressed with what he had seen out of Idaho and began a push to get the Vandals into the Rose Bowl. Calling Idaho a great team in an article entitled "Idaho Competent To Represent West", he said the following. "In the opinion of this sportswriter the Vandals are in line for the Tournament of Roses game at Pasadena. Idaho's bid has gone to the management of the tournament for the right to represent the west in the annual New Year's classic. The Pasadena officials need have no fear that Idaho would not represent the west competently. The Vandals Saturday looked the equal of any team on the coast."

So, the Idaho Vandals were on the verge of a possible trip to the Rose Bowl. They had beaten or tied every opponent on their 1927 schedule. Well, almost that is. There was still a game in Spokane against Gonzaga on Thanksgiving Day. Idaho was favored by at least a touchdown and not particularly worried about it. They should have been for as the Argonaut said after the game "pride goeth before a fall." Plus, although the Bulldogs hadn't played a very tough schedule, the game would technically be between undefeated Gonzaga and undefeated Idaho. It would also turn out to be the Vandals vs. one great Bulldog player named Fanny Hunting.

In the game, all accounts describe how Gonzaga QB Fanny Hunting had the day of his life in his final game with the Bulldogs. He punted, passed, returned punts, skirted the ends with bewildering speed, and figured in every play. Oh, he also scored both touchdowns as Gonzaga pasted an overconfident Idaho team 13-0. It was for sure a big letdown game for the Vandals. As the Argonaut told it, "The lineup was the same but in both cases the spirit and fight was lacking. The Vandal shield, kept spotless in seven battles blathered a blot in the eighth and last. It was a pretty heartbreaking way to end a lovely season." No, the Vandals would not be going to the Rose Bowl. However, Captain Charles "Chuck" Diehl, Idaho's star guard, would accept an invitation to play in the annual East-West All-Star game in San Francisco.

It had still been a great season for Idaho. As the Argonaut recapped, "Although they dropped the last game to Gonzaga in a terrific upset, the Vandals finished the season with this one defeat marring their record and in a tie with the University of Southern California and Stanford for the Pacific Coast grid title. This is the first time that Idaho has reached this height since her entrance in the coast conference. Erb had plenty of material to work with this year and turned out a team that was respected up and down the coast. If the Vandals had taken Gonzaga, as they were doped to do, Idaho would have been the only undefeated eleven this side of the Rocky Mountains. Erb turned out a nice job this year, but he should put a team on the field next year which will bring back the coast conference championship at the end of the season. This is setting a pretty high goal, but it can be done."

Now, about that 1927 PCC title that Idaho shared. See, not everyone agreed that the Vandals deserved it. Their final conference record was 2 wins, 0 losses and 2 ties. Stanford and USC, who tied each other in a gallant battle 13-13, each had records of 4 wins, 0 losses and 1 tie. Furthermore, Idaho had not played either California school or a strong Washington club. To be fair, the Gem also states that Idaho made every effort to schedule the California PCC schools and the fact that they ended up not playing Idaho "was no fault of hers." In any case, the Vandals were mathematically conference co-champs. But, in their hearts did they feel like it? The answer is a resounding yes! The reason is that Stanford (who beat Pittsburgh in the Rose Bowl) and Idaho had one common opponent, St. Mary's. The Saints had thoroughly beaten the Cardinals 16-0 but could only manage a 3-3 tie with the Vandals. When you take this reasoning into account along with the fact that USC and Stanford played each other to a tie of equals, the Vandals of Idaho certainly felt like the champs they were.

As L.H. Gregory summed up, in 1927 "Idaho's eleven looked every inch a champion aggregation."

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