The greatest WSU football story ever

IN 1915, THE Washington State football team made an improbable run from obscurity to national prominence in a single season. This team of scrappy farm kids and laborers had little to celebrate the previous season, losing so badly to Washington that UW coach Gil Dobie declared his team would never play Washington State again.

Washington State President Enoch Bryan needed to do something bold. His college was under serious attack from lawmakers who questioned if the state even needed two universities. So he reached out across the country to hire William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz as the new head football coach.

Trained at the Carlisle Indian School under Pop Warner and alongside running back Jim Thorpe, Dietz brought an entirely new way of playing the game to Pullman.

The result was a transformation in how the rest of the country viewed West Coast football. Tracing the route offers glimpses into the nation's Indian Wars, early Hollywood movie-making and the distant guns of European battlefields moving the U.S. closer to World War I.

Intrigue, romance, courage, determination, strategy and serendipity all meet in the tale of this team, making these players and coaches truly one of the great stories in college football history.

IN THE DAY, COLLEGE FOOTBALL was still in its infancy on the West Coast, fighting for respectability against eastern teams, many of whom had become household names. At the same time, organizers in Pasadena were trying to figure out how to draw crowds and attention to the annual Tournament of Roses Parade. When the committee settled on hosting a national college football competition inviting the two best teams in the country, the pathway was set.

Enter the team from Washington State.

Following the innovative strategies and knowledge of Dietz, this collection of undersized players would become giants on the field, and soon Washington State would be a household name across America. Each game became a new strategy and a new challenge. But when the dust had settled on the regular season, writer’s across the nation were declaring them to be among the best.

The Tournament of Roses committee selected Washington State to represent the West with Brown University (by virtue of having knocked off powerhouse Yale and Carlisle) to represent the East. In the backfield for Brown was Fritz Pollard, nicknamed the “human torpedo.” Brown would later become the first black player and coach in the NFL.

What few have known is that the night before the big game, Coach Dietz didn’t think his team could win. Pollard was just too powerful. While his players had done a magnificent job putting outscoring opponents to the tune of 190-10, Dietz believed he just didn’t have an answer. Odds makers agreed, making Brown a 3-to-1 favorite.

What no one counted on was the weather.

Heavy rains poured all New Year’s Eve, leaving the field a muddy mess. In the soupy conditions, Pollard could not get any traction. The morning of the game, Dietz changed his team’s entire game plan. Assistant coach Doc Bohler had somehow come up with extra-long “mud cleats” that would also give the team an advantage.

In the first half, the teams played to a scoreless tie. The relentless no-huddle attack of Washington State had Brown players so exhausted, they dropped to the field in exhaustion as halftime began. The second half was all Washington State. Time after time, the team plunged into the vaunted Brown defense as they worked their way downfield ending in the end zone not once, but twice.

Washington State would win 14-0. In a game that was played 100 years ago.

In the words of WSU athletic director Bill Moos, “Cougs everywhere can stand proud knowing the first Rose Bowl Championship was our championship.” Members of the team were forever changed. Many went on to become statesmen, football coaches and war heroes. The names of many still adorn buildings at Washington State University in their honor. Clark Hall, Bohler Gym and Kruegel Hall all stand in tribute to their accomplishments. As WSU alum Keith Jackson (’54) said, “The Rose Bowl has become a masterpiece of our society and Washington State was there at the very beginning.” Jackson, an ABC Sportscaster who coined the Rose Bowl Game’s signature phrase, “The Grand Daddy of Them All.”

Championship college football was born.

Washington State would stand as its first champion.

Darin Watkins is the author of the brand new book, "Chance for Glory, The Innovation and Triumph of the Washington State 1916 Rose Bowl Team." It's available on Amazon and soon will be carried in Costco stores in the Pacific Northwest. It's also available through Watkins is a WSU graduate and the director of communications for WSU's Murrow College of Communication.

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