Thomas Edwards on Whitman Football
By G. Thomas Edwards, Whitman professor of history, emeritus
Some personal observations — In the fall of 1949 I became aware of Whitman football while playing in the Willamette band at a “Whip Whitman” banquet. This tradition terminated because there was little excitement in this old rivalry; Lewis and Clark became a stronger opponent; winner of the annual game claimed a wagon wheel.
Whitman’s football history may be divided into roughly three parts:
- 1894-1915 — the formative 21-year period.
- The Vincent “Nig” Borleske era, head coach 1915-1947 dominating the athletic program, especially football for 32 years,
- The Modern Era, 1947-1976. For about 30 years the program was on a roller-coaster ride — highs and lows.
In all three periods I shall attempt to cover the following: the national impact of the game at Whitman. This is important because all parts of the Whitman curriculum are influenced by national trends; for example, we in the history department shaped a curriculum similar to other institutions. Second, and more importantly, I shall touch upon the impact of the game on the Whitman community, highlighting a few events.
Some points about football prior to 1894. Most schools did not employ a professional coach. Students did the coaching and scheduling. I think the situation was similar to the intramural football I saw in the 1960s. This was simply more than throwing out the ball; the Phi Delts, practiced in the park in front of my house. I was amazed at both the practice’s intensity and strong language, leading me once to bring the children indoors.
In the 1890s, and some cases earlier, schools discovered that football was a way to attract students, develop school spirit, and diminish class rivalries, and reduce hazing, rioting, and drinking. The game instilled a sense of community to the college as a whole. (Rader, 80)
Once the decision was made to play, then teams must have good records. A scholar has neatly summarized: “Although college football was ostensibly played for the sake of the game itself, merely for the fun that accrued to the players, winning took precedence over moral scruples and amateur principles. The emphasis on winning was the key determinant in shaping the rules of the game, schedules, finances, and team organization.” (Rader, 75)
In 1892 President William Harper at Chicago set out to publicize winning football, he hired Amos Alonzo Stagg, a famed Yale player, the first coach with professional rank in the country. Harper told Stagg develop teams that “knock out all the other colleges. We will give players a palace car and a vacation too.” (Rader, 76)
Yale University’s football success — Between 1872-1890 Yale had an astounding record of 324 victories, 17 losses and 18 ties. Penrose read about Coach Walter Camp’s powerful Yale program and would actually observe it in 1888-1890 while studying at Yale for a divinity degree. Young men, he observed, enjoyed football as a popular contact sport, and cheering fans hailed the spectacle.
Becoming Whitman’s president in 1894, Penrose faced enormous challenges — he must construct buildings — Memorial is an example — find faculty, recruit students, and raise money. Like other presidents, he recognized that a successful football program could help reach goals. He found a disarrayed athletic program, and Penrose, a skilled administrator, within a few years used football to help build school and community spirit and to recruit students.
Penrose was well aware not only of the game’s growing national popularity but also its swirling controversy. Some teams would do anything to win, and this attitude brought on persistent difficulties prior to the First World War and some, like recruitment, long beyond.
- Eligibility Who should play? It seems obvious that enrolled students should make up a squad. An early U.of Oregon team played three successive contests with three different schools and in each encountered the same man. (Rud. 374-5) Could the coach and faculty be team members?
- Payment of players in cash or goods. (Rud .375) Who should be given money in the form of scholarships?
- Injuries, 18 players died in 1905 — many players suffered concussions among those carried off the field.
In that year Theodore Roosevelt’s reaction seemed important. Wielding his big stick, he thundered that if colleges did not clean up football he would end it by executive action. (Rudolph, 376) His stricture did little to end slugging, kicking, and deliberately injuring a skilled opponent.
Because there were so many injuries the U. of California and Stanford shifted from football to rugby.
Whitman’s experience — the sport’s early years
In 1893 a player was seriously injured; this halted a systematic development of the sport. In 1900 the football squad suffered so many injuries, that Whitman cancelled its last two games of season. (Pioneer, n.d.)
The early period is hazy until 1897 when the Pioneer urged Whitman to put football in “the first rank in college athletics.” Many students and some faculty agreed and pushed the most ambitious football schedule to date. The Whitman community hailed the team for wins over Whitman Academy, Waitsburg Academy and Walla Walla High School prior to a loss to WAC — forerunner of Washington State University.
Whitman writers hailed football’s appeal, calling it rough and brutal but requiring brains as well as muscle. It was an exhilarating game, one that women watched.
Whitman writers addressed national football issues. A Pioneer editorial entitled, “Ethics of football, “complained about professional, semi-professional and brutal players. An honorable player “holds himself proudly above every unfair and worldly advantage and fight a hard fight and fights it fairly.”
Another editorial complained that those faculties tolerating brutal tactics “are demonstrated book idiots, devoid of common sense.” (Edwards 202)
Football created school spirit and intercollegiate rivalry. The Pioneer in 1899 struck at rival Pullman students as “the exterminators of potato bugs and sifters of hayseed.” Penrose became alarmed at bitter college rivalry.
In 1899 Whitman enjoyed a solid season with victories over Idaho and Washington State and a narrow loss in Seattle to Washington, 6-5.
Despite financial woes, Whitman trustees sought a professional coach.
Professor Walter Bratton introduced tennis to Whitman — the tennis center is appropriately named for him — and in 1900 in Spokane insisted that Whitman was “the amateur champions of the region because of athletic training, sportsmanship, and a good athletic field. Bratton boasted of Whitman’s three football teams and three baseball teams This meant 90% of the men were in one or more sports contributing to “the good health of the boys and are also conducive to the development of some of the strongest types of courage, honesty and manliness.” (Edwards, 203)
Theodore Roosevelt would have applauded this typical example of professorial boosterism.
In 1907 Whitman celebrated its 25th anniversary — note it correctly used 1882 as the founding date. Penrose was in his 13th year and would go on for 40 years in office — a record that cannot be and should not be broken. The coach was Lawyer J. Arthur Baird, who students paid $600, explained he coached as recreation. Students had to raise $1800 to bring opponents to town.
I shall summarize the exciting 1907 season played by the Missionaries who were sometimes called the Sons of Marcus. [READ, yell on p. 281 and paragraph on 282) Businessmen appreciated the excitement that this season brought, for it stimulated retail sales and developed civic spirit. Thus they offered to pay a $1,000 salary for an experienced Yale coach. In summary Walla Walla merchants, like President Penrose, saw the promotional value of football. (Triumph of Tradition, 279-283.)
Penrose played a major role in creating an intercollegiate athletic league in 1908. Five large public colleges joined Whitman in forming the Big Six and adopting rules, including the nagging one of eligibility, (Edwards p. 448)
In 1909 Whitman played a brutal home game against Washington State; five men were carried from field. An Oregonian reporter denounced brutal play and complained that many of the 3,000 spectators shouted “Kill him, kill him.” I recall few Missionary games attracting 3000 fans or any dire threats. Shocked by injuries and perhaps by fanatic fans, the faculty threatened — either improve the game or it would vote to drop football. Apparently the game became less violent and the fans better behaved.
Part II — The Borleske Era, 1915-1947
Once again national football influenced Whitman. College football games drew enormous number of fans. An authority stated that 400 colleges played football in 1930, but only 40 of them drew 60% of the fans.
The most famous team was Norte Dame. The “Fighting Irish”, inspiring the nation's Catholic minority, traveled from coast to coast, attracting fans and sports writers. Knute Rockne, a Norwegian immigrant, excelled in Notre Dame classrooms, and on the gridiron he won a national reputation as a receiver. After graduation he stayed as a chemistry teacher, serving as Notre Dame’s head coach for 13 years, winning 105 games and losing 12. Rockne was colorful, intelligent, and humorous. He allegedly told linemen “the only qualification for a lineman is to be big and dumb. Then turning to the backs he said” to be a back, you only have to be dumb.” (Rader, 213.)
In the 1920s universities built enormous stadiums; the 1926 Army-Navy game drew 100,000 in Chicago. The open field running of Red Grange of Illinois helped fill stadiums in the Midwest and theaters everywhere showing newsreels.
The football hero was a familiar figure everywhere. A scholar concluded “universal prestige that football earned for young men whose heads were often permanently turned, and the coaches whose heads were often permanently at stake.” (Rudolph, 390-91)
Coaches had a personal stake in victory, alumni insisted upon it, the result “the game was taken away from the students and became a contest between rival coaches for job security.” (Rudolph, 392)
More intersectional games brought considerable attention to college football, in the 1930s Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Cotton Bowls joined the Rose Bowl of 1916.
Rule makers wanted more offense and adopted several favorable rules, including the increased number of pass plays. The forward pass had been allowed since 1906, but it was not a reliable weapon until the ball’s circumference changed from 27 to 23 inches — the spiral pass opened the game. “Speed, agility and skill seemed to some degree, to replace sheer brawn as requirements for team success.” (Rader, 211)
Football at Whitman, 1915-1947
“Nig” Borleske was Whitman’s equivalent of Knute Rockne.
Born in 1887, he, like Rockne, came from a modest background. Penrose recruited him because he was valedictorian and outstanding athlete at Spokane High School. He made his mark as a freshman back on the famous 1907 Whitman team, was injured in sophomore year, and recuperated in the Penrose home. During his last two years he was a slashing halfback, receiving regional recognition as a runner, passer, punter, and tackler. Many writers argued he should have been chosen by Walter Camp for his All American team. An excellent student, Borleske served as student body president, and went to law school. He did not practice but accepted Penrose’s plea to became the coach and serve as graduate manager. Penrose stated, “Borleske’s loyalty to the ideals of his alma mater and invincible integrity have made him an inspiring influence in the life of the College” (453) He was, according to his sympathetic biographer, “gruff, stubborn, outspoken, sentimental, opinionated, loyal and generous.” (Edwards, 452)
In the 1920s the Whitman community enjoyed great victories and suffered discouraging defeats. Despite his losing record, Borleske was, next to Penrose, the most noted person on campus.
The 1919 season was depressing, especially a loss to the Washington — then called Sun Dodgers — 120 to 0. A student called it the second Whitman massacre. In a loss to Gonzaga 6 players suffered serious injuries mostly from clipping. The Idaho contest had to be cancelled because Whitman could not field a squad.
In the next few seasons, Borleske scheduled smaller schools, such as Willamette and Pacific. Furthermore, the program improved because alumni found players and because of Borleske's unusual intramural program. He placed 80% of men in uniforms. In1921 the team won its first football championship and helped Borleske win campus and alumni support. He wrote frank columns about the teams’ prospects, problems, and performances. He made football important in Walla Walla and beyond.
But his football program stumbled — from 1922-1924 the college won only 4 games. Injuries, the inability to recruit, drop outs, and frustration resulting from losses to large schools took a toll.
Whitman’s student body — it counted only 589 in 1930 — was only a third or tenth as large as opponents. “The coach and rooters praised the eleven for holding a big school to a close score; in fact, this became an end in itself.” (Edwards, 455)
The Pioneer correctly judged in 1923 that “light, inexperienced men, no matter how much fight and determination they may have, cannot stand up against the terrific pounding of heavier opponents.” (Edwards, 456)
An intelligent man, Borleske emphasized academics; his athletes in 1928 had a slightly lower grade point average than non-athletes, “but the percentage of athletes who graduated was twice that of non-athletes,” and were less likely to be placed on academic probation. (Edwards, 203)
The unrealistic Borleske football program was modified not by the Whitman administration or faculty. In 1926 the big schools in the league left the conference and disappointed Borleske. But in that year what would be called Borleske Field opened. Some boosters, swayed by the national example, wanted the stadium to seat 15,000. At the stadium’s dedication 5,000 watched the U. of W. defeat Whitman 44-0.
In 1940 Borleske was honored for 25 years of coaching at Whitman; legendary football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg and sports writers from Portland and Seattle attended a norted banquet. Borleske received glowing tributes in letters from former players, emphasizing his coaching skills, character, and civic spirit. But in 1941 there was considerable debate over continuing football. The arguments aga sinst the program: Borleske’s inability to keep up with a changing game, student apathy, and financial problems. (Edwards, 205)
In 1947 President Winslow Anderson dismissed Borleske. The powerful coach was too independent, and he had publically criticized Anderson and trustees. (For details of this sad episode see Tradition in a Turbulent Age, 238-242)
Third period, 1947-1976 — The Age of Consumer Culture
The growing interest in the game resulted from several factors, television, more scoring, and enormous media coverage, including polls ranking teams and players. [Two platoon football allowed in 1965; perhaps it negatively influenced Whitman.]
Extensive and sometimes rule breaking recruiting brought national attention. Number One Oklahoma filled its squad with players from football fanatic Texas.
The growing costs of football meant that prior to Whitman’s decision in 1977, 42 schools dropped football. Major teams played an 11 game season to raise revenues.
Pro football came into its own starting in the 1960s, and Vince Lombardi was idolized. Televised football — collegiate or pro — and high school and community college games reduced local enthusiasm for the Missionary squad.
Whitman football in the Age of Consumer Culture
In this period, Whitman had only three winning seasons and five when it had a 500%. It came as no surprise that many in the Whitman community assessed the program. Tennis enjoyed winning records and attracted large crowds. While football was not a winning program — in 77 years its winning record was only 37% — it was important to the Whitman community. Homecoming was a major event with an impressive parade, homecoming court, a big dance, and returning alumni. The school spirit Penrose continued but diminished in the 1970s.
Two dark periods threatened football and the whole intercollegiate program. At a game in 1949 with College of Idaho, only 158 paid admissions and Professor Fredric Santler in charge of athletic program’s finances predicted: “This marks the beginning of the end for Whitman in intercollegiate athletics. “ But he was terribly wrong. This dismissal situation was turned around as students, faculty, and community rallied for football and other sports. At a parade some faculty wore football uniforms. During a noisy parade Whitman boosters got 1500 to join the booster’s club. This group sold 3000 tickets that wiped out the season’s deficit and the football team in its final game defeated Eastern Oregon. Walla Walla alumni promised to raise enough money to pay half scholarships of $175 for 20 athletes a year. All of this was reported in Time magazine. (Time, November 28, 1949.) Football was at the center of this excitement.
Second, in 1951 during the Korean War rumors based on Maxey’s gloomy remarks that Whitman might close, threatened not only the athletic program, but also the entire academic program.
In 1951 Pioneer sport’s editor Steve Watson made three points — Whitman might give up football and build up a powerful basketball program because both teams were mediocre. He also complained that Whitman fans abused basketball referees, opposing players, and coaches. He concluded, "The high point is reached when we don’t even have the decency to allow an opposing player to attempt a free throw without jeering him.” The writer had another interesting opinion, the college should offer a course in Russian language but, Watson noted, some would think Whitman would be accused of pro-Red leanings if the course were offered.” (Pioneer, February 22, 1951)
I arrived in 1964 and joined the Whitman community suffering through a 1-7 football campaign. I met Coach Keith Loper, renting a house he had previously used. Following two losing seasons with a 2-15 record, he resigned in 1966, explaining an impossible situation. Loper faulted school’s philosophy toward athletics, especially its unwillingness to spend money. He made three suggestions that would improve the football program, including a larger coaching staff. “You just don’t realize what a strain it is when we have to teach classes during the day, recruit, do our own taping and bandaging, and go out in the evening to coach.” President Louis Perry praised Loper’s integrity and high standards. (Pioneer, November 10, 1966.)
During my first years I remember two things about football, the annual Shrine Game attracting townspeople and the scrimmages the Missionaries played at the penitentiary with a team, known as the Stealers. It could only play home games in its yard.
A few months prior to Loper’s resignation a committee of six impressive students studied the athletic situation and urged changes that would make Whitman competitive.
Loper’s assessment and the student committee’s report helped bring about a decision in 1967 to improve the athletic program, especially football.
On February 16, 1967 the Pioneer printed this headline, “New Coach, Thompson, Is Experienced in Team Building.”
Thompson had rebuilt two weak high school programs, most recently at Roseburg. John Wilcox and Jerry Anhorn came as assistants; in 1969 Keith Jensen joined the staff, replacing Anhorn.
Immediately the program improved — in 1967-1968 the Missionaries won 6 and lost 10, this was the best record since Coach Bob Thomsen’s teams of 1958 and 1959 that won 9 and lost 7.
In 1969 the relevance of Whitman athletics was thoroughly discussed by the Narrator, a short-lived student newspaper. Professor Donald King, known for his frank assessments, praised athletes as students and as credits to the institution. Coach Thompson asserted that his team was gaining respect from students, alumni, and opponents. “I personally see no reason,” he added, “why we can’t excel athletically and academically.” (Narrator, March 5, 1969)
1969 was the highpoint of Thompson’s career, with a record of 6-3. This was the years of the Jets, Mets, and Missionaries. The Jets won the Super Bowl; Mets the World Series, and the Missionaries were co-champions of the Northwest Conference. Numerous fans filled Borleske and many students traveled to away games. Many boasted that the 1967 decision had been vindicated, and the 1969 season was memorable.
In the hectic age of student activism, Whitman still maintained football traditions, including a homecoming court; women no longer wore formal gowns, but dressed in appropriate fall clothing.
In 1971 co-captains presented President Richard Nixon a homemade football jersey with his name and number 1. Student body officers in 1972 passed a resolution requesting the return of the jersey. (Edwards, 428-433)
In 1973 Whitman defeated Linfield, 18-9. Linfield was ranked fifth in the nation among small colleges. The campus relished this victory, but support for football was waning and supporters changing. Fans observed that cheerleaders had become unconventional; one alumna called them zany.
Despite successes in 1969 and 1973, Coach Thompson resigned during the 1974 season, stressing that the failure of recruiting “as the nemesis of the program.” He emphasized that a 35-man squad was too small and injuries further handicapped it. “You cannot win,” the discouraged coach advised, “without the horses.”(Pioneer, October 24, 1974) Two years later Whitman played its last intercollegiate football game, and, in part, the inability to find players — a traditional problem — led to the decision.
Thompson’s October resignation prompted considerable discussion renewing the debate about football’s future. It was, as President Skotheim explained, prompting another “cycle of discouragement.” Ex- coach Bob Thomsen observed that the football issue came up every five or six years.” (Union-Bulletin, Nov. 12, 1974.) But faculty critics were more numerous than he realized. In charge of the curriculum, the faculty could eliminate PE 15. The Union Bulletin interviewed several unidentified faculty with serious reservations about football. Professors made several points for its elimination — it would save money and the team could not become competitive. On and off the campus many believed that an end of football would rankle alumni. I wrote a friend that I thought the faculty favored dropping the program or reducing it, meaning we should compete against schools closer to our academic mission, such as Willamette, L and C, and Pacific. I did not know it at the time, but the 1926 reshaping of the conference brought about a realistic football schedule. Perhaps restructuring was a possibility in 1975.
[But there were humorous moments in the mid-1970s; for example, a player told me he was an expert on Homecoming and Parents’ Weekend. In every away game the Missionaries played was the opponent’s fall celebration. Schools had scheduled Whitman because they wanted a victory for celebrants.]
In late 1974 Acting President Kenyon Knopf reported that football would be continued. President Skotheim arrived in 1975 and heard opinions about the troubled program, including costs. Defenders argued that the game had contributed to student recruitment, school spirit, and alumni support. Others pointed out the growing popularity of soccer and the need to fund women’s’ athletics. Title IX meant that high schools and colleges would have to commit more resources to women’s sports.
During the 1975 season, the Missionaries, no longer called Shockers, were 1 and 7. It seemed to old hands the program reverted back to the dismal Loper years. Few blamed players for a sorry season; a major problem was traditional — inadequate numbers. Faculty and staff proved loyal in this as in other seasons. Students were showing up in fewer numbers, and their sideline antics disturbed fans, especially townspeople. Following the victory over Lewis and Clark, I was in the small group who saw President Skotheim lead the fans in a cheer, the Whitman locomotive.
I wish to conclude with a couple of personal comments. I enthusiastically supported the rebuilding program of 1967. I subsequently attended training tables, sat on the bench for at least one home game, and in 1969 traveled with the team to Willamette and watched a fine, motivated group of athletes defeat my alma mater by a very large score. Other faculty members also reported enjoyable times with teams and individual players. But it became clear that Whitman could not commit considerable amount of money into making a competitive program. Whitman had other and more pressing needs.
The winter evening when news of football’s termination reached the Phi Delt house, my wife and I were dinner guests. I leaned over and told her we would hear some strong language. But none of it was directed at me despite the fact that some diners knew I supported the controversial decision. My colleagues agreed, voting 43-10 to terminate football, PE 15.
When I look back upon the football program and the many players I knew, I am glad it existed and that these men became my hard-working students. I have wondered — would we have met had there been no football team?
G. Thomas Edwards, The Triumph of Tradition; Tradition in a Turbulent Age.
Benjamin G. Rader, American Sports.
Frederick Rudolph, The American College and University: A History.
Whitman College publications.
Walla Walla Union Bulletin