While many Penn State football fans compare this generation of teams to some of the legendary Penn State teams coached under Joe Paterno, there was once a time where Paterno’s teams were expected to maintain the standard set by another former Nittany Lion head coach –– Hugo Bezdek.
Even though Bezdek led the Blue and White to their first bowl appearance, a 14-3 defeat to USC, and a 29-game unbeaten streak spanning from 1919-1922, these football successes in Happy Valley don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the coach’s legacy.
Bezdek arrived on campus in 1918, a year removed from winning a Rose Bowl with the Mare Island Marines in addition to the Rose Bowl he won years earlier with Oregon. The Bohemian-born coach was also finishing up his second year managing the Pittsburgh Pirates on the baseball diamond at the beginning of his stint with the Nittany Lions.
Following the 1919 campaign with the Pirates, Penn State made Bezdek an offer that was too great to turn down: the positions of head baseball coach and athletic director on top of his pre-existing post as the headman on the gridiron.
For the next 18 years, Bezdek turned Penn State’s athletics into a powerhouse. His football teams enjoyed a 65-30-11 record, while going 129-76-1 in baseball. In 1929, Bezdek retired from coaching to focus on the athletic department as a whole.
Penn State varsity teams won 11 national championships during the Bezdek era — an astounding number considering women’s teams weren’t competing at the time. His career with the Nittany Lions ended in 1937 when the Cleveland Rams joined the NFL and offered him the job as the team’s first head coach. Bezdek lasted only three games into his second season after compiling a 1-13 record in his 14 games.
Despite his lack of success in professional football, Bezdek still holds the unique accomplishment of being the sole coach at the helm of an NFL and MLB team. His notoriously rough practice tactics often led players to say that the games had become breaks due to how hard they worked preparing.
The Pirates enjoyed their first winning season in six years during Bezdek’s second season with the team and went 166-187 over the course of Bezdek’s tenure.
To add on to his success with Penn State and in the pros, Bezdek led Oregon to an undefeated record in his first year with the Ducks. He returned for a second stint with the Ducks prior to his hiring with Mare Island or the Pirates, winning the Rose Bowl for the first time in his career following another undefeated 1916 campaign.
Bezdek also coached two sports at the University of Arkansas, going 29-13-1 in football and 81-37 in baseball. More importantly, Bezdek is credited with coming up with the school’s current nickname over his tenure in Fayetteville –– the Razorbacks.
Back in Happy Valley, however, Penn State let Hugo Bezdek blaze the trail for excellence that so many Nittany Lions’ teams follow to this day.