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A Look Back At The First Seasons Of Past Penn State Football Coaches

James Franklin was hired to become the 16th head football coach in Penn State history on January 11, 2014, succeeding Bill O’Brien after two seasons at the helm. Following Saturday’s 34-10 defeat at the hands of No. 10 Michigan State, Franklin wrapped up his first regular season as the leader of the program with a 6-6 record.

While many fans were expecting big things from Franklin right away, his .500 winning percentage is a reasonable start, especially considering that this year was the last with heavy sanctions and scholarship reductions stemming from the NCAA’s punishment related to the Sandusky scandal. Fielding a team with 20 fewer scholarships than the competition is a tough task for any coach, let alone one adjusting to new players, a new staff, and a new environment.

For some perspective on Franklin’s first season, let’s take a look back on the first seasons of former Penn State football head coaches to get a better sense of how the difficult the transition period is, and to see just how rare instant success can be.

1887 – 1891: No head coach

Record: 12-8-1

1890 Penn State football team
1890 Penn State football team

Penn State first began playing football competitively in 1887, but did not have a head coach. In fact, the team didn’t even have a stadium. The teams played its home games on the Old Main lawn on campus, and sported dark pink and black uniforms, the school’s original colors. The 1887 team became the school’s first undefeated team, going 2-0 against Bucknell. The team is also the only unscored-upon team in school history, winning both games by a combined total of 78-0.

Funny enough, the next season would prove to be the worst in school history. Penn State lost all three games, dropping two to Dickinson and a home game to Lehigh to become the only winless team in school history. The team would rebound to finish 10-6 over the next three seasons, earning the Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Football Association Crown in 1891 before the conference dissolved the following year.

1892: George W. Hoskins

Record: 5-1

The 1892 Penn State football team, led by player-coach George Hoskins
1892 Penn State football team led by player-coach George Hoskins

Hoskins, a football player for the University, became the first head football coach in Penn State history in 1892, and promptly lost his first game against the University of Pennsylvania. The player-coach rebounded by winning five straight to end the season, and went on to compile a 17-4-4 record over five seasons until coaching the Pittsburgh Panthers in 1896. His 1893 team was the first to play at the 500-seat Beaver Field, and his .760 lifetime winning percentage is the highest in school history.

1896: Samuel B. Newton

Record: 3-4

The 1896 Penn State football team. coached by Sam Newton
1896 Penn State football team coached by Samuel Newton

Newton, also a former football player for the university, took over the program in 1896, and won his first game, a 40-0 shutout over Gettysburg at Beaver Field. The team won its first three games, only allowing eight total points, but lost the next four to Princeton, Bucknell, Pennsylvania, and Carlisle while being outscored 124-5.

1899: Sam Boyle

Record: 4-6-1

1899 Penn State football team coached by Sam Boyle
1899 Penn State football team coached by Sam Boyle

Boyle succeeded Newton after three seasons, and led the Nittany Lions to an impressive 3-0 record to start the 1899 season, including a 6-0 win over Army in West Point, NY. The team played to a 0-0 tie with Washington & Jefferson in its fourth game, but went on to lose six of its last seven games. After scoring six points against Army, the team did not record another point for seven straight weeks before finally mustering a handful in an embarrassing 64-5 loss to Duquesne. Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, Boyle left Penn State to coach Dickinson and Ohio Wesleyan. Boyle is best remembered for overseeing the largest victory in college football history, when his Dickinson Red Devils defeated Haverford Grammar School 227-0.

1900: William “Pop” Golden

Record: 4-6-1

1900 Penn State football team coached by Pop Golden
1900 Penn State football team coached by Pop Golden

Golden, like his predecessors, opened the 1900 season strong with back-to-back wins over Susquehanna and Pittsburgh before drawing with Army, 0-0. The team dropped its next four games to Princeton, Pennsylvania, Dickinson (coached by Boyle) and Duquesne before breaking the losing streak with a win over Bucknell. However, the team lost two out of its last three to finish the season with a losing record.

While also serving as the school’s baseball coach from 1903-1909, Golden put together back-to-back winning seasons the next two years, and finished his tenure as head coach with a 16-12-1 record.

1903: Daniel Reed

Record: 5-3

1903 Penn State football team coached by Dan Reed
1903 Penn State football team coached by Dan Reed

Reed had a short tenure with Penn State, coaching the team to a 5-3 record in his first and only season at the helm, including a 59-0 shellacking of Pittsburgh and a 17-0 blanking of Navy, both on the road.

What’s more interesting, however, is Reed’s backstory. He graduated from Cornell (where he was a member of the Quill and Dagger society), and took a job as the head football coach at Cincinnati after playing for the Big Red in college. He coached the Bearcats, Penn State, and Cornell until 1911, finishing with a 25-14-2 lifetime record. While coaching Penn State and Cornell, Reed was also an attorney for the tax department of New York. From 1919 until his death in 1959, he served in the House of Representatives from New York’s 43rd and 45th district as a Republican.

1904: Tom Fennell

Record: 6-4

1904 Penn State football team coached by Tom Fennell
1904 Penn State football team coached by Tom Fennell

Like Reed, Fennell played football during his undergraduate years at Cornell. He was described as a three-sport star, excelling at football, men’s crew, and men’s track while also being Heavyweight Champion in boxing.

After coaching the University of Cincinnati to a 9-1-1 record in 1897, Fennell returned to coach Penn State seven years later, leading the team to a 6-4 record in his first season, including wins over West Virginia and the Jersey Shore Athletic Club. He retired from coaching in 1908, compiling a 33-17-1 record at Penn State.

Also like Reed, Fennell was a lawyer, having graduated from Cornell Law School and being admitted to the bar. During his legal career, he was City Attorney of Elmira, County Attorney of Chemung County, and First Deputy Secretary of State of New York. And, also like Reed, he had aspirations for politics, but he was defeated when he ran for New York State Treasurer in 1910 on the Republican ticket.

However, Fennell is best known for coaching the team in 1907, when the university officially adopted the Nittany Lion as its mascot.

1909: Bill and Jack Hollenback

Record: 5-0-2

1909 Penn State football team coached by Bill Hollenback
1909 Penn State football team coached by Bill Hollenback

Hollenback was an All-American fullback from 1906 to 1908 at the University of Pennsylvania before serving as head coach of Penn State beginning in 1909. Although he had a degree in dentistry, he proved to be an effective coach, leading the Nittany Lions to five wins, including an 8-8 tie against a Carlisle Indian team with a running back by the name of Jim Thorpe.

The Blue Bell, Pa., native left to coach Missouri in 1910, and his brother Jack coached the team to a respectable 5-2-1 record. However, Bill Hollenback would return to roam the sidelines at New Beaver Field in 1911, leading the team to a perfect 8-0-1 record, becoming the first of two back-to-back national champion teams recognized retroactively by the NCAA.

1915: Dick Harlow

Record: 7-2

1915 Penn State football team coached by Dick Harlow
1915 Penn State football team coached by Dick Harlow

A multi-sport athlete, Harlow played tackle at Penn State and also competed for the baseball and track and field teams. After serving as an assistant football coach for three seasons after graduation, Harlow was named head coach in 1915, and led the Nittany Lions to a 7-2 record. While he left Penn State in 1917 after three seasons, compiling a 20-8 record, he returned in 1919 to coach the boxing team. Harlow is also an expert in oology, the study of bird’s eggs, and was named curator of oology at the Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1939.

1918: Hugo Bezdek

Record: 1-2-1

1918 Penn State football team coached by Hugo Bezdek
1918 Penn State football team coached by Hugo Bezdek

Following coaching stints with Oregon, Arkansas, Mare Island, and MLB’s Pittsburgh Pirates, Bezdek took over as head coach in 1918, and won only one game: a 7-6 win over Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pa. That year, Penn State also had one of its few losses against Rutgers. However, the former University of Chicago fullback amassed a 65–30–11 record that included two undefeated seasons and an appearance in the 1923 Rose Bowl. In addition, he served as the school’s athletic director from 1918 to 1936, was an interim basketball coach in 1919, and director of the School of Physical Education and Athletics for seven years.

Bezdek was noted for often changing the Nittany Lions’ style of play, prompting this gem to appear in the Los Angeles Times leading up the 1922 Rose Bowl Game against Southern California:

“Hugo ‘Spinx’ Bezdek, commander-in-chief of the Penn State football squad…changes the style of his eleven’s play almost as much as a woman changes her mind.”

Bezdek was also the first head coach of the Cleveland Rams when they joined the NFL, but was let go three games into the 1938 season after finishing 1-13. However, Bezdek holds the distinction of being the only person to have served as both manager of a Major League Baseball team and head coach in the NFL.

1930: Bob Higgins

Record: 3-4-2

Bob Higgins
Bob Higgins

Higgins played at Penn State from 1914 to 1916, and was named an All-American in 1915 at the end position. After serving in World War I, he returned to captain Penn State, earning All-America honors again in 1919 before taking over the reigns as head coach beginning in 1930.

The 1930 season was one to forget, featuring four losses in the last six games, including a 40-0 defeat to Colgate on Homecoming, after opening the year with three straight wins. Things got worse the following years, with the Nittany Lions finishing 2-8 in 1931 and 2-5 in 1932. But eventually, Higgins and the team found their groove. Higgins led the team to an undefeated season in 1947, culminating in a tie with Southern Methodist in the Cotton Bowl. After 19 seasons, Higgins was forced to retire due to poor health, but finished with a 91-57-11 record and only five losing seasons.

But Higgins’ legacy at the school would not end there. His daughter Virginia married All-American guard Steve Suhey, and he is the maternal grandfather of Steve’s sons Paul and Larry Suhey, as well as former Chicago Bears fullback Matt Suhey. The Higgins-Suhey family is often referred to as the “first family of Penn State football,” with 90 years of involvement with the program.

1949: Joe Bedenk

Record: 5-4

Joe Bedenk (courtesy of The Campanile)
Joe Bedenk (courtesy of The Campanile)

A former team captain and All-American guard, Bedenk served as the team’s offensive line coach for several years before being asked to take over as head coach following the retirement of Bob Higgins. Bedenk steered the Lions to a 5-4 record in 1949, including wins over perennial powerhouses Boston College, Nebraska, Syracuse, and West Virginia.

Bedenk requested to return to his former position as offensive line coach following the season, and later became the school’s baseball coach for 31 seasons, compiling a lifetime 391-171-3 record. To replace Bedenk, the university brought in Rip Engle as head coach, and Engle’s quarterback from Brown University, Joe Paterno, as an assistant coach.

1950: Rip Engle

Record: 5-3-1

Rip Engle (right) standing next to Joe Paterno at Beaver Stadium
Rip Engle (right) standing next to Joe Paterno at Beaver Stadium

Engle had a 28-20 lifetime record as the head coach of Brown, but came to Penn State in 1950 after posting back-to-back 7-2 and 8-1 seasons. He never had a losing season, compiling a 104-48-4 record during his 16-year tenure, including wins in the Liberty Bowl in 1959 and 1960 and a win in the Gator Bowl over Georgia Tech in 1961. He lost the Gator Bowl the following season to Florida, but his 9-2 team finished ranked No. 9 in the AP Poll, the highest ranking among his tenure.

1966: Joe Paterno

Record: 5-5

A young Joe Paterno on the sidelines
A young Joe Paterno on the sidelines

Even the great Paterno needed time to adjust as head coach. In fact, his inaugural season is one of only six non-winning seasons throughout his 45-year tenure. Of course, the 1966 season featured matchups with three teams in the Top 5, including a road game against No. 1 Michigan State in East Lansing. The Lions lost 42-8.

It goes without saying how successful Paterno was for the next half-century. The team won two national championships, put together five undefeated seasons, and appeared in 36 bowl games. His 409 wins hold the record for the most victories by an NCAA Division I football coach.

But here’s the most telling stat of all: At the time of Paterno’s first season, Beaver Stadium’s capacity was 46,284. When Paterno was fired in 2011, capacity had more than doubled to 106,572. It takes years to build a program, and even longer to get people to believe in it.

Bill O’Brien

Record: 8-4

Bill O'Brien leading the team out of the tunnel against Central Florida
Bill O’Brien leading the team out of the tunnel against Central Florida

Remarkably, O’Brien won the most games of any first-year head coach in school history, and he did it while the program was crumbling around him. The NCAA sanctions threatened to effectively strip the team of any chance at competitiveness, as players were free to transfer to other Division I schools immediately without having to sit out a year. Instead of letting the roof cave in, O’Brien and senior leaders Michael Mauti, Michael Zordich, and Matt McGloin plugged the leaks and played inspired football. The highlight of the 2012 season was a 24-21 victory over Wisconsin on Senior Day, as embattled kicker Sam Ficken nailed the game-winner in overtime.

To recognize his success, O’Brien was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year by both the media and the coaches, and was also named the national coach of the year by ESPN. At the conclusion of the college football season, O’Brien was awarded the 2012 Paul “Bear” Bryant College Coach of the Year Award.

Photos: La Vie, University Archives

About the Author

CJ Doon

CJ is a senior journalism major from Long Island and Onward State's Sports Editor. He is a third-generation Penn Stater, and his grandfather wrestled for the university back in the 1930s under coach Charlie “Doc” Speidel. Besides writing, one of his favorite activities is making sea puns. You can follow him on Twitter @CJDoon, and send your best puns to [email protected], just for the halibut.

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