The Name On The Stands: Penn State’s Overlooked Soccer Master
Penn State’s immaculate Jeffrey Field is quiet now.
The grass has its brownish, winter tint, fence gates are chained shut and the stands gleam in the sharp winter sun.
Many fans have spent precious autumn weekends here, watching the men’s and women’s teams play and enjoying State College’s balmy fall weather. But few know the story of the man who the stadium is named after — a legend in his own right who led Penn State men’s soccer to 10 national championships between 1926 and 1953.
Bill Jeffrey was born in Edinburg, Scotland in 1892. He immigrated to America in 1920 and worked as a mechanic with the Altoona Railroad Shop on the then-active Pennsylvania Railroad. The shop’s employees, like those of many businesses and factories of the time, formed their own soccer team that played against other local squads, according to an article from the World Heritage Encyclopedia.
He first served as the Altoona team’s head coach, and was at the helm when it played an exhibition match against Penn State’s men’s team in 1925. A year later, he left Altoona for State College and was appointed head coach of the Nittany Lions by famed athletic director Hugo Bezdeck.
Jeffrey found immediate success in University Park, guiding the team to its first Intercollegiate Soccer-Football Association (ISFA) championship in his first season as head coach. It was named ISFA champions again in 1929.
The Nittany Lions remained a dominant force under their new coach, beginning a 65-game unbeaten streak that lasted almost 10 years from 1932-1941 and winning six ISFA titles. Jeffrey won his final two national championships in 1949 and 1950, when he led the Nittany Lions to victory in the first two collegiate soccer bowls. However, it is important to note that almost all national championships before 1959 are now considered relatively unofficial, given the lack of objectivity in the ISFA’s process of determining a winner, and that several of Penn State’s ISFA titles were co-championships and therefore shared with another collegiate team. According to a set of USA Soccer Archives, champions and soccer bowl participants were selected in a highly subjective polling process and only included the opinions of ISFA administrators.
Despite his slew of successful seasons with the Nittany Lions, Jeffrey’s finest hour came on a much bigger stage, when he was selected to lead the United States Men’s National team at the 1950 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. His team beat a star-studded England squad 1-0 in one of the biggest upsets in soccer history. The American team, composed entirely of amateurs with day-jobs, was considered a severe underdog — it was projected 500-1 to win the tournament, according to British newspaper The Guardian. Haitian striker Joe Gaetjens scored the only goal of the game for the United States, assisted by another former Penn State coach and soccer legend Walter Bahr. The game is the subject of a movie entitled The Game of Their Lives and several books despite being largely ignored by the American press at the time.
Less than a year after defeating England, Jeffrey and Penn State’s team garnered some national and governmental attention when they embarked on a “goodwill” trip to Iran, and played several matches in Ishafan, Shiraz, and Tehran. The tour was arranged by the State Department in order to “make friends and (influence) people in communist-threatened countries,” according to the New York Times.
Jeffrey retired from his position as head coach of the Nittany Lions in 1953, with a final tally of 10 national championships and 27 years at the helm of the Blue and White. He then moved to Puerto Rico, where he continued to teach and coach. He died in 1966 of a heart attack, and is buried in State College.
His legacy remains influential in the world of modern American soccer. The Jeffrey name is immortalized in the U.S Soccer Hall of Fame. He also served as one of the founding members, and president in 1948, of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA)—a continually prominent organization that develops and serves soccer coaches across the country. The NSCAA also presents the annual Bill Jeffrey Long-Term service award to the collegiate coach “who has raised intercollegiate soccer to new heights through his or her long-term dedication to the game,” according to the organization’s official website.
Jeffrey Field was dedicated on September 29, 1972. The next time you spend one of those autumn weekends enjoying some soccer, think about the name on the stands.