Cold War, Happy Valley: Penn State Soccer And The Quest To Stop Communism
At approximately 10:40 a.m. on March 7, 1951, Iranian Prime Minister Haj Ali Razmara lay dying from two gunshot wounds on the steps of the Shah Mosque in the Iranian capital Tehran.
Razmara had refused to nationalize his country’s oil industry, pleasing the United States and Great Britain but alienating many of his countrymen, who believed outsiders were robbing their homeland of a precious natural resource.
In questioning, his assassin reportedly said to police, “Why do you give the country to foreigners so that I must do this deed?”
Twenty days later, 17 men crossed the tarmac of New York’s LaGuardia Airport and boarded a plane, smiling for photographs and waving to the reporters and parents who came to see them off. Together, they formed Penn State’s 1950 national champion men’s soccer team. Soon they would arrive in Iran at the request of the U.S. State Department to play several exhibition matches against local teams in an effort to “further goodwill” between a Russia-fearing, communist-hunting American government and a nation one newspaper called a “Cold War hotspot.”
As their plane rumbled down the runway, 33-year-old Venezuelan Gus Biggot, the oldest player on the Lions’ roster, hollered “State!” calming the nerves of his younger teammates. Most of them had never traveled outside Pennsylvania, let alone out of the country.
Soon they were tens of thousands of feet above the farms, cities, and small towns of their youth, peering through tiny windows, pointing at frozen lakes, familiar landmarks, and early spring clouds.
“Iran is just a name — just a place on the map,” wrote team manager Neil See as the plane crossed Nova Scotia. “I don’t suppose we’ll wake up until we’re actually there.”
See and the other players weren’t the only Americans who had yet to “wake up” to Iran. Most were absorbed by the nuclear age and the tension of the Cold War, captivated by any news story mentioning Russia, communism, or the United Nations forces that landed in South Korea a year earlier to defend the 38th parallel.
But by the time Penn State’s soccer team learned of its trip to the Middle East, seeds of unrest had already been planted in Iran’s oil-rich soil. For decades, Britain’s wars, cities, and industry guzzled millions of dollars’ worth of southern Iranian oil, extracted by The Anglo-Persian Oil Company, now known as British Petroleum or BP. But the populist call for nationalization that resulted in Razmara’s killing was gaining undeniable traction with the help in parliament of Mohammed Mosaddeq, who would eventually become prime minister.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the United States and its Western allies worried Iran would fall victim to the influence of the Soviet Union, with which it shared a border. Despite a three-year period of Western cooperation and the acceptance of American aid, Iran was still an unstable global actor.
A declassified National Security Council report from the same year expressed this fear: “The primary objective of our policy toward Iran is to prevent the domination of that country by the USSR and to strengthen Iran’s association with the free world.”
When the State Department received an invitation from the Iranian Athletic Association proposing a diplomatic soccer tour of the country in early spring of 1951, government officials reached out to the national champion Nittany Lions first.
Penn State was a far different place then. Happy Valley was flooded with veterans returning from Europe and the Pacific, earning degrees with the help of the G.I Bill. Beaver Stadium didn’t exist, and only 11,553 students took classes at the main campus. The team members were mostly between 19 and 23 years old. Several, including team captain Harry Little, also ran track or played baseball. Their majors ranged from electrical engineering to agricultural economics, and most went on to have successful careers in professions as diverse as military pilot, lawyer, or farmer.
Biggot, an All-American who played for the Nittany Lions in 1938, was the outlier at 33. He took a 10-year sabbatical from his studies during World War II and went home to Venezuela, eventually returning to State College to complete his degree.
Their leader was legendary Scottish coach Bill Jeffrey, who used his soccer knowledge to promote goodwill while teaching Italian and American soldiers in Italy how to play the game several years earlier. His team’s tour of Iran, however, represented a much bigger and more complicated encounter with world politics.
Frantic State Department arrangements and complications caused by Razmara’s assassination meant the team had less than a week to prepare for its trans-Atlantic tour. The lack of time to consider the visit combined with naivety meant the Nittany Lions weren’t much intimidated by this exotic adventure.
“We didn’t think much about it; it was a new adventure for us,” goalkeeper Ron Coder said as he hurried around his State College apartment, collecting trinkets and reports of his trip that had been stored away for years.
“[Iran] was some little country over there in the Middle East. People didn’t travel then like they do now,” added Coder’s wife Hope from a chair across the room.
Penn State President Milton Eisenhower, brother of the 34th U.S. president and an executive in the Office of War Information during World War II, approved the trip and stressed the importance of sports diplomacy.
“I believe that sports competition is one of the concrete things that can bring people closer together,” he said in a statement.
Media coverage was extensive. Dozens of newspapers, including The New York Times, picked up the story and followed the team throughout the trip. Arrangements were made to broadcast play-by-play commentary of the team’s games via Voice of America.
The Nittany Lions crossed the Atlantic on March 21, 1951, landing in Shannon, Ireland for the first in a series of brief overseas layovers. They touched down in Paris, Geneva, and Damascus before landing in Tehran on Friday, March 23.
Coder recalls sightseeing, meeting generals and “high soccer people,” and receiving a generally warm reception from the team’s Iranian hosts. “Everyone was nice to us,” he said. “We had banquets almost every night.”
Those recollections were echoed by Bill Yerkes, a senior defender on the team, as he sat on the back porch of his Doylestown farmhouse with a sea of newspaper clippings on the table next to him. “The people were so friendly,” he said.
The team paid an official visit to Dr. Henry F. Grady, the U.S. ambassador to Iran, and had a luncheon in the Hareem of Darius I (an ancient Persian King). Generally, the players were treated like celebrities. When they arrived in the historic city of Isfahan in the middle of the country to play their first exhibition game on the 24th, a crowd of approximately 500 people was waiting to greet them, according to See’s letters.
“A line of soldiers had to restrain the crowd,” he wrote. “We drove the few miles into town preceded by a motorcycle policeman and a jeep…we were surrounded by a fleet of 50 bicyclists who jockeyed for positions next to our bus so they could shake hands with us.”
A ten-wheel military truck filled with the team’s luggage followed the bus. In the race to be closest to the bus, one bicyclist was knocked from his seat and crushed under the wheels of the military truck. “I could just see the truck bumping over his body,” said Yerkes, who happened to be watching when the man was killed.
The Nittany Lions lost their first game 2-0 to an Isfahan club team in front of a crowd of 5,000, according to See’s letters. Fans climbed trees and crowded roofs, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the blue and white-clad foreigners battling the hometown team. They stormed the field after the final whistle, cheering both sides in overwhelming numbers, and the Penn State team was congratulated by an Iranian military general. The team bus inched slowly through the massive crowd that surrounded after the game, and with the help of several Iranian soldiers who cleared a path, it made its way into the city for some touring and a shower at the city’s public baths.
The next day, the team departed for Shiraz, nestled at the foot of the Zagros Mountains. Coder and Yerkes remember it for the ruins of Persepolis, located about thirty miles northeast of the city, which served as the capital of the Persian Empire under King Darius I.
The team ate lunch inside Darius’s ancient Hareem again and toured the faint outline of a city that had been uninhabited for thousands of years.
“We saw the tombs of King Darius and King Xerxes,” Coder said. “They’re in our Bible, in probably eight or ten books in our Bible…and I thought, ‘Oh my, I was there.'”
After returning from the ancient city, the Nittany Lions played the second match of their tour, against a Shiraz club team. They struck first, according to newspaper accounts, on an own-goal scored when a Shiraz player put the ball into his own net. Goals from Harold Irvin and the team’s prolific, St. Louis-born forward Ronald Coleman, sealed a 3-0 victory for Penn State.
The true hero of the match was Coder. Dubbed “The Idol of Iran” by one American newspaper after the trip, he led his defense to a shutout and accumulated his own following of Iranian fans.
“There were some [spectators] around my goal, so I turned and kind of talked with them,” he said. “More and more were gathering around, and finally, I think in the second half, I had a pretty big crowd behind me.”
Coder made approximately 20 saves over the course of the match, according to newspaper reports. The best Division I goalkeepers in today’s college leagues average between three and seven according to the NCAA’s official website.
After the game “was when [the Iranian fans] mobbed me, and I had no idea what was going on,” Coder recalled. “They picked me up and carried me over to the bus, which was kind of neat.”
The team departed for Tehran the next morning. In the newly-westernized capital city, the Nittany Lions conducted their usual rounds of touring and events before playing against an Iranian all-star squad, featuring several men who played on the national team, at Amjadieh Stadium. The Nittany Lions were overwhelmed 5-0 in the shadows of the Elburz Mountains.
The team left Tehran on April 3, making stops in Tel Aviv, Israel, Rome, Zurich, and Newfoundland, according to Yerkes. Coder remembers their arrival in New York, and their subsequent return to campus, as quiet events with little fanfare.
The local press, on the other hand, hailed them diplomatic champions. Newspapers printed headlines such as “Penn State Team Captivates Iran,” “State Soccerites Treated Royally,” and “Penn State Lost But Won in Iran.” Even the Iranian newspapers covered their matches with enthusiasm.
“Although physical education is not quite so important in Isfahan, and sportsmen are not encouraged here, it is seen that they could win over the liveliest country in the world,” wrote one Isfahan reporter under the headline “A Brilliant Success.”
The State Department heaped propaganda-like praise on the team, calling its trip a “stunning diplomatic success.” A reporter from the Associated Press, Clark Beach, aggregated several of the messages sent between the Iranian embassy and the American State department in a widely-published article.
“There has never been a group of visiting Americans who have caused so much enthusiasm on the part of the Iranians, from officials to the man in the street,” read one message. “This is excellent for friendly relations between the two countries,” noted another.
Coder and Yerkes have tracked Iran’s transition over the course of the six decades since their trip. They’ve seen the Iranian government overthrown by a CIA-organized coup, the 1979 Islamic revolution and hostage crisis, and the rise of the nuclear controversy that now surrounds the country.
Both men believe that, despite the ongoing, troubled, anti-American period faced by the Iranian people following the team’s visit, their trip accomplished its intended mission.
“I think it was very successful that way,” Yerkes said, referring to the goodwill between the two nations the trip hoped to create.
“The people that met us, I’m sure they were pro-U.S.,” Coder said. “I think it did a lot.”
Newspaper clippings, press releases and other primary source materials consulted in the making of this post were provided by the Eberly Family Special Collections Library.