Oregon Football Coaches Through the Ages: 1894-1950
The University of Oregon has had some great football coaches throughout the ages that have all helped, in one way or another, make the Ducks what they are today. From the start of the Oregon football program to now, Oregon has had coaches that have helped shape football not only at Oregon, but all over the country.
For the first 18 years of the program’s establishment, the University of Oregon played as a independent team. In those years, the program also went through 16 different head coaches with only one, Frank Simpson, coaching for more than one season. The team’s first head coach and one of the people behind it’s establishment was Cal Young, who coached the Webfoots (as they were known at the time) in 1894 alongside J.A Church, playing mostly inter-squad games that first year.
The first Oregon Webfoots’ football game was played on March 24th of that year, against Albany Collegiate Institute (now known as Lewis & Clark College). The Webfoots won the game, 44-2, and went on to finish their inaugural year with a 1-2-1 record.
For the next three years, Oregon had three different coaches in Percy Benson (1895), J.F Frick (1896) and Joe Smith (1897), who went a combined 7-2.
In 1898, Oregon put Simpson, a former tackle at California, to work as head coach. The two years Simpson coached for Oregon, he led the Webfoots to a 6-3-1 record before he left to coach at his alma mater.
Tragically, after leading Cal to a 9-0-1 season in 1901, Simpson died in a car crash when returning home from a duck hunt with his wife. His career record was 15-3-2 — who knows how great a coach he could have gone on to become . . .
Following Simpson, Oregon went back to coaching changes every year and enlisted the services of Robert Forbes, former tackle and end at Yale, who in 1906, the first season in which the forward pass was legalized, had caught one of the biggest passes of the season. When he was hired at Oregon, it was reported that the University was making Forbes the highest paid coach in the Northwest. He coached the Ducks for two years and went 8-4 during his tenure.
In 1913, the Oregon Ducks rehired Hugo Bezdek, who had first coached the Ducks in 1906 and led the team to a 5-0-1 record, before being spirited away by the University of Arkansas. His return in 1913 coincided with the Ducks’ entry into the Pacific Coast Conference, which eventually became today’s Pac-12 conference.
Bezdek was known as a great motivator and is considered Oregon’s first true professional coach. In 1916, Oregon went undefeated with one tie (0-0) and shut out every opponent except California. Though Washington won the tie-breaker for the Pacific Coast Conference championship, the invitation to the 1917 Rose Bowl (known at the time as the Tournament East-West Football Game) was given to Oregon because the cost of a train ticket from Eugene to Los Angeles was significantly less than from Seattle.
Oregon played and beat the heavily favored University of Pennsylvania Quakers, 14-0, thanks largely to quarterback Charles A. “Shy” Huntington, who threw a touchdown pass and intercepted three passes on defense, getting Oregon’s first Rose Bowl victory. Bezdek left Oregon to become general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, in 1918.
In a move unheard of in today’s times, Oregon hired the former Oregon quarterback, only two years removed from leading the Ducks to their first Rose Bowl victory, as their next head coach. He remained the Ducks’ head coach for six years, ending his tenure as a football coach with a 26-12-6 record.
In 1919, he coached the Ducks to their second Rose Bowl, losing to Harvard 7-6 on January 1, 1920. After serving as the head football coach, Huntington coached the Ducks’ baseball team in 1919 and 1920 and the basketball team for the 1919-1920 basketball season, ending with a career record in the latter sport of eight wins and nine losses.
In 1924 and 1925, Oregon was coached by Joe Maddock and Richard Shore Smith, both coaching one season each before leaving the program.
In the late 1920’s, Oregon hired away two well-established and well-known Eastern coaches. The Ducks hired John “Cap” McEwan in 1926 from Army, who then led Oregon for four years before leaving over a contract dispute, with a record of 20-13-2. In 1930, the Ducks went with Clarence “Doc” Spears from Minnesota, who stayed at Oregon for two years of his five-year contract, ending his stay with a 13-4-2 record.
1932 brought the hiring of Prince G. “Prink” Callison, native Oregonian, a former player and the coach of the freshman team. In 1933, with the help of standout fullback Mike Mikulak and a smothering defense, which only allowed 50 points all season to go with five shutouts, Callison led the team to a 9-1 mark, losing only to USC, and the Pacific Coast Conference co-championship. The 9-1 record stood as the best in school history until 2001. Callison retired in 1937 with a career coaching record of 33-23-3.
After Callison retired, Oregon hired Gerald “Tex” Oliver away from Arizona. Oliver coached the Ducks for a total of six years, from 1938-1941 and 1945 and 1946, taking a leave of absence to serve as a naval officer during World War II. He ended his Oregon career with a 23-28-3 cumulative record.
Oliver’s 1941 team suffered a 71-7 loss to Texas on the day before Pearl Harbor, which still stands at the most points allowed by an Oregon team and the second-highest margin of defeat. He is also the only Oregon coach to see his team lose to Oregon State twice in one season.
In 1942, the Oregon basketball coach served as the interim football coach and posted a 20-6 record before the university shut down the football program for the duration of World War II.
Jim Aiken was hired away from Nevada in 1947 to become Oregon’s first coach of the Modern Era and had immediate success with the team he inherited, which included future Pro Football Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin and was peppered with many war veterans. The 1948 team went 9-1 in the regular season and tied Cal for the Pacific Coast Championship. Since the teams did not meet on the field that year, the 1949 Rose Bowl bid was decided by a secret ballot cast by conference presidents and the bid went to Cal.
To smooth over hurt feelings, the conference broke tradition and allowed the Ducks to play in a bowl other than the Rose Bowl, awarding them a berth in Cotton Bowl. The Ducks lost to an SMU team, 21-13, that boasted Doak Walker, one of the best players of all time. This bowl game was Oregon’s only bowl appearance between the 1920 and 1958 Rose Bowls.
Aiken could not keep up his success with younger, inexperienced players. In his fourth season in 1950, he posted a 1-9 record, which is still the lowest winning percentage in school history. He resigned in 1951 amid allegations of recruiting and practice violations.
The Ducks’ have gone on to sign some of the greatest coaches in school history, who have helped shape some of the best players to come out of any program. The second half of the 20th century and what we’ve seen so far of the 21st, have only given us hope that the Ducks will continue to find some of the best coaches out there who just happen to be the perfect fit for the University of Oregon.
Top Photo from University of Oregon Library