The Washington & Jefferson Presidents were hailed as conquering heroes after they defeated the University of California 0-0 in the 1922 Rose Bowl. That’s no misprint.
Against odds longer than a Siberian winter, W&J took on Cal’s vaunted “Wonder Team” in Pasadena a century ago and battled the unbeaten Bears to a draw. A school of only 450 students with little in the way of a national profile humbled a heavy favorite and celebrated a triumphant moment in its football history.
The scoreboard didn’t show it, but the Presidents, in the minds of many, were resounding winners.
“A truly remarkable eleven from a little college in Western Pennsylvania came across the continent and accomplished a feat that numerous institutions of ten times the enrollment and treble the athletic reputation have found impossible,” wrote Jack James of the San Francisco Examiner.
Funny thing, James had earlier belittled coach Earle “Greasy” Neale’s team. Told W&J had been invited to what was then the nation’s only bowl game, James cracked, “All I know about Washington and Jefferson is that they’re both dead.”
Like Rodney Dangerfield, the Presidents got no respect, despite their 10-0 record and wins over Pitt, West Virginia and Syracuse.
“Our team was taking a lot of ridicule about being hayseeds and farmers,” recalled halfback James Futhey years later.
But once the game was underway, the Bears quickly realized W&J was no pushover.
“We were for real,” said guard Ralph Vince. “There was no doubt in our minds before the game that we belonged. Afterward there should have been no doubt in a lot of other people’s minds.”
Indeed, the Presidents proved they were superior to the Wonder Team, whose players couldn’t comprehend how an overwhelming underdog from a little—and little-known—Pennsylvania school had shattered their aura of invincibility.
“The analysis of the game is short and easy,” wrote Paul Lowry in the Los Angeles Times. “W. and J. was too smart for California. The Presidents refused to be dumbfounded by stories of the superhuman play of the Bears. The ‘wonder’ stuff rolled off their backs like water. They outcharged, outrushed, outfoxed and outblocked the Bears.”
The Wonder Team, then in the midst of a 50-game unbeaten streak, had met its match.
The Presidents opened the 1921 season with seven consecutive victories, setting up a showdown with the powerhouse Pitt Panthers, led by legendary coach Glenn “Pop” Warner.
Washington resembled a ghost town on the day of the game.
“Everybody closed the stores,” recalled Washington native William “Doc” Harris. “You could shoot a rifle down Main Street and not hit anyone. They all went up to Forbes Field. They had to run special trains up to Pittsburgh.”
Presidents fans rejoiced when halfback Wayne Brenkert tossed a 20-yard touchdown pass to Herb Kopf with 10 minutes left to give W&J a 7-0 victory.
Noted Max E. Hannum in the Pittsburgh Press, “The final whistle that sounded success for the W. & J. cause threw the Red and Black followers into an uproar of joyous enthusiasm, hats and caps flying into the air and thousands rushing down upon the field in attempts to carry the conquerors off.”
A 13-0 win over West Virginia on Thanksgiving Day pushed the Presidents’ record to 9-0. That prompted the Tournament of Roses Association to extend an invitation for W&J to meet California in the Rose Bowl, which annually pitted the premier college team in the East against the best in the West.
But there was still the matter of a Dec. 3 game against the University of Detroit, a potential stumbling block for the Presidents.
“They were undefeated, like us,” Vince said. “I remember our Detroit alumni didn’t want us to play them. They thought we couldn’t handle them. But we felt we could play with anyone.”
The Presidents proved their mettle with a 14-2 victory. In a prelude to their Rose Bowl performance, the W&J defense smothered the Titans, allowing only a single first down and 21 total yards.
Neale’s Presidents would carry a perfect record with them to Pasadena.
When the Bears learned W&J would be their opponent in the Rose Bowl, they evinced all the enthusiasm of a toddler served a helping of broccoli.
California regarded the Presidents as an unworthy adversary. Coach Andy Smith’s team had outscored the opposition by a whopping 312-33 margin en route to a 9-0 record and had crushed Ohio State 28-0 in the previous year’s Rose Bowl. How could unheralded W&J ever expect to challenge the Wonder Team?
Consequently, some oddsmakers installed the Bears as a 21-point favorite. They might have considered even that too small a spread had they known W&J was traveling to Pasadena with a veritable skeleton crew. Numerous sources indicate only 11 players boarded Pullman cars at the Pittsburgh train station for the journey west; some indicate 17. Either way, the Presidents would be seriously undermanned against California.
Expense was at the root of the decision to trim the traveling party. According to E. Lee North, who wrote Battling the Indians, Panthers, and Nittany Lions: The Story of Washington & Jefferson College’s First Century of Football, 1890-1990, “W&J could only afford to pay for the minimum number of players—11 men—to travel by train to the Rose Bowl.”
Unbeknownst to Neale, there was actually an extra player on board. J. Ross “Bucky” Buchanan sneaked onto the train and hid in the baggage car, where he was nearly discovered by a suspicious conductor.
“We all carried our own equipment in those days,” Vince recalled. “Now, Bucky wasn’t a very big fellow. So what we did, we would have him get down on his hands and knees and we’d build our equipment bags around him. The conductor would do a count and say, ‘Well, I guess I was wrong.’”
In addition to a stowaway, the Presidents brought along tanks of water as a precaution against what they believed had sunk Ohio State the year before.
“Greasy Neale had read that their team had a lot of dysentery and felt that was the reason they lost,” Futhey said. “Before we left Washington, he had gallons of Washington water loaded on the train, and from the time we left until after the game, we were not allowed to drink any other water than what we brought with us.”
There was no shortage of water on Jan. 2, 1922. The previous night’s rain left the field at Tournament Park—the Rose Bowl stadium hadn’t yet been constructed—a soggy mess. Robert Edgren of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the playing surface “was as slippery as a greased griddle.” Others described the field as “all goo and ooze” and “a soaking mud pit.”
But most of the 40,000 spectators had little doubt the Bears would prevail over the elements as well as W&J. To their surprise, the Wonder Team didn’t look so wonderful once play commenced.
“A few minutes after the battle [had begun] and the Bears had felt the full power and viciousness of the black-jersied attack, something went out of them,” Harry A. Williams wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “They never were quite the same team again. They knew they had met their match. You could see the dawning of this sickening realization in their faces and in their attitude.”
The Bears’ spirits sank even further when Brenkert found a hole in the California line on W&J’s first possession and burst into the secondary.
“Brenkert went dodging through, evading tackler after tackler and leaving them sliding on their faces through the mud in his wake,” Edgren wrote. “Cutting close to the side lines he broke clear through and went whirling down the field and over the goal line.”
The Bears were stunned. So were the Presidents when they saw penalty flags littering the turf, negating Brenkert’s 35-yard touchdown.
California’s Irving “Crip” Toomey intercepted a pass on the next play and the game settled into a defensive struggle. The Presidents, fortunately, were up to the task.
A California team averaging 34.7 points per game—an extraordinary figure for that era—repeatedly spun its wheels against W&J. Used to overpowering opponents, the Bears couldn’t gain traction—literally and figuratively—against their foes.
“A whole afternoon of desperate endeavor on the part of the Pacific coast champions hardly made a dent in that iron defense,” Edgren wrote. “The favorite plays of California were smeared time and again, with monotonous regularity.”
The Presidents were, as Edgren phrased it, as difficult to budge as a mountain range. California managed only two first downs and 49 total yards against W&J’s swarming defense.
“The crowd sat stupefied as it saw the Western champions repeatedly rolled back before the eastern invaders,” Williams wrote. “They invariably had a group of men where the ball was. Not one tackler, but an avalanche of tacklers, simply smothered the runner.”
That the Presidents dominated the line of scrimmage is made even more impressive by the fact that Neale—who played major league baseball while coaching W&J—did not substitute even once. All 11 starters played the entire 60 minutes.
One of those indefatigable 11, Charles “Pruner” West, gained distinction as the first black quarterback in Rose Bowl history. West, who was born about a block from campus, later became a doctor specializing in the treatment of tuberculosis.
Another notable member of the team was captain Russell Stein, a tackle who opened holes on offense and slammed them shut on defense. An All-America selection in 1921, Stein went on to play four seasons in the fledgling NFL. He was selected the MVP of the 1922 Rose Bowl for his peerless play on both sides of the line.
Where W&J relied heavily on Stein, California’s fortunes invariably rested on the play of All-America end Harold “Brick” Muller, who had earned MVP honors in the Bears’ 1921 Rose Bowl rout and won a silver medal in the high jump at the 1920 Olympics. But against the Presidents, Muller was as much a factor in the outcome as the ticket takers.
California, despite possessing one of the nation’s most explosive offenses, could mount only one genuine scoring threat. The Bears took over deep in W&J territory after a short punt late in the fourth quarter and appeared poised to pull out the victory so many had predicted.
After Cal gained six yards on three plays, Toomey tossed a fourth-down pass to Richard Dunn near the 10-yard line, but a W&J defender jarred the ball loose just as Dunn tried to reel it in and the Presidents took over on downs. Time soon ran out in a scoreless tie that Bears fans viewed as a demoralizing defeat and W&J fans considered a momentous victory. With good reason.
“Before the game Andy Smith’s men were picked to win decisively and except in the east no one figured that the Presidents had a chance,” Ralph Davis wrote in the Pittsburgh Press. “Everything was against the latter—the change of climate, the long railroad trip just before the battle, and the fact that they were playing on foreign grounds. Greasy Neale had his men keyed up to the highest possible pitch, and they did more than even their most optimistic followers had a right to expect.”
It was an improbable turn of events, the little school with the tiny football squad neutralizing the seemingly invincible Wonder Team.
Against all odds, the underdogs from Pennsylvania had pulled out a 0-0 victory.