The Cleveland Rams’ Hugo Bezdek: The Original Hellraising Would-Be Reformer of College Football

Bezdek with the Rams

Hugo Bezdek (far right) opens training camp with the 1937 Cleveland Rams in Painesville, Ohio. (Photo courtesy the Cleveland Plain Dealer)

Hugo Bezdek

Stockily built, Bezdek was at heart an academician, a pedagogical purist, and a creative thinker. (Photo courtesy National Football Foundation)

Like sex, outrage over the high financial stakes of college football is something every generation seems to think it invented.

The latest example comes from the University of Alabama-Birmingham, whose football program has been deemed not financially unsustainable and so will be dismantled. Public reaction to this news has been predictable: university president Dr. Ray Watts is persona non grata in Birmingham.

But it always has been thus. Concern that college football has become too money-soaked and untethered from a university’s academic mission dates at least to the 1920s. So do attempts to reform it.

Among the most notable and earliest would-be reformers of college football was Hugo Bezdek, the NFL Rams franchise’s first-ever head coach. As a college athletic director and coach, Bezdek nearly single-handedly attempted to “de-emphasize” football at powerhouse Penn State University in the late 1920s and 1930s by eliminating player scholarships, returning to the university an athletic building that had been built by and for the football team, and drawing his player roster from the general student population.

And Bezdek wanted other schools to do the same. At the end of 1930 he encouraged his peers in the American Football Coaches Association to “frown on subsidization and recruiting of athletes,” curtail scouting, require coaches to be faculty members paid no more than their peers, abolish spring practice, “stress the educational value of football above all else.”

Reaction to Bezdek’s reformist zeal was, as might be imagined, politely non-starting at best. Bezdek’s counterpart from Georgia Tech essentially told him to stick his proposal in the bottom desk drawer.

As the Nittany Lions sunk into football mediocrity, Penn State’s alumni rode Bezdek out of Happy Valley on a rail, first removing him as coach, then giving him a one-year leave of absence from his position as head of the athletic department. He was to be given two choices upon his return: take a faculty position that was in no way affiliated with athletics, or resign.

Bezdek resigned, and in 1937 came to the NFL’s Cleveland Rams where he would begin another controversial — and short — chapter of his coaching career. Leading the newest team in the NFL, with the league’s youngest roster of players, “Bez” nonetheless employed such advanced pedagogical techniques as player self-government, allowing his charges to establish player committees that would set team rules and enforce them. “You see, Bez is a psychologist,” explained tackle Ted Rosequist, a fourth-year player at the then-grizzled age of 29. “He figures we won’t be so likely to break our own rules as his, so he lets us make ’em.”

The technique didn’t work. The Rams stumbled to 1-10 in Bezdek’s first year and opened 1938 with three straight losses before impatient Rams management canned him. Assistant coach Art Lewis took over and brought home a respectable 4-7 record, essentially proving inferior player material was not the only factor in the Rams’ early failure. Bezdek’s laissez-faire style of coaching may have been the absolute worst prescription for a young, inexperienced pro football team.

While Bezdek’s attempts at reform largely have been lost to history, his failings in Cleveland were anomalous to an otherwise decorated career, and he is enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame for coaching successes at Oregon, Arkansas and Penn State. To this day he is the only man ever to have served as both head coach of a pro football team and manager of a Major League Baseball team (Pittsburgh Pirates, 1917-19).

In treating players like adults, he was ahead of his time by at least a half-century. And in attempting to take the money and the “big” out of big-time college football, he swam against the tide of public sentiment — possibly for all time.

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