When coach William Smith gathered his Indiana Normal School football players around him for the first practice of the 1917 season, he likely cringed. There were scarcely enough bodies to hold a proper scrimmage.
America’s entry into World War I five months before meant young men who would have been carrying footballs were instead carrying rifles across battlefields in faraway lands. INS was especially hard hit, with numbers down and experienced players at a premium. Prospects were so bleak that some prognosticators suggested Smith’s team had little chance of winning more than a few games.
What Indiana wound up winning was a national championship.
SMITH, A 1908 graduate of INS, the forerunner of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, took charge of the football program in 1914. His 1915 and 1916 teams finished 9-0-1 and 8-1, respectively, and captured state Normal school titles.
But when President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany, many of the players he was counting on in the fall of 1917 entered the military. Smith felt like Old Mother Hubbard, his cupboard stripped bare.
With manpower at a minimum, a sense of dread took hold on campus. Were the Normalites, as they were known, destined for a disastrous season?
“Never in the past ten years was the athletic outlook at Indiana quite so dark as when the institution opened its doors on September 11, 1917, for another year’s work,” noted the Normal Herald, the school’s alumni publication, that October. “Out of a squad of half a hundred men who appeared for daily practice in the fall of 1916, very few returned to Normal this year.”
Many key players from the title team of 1916 either graduated or signed with Uncle Sam, and few of the newcomers showed promise. Indiana, it appeared, was condemned to relinquish its claim as the pre-eminent Normal school program in the state.
Fortunately, Smith had several quality holdovers to build around. Captain Fred Putts, a 5-9, 174-pound tackle from Rensselaer, Ind., though Lilliputian by today’s standards, was an immovable force on defense, and on offense he blasted gaping holes in the enemy line with crunching blocks.
Diminutive quarterback Edmond Melican (5-8, 140), a native of Worcester, Mass., was quicker than a jack rabbit, and fleet halfback Lester Radman (5-7½, 150), from New Eagle in Washington County, ripped off big gains with the regularity of a metronome.
The most notable newcomer was DuBois High graduate Ben Jones (5-11, 183), a fullback who outweighed most of his blockers. The Indiana Evening Gazette compared him to a British tank for the way he plowed through defenses. He and Radman would combine for at least 26 touchdowns (information is incomplete) for Smith’s Normalites in 1917, spearheading a relentless attack that buried foes under an avalanche of points.
INDIANA OPENED the season Sept. 29 by thrashing Clearfield High School, 104-0, setting a school scoring record in the process. In its game report, the Gazette likened INS to the Allied forces fighting Kaiser Wilhelm’s German army. “Smith’s warriors adopted tactics that would have made General [John] Pershing smile from ear to ear,” the account read. “If Kaiser Bill could have seen our warriors in action it is very evident that he would have thought his fighting machine resembled an afternoon tea party.”
Smith figured his team would meet with more of a test a week later against Edinboro, but the Normalites obliterated the scoring record they had set only the week before en route to a 141-0 victory. The game was so ridiculously lopsided that the Gazette devoted but one paragraph to its report:
“Instead of playing football Saturday afternoon, Coach Smith’s Normal team indulged in whitewash practice and applied 141 successive coats to the Edinboro Normal eleven, the latter not being able to get even a touch on the pigskin. It was quite an interesting event, you’ll agree.”
As if a 141-point victory could be in any way deemed interesting. Like so many INS games that fall, Smith’s team removed all suspense well before the first half had run its course.
The following week brought another blowout. The Normalites whipped the Carlisle Indian School Reserves 98-0 as “Radman, [halfback William] Kellogg, [halfback Bernard] Sandomire, Melican and Jones covered themselves with glory,” according to the Gazette account. The story went on to lament the lack of competition provided by Indiana’s first three opponents:
“It is to be hoped that future teams will give the local boys more of an argument than they have had as it is easily to be seen that the teams they have played do not give them good practice work. They would revel in getting a game with a team that has the same fighting spirit that they possess and if that dream is ever realized then the fans of Indiana will have a fine story to tell the future generations.”
The fine story did indeed materialize, but not before the parade of routs continued.
THE NORMALITES were expected to at last face a quality opponent in Bellefonte Academy on Oct. 20 at Johnstown’s Point Stadium.
The teams had split 12 previous meetings, tying twice, and close games were the norm. “During the many years of athletic relationship between the schools,” the Gazette noted, “neither has ever won by a large score.” But that changed dramatically in 1917: Jones scored five touchdowns as Indiana eased to a 106-0 victory.
INS closed October with yet another rout, 53-0 over the Amity Athletic Association. By that point the Normalites had outscored their five victims 502-0. News of Indiana’s jaw-dropping dominance spread throughout the state, and beyond — all the way to Kalamazoo, Mich.
Western Normal School reigned as the premier Normal school team in the Midwest under Bill Spaulding, later head coach at Minnesota and UCLA. Given Indiana’s supremacy in the East, Spaulding proposed that the teams square off in an unofficial national Normal school championship game. He even offered to play it on the road.
“I would like to take that trip,” he told the Kalamazoo Gazette. “It would mean about five days’ absence from classes, but it would be a big advertisement for the schools. We can make a great showing, despite the fact that the Pennsylvania Normal turns out some wonderful teams.”
He issued a challenge to INS and Smith accepted. On Nov. 24 — 100 years ago today — the Normalites and Hilltoppers would clash for national bragging rights.
WESTERN NORMAL, the forerunner of Western Michigan University, launched its football program in 1906. Spaulding took over as coach a year later and produced a succession of winning teams, highlighted by three perfect seasons.
Strange then that the Hilltoppers’ 1917 campaign is remembered not for a victory, but a defeat.
Western opened with a 26-8 win over Albion before traveling to the University of Michigan, where it nearly pulled off an upset for the ages. The Wolverines, bound for an 8-2 season under legendary coach Fielding Yost, should have annihilated the visitors from Kalamazoo. Instead, they found themselves in a dogfight.
According to the booklet “Twenty Years: 1904-1924,” published by Western State Normal School, “The football team sprang into great prominence in the fall of 1917 when Michigan was played for the first time. The Maize and Blue were taken off their feet and outplayed. After the worst sort of scare, Michigan came out on the long end of a 17-13 score. … This game alone put Western on the university map.”
After trailing 10-0 at the half, the Hilltoppers battled back and grabbed a 13-10 lead. Michigan was reeling, its fans stunned into silence. But the Wolverines regrouped and were able to score the deciding touchdown “in the last few moments of the game,” according to “Go Broncos! The History of Western Michigan Athletics,” by Thomas C. Slaughter.
Western followed its near-upset with an 83-0 rout of the Notre Dame freshmen, a 14-0 win over Michigan State and a 61-7 romp over Camp Custer. Spaulding’s Hilltoppers closed their regular season with a 35-6 loss to a University of Detroit team that would finish 8-1.
The Normalites, meanwhile, suffered their only setback, 7-0 to the University of Pittsburgh freshmen at Forbes Field, before resuming their winning ways. Indiana dominated Mansfield 46-0 to repeat as state Normal school champion, then whipped the West Virginia University Reserves 35-0 in its regular-season finale. The Normalites were 7-1, having outscored their seven victims 583-0.
All that remained was the showdown with Western, which had fans of both teams buzzing with anticipation.
“The game with the Indiana Pennsylvania State Normal School is to be the biggest game Western has ever had, with the single exception of the Michigan game this year,” noted the Western Herald, the student newspaper. “The Indiana Normal team is credited with being the best normal school in the Eastern states, while Western has been conceded highest honors for her class in this section of the country. The bringing together of the two schools is expected to develop great interest.”
Great apprehension, too, at least on Indiana’s part. The Hilltoppers possessed superior size and a devastating weapon in halfback Sam Dunlap, reputed to be “the greatest open-field runner in the state of Michigan,” according to the Gazette. The Normalites, who had been itching to play a first-rate opponent all season, now feared they were in over their heads.
“Tomorrow at 2:30 when Kalamazoo Normal and Indiana Normal line up for action, the local boys will be buck up against their most formidable foe of the season,” the Gazette noted. “Reports from the west have thrown a little scare into the local camp and the result is that Indiana has overlooked no opportunity to prepare for the greatest battle of the year. Messrs. Putts & Co. have been working like beavers in preparing for this game, trying out many new plays and ready to meet anything that the visitors may have in store for them.”
The headline to the story read “Football fans all agog for game Saturday.” Many were expecting a tight contest, and it was … for about a quarter.
WHAT THE Indiana Progress described as a large crowd filed into Normal Park, Indiana’s home field located adjacent to the Oak Grove where Fisher Auditorium and the IUP Libraries stand today. Western nearly struck on the game’s first scrimmage play, even before some of those spectators had settled in their seats. Quarterback Joe Berman circled right end on a keeper and saw nothing but open field ahead. He would have scored had Radman not chased him down from behind.
That proved to be the Hilltoppers’ last hurrah. Indiana dominated play after that initial scare and rolled to a resounding 40-0 victory. The Gazette placed the game story on its front page, under the headline “Kalamazoo bamboozled by Normalites.”
“Kalamazoo Normal, heralded as the greatest Normal School aggregation ever produced, came to town thoroughly convinced that they were going to have things very much their own way,” the Gazette noted. “Although the visitors were supposed to possess ‘oodles’ of speed and all kinds of fancy plays, a glance at the score will speak for itself.”
Jones scored three touchdowns, end John Haley added two and Radman scored the other while shredding the Western defense. Newspaper accounts of the time seldom cited statistics, but it’s apparent from the Gazette report that he rushed for well in excess of 100 yards:
“Radman has developed a bad habit of stealing lots of territory from opponents and it was hard for him to overcome this habit during the game. He continually clipped off ten, fifteen, twenty and on two occasions made it forty yards for good luck.”
There is no record of how the INS players celebrated their national championship. Did they tear down the goal posts? Carry Smith off the field on their shoulders? Fling their leather helmets into the air? If any team had cause for some over-the-top exuberance, it was Indiana.
The Normalites had shrugged off dire predictions to reach unprecedented heights. The depleted, unseasoned team of September exuded an aura of invincibility through October and November. Prognosticators who had forecast nothing but gloom a few months before were obviously operating with defective crystal balls.
“The 1917 football team was the most successful in the history of the school, besides being one of the greatest scoring machines in the country,” noted the 1918 Instano, the INS yearbook. “Indiana scored 623 points to the opponents’ 7. … ‘Bill’ Smith, rated as one of the best athletic coaches in the country, again turned out a championship team.”
Back when the INS squad gathered for its first practice of 1917, fans wondered if the Normalites were capable of winning more than a few games. They could never have envisioned Indiana winning a national title.