When the University of Oregon Webfoots opened the 1916 season with a 97–0 win over Willamette University, the result was met with deafening silence nationwide.
The West Coast was a college football afterthought, figuratively and literally thousands of miles from relevancy. Just how strongly was the balance of power located in the East? Ivy League schools were declared champions or cochampions in every year but one between 1869 and 1915, and the farthest west school to win a title was the University of Illinois in 1914.
Clearly, it was going to take something special to get the nation to notice college football on the West Coast.
It took the University of Oregon.
Coached by Hugo Bezdak and trained by Bill Hayward, the Webfoots—wearing blue and yellow uniforms and still a decade away from becoming the Ducks—went 6–0–1 in 1916, outscoring their opponents by a combined 244–17.
UO quarterback Shy Huntington is tackled by a pair of Penn defenders during the 1917 East-West game.
When the time came for Tournament of Roses organizers to select participants for the third playing of the Tournament East-West football game, they opted for the UO over the University of Washington—who had held Oregon to a scoreless tie—as the Webfoots were $250 cheaper to bring in by train. That isn’t to say the trip was entirely affordable for Oregon though; the UO sold its bookstore to help pay the train fare.
The University of Pennsylvania Quakers—five-time national champions who boasted a loaded roster featuring four All-Americans—played the role of Goliath to the Webfoots’ David. The Quakers were a three-touchdown favorite, and even coaches who had faced the UO that year picked Philadelphia’s finest to defeat the upstarts from Eugene.
“We are going to put a team on the field that won’t be licked and consequently can’t be licked,” the Washington Timesquoted Penn head coach Bob Folwell as saying. The Quakers were so confident that they held an open practice session, where they proudly showed off their dazzling array of trick plays in front of a crowd that included the awed Webfoots. “I’ve got only overgrown high school boys, while Penn can field a varsity of big university strength,” said Bezdak. “We haven’t a chance.”
“We were scared to death of them,” Oregon team captain John Beckett told the Oregon Daily Emerald.
While the Penn Quakers were big names in college football in 1916, the Rose Bowl itself was not. In fact, it wasn’t even the Rose Bowl; the name wasn’t used until 1923. The inaugural game, in 1902, was played in front of a crowd of just 8,000 at Tournament Park on the California Institute of Technology’s campus. Staged as a novel accompaniment to the Tournament of Roses’ parties and New Year’s Day parade, the contest ended eight minutes early when Stanford, trailing Michigan 49–0, simply quit playing.
Organizers responded by replacing the game with chariot races, inspired by Ben-Hur. They didn’t hold a game again until 1916, when they invited the Brown University Bears and the Washington State Warriors to Pasadena. The Warriors spent their mornings leading up to the game acting as extras in the silent film Brown of Harvard. The Bears relaxed by attending the Rose Parade prior to kickoff. Though the Warriors won 14–0 on a muddy field in front of 10,000 fans, the win “did nothing to diminish the widely held belief that East Coast teams were vastly superior to their Western challengers,” the Los Angeles Times later wrote.
When the Webfoots and Quakers arrived at Tournament Park on a gloriously sunny New Year’s Day in 1917, they were greeted by a raucous crowd of more than 26,000. Back in Eugene, the Heilig Theater on Willamette Street was packed with people wanting to follow the game. The first radio broadcast of a college football game was still more than four years away, so plays were relayed via Morse code to Mac McKevitt, a Western Union representative backstage at the Heilig; as each play came in, McKevitt passed it along to an announcer who called it out over a megaphone, while the position of the ball on the field was displayed on a board set up on the stage.
What the fans heard, and what the crowd in Pasadena witnessed, defied belief.
The Webfoots stuffed Penn repeatedly on every drive. In the third quarter, Shy Huntington, the Webfoots’ quarterback, kicker, and safety, picked off a pass and led the team on a 70-yard drive back down the field. UO halfback John Parsons handed off to Huntington on a reverse, and Huntington threw the ball to Lloyd Tegart for a 20-yard touchdown.
Penn was stunned, and not just because they were trailing—that was one of the trick plays they had shown the UO at practice. “Imagine what we thought and said,” Penn quarterback Bert Bell lamented, “when Oregon scored its first touchdown on our own play.”
In the fourth quarter, Huntington put the game out of reach when another interception, one of three that day, led to a 45-yard Parsons run to the one-yard line. Huntington finished the play with a scamper to the corner of the end zone, and his successful kick gave the Webfoots a 14–0 lead.
That turned out to be the final score, leading Los Angeles Times writer Harry Williams to proclaim West Coast teams would “lick the stuffing out of every eastern team.” Philadelphia’s Evening Public Ledger called the UO’s victory a “splendid performance,” while a wire report added that the UO “is hailed as one of the greatest in the US.”
Penn’s players added to the praise, with Mathews stating the Webfoots were the second-best team the Quakers played that year—and that Parsons was “one of the best backs that I have seen work this season. He could make any team in the East.”
Beckett was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, and was also named an All-American, becoming just the second player from a West Coast school to ever earn the distinction.
While the Webfoots’ performance was not enough to see the team crowned national champions—that honor went to the Pop Warner–coached University of Pittsburg Panthers—it did bring national attention to the football played on the Pacific seaboard. In the decade following the game, Cal and Stanford combined for five national championships; by 1937, conference schools had won 11.
The University of Oregon won’t add to the Pac-12’s tally of national titles this year, but there’s no doubt that the school that once fielded “overgrown high school boys”—and didn’t play in a single bowl game from 1964 to 1989—is enjoying a period of dominance unparalleled in its history. The Ducks are the only team from outside the state of Alabama to compete for the national championship twice this decade, and only the Crimson Tide have played in more Bowl Championship Series bowl games and College Football Playoff games combined since 2010.
And the days of those wins being met with deafening silence are long over.
—By Damian Foley, University Communications