Here’s Hoping New Purdue Grid Coach Fares Better Than History

With Ryan Walters’ first spring practices as Purdue’s head football coach under way, let’s continue our look back at his predecessors.

Purdue’s football fortunes waxed and waned in the first quarter of the 20th century, a direct result of the coaching hires made until James Phelan – a member of the College Football Hall of Fame – came on board in 1922.

Two years removed from an All-American football season at Harvard, law school graduate Oliver Cutts came to West Lafayette in 1903 hoping to build on the previous season’s 7-2-1 record.

Fate had different plans for Cutts and the Boilermakers.

On Oct. 31, a 14-car special train carrying the players, staff and a handful of fans was en route to Indianapolis for the annual clash with Indiana. The train never reached its destination.

Approaching 18th Street in Indianapolis, the train came around a bend. Through miscommunication, a group of coal cars was being backed down the same rail line. The coal cars were mostly steel. The Purdue special cars were wooden.

The players’ car, located behind the engine, was splintered in two by the collision. Twelve players were among the 16 killed.

Cutts was among the fortunate, suffering a sprained ankle and a badly bruised foot. A future governor of Indiana, Harry G. Leslie, suffered injuries that would affect him the rest of his life.

The remaining five games of the season were cancelled.

Perhaps inspired by their late teammates, the Boilermakers would have a 1904 season that ranks among the greatest in school history. Purdue went 9-3, including a 27-0 win over Indiana at Indianapolis and a 36-0 home victory against Notre Dame to close out the season. It would be 25 years before another Purdue team would approach that record.

Cutts left for the University of Washington in 1905 but returned to Purdue as athletic director from 1915-18.

Following his death at the age of 65 in 1939, the Journal and Courier described Cutts as “a gentleman and scholar who never smoked, drank or cursed, and never spoke roughly to his players.”

If there was such a thing as hiring a big-name coach in 1905, Albert Herrnstein would have qualified.

As a standout halfback on Michigan’s point-a-minute teams in the early 1900s, Herrnstein played in the first Rose Bowl in 1902, a 49-0 rout of Stanford that was so dominating that the Rose Bowl decided in 1903 to have chariot races instead.

After graduation, Herrnstein coached the Haskell Indian School in Kansas for two seasons. His lone Purdue team outscored opponents 177-30 while compiling a 6-1-1 record.

Ohio State lured Herrnstein away in 1906, apparently not concerned then about hiring a Michigan man. The Buckeyes won the Big Ten title that year, and Herrnstein went 28-10-1 in four seasons. Four of those losses, though, were to Michigan. That was a no-no even a century ago.

The hardware business proved far less stressful. For more than 50 years he ran the Herrnstein Hardware Co. in Chillicothe, Ohio, before his death in 1958.

As a football coach, Myron Witham was a tremendous mathematics professor. The Boilermakers went 0-5 in 1906, his lone season in West Lafayette.

He would fare far better in his second chance as a head coach, going 63-26-7 with two Rocky Mountain Conference championships at Colorado from 1920 to 1931. Witham died in 1973 at age 92.

Another law school graduate gave football coaching a try at Purdue in 1907. Leigh Turner was an assistant coach under Fielding Yost while attending Michigan Law School.

Turner’s only Boilermaker squad scored a grand total of 10 points while once again going 0-5. He died in 1971 at age 91.

Purdue’s next coach was a medical school graduate. Frederick Speik looked like a promising hire, going 4-3 in 1908. Speik fell out of favor during the 1909 season and was fired with three games remaining.

The Evening Courier reported that the Purdue student body and the Athletic Association “felt that some radical measure had to be enacted to prevent a disgraceful showing over the next three games.” The Chicago Tribune piled on, noting “Since Speik has been in charge … Purdue has not won a game of note, and his ability as an instructor did not meet the expectations of members of the association, who assert that Speik had splendid material from which to pick an eleven.”

Speik established himself as a doctor/surgeon in the Los Angeles area and never coached another game. He took his life in 1940 at the age of 58.

An Olympic silver medalist in the Greek style discus in 1908 and Syracuse University’s first football All-American, Bill Horr decided to give football coaching a try in 1910 at Purdue.

Horr made it four losing coaches in a row at West Lafayette, although his third and final season saw Purdue go 4-2-1 to raise his overall record to 8-11-1. Horr spent the next 10 years as line coach at Syracuse before serving as a lawyer for the American Liability Insurance Company. He was 75 when he passed away in 1955.

Purdue figured it was time to hire a full-time, professional football coach. It chose an all-time great in 1913.

Andy Smith had compiled a 30-10-3 record in four seasons at Penn before he was lured to West Lafayette. In three seasons at Purdue, Smith went 12-6-3 and never had a losing campaign.

Smith would have his greatest success after leaving West Lafayette, winning four national championships and five Pacific Coast Conference championships at California from 1916 to his death at age 42 from pneumonia in 1926. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.

Next, Purdue turned to a successful east coast high school coach. Cleo O’Donnell’s 1914 Everett (Mass.) High School team went 13-0 and outscored opponents 600 to 0, including an 80-0 victory over Oak Park, Ill., in what was billed as the national championship of high school football.

The Big Ten proved a lot tougher than Oak Park, with O’Donnell’s Boilermakers going 1-8 in conference play and 5-8-1 in 1916-17. He fared better at his alma mater, going 69-27-6 from 1919-29 at Holy Cross. O’Donnell died at age 67 in 1953, eight years before his son, Kenneth, became a key aide to President John F. Kennedy.

Butch Scanlon delivered what none of his predecessors could in 1918, a Big Ten championship. That banner wasn’t enough to save his job two years later when he was, as the Journal and Courier put it, “retired” by athletic director Nelson Kellogg following a 10-7 loss to Indiana.

Scanlon went 7-12-1 at Purdue. Full disclosure: Scanlon coached my wife’s grandfather, end R.C. (Cooper) Kerr, as did the next Purdue coach.

By 1921, Purdue had had doctors and lawyers coaching football so someone in the athletic department figured it was time for an Indian. Well, at least someone who posed as one.

The debate has raged for decades over whether William “Lone Star” Dietz was really a Native American or a fraud.

Dietz registered for the draft in 1918 as a “Non-Citizen Indian,” a claim that drew the suspicion of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI determined that Dietz had assumed the identity of James One Star, an Ogala man who had disappeared in 1894. Two court appearances ended in a hung jury and then a 30-day sentence in Spokane, Wash., after Dietz pled no contest.

Dietz came to West Lafayette in 1921 with a spectacular 27-3-1 record at Washington State and with the Mare Island Marines in 1918. The Journal and Courier was sure Dietz would be the man to build sustained success at Purdue.

“We believe that a new era of football is dawning for Purdue. With a man who is a leader, with a team that is good, that merely needs coaching, advice and understanding, Purdue cannot but come out of the gridiron rut into which she has slipped during the past few years. … Purdue shall take its place among the leaders in the Big Ten from now on.”

Dietz was an outstanding football coach and would be elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012. Unfortunately, Dietz’s reputation would suffer during his lone season at Purdue.

The Boilermakers were shut out five times in 1921, and scored a mere nine points on their way to a 1-6 record and a tie for eighth place in the Big Ten.

It appeared, though, that Dietz would be retained. That possibility ended in January 1922 when he was accused by a University of Washington professor of offering eight west coast high school players $100 a month to come play at Purdue. Today, that’s about $1,650 dollars or chicken feed in today’s somewhat legal bidding for college athletes.

Interim Purdue president Henry Marshall – owner of the Journal and Courier – immediately fired Dietz, even though he and the eight athletes denied the charges.

One week after his dismissal, Dietz married the society editor of the Journal and Courier in a ceremony performed by Lafayette mayor George Durgan.

-Kenny Thompson is the former sports editor for the Lafayette Journal & Cou¬rier and an award-winning journalist. He has covered Purdue athletics for many years.