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Minnesota Football: Recruiting in the 1930s #TBT

Given the popularity of last week’s post on recruiting Bill Daley, a star on the National Championship teams of the 1930s and 1940s. I thought I’d pull out a few more nuggets on recruiting during the Bernie Bierman era of the 1930s.

Coach Bierman stares lovingly at his 1935 National Championship team.

Recruiting was much different in the 1930s. Last week’s post dealt with how players such as Stan Kostka was recruited by a group called the "Hook Em Cow Club" of South St. Paul. So I won’t get into that again. The two other big factors in recruiting then were location and jobs.

Location for example, the vast majority of players on the National Championship teams in the 1930s were from the state of Minnesota. In 1934 30 of 37 players were born in the state, 31 of 35 in 1935, 41 of 46 in 1936, 55 of 59 in 1937, 57 of 63 in 1938. If rooters recruited a player from outside of Minnesota they were likely coming from a neighboring state and very likely to be a star. Some examples that either made All-American or All-Conference status from the 1930s teams are Pug Lund of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, Julie Alfonso of Cumberland, Wisconsin, George Franck of Davenport, Iowa.

Gophers vs Wisconsin 1933, Pug Lund (far right #45) punting

There were very few national recruiting battles in the 1930s. One of the biggest recruits of the entire decade was Tom Harmon who was a high school senior in 1936. While he ended up at Michigan, his recruitment resulted in a national scandal. Harmon had been recruited by every school in the Big Ten except Minnesota, although his decision came down to Tulane or Michigan. Both schools offered him some kind of deal and the boosters in Michigan won out. When the newspapers broke the story during the season in 1937 it played a part in costing his coach Harry Kipke his job. Fun fact the great Tom Harmon never beat Minnesota.

With the Great Depression raging throughout the 1930s and unemployment as high as 25% being able to afford school was crucial. Jobs were scarce for everyone and many families depended on their college aged boys for assistance. Babe LeVoir (QB and halfback from 1933-1935) never lost a game during his college career. But he needed a part time job while at the U of M to support his whole family living on the Iron Range after his father died while Babe was in school.

Babe LeVoir was the leading reciever in 1935. Here he is against Wisconsin after a 30 yard reception.

Conferences not the NCAA made up their own rules in those days. The Big Ten schools didn’t award athletic scholarships at the time. By contrast SEC gave tuition and books scholarships and $15 per month for spending money. Independent schools such as Pitt and Notre Dame were completely left up to their own devices.

Pitt was basically a semi-pro team in the 1930s. Famous novelist Upton Sinclair had this to say, "Pitt the only high school in the country that gives a degree." Paying players started with Panthers Coach Jock Sutherland in 1924. Average pay of players $550 per year plus books and tuition, up to $1,000 for star players. Pitt players made enough to support their family on their salaries. And their compensation compared favorably to NFL who where players were making $150 per game or $1,500 per season. Obviously with this kind of cash Pitt was able to attract almost any player it wanted.

Obviously this couldn’t last forever at Pitt. In 1937 when Pitt was invited to the Rose Bowl, the players demanded an extra $200. The school refused to pay up. So Coach Jock was out in 1938.

There is no evidence the University of Minnesota ever paid a player like Pitt did. I found one tiny rumor that Bernie Bierman once lent a player $50 for tuition, and that hardly seems like a scandal. Iowa had almost been thrown out of the Big Ten for loaning players between $15-20 bucks in 1927. The one thing Bierman could do within the rules is get the players jobs.

The Gophers did guarantee jobs for players to help pay for school and help support their families. Minneapolis was a gold mine for players jobs. The following companies hired players; Pillsbury, General Mills, Minneapolis Federal Reserve, and Tom Moore's Coca-Cola bottling company. I’m guessing Tom Moore was a fan.

Rudy Gmitro a elusive halfback who played in 1936 and 1937. Rudy kept his college job for 3 years after graduating, Bierman had gotten him a job at the Minneapolis Star-Journal.

“The goal line stand against the Panthers that amazed the football world. Weinstock stopped for a fourth time.” If you can tell what’s happening in that photo you’re a better person than I.

Still the difference in a programs like Pitt and Minnesota makes it fairly remarkable that Gophers regularly beat the Panthers. Playing as underdogs in 1933 and 1934 the Gophers won both games (the rematches in 1941 and 1942 were again victories). The wins against Pitt in 1933 and 1934 were games that put Minnesota on the national college football map.

Bierman’s magic eventually ran out in the years after World War II. There are many reasons why but one is that he was never able to attract the kind of players he’d had in the 1930s. With the depression over and GI’s not interested in the kind of jobs he could give them, Bierman struggled to keep up with the changing landscape of recruiting.