The Legend of Earle Mundell

Football in the twenty-first century means (among other things) becoming increasingly numb to astronomical offensive statistics. A quarterback surpassing 300 yards in a game? Commonplace. Teams having multiple 1,000-yard backs? Nice, but not nearly unheard of. A running back going for two-hundred plus? Buddy, our great state has seen a guy rush for well over a third of a mile.

Wide-open offensive systems, hurry-up approaches and teams playing up to 15 or 16 games in a season have warped our sense of numerical significance and seriously upped the ante for any athlete hoping to blow fans away with statistics. Even so, there are certain thresholds that still hold meaning. We could debate which milestones are still important or not, but most people would agree that rushing for 2,000 yards in a season is one of them. In 2019, only eight players statewide reached this mark, and only one (Northern’s Kyle Swartz) played fewer than 12 games.

If I told you a player once ran for 2,455 yards in a season, you’d likely be impressed; after all, only Ben Jackson of West Greene and Lenny Kelley of Dallas surpassed that total this past season. You may be more impressed to learn that this player did so in just 10 games, beating Swartz’s superlative 237.7 yards-per-game average from 2019.

But what if I told you this player did so in 1947, when everyone played both ways on grass fields and without facemasks? That he did so for a high school that no longer exists? That he played against opponents determined to knock him out of the game? And that he stood just 5-foot-4 and weighed 147 pounds? This is the story of Earle Mundell, a tiny back from Ambler High School with blazing speed that led him to additional fame on the track. A player who ran for more yards than anyone in Pennsylvania history up to that point, yet whose name has largely faded into history.


Sun, Oct 16, 1949 – 28 · Sunday News (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.com

Mundell – whose name was often misspelled in print as “Earl” – would go on to be the smallest man on the 1950 Penn State football roster. He played for the Nittany Lions from 1949-1951 and was recognized as one of – if not the – fastest players on the team. As a high school senior, Mundell could run 50 yards in 5.5 seconds, roughly equivalent to a 4.4 forty yard dash.

Mundell’s legend was born in Ambler, which today is part of the Wissahickon School District. In 1955, eight years after he had last played high school football, the Delaware County Daily Times described him this way:

A scatback, Mundell was very deceptive and could stop on a dime while travelling (sic) at top speed. He was recalled as having tremendous speed and at times would reverse his field three and four times while on his way to a touchdown.

At the end of the season, Mundell became the first player in Bux-Mont Conference history to be named to the all-district team. During this era, Ambler won 33 games in a row, matching the number of touchdowns Mundell scored in 1947. He also earned a player-of-the-week award from the Maxwell Club, receiving high praise from then-Eagles owner Bert Bell at the ceremony. Following his final game, Mundell had scored 311 career points, which at the time was considered to be a national record. He also kicked and served as Ambler’s primary passer (remember, this is in the days of the single-wing).

Unfortunately, game-by-game recaps of Mundell’s terrific senior season have been difficult to come by online. Against Springfield (Montco), he had 31 carries for 243 yards and both touchdowns in a 12-0 win. Sadly, this is one of the few examples of game stories giving detailed statistics for Mundell’s exploits. Boxscores in the 1940s were basic at best and many newspapers only published statistics for scoring, not yardage totals. Many games were recapped with a simple blurb that gave only sparse descriptions of what had happened:

Mundell was a truly dominant force in suburban Philadelphia football. While he saw action at Penn State, he never shone as brilliantly as he did at Ambler. Some newspaper articles in the early 1950s asserted that Mundell’s lack of overwhelming success in college was due to his small stature. The fact that the game inflicted a punishing physical toll on him came up in more than one clipping that I found. While it is true that Mundell lacked ideal size to put up with the rough nature of football, one local journalist named Jim Hackett proposed that he took a beating because opponents were aiming to knock him out of the game. This tactic, while frowned upon by some, has always been a part of the game of football. The game in question, a 50-6 Ambler win over Jenkintown, had led some fans to claim that Ambler coach Johnny Meyer had run up the score. However, Hackett also alluded to another reason why Mundell had to withstand such rough play by his opponents:

“…For in the first quarter, Earl (sic) Mundell, the Black Knight of the Bux-Mont Conference was batted ruefully to the ground, immobilized… A crescendo of cheers shook the Jenkintown rooting section, they had ‘Got Mundell’…

“…as long as other teams insist on beating down a boy because he is great – or horrors, because he is Negro – Johnny Meyers will run up the markers for he has a right to do so…”

At another point in the season, Hackett described Springfield taking a similar approach when it came to roughing up Mundell:

“Another buddy reports that never in high school football has he seen a boy take the pounding Earl (sic) “Jinks” Mundell absorbed from Springfield on Saturday. Fists were flying into the lithe Trojan’s face on every play. His lips were swollen, his nose was gashed, his eyes were pinpoints when the game was over… But the kid showed [Springfield coach] Gockley his ability, his sheer guts, that all the rough tactics employed by a coach who has little respect for decency in sport – other than winning – could not stop him […] Futhermore, the hardened observer says he found himself leaping into the air as Mundell went on to score – not because Ambler won, but because this run was in direct repudiation of unsportsmanlike, rough football.”

Playing football as a black man in 1947 – the same year Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier – was exceptionally difficult. Even if you were given the opportunity to see the field, you were almost certain to face extremely physical play from your opponents that could easily cross the line into physical attacks. And while Mundell had the chance to attend a major university to play football, most college teams in the 1940s had very few black players on their rosters. Of course, for every school south of the Mason-Dixon Line during this era, the number of black players on college football teams was exactly zero. Northern teams often weren’t much more diverse. During his senior year of high school, Mundell was given a scholarship to Penn and, had he attended, would have been the first black athlete in the school’s history. And nearly every news article written about his athletic achievements referenced his race, sometimes going so far as to call him “The Black Knight.” All of this is not to assume that players from Jenkintown and Springfield were aggressive with Mundell solely because of his race, but it does serve as a chance to think about how discrimination played a role in the game as a whole during the time before the Civil Rights Era.

Mundell went on to graduate from Penn State and then earn a graduate degree from Xavier. He spent his career in education at schools in Ohio, serving as a teacher, a principal and a superintendent. He died in 2017 at the age of 87.


Legends are born by extraordinary performances in difficult circumstances, but they remain legends because of the haze and lack of clarity surrounding them. If we knew every single detail about Mundell’s season or had film of it, it would lose some of this luster. Today, we can watch games live from anywhere and endlessly review highlights; the impact technology has had on football is undeniable and overwhelmingly positive. Even so, there’s something alluring about the unknown, especially when our present world feels as if nothing is left undocumented. Reading seventy-year-old game recaps allows us to imagine how awesome Earle Mundell must have been, twisting and weaving his way around and through bewildered (and sometimes hostile) defenses. As nice as film is, I think I prefer it that way.

Pennsylvania High School Alumni Coaching FBS Programs

Last week, I took a look at Pennsylvania high school graduates who have led NFL teams as head coaches. This week’s post will focus on those who currently serve as head coaches in the NCAA, specifically at the FBS level. In stark contrast to the 28% of NFL jobs held by Pennsylvanians, only three of the 130 FBS positions (or 2.3%) belong to Keystone State grads. Those three coaches are James Franklin (Neshaminy → Penn State), Kirk Ferentz (Upper St. Clair → Iowa) and Randy Edsall (Susquehannock → UConn).

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James Franklin as a quarterback at Neshaminy. Image from PennLive.com: https://www.pennlive.com/pennstatefootball/2016/12/how_james_franklins_playing_pa.html

Here’s a clipping of Edsall’s high school days from 1975. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a picture of Ferentz playing for Upper St. Clair’s football team. However, I did come across an unexpected article that mentions him playing hockey and scoring a goal against the old Armstrong High School in 1973.

As of the end of the 2019 season, Franklin (including his time at Vanderbilt) holds a career record of 80-38 (.678). In 21 years at Iowa (plus three at Maine), Ferentz has gone 174-125 (.582). Edsall, who has coached a pair of stints at UConn and one at Maryland, is 98-127 (.436).

We could probably spend a lot of time discussing why there is such a disparity between the number of Pennsylvanians serving as coaches at football’s two highest levels, but I think it’s likely just a statistical blip, if anything. I can’t think of many logical reasons why the NFL has three times as many coaches from our high schools as the FBS despite having a quarter as many teams, so I think it’s just an oddity without a real explanation or reason as to why it exists. Perhaps you could follow the line of thinking that Pennsylvania produces a lot of high-quality coaches and they view coaching in the NFL as the ultimate goal, leading many of them to take the professional route. I’m not certain that I’m sold on that theory, though.

A more wide-ranging post on Pennsylvania grads coaching at major college programs throughout history will be coming at a later time. Instead, I wanted to take time to briefly point out some trends in FBS coaching backgrounds as they stand today, now that Hawaii’s vacancy has been filled by Todd Graham and his Garth Brooks-style headset microphone.

  • Pennsylvania’s three current head coaches are tied for 12th among all states. The other states with three are Wisconsin, Utah, New Hampshire, Kansas and Arkansas. When comparing the historical clout of high school football in each of these states, it becomes more clear how low Pennsylvania’s number currently sits as opposed to what one may expect.
  • The state that can claim the most graduates as FBS head coaches? Ohio, with 13 (or exactly 10 percent of all coaches at that level). California (11) is second and Texas (10) is third.
  • Ten states do not have a current representative at the FBS level. These fall into two camps: the not-surprising and the fairly-surprising, at least to me. Vermont, Rhode Island, North Dakota, Maine, Delaware, Nevada and Alaska? Sure, those make sense. But Maryland, Michigan and (especially) Virginia? I don’t think I would’ve guessed that those three states would’ve been skunked by this survey.
  • Another surprise for me is the fact that the three teams tied for 8th are Georgia (not shocking) along with West Virginia and Indiana (more shocking). West (enter your chosen expletive) Virginia has some pretty good firepower, too, with a roster of Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher and the solid but lesser known Doc Holliday joining newcomer Shawn Clark of Appalachian State. Indiana can’t match that lineup, but Kevin Sumlin, Tom Allen, Thomas Hammock and Mike Neu still represent more Hoosiers than I would’ve guessed.
  • The full table can be seen below:
BY STATE
OH 13
CA 11
TX 10
FL 8
OK 7
IL 6
TN 5
AL 5
WV 4
IN 4
GA 4
WI 3
UT 3
PA 3
NH 3
KS 3
AR 3
SD 2
SC 2
OR 2
NJ 2
NE 2
NC 2
MS 2
MN 2
LA 2
KY 2
IA 2
WY 1
WA 1
NY 1
NM 1
MT 1
MO 1
MA 1
ID 1
HI 1
DC 1
CT 1
CO 1
AZ 1
VT 0
VA 0
RI 0
NV 0
ND 0
MI 0
ME 0
MD 0
DE 0
AK 0

Take a look at these and feel free to drop any other observations in the comments.

Pennsylvania High School Alums Coaching in the NFL

Even though it’s the first month of the high school football off-season, plenty has happened in January in the professional ranks to keep things interesting from a Pennsylvania high school football perspective. In the past ten days, four NFL franchises hired coaches who played their scholastic football in the Keystone State: Mike McCarthy (Dallas, from the now-closed Bishop Boyle HS in Homestead), Matt Ruhle (Carolina, State College), Joe Judge (Giants, Lansdale Catholic) and Kevin Stefanski (Cleveland, St. Joe’s Prep).

When adding these four new hires to the five existing Pennsylvania high school grads holding head coaching positions (Sean McDermott, Matt Nagy, Frank Reich, Bruce Arians and Vic Fangio), just over 28 percent of the NFL is led by guys from our state. I wanted to take a look to see how the size of the upcoming 2020 crop stacked up against past years in terms of Pennsylvanians holding NFL head coaching positions. As I had expected, no previous year can match the nine head coaches that will roam professional sidelines next fall. However, that doesn’t mean some years didn’t come close or that I didn’t find plenty of interesting names, stories, and numbers along the way.

To do this research, I started where everyone must when exploring the history of professional football: pro-football-reference.com. Knowing that PFR had a listing of every NFL coach throughout the history of the league, I went through the biographical information of each of the 500 coaches listed to sift out the ones who attended high school in our state. In the end, I found 64 NFL head coaches (counting the recent hires) who played scholastic football here, or nearly 13 percent of all head coaches in the league’s history. Additionally, PFR lists five more coaches who were born in Pennsylvania but went to high school in another state; the information throughout the rest of this post excludes these five coaches. Apologies to Mike Holovak, Dick Nolan, Jim Trimble, Joe Stydahar and Hank Bullough, but I wanted this post to focus on those coaches who attended high school here.

Image result for mike mccarthy cowboys shirt
Bishop Boyle High School closed in 1984 because school administrators predicted Mike McCarthy would wear a shirt this ugly more than 35 years later.

Overview

To begin, let’s take a look at the cumulative statistics of the 64 coaches in question:

GAMES 3878
WINS 1904
LOSSES 1910
TIES 64
WIN % 0.499

Barring a rash of firings during next season, our nine alums will bring the total number of games coached by Pennsylvania high school grads past 4,000 all-time. Surpassing the 2,000 win barrier could happen in the 2021 season, and with any luck the current group will help get the state’s overall winning percentage over the .500 mark.

A few notes on some of the coaches on the list:

  • Individually, Marty Schottenheimer’s 200 wins lead all Pennsylvania natives (and rank 8th in NFL history). Six others have at least 100 wins. Chuck Knox leads in both games coached (334) and losses (147); his 186 wins are second only to Schottenheimer.
  • Bill Cowher, McCarthy and Mike Ditka have won the state’s three Super Bowls.
  • I haven’t had the chance to run the numbers to be sure of this, but I would guess that Fort Cherry High School is one of (if not the) only high school in America with two graduates holding at least 100 career NFL wins (Schottenheimer and Marvin Lewis).
  • Aldo Donelli, a Bridgeville High grad who coached both the Steelers and the then-Cleveland Rams for a year apiece, made his name in a different kind of football altogether. He played soccer for the US Men’s National Team in the 1934 World Cup and is enshrined in the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
  • Yeadon’s John Rauch graduated from the University of Georgia in 1948 as the NCAA’s all-time leader in career passing yards. He later coached the Oakland Raiders but resigned due to frustration over Al Davis’ meddling in the team. Rauch went on to coach the Bills for two years; Davis replaced him with John Madden.
  • The other Rauch on the list, Dick, was the head coach of the 1925 Pottsville Maroons, a team that claimed the NFL championship but later had it nullified because of an archaic territorial rule after playing an exhibition game on another team’s geographic footprint.
  • Hinkey Haines coached just one year in the NFL and earned more renown for his achievements as both a football and baseball player. Haines was a member of both a World Series champion (the 1923 Yankees) and an NFL champion (the 1927 Giants).
  • Three different coaches finished their careers with exactly zero wins, but two of them (Hal Hunter and Dick Modzelewski) only coached one game. The other? Monaca’s John Karcis, who, as a 5’9, 223 pound fullback, was appropriately nicknamed “Bull.” Karcis had a solid nine-year playing career and was named second-team All-Pro in 1937. His coaching career was less successful but remarkable in at least one way: he made the jump directly from coaching high school to being an NFL head coach the following year. In 1940 and 1941, Karcis led Pitcairn High School (located outside of Pittsburgh) to records of 0-6-2 and 4-3-2, respectively. In 1942, Detroit Lions coach Bill Edwards was fired after an 0-3 start. Looking for a change in direction, the Lions hired Karcis from Pitcairn to salvage the season. It didn’t work. Detroit lost its remaining eight games (getting outscored 208-31) and finished 0-11. Karcis, now with a career record of 0-8, would never lead an NFL team again. To be fair, 1942 was the first season where the NFL began to see players enlist in the World War II effort, leaving many teams shorthanded and forced to play on with whatever ramshackle group they could throw together. In a few ways, Karcis’ career was doomed from the start. He was pulled directly from coaching teenagers to hard-fought wins over Plum and Trafford and thrown into a schedule featuring opponents like Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Don Hutson and others. Karcis’ own roster was less star-studded than his opponents’, you could say. In 1942, the Lions failed to have a player surpass 300 yards rushing or 300 yards passing for the entire season. The team’s quarterback rating was – get ready – 8.2. Not 82. Eight-point-two over 11 games. I guess that’s what happens when you throw one touchdown and 33 interceptions over the course of a season. Anyway, I’d argue that Karcis’ coaching ability should not be looked down upon based on his fraction of a season with a subpar roster, especially considering the huge jump he made when going from high school to professional football.
  • Another Pennsylvania native whose career shouldn’t be measured by his struggles as a head coach is Bert Bell. A member of the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963, Bell served 14 years as NFL commissioner, was a co-founder of the Philadelphia Eagles and was the driving force behind the creation of the NFL Draft. However, Bell’s six years as a head coach were far from inspiring. From 1936-1940, his Eagles teams went just 10-44-2. In late 1940, Bell arranged a bizarre flip-flop with Steelers president Art Rooney to essentially trade the entire Steelers roster for the Eagles’. Bell finished his coaching career after just two games with Pittsburgh the following fall, losing both. Bell isn’t remembered for his coaching career, though. His legacy is the fact that he built the NFL through the 1950s as it emerged from college football’s shadow, planting the seeds for the monolith we see today.

To see the entire list of coaches who played for Pennsylvania high schools, click here.

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A Pittsburgh-area guy coaching another Pittsburgh-area guy…for Kansas City.

The Years

Our group of nine coaches will represent the highest number of Pennsylvanians leading NFL franchises in a single year once the 2020 season rolls around. In fact, no other season has had more than seven such coaches. The record number coming this fall is perhaps more impressive when you consider that the 2007 season featured only two Pennsylvania high school graduates at head coach. Before that year, the last time the number fell that low was in 1981. And while the 1950s were an anomaly (zero Pennsylvanians were head coaches from 1952 to 1958), that period was the last time the NFL lacked representation from our state.

PA HS Grads Coaching in NFL by Year

The 2020 season is set up to potentially be a year where Pennsylvania grads begin to build an even stronger foothold in the professional coaching world. However, as things stand right now, the unquestioned golden years for our state ran from the early-1980s to the mid-2000s. Our state’s nine winningest coaches were all active during this time period, two of the alum’s three Super Bowls were won, and in 1984, 1992, 1993 and 1997 there were seven Pennsylvanians serving as NFL head coaches.

The Schools

Just over one-third of the schools that NFL coaches from Pennsylvania have called their alma mater are now closed. They include recent closures like Monaca and Peabody, historical powers like Harrisburg Tech and Harrisburg John Harris, and smaller, more obscure high schools like Girardville and Avalon. The defunct public schools on the list merged together to form many of the high school programs we would recognize today. With the exception of Monaca – which merged with Center in 2009 to form Central Valley – most of these mergers happened no later than the 1950s as the Commonwealth sought to decrease the number of districts statewide from more than 2,000 to about 500.

Five schools have had multiple graduates serve as NFL head coaches: Fort Cherry, Beaver Falls, Haverford School, Bellefonte Academy and St. Joseph’s Prep. From a geographic perspective, it shouldn’t be a surprise that most coaches came from areas concentrated around Philadelphia and, especially, Pittsburgh:

Because the public vs. private school debate remains a hot topic among high school football fans, I thought I’d check out those numbers, too. Nearly three-quarters of our NFL coach alums attended public schools and one-in-five were graduates of private schools. The remaining five percent attended schools that were publicly funded but would be called “non-boundary” schools today: Harrisburg Tech, Northeast Manual Training (Philadelphia) and perhaps the most extreme, controversial and famous example, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

Speaking of the Carlisle Indian School: I chose to include Jim Thorpe on this list, but not William “Lone Star” Dietz, another former NFL coach who attended the school. Thorpe, a native Oklahoman, first attended the famous Haskell Institute in Kansas but then made his way to Carlisle at the age of 16. After dropping out, he returned to the school at 19 to begin his college career, helping Carlisle and Pop Warner achieve national prominence in the early 1900s. Dietz, on the other hand, attended a school for Native Americans in Oklahoma and didn’t enroll at Carlisle until he was 25. For this reason, I chose to consider his time at Carlisle as consisting of collegiate years; the school educated Native Americans from a wide-range of ages, including those in their twenties. Additionally, Dietz likely wasn’t Native American at all – it is probable that he was a white man pretending to be one.

In the end, this exercise served as a clear reminder of the clout Pennsylvania holds in professional football. As the shift in football power at the high school and college levels continues to move southward, it is worth remembering how many legends of the game, both players and coaches, came from our state and impacted it in the professional ranks.