It shouldn’t be surprising that historical research often opens a window into what life was like decades – or even centuries – ago. But sometimes the most entertaining history involves how little things have changed and, even more importantly, how things in the past seemed to mimic or predict the current day. For example, if I told you I had a story about strife between PIAA members regarding school boundaries and the use of players who live outside of those lines, you’d probably assume it was from 2020. But in at least one case, you’d be wrong; this particular debate has existed for a century. The school in question even played teams from a number of different states and had some hurdles to clear pertaining to academic eligibility. All are dry kindling waiting to be ignited by the arguments, debates, baseless accusations and internet hot takes of the present, but they were in fact played out in this situation on the dusty fields of the post World War I era. Sometimes, as the cliché goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
A Meteoric Rise
Harrisburg Tech fielded a football team for just 22 seasons, but managed to pack plenty of noteworthy events into that timeframe, particularly in the final 10 years of the school’s existence. Founded in 1904, the school eventually closed following the 1925-26 school year and Harrisburg students were then assigned to the city’s two new high schools, William Penn and John Harris. Those schools then merged in 1971, creating the Harrisburg High School we know today. Harrisburg can claim as much high school football glory as any other city in Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The state capital’s early public schools – Tech and Harrisburg Central – combined to claim four state championships (per the Saylor Rating System) between 1915 and 1923. Following them, Harrisburg’s new high schools saw much success, with William Penn winning the 1928 state title and John Harris capturing four total before closing. John Harris was arguably the state’s top program in the 1960s, with an astonishing decade-long record of 95-7-3. Throw in the historical power of Bishop McDevitt and Harrisburg High along with other local schools like Steelton-Highspire, Central Dauphin and Middletown, and Harrisburg’s high school football prowess is clear.
But let’s get back to the beginning. In the early years of its football program, Harrisburg Tech was often in the shadow of its nearby rival, Harrisburg Central. In fact, the Maroons lost their first ten meetings with Central and were shut out each time. Following a scoreless tie in 1913, Tech finally scored its first points ever against Central in a 19-12 win in 1914. The following year, Central was named state champions via the Saylor System and pounded Tech 34-7. But the tables would soon turn, and dramatically so. Just two years later, in 1917, Tech would win 64-0 and Central’s program would cease to exist, leaving Harrisburg with just one football-playing public high school for the next eight years. The heights to which Tech would rise in the next handful of years would make them arguably Pennsylvania’s first public school football superpower.
From 1917 through 1923, the Maroons went 61-9 and beat teams from six different states outside of Pennsylvania. Both the 1918 and 1919 squads were named mythical national champions by the National Sports News Service, going a combined 21-0 over the course of those two seasons. During this era, local high schools often avoided scheduling Tech because the Maroons were simply too good. Against out-of-state opponents – which were often games to pit another state’s best team against them – Tech went 9-2. Its wins in these contests usually came by absurd scores:
|1918||Tome School (MD)||W, 67-0|
|1919||Portland (ME)||W, 56-0|
|1919||Baltimore Poly (MD)||W, 89-0|
|1920||Baltimore Poly (MD)||W, 19-14|
|1920||Erasmus Hall (NY)||W, 40-6|
|1922||Bridgeport (CT)||W, 72-0|
|1922||Stuyvesant (NY)||W, 65-0|
|1922||Toledo Waite (OH)||L, 7-52|
|1923||McKinley (DC)||W, 21-10|
|1923||Cedar Rapids (IA)||L, 21-26|
|1923||Massillon (OH)||W, 26-0|
With the sole exception of the 1922 loss to Toledo Waite (a national power in its own right), Tech showed that it could not only compete with the best the country had to offer, but beat them, and usually by wide margins. The win over Massillon in 1923 was the Tigers’ first loss in two seasons; they had won the previous week’s game 82-0.
Scores in Tech’s games against in-state competition weren’t much different despite the fact that they played some of the best programs the state had to offer:
- The Maroons went 6-1 against Steelton during this stretch, outscoring them 272-16.
- They went 5-0 against Mount Carmel, including an 83-0 win in 1918.
- Tech beat Wilkes-Barre High all six times they played and did it by an average score of 61.5 to zero.
- They beat Altoona 117-0 in 1917, Johnstown 76-7 in 1918, Chester 93-0 in 1919 and La Salle 54-7 in 1922.
- Tech was good enough to beat college JV programs from Bloomsburg, Bucknell and Lehigh.
- In two games billed as Pennsylvania’s East versus West championships (never mind that they were mostly limited to schools in the middle third of the state), Tech beat Lock Haven 47-6 in 1922 and 41-7 in 1923.
Coach Paul Smith’s 1919 team is widely considered to be Tech’s finest, which is no surprise given that they outscored opponents 701-0. In 2018, MaxPreps named that year’s edition as the nation’s 22nd best high school football team of all-time, placing the highest among Pennsylvania’s three teams on the list. According to the excellent book All the Way to #1 by Timothy Hudak and John Pflug, Jr., Tech’s 1918 and 1919 teams were the first in national high school football history to score 700+ points in back-to-back seasons. In those two years, Tech outscored its opponents by an astounding margin of 1,425 to 10. Hal Wilson takes a closer look at the 1919 squad, led by FB Tony Wilbach and HB Carl Beck, here.
The program that acted as Tech’s biggest thorn throughout this run of dominance was Greensburg. With the exception of 1918, the two schools played each other from 1914 through Tech’s final season in 1925. The fact that Greensburg and Tech played annually is remarkable considering the distance between the two cities (178 miles), which was a much more difficult distance to travel in the late teens and early twenties than it is today. The first meeting – a 38-0 Greensburg win at home – was one of Pennsylvania’s first prominent inter-district games between public schools. Greensburg won seven of the 11 all-time meetings between the two teams and is the only school that defeated Tech more than once between 1917 and 1923 (the schools split six meetings). At the time of the schools’ first game in 1914, Greensburg was in the midst of its own dynasty:
The 1914 Greensburg Lions went 10-0 and didn’t give up a single point all season — and didn’t lose a game in the next two seasons, finally dropping one in 1917. The 1914 team beat the Pitt freshmen squad 14-0 after crushing Tarentum 46-0, California Normal 57-0, Connellsville 74-0 and Johnstown 97-0.
After the first meeting, nearly every Greensburg win in the series was close. Tech also won a few close games, but like nearly everyone else the Maroons played, Greensburg eventually felt the full brunt of Tech’s force, losing 39-0 in 1919 and 69-0 in 1923. By 1920, Harrisburg was a city of nearly 76,000 people and Tech had the market cornered on the city’s high school football players due to the closure of Central’s program a few years earlier.
Had Harrisburg Tech simply steamrolled everyone over the course of a seven-year wave of blowouts, they would be a notable team in the history of high school football in our state, even one hundred years later. But what makes Tech remarkable upon closer inspection is not necessarily what happened on the field, but off it. Their dominant era came at a time when scholastic sports were just beginning to gain traction across the state and the rise of Tech’s football program lined up closely with the rise of the state’s first attempt to govern school sports – the advent of the PIAA.
The Bumpy Road Toward a Uniform Playing Field
Born late in December of 1913, the PIAA grew rapidly throughout the decade and found its footing by the dawn of the 1920s after a number of rule changes. By 1920, the state had established five geographic districts (East, West, Central, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia) for the purposes of holding a basketball state championship tournament at the Armory in State College. The winner? Harrisburg Tech, of course. Originally created to govern public schools, the PIAA would not include private schools until an act of state legislature required it to admit them in 1972.
An article from March, 1914 gives insight into the PIAA’s structure and basic rules just months after it was formed. Members of the first PIAA board included administrators from Steelton, Peabody, Central (Philadelphia), Scranton Tech, New Castle and Williamsport. No leader of the board was mentioned, but Steelton’s representative, Charles S. Davis, was reported to to be “one of the chief instigators in the organization of the association.” The early rules of the association printed in the article are fascinating to read, if only because of how bizarre they sound today. PIAA schools were barred from playing non-PIAA schools, but high school teams could play non-school teams as long as the opponent did not have any high schoolers on its roster. Players were declared ineligible for their high school team if they also competed for another organization in that sport…except in the case of basketball, where players were permitted to play for their local YMCA team. Coaches who weren’t already faculty members at the school were not allowed to be paid.
Odd as some of these rules may sound today, they played an important rule in corralling scholastic sports within the state. Like many other athletic associations, the PIAA’s primary purpose was to enforce eligibility concerns to ensure all teams played by the same rules. Scholastic sports before World War I were largely lawless; the concept of eligibility was poorly defined and even more poorly adhered to by schools. Non-student residents of a town (or maybe even from another town) would join students to play in high school games. In 1921, the PIAA ruled that a student could play for a high school team if they had been a professional athlete more than one year before. It’s unclear how often students moonlighted as pros, but the fact that the PIAA passed a rule allowing it (given the 12-month buffer afterward) is a sign that it did happen. Given that most professional athletes are not 16 or 17 years old, this ruling also speaks to the notion that not all high school athletes of the day may have been as young as they are today. A 1914 newspaper article did mention that the PIAA’s age limit of 21 might be a problem for Harrisburg schools because they offered 13 grades rather than the usual 12. The article went on to say that the PIAA’s rule of giving athletes four years of competition did not apply to post-graduate students, leaving open the opportunity for post-grads to play additional seasons.
While the 1921 ruling prohibited high school athletes who had previously played for professional teams, allegations of various scholastic football teams either using professionals or paying players outright had existed before that year and would continue beyond it. In September of 1924, Lancaster High School – the forerunner to J.P. McCaskey High School – finally joined the PIAA, more than ten years after the organization had formed. In the article about Lancaster’s decision, the Lancaster New Era described an incident about a decade earlier where Harrisburg Tech had admitted to using “professional” players. However, because Reading and Lebanon had also used professionals, no action was taken, leading Lancaster to leave the old Central Pennsylvania League. The article goes on to mention a similar situation in the year it was written involving Gettysburg and York. Both of these incidents resulted in the guilty parties receiving little more than a slap on the wrist, if anything.
But paying players – or using players who had been paid by others – was not the only area of scholastic sports that needed wrangling a century ago. Prior to the PIAA’s founding, academic eligibility for athletes was an idea few had thought of and almost no one seemed to care about. Schools were free to set their own eligibility criteria before they adopted the PIAA’s rules on the subject. In fact, Harrisburg Central was the last large school in its area to join the state association due to disagreeing with the PIAA’s academic eligibility rules that considered the current classes in which a student was enrolled. Instead, Central had used an in-house policy that deemed a player eligible if he had passed his classes the previous year.
The creation of statewide scholastic athletic regulation in the form of the PIAA meant that the days of rogue and outright shady practices by teams were numbered. However, it would take some time for the PIAA to establish complete control over athletics in the state, and this transition period occasionally involved schools having to change long-standing habits. Using only high school students and ensuring they were academically eligible in the eyes of a governing body represented a change for many schools. The concept of amateurism was apparently novel for some schools, too. Contemporary newspaper accounts sometimes featured accusations of players receiving payment and oftentimes schools would more or less admit that it had happened and move on. Harrisburg Tech, which joined the PIAA sometime before March, 1917, had to navigate these changes just like every other school within the organization. But one particular issue was used against them more than most other schools of the day, and this issue lives on a century later in today’s debates involving Pennsylvania high school football.
The Boundary Issue
In 1923 the Maroons would go 10-1, a season that would effectively serve as the end of the team’s golden era, although they went 15-7 over the next two years (including 9-1 in 1925) before the school closed for good. That year, Tech did have players on its roster who lived outside of city limits; the team’s supporters in the press admitted as much. Tech was a public institution and the PIAA would not admit non-public schools into its membership for another fifty years. But based on the fact that the school required an admissions process that contained an entrance examination, Tech likely would be considered in the same realm as today’s magnet schools. The terms “boundary” and “non-boundary” did not exist in the early 1920s when pertaining to schools and their athletic programs. Neither did the concept of charter schools, which didn’t exist until the late 1990s. Despite this, Tech’s standing in 1923 would serve in retrospect as a fascinating example of just how little arguments surrounding high school football in our state have changed over nearly one hundred years.
There is little evidence that Tech’s habit of drawing players from beyond Harrisburg’s boundaries irritated many opponents (much less the PIAA) before 1923. With formalized rules still in their infancy, it’s possible that opponents didn’t put much stock into the practice or were using non-boundary players themselves and therefore didn’t raise an issue about Tech doing the same. Throughout this period, though, there were occasional accusations of Tech paying players, using ineligible players, and using players who potentially were not amateurs at all. In November of 1921, the Harrisburg Telegraph published an editorial that had originally run in the Altoona News defending Tech from what it saw as jealous opponents launching unfounded attacks. It reported that Huntingdon, Johnstown, Greensburg and Altoona were known to use players who had already graduated from high school and that the schools sometimes admitted to doing so. The unknown author argued that Tech had been unfairly targeted for having post-graduate players on its roster, but claimed that Tech never used these players in games against other PIAA members. Several months later, it was reported that football player Dick Whichello dropped out of Tech due to amateurism concerns stemming from teammates being paid in a local baseball league. Whichello allegedly was not paid – in order for him to retain his amateur status – but by playing on a team with other professionals, his amateurism was compromised. It is clear that Tech had begun to build a growing roster of opponents that resented it, based on the number of accusations that flew across sports pages in the early 1920s. By 1923, Tech’s dominance on the football field had led one school in particular to launch the boldest attack yet on the Maroons.
In late December of 1923, Dr. Nelson Benson introduced legislation to be voted on by the PIAA at its annual meeting in Philadelphia. Benson, who was the superintendent of Lock Haven’s school system, proposed an amendment that irritated the Harrisburg newspapers (which staunchly defended Tech) because of its perceived maliciousness toward the state’s football kingpin. In short, the proposed rule aimed to limit team rosters to players who lived within their school district’s boundaries. Benson’s amendment failed. But when we read the amendment today, it’s plain to see that the rule change would’ve had a massive ripple effect throughout Pennsylvania scholastic sports for years to come, had it passed:
“No student shall be eligible to represent his high school in any interscholastic contest whose parents or guardians are not legal residents of the school district in which the high school,[sic] which he is attending is located; or unless they are residents of adjacent school districts whose pupils are legally entitled to attend the nearest first grade high school by virtue of the fact that adjacent districts do not maintain a first grade high school.”
Dr. Benson explained that the purpose of the new rule was to prevent all high schools from recruiting players from outside districts in order to develop winning teams.
(The Harrisburg Courier, Dec. 30, 1923)
It is not uncommon for a sweeping rule change to be proposed by one who has a personal grievance against those who he perceives to be doing wrong. What did Benson have against schools playing with non-boundary students? Remember from above that Harrisburg Tech met Lock Haven in “state championship” games in 1922 and 1923. Tech won both games by a combined score of 88-13, so it’s not a leap of faith to assume that Benson may have had an axe to grind. But regardless of Benson’s motives, consider the potential long-term implications of an approved version this amendment. Beyond the immediate questions of how it would be enforced (a major hurdle then as it is now), does the PIAA’s subsequent century look the same as it has in reality? How would it have incorporated private schools in the early 1970s? Or would it have remained an organization solely for public schools through the present day? How would it have handled the more recent advent of charter schools? It’s difficult to imagine the course of the PIAA’s history being unchanged had this vote gone differently.
Those questions never needed to be answered, however, because Benson’s amendment was reported to have met “strong opposition,” garnering just two votes in favor of it. Here’s where things get really interesting: in the early years of the PIAA, there was no independent executive director, the role Dr. Robert Lombardi holds today. The leader of the PIAA was usually an administrator from a member school. The sitting PIAA president during the Benson amendment vote? None other than Dr. C.B. Fager, Jr., who served as the principal of Harrisburg Tech: Mon, Dec 31, 1923 – Page 11 · Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.com
(This came exactly a year after another Harrisburg Tech staff member, Fred Burris, had temporarily held the position of PIAA president. At any rate, Tech appeared to have as much power within the PIAA as it did on the football field during the early 1920s.)
Perhaps Benson’s amendment stood no chance from the get-go; newspapers of the day said opposition was focused on how the amendment would be unfair to students “compelled by circumstances” to live with relatives in another school district. But it’s also not far-fetched to assume that this episode served as the third round of the Harrisburg Tech vs. Lock Haven football series and may have involved Fager pushing back with his presidential power against Benson, the unhappy administrator whose team suffered back-to-back blowouts against Tech. Interestingly enough, the two schools met in 1924 for a third consecutive year, where Lock Haven finally beat Tech, 13-0 at Island Park in Harrisburg to claim the state championship. Within 18 months of that defeat, Harrisburg Tech would close forever.
One Foot in the Past, One in the Present
From our vantage point a century later, the awesome power of Harrisburg Tech’s football program immediately grabs one’s attention. Massive blowouts, mythical titles and countless wins dominate the story when discussing one of the first true powers in Pennsylvania high school football, and not undeservedly so. But when we look beyond the surface, Tech proved to be even more interesting throughout its twenty-two season existence. By sheer coincidence, it blossomed into the state’s unstoppable force at the same time the PIAA was growing into scholastic sports’ immovable governing body. But rather than intentionally colliding head-on with the state’s new athletics oversight organization, Tech served as a highly visible example of what high school sports used to be in the days before widespread regulation. The advent of the PIAA simply meant that Tech’s standard practices were at odds with where scholastic athletics were headed, and the school ceased to exist before those incongruences were ever rectified. In that way, Harrisburg Tech is frozen in time, never brought into line like the other programs from the teens and early twenties that survive today. But in other ways, Tech was a forerunner to the present day. They took on a number of out-of-state teams, something that wasn’t unheard of in their day, but has become more common in our present century. They also were the first program in Pennsylvania to face criticism for having players who didn’t live within their geographic boundary, which has arguably been the hottest point of debate in the state over the past decade. Tech’s tenure was brief, but was nonetheless loaded with incredible accomplishments, compelling stories and fascinating premonitions of what was to come in high school sports. For a program that played just 193 games – and hasn’t suited up in nearly 100 years – that’s a pretty remarkable legacy.