A Groundhog Day Appreciation Post

I took Meteorology 003 at Penn State as an undergrad for a science credit, so I’m essentially an expert on all things weather. Just don’t ask me to prove that. Now, I spent quite a few Thursdays at the Darkhorse (RIP), so those Friday morning lectures don’t stick in my memory as well as they should. But I’m almost certain that they didn’t say anything about shadows or small rodents, so I’m a bit skeptical of the whole Groundhog Day thing. But it’s also a great piece of Pennsylvania culture and it’s fun to revel in all of its weirdness, so let’s get started.

Three Notable Punxsutawney Chucks Football Players

Lloyd Jordan

Lloyd Jordan. Photo from College Football Hall of Fame.

A College Football Hall of Famer, Jordan was a player, coach, athletic director and conference commissioner. I’ve included him without knowing for certain whether he played high school football; his brief biography in the Punxsutawney Sports Hall of Fame only mentions a high school basketball career. He won 100 of his 175 games as a head coach at both Amherst and Harvard before becoming the commissioner of the Southern Conference from 1960-1973.

John Mizerock

Tue, Nov 16, 1976 – Page 18 · The Indiana Gazette (Indiana, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.com
Mizerock, commonly called “Sarge” while an athlete at Punxsutawney, made his name as a Major League Baseball player and long-time coach. He also served as the manager of the Kansas City Royals in 2002. But Mizerock was also an outstanding football and basketball player for the Chucks. In 1978, he was named a second-team all-state defensive back by the Associated Press and finished his career as a quarterback with more than 2,500 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards.

Devin Mesoraco

Wed, Dec 3, 2003 – Page 54 · Indiana Gazette (Indiana, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.com
Picked 15th overall by the Cincinnati Reds in the 2007 Major League draft, Mesoraco (like Mizerock) achieved his greatest success as a catcher. Named to the 2014 National League All-Star Team, Mesoraco saw his career hampered by injuries by the time he turned 30. At Punxsutawney, Mesoraco ran for 345 yards as a freshman in 2003 while also starting at safety and handling punting duties. After playing football again as a sophomore, he gave up the sport to concentrate on baseball.

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).

jfranklinnesh
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.

Image result for marty schottenheimer
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.

Accounts that Some Guy Likes to Follow on Twitter Pertaining to High School Football in Pennsylvania

This was a big year for PFH – I gained somewhere around 1,000 followers, which is pretty good for an idiot with a Twitter account. Thanks to all of you who have joined in and reached out. I’m in the early stages of revamping the blog you’re currently reading, primarily by pushing for consistent posts to cover the history of football in our great Commonwealth. I have plenty to write about (and I’ve already started), but I want to put out the Bat Signal for submissions, as well. If you’re interested in providing an article for this blog, just get in touch via Twitter (@pa_fb_history) or email (pafbhistory@gmail.com). The only stipulations are that your topic pertains to high school football history in Pennsylvania and that you take care to write it from an objective point of view.  That’s it.

The main thing I wanted to do in this post was to recognize just a few of the people who make the online community surrounding Pennsylvania high school football fun to be a part of (at least it is most of the time). Not that I didn’t think these people existed beforehand, but my eyes were opened in 2019 to the huge number of people who provide amazing coverage of high school football in our state. My aim here is not to mention everyone who has done a great job; that would take far too long and I would still miss people. But I wanted to highlight a few writers (and others) who have found a way to make the cesspool called Twitter enjoyable through their passion for the game they cover.

    • Sykotyk (@sykotyk): The D.B. Cooper of high school football – anonymous and fascinating (although I’m fairly certain he’s not the type to hijack an airplane). I wouldn’t know Sykotyk if I bumped into him at a 6-man football game in eastern Montana, but I do know that he: (a) Could tell me everything about both of those 6-man teams and (b) Would do so with an undying passion for scholastic football. The man is incredible. He logs thousands of miles, nearly one-hundred games and innumerable stats, pictures, details, anecdotes and other bits of knowledge each season. He’s my favorite follow on Twitter and should rank highly for anyone else who loves high school football. One last thing: while this can be really difficult to judge in some situations on social media, Sykotyk is clearly a solid guy. Follow him (just not literally unless you have access to lots and lots of gasoline).
    • Chris Masse (@docmasse): If it weren’t for Cheltenham’s shocking run to the 5A state title game, the biggest story in this year’s playoffs would have probably been the Cinderella run made by Jersey Shore. A team with little historical success played in a few instant-classic games (especially a 3OT win over Pottsville on Nov. 22) before falling to Dallas in the 4A semifinals. And during it all, Masse was there covering every second of it. Following a local team’s surprisingly deep run into a state tournament can lead some sportswriters to sound a lot like fanboys, but Masse avoided this trap while conveying the excitement and awe that followed a town’s once-in-a-generation-type team. Doc gets bonus points for his detailed reporting of statistics and milestones reached throughout the season.
    • PGH Sports History (@PGH_Sports_Date): Hey, those of us in the sports history niche need to stick together, right? PGHSH covers all sports in the Pittsburgh area, but it’s one of the most reliably awesome high school football history sites around. You may not be a Pirates/Penguins/Steelers/Pitt/etc. fan, but the account is worth its weight in gold for its coverage of both the WPIAL and City League’s histories. Looking for newspaper clippings from the City League’s only state championship? Here you go. Classic articles from the great Mike White? PGHSH has those, too.
    • Bob Greenburg (@BobGreenburg): Bob recently tweeted the number of years he’s been covering high school sports in District 10 and he’s been doing it two years longer than I’ve been alive. Don’t worry, Bob – I’m only 11. He’d likely be the first to tell you that he’s outspoken about issues in scholastic athletics. And I didn’t include him on the list because I always agree with him, because I don’t. But the fact that he’s one of my favorite follows despite not always agreeing with him speaks to the respect I have for his historical perspective. Bob also is the author of one of my must-read Twitter threads each week where he strings together interesting historical and statistical tidbits pertaining to that week’s games. Here’s to many more years of being the voice of D10.
    • Pennsylvania Football News (@PaFootballNews): I’d find it hard to believe that a Pennsylvania high school football fan isn’t following PFN. Billy Splain and his cast of thousands blanket the state each week to report on games from every nook and cranny of the Commonwealth. They also extensively promote the college recruiting side of things, which isn’t a primary interest of mine but is to many others (not to mention the players themselves). I also included this account for nostalgic reasons. This tiny, almost completely unknown blog that you’re reading right now wouldn’t exist if my dad – who has never been much of a reader – hadn’t bought a PFN Resource Guide many years ago. It may be the only book my dad has ever purchased and I’m not sure how much he ever read it. However, I do know that his son absolutely devoured it. The work begun in the 1990s as a printed newsletter by Rich Vetock and Tom Elling continues today as likely the most visible media outlet devoted to the sport in Pennsylvania. For those of you who weren’t around then, this is what PFN looked like around the time my household got the internet and well before social media existed. Unfortunately, the link is broken to the page listing teams with open dates, so you’re out of luck if you need to find an opponent for the 2000 season.
    • Others deserving mention are: Mike White (@mwhiteburgh), Tom Reisenweber (@ETNreisenweber), EasternPAFootball (@EPAFootball), WesternPAFootball.net (@WPAFootball), Mike Drago (@MDrago59), Jeff Reinhart (@JeffReinhart77), The Steelers n’at (@thesteelersnat), D9Sports.com (@D9Sports), WPIAL Football Zone (@AJWPIAL), Shayne Schafer (@shayne_schafer), & West Perry Football Stats (@wpfbstats).

Again, I’ve missed many, many awesome people who cover the game incredibly well. Apologies if you’re not listed; it just isn’t possible to mention everyone who helps to build this community around a game we all love. There is a comment section below – drop a shoutout to someone who isn’t listed here.

 

Some Early High School Football Games in Pennsylvania

The first known high school football games in Pennsylvania were played in 1885, per the Dr. Roger Saylor football record spreadsheets. Shortlidge-Media Academy played Pennsylvania Military College twice, losing 15-5 and 16-2. However, I may have found a few games that pre-date these contests and there’s a chance that further research could uncover more.

I tweeted out several clippings of games this evening, but I wanted to put them all in one post here for future reference. These were found using a simple search to cover years in the late 1870s and early 1880s; there may be more games out there for me to find in the future, but these are the games (or reports of cancelled games) that I’ve found so far.

Before I list the clippings, it’s important to go over a few things. First, because newspapers in the 1870s and 1880s were both hyper-local in their focus and not always full of detail, I’ve included some clippings here that may or may not actually be high school football games. I’ve had to make judgment calls here because local newspapers would often simply refer to “the football team” or “our football team.” If the newspaper is located in a town with a college, it’s tough to say whose football team it actually was. In this era, there is an additional layer of uncertainty because football teams may have also represented a local athletic club – such as a YMCA – or the town itself. Without further details, it is not entirely clear in some cases whether the game actually refers to the high school team, but I’ve included the games I’ve found that could at least plausibly refer to a scholastic team.

And about that idea of a “scholastic team”: in the 19th century, this concept was typically loose at best. Remember, this is well before interscholastic athletics had any kind of oversight or supervision to check the competitive urges of academic institutions. Pennsylvania didn’t have anything of the sort until the WPIAL was founded in 1906 and the PIAA didn’t come about for nearly another decade after that. What happens when teams want to win and there is a Wild West scenario in terms of eligibility requirements? Ringers. Teams with players in their early-to-mid twenties and even older. Players from other towns. Players who don’t – and maybe haven’t ever – attend that school. Today, teams with rosters like this are unheard of, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were widespread. While they may have not been pure scholastic teams, everyone seemed to be playing the same game from a roster perspective until at least the late 1890s, so there is still an apples-to-apples comparison in my opinion. For this reason, I will still consider these high school teams to be scholastic programs.

Finally, there is a bit of a gray area in terms of which games should “count” as high school games in the pre-World War I era. This is often one of the reasons why a school’s all-time record may differ depending on the source. I tend to stick pretty closely to the games Dr. Saylor included in his team records, but this approach isn’t without its questions. Saylor noted that he only included games against academic institutions, meaning he omitted games against athletic clubs, railroad workers (seriously), and others. But this standard also means that teams have “official” (by Saylor’s reckoning) games against colleges, university JV or freshmen teams, trade schools, and others.

Now, onto the games:

Nov. 11, 1879: Pennsylvania Military Academy vs. unknown university. Didn’t I tell you that 19th century newspapers weren’t big on details? This article spends multiple paragraphs discussing the PMA football program and its recent game, but fails to mention who the team actually played. PMA is also almost certainly the same institution that Shortlidge-Media Academy played in 1885, which Saylor refers to as Pennsylvania Military College. It can be debated whether PMA itself at this point in time was a high school program, but I’m including them for now.

Nov. 24, 1879: Pennsylvania Military Academy vs. Chester HS (game scheduled, but not played). PMA later became Widener University. This clipping clearly states that the cadets were to play “high school boys,” but does not indicate which high school they would represent. Because PMA was located in Chester and the article was printed in The Delaware County Daily Times, the assumption would be Chester High School.

Nov. 17, 1882: Wilkes-Barre Academy vs. unknown university. Another game in which the article did not mention the names of both teams participating. Saylor’s record spreadsheets don’t seem to have a mention of a Wilkes-Barre Academy, but towns often had “academies” that ended up evolving into that community’s public school. I had at first thought it could have been an early incarnation of either King’s or Wilkes, but both of those universities were founded much later.

Nov. 30, 1883: Indiana Normal School vs. Indiana HS. Indiana Normal is now known as Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The article describes the Normal school playing against a team known simply as “Indiana.” Whether this team was comprised of Indiana High School students or community members is largely a moot point; as I said before, having “high school” teams that represented the community at large was commonplace during this era. Out of the four articles I found, this was the only one to include a final score, which reflects the scoring system used at the time (Normal 3 goals, Indiana 1 goal).

I’m going to continue researching this time period to see if I can come up with more articles that reference scholastic football games. I find it difficult to imagine that multiple high schools only played one or two games over a 10-year period, so it’s almost a certainty that other games were held during this era. Whether reports of those games made it into print is another question, however.

 

All-Time State Champions

One of the more interesting and contentious discussions revolving around the history of high school football in Pennsylvania is that of historical state champions.  As we approach championship weekend for 2016, let’s take a look back at the teams determined by one measurement to be state champions throughout the history of the sport in our state.

Much of the lore and tradition surrounding the culture of high school football comes from either hearing about or – if we had the chance – seeing teams considered to be “the best.”  Chances are, asking any number of fans across the state for their opinion on a particular season’s best team would yield a number of unique responses.  Calling a team “the best in the state” is inherently an extremely subjective exercise, especially for the years before 1988 when teams began settling the matter on the field through the state playoff brackets.  And in some ways, finding the “best” team from a given year isn’t actually all that important.  Many fans of football follow the sport because it’s important to them through a variety of personal connections.  If a flawless and all-encompassing measure of team quality existed (and I apologize, but it never will), would that diminish the enjoyment a fan experienced from watching a team that was rated, say, 8th best in the state that year?  I doubt it.  But the major aim of this site is to collect and record as much historical information about high school football in Pennsylvania, and a list of yearly champions is certainly a crucial part of the story of the game.

Relative to the rest of the country, Pennsylvania began crowning state champions on the field very late in its history.  From the beginning of high school football in the state (which dates as far back as at least 1885) until 1987, all teams considered to be state champions were either:

a.) Purely mythical champions or anecdotally considered to be the best in the state that year

or

b.) Rated the best by a variety of systems (the Saylor Rating System, the Gardner Points System, or another method).

That means that there is over a century of seasons in which the true state champion is up for debate, and always will be.  For the purposes of this site, the yearly champions of the Saylor Rating System will be included as that year’s state champion.  The list presented here is not meant to be an end-all, be-all compilation of the definitive best teams from each season.  Rather, it should be viewed as one perspective of the teams that earned the highest rating based on the same system.  The Saylor system was chosen because it rated teams yearly from 1887 until 1987, Pennsylvania’s final season without on-the-field champions.  The system isn’t perfect and the method Dr. Saylor used to determine the ratings is not known, but it is a consistent, statewide and historically comprehensive measurement.  As much as I would love to be able to present a perfect list of inarguable state champions, the fact is that the uncertainty and debate surrounding who truly was the best team that year is probably as important, if not more so, than actually knowing which team it was.  Having a definitive state champion for every year pre-1987 would erase some of the nostalgia and mythology that surrounds teams from hazy, long-ago seasons.

With all of that being said, here are some important things to note when looking at this list:

  1. The ratings presented here were originally created by Dr. Roger Saylor, a former Penn State professor.  The inspiration for this list stems from a copy of the 2012 Pennsylvania Football News Resource Guide that I own.  In it, the top ten teams based on Saylor Rating from each season from 1914-1987 were included.  That list was compiled by Hal Wilson and Bob Grube, with assistance from Dr. Saylor himself.  I want to stress that the information presented on this site was gathered independently of the PFN list, and thus there are a few differences between that one and the compilation you’ll see here:
    • The list on this site includes teams from 1887 through the present day.  I have included teams from all years in which a rating was derived (1885 and 1886 teams did not receive one from Saylor) and also all post-1987 teams to win on-the-field PIAA titles.  This gives the list you’ll see here a complete record of all state champions.
    • The PFN list is only complete statewide for 1939-1987.  Before 1939, the authors note that there are some missing teams from the western part of the state.  I have tried to include all teams statewide for all years since 1887, and this has allowed the list you’ll see here to fill in some missing pieces.
  2. Teams named state champions by this list up through the 1987 season held the highest Saylor Rating for that year.  I’ve combed through individual team files and recorded every team in state history to achieve a Saylor Rating of at least 500; in most seasons, a 500 rating puts a team in the top 15-18 teams in the state.  There have been at least 857 teams to earn a 500+ rating all-time.  For a few seasons in the 1800s, no team reached 500 points, so I searched every team for every year to find the highest rating for those seasons.  In a future post (or possibly a series of posts), I’ll break down the members of this “500 Club” in more detail.
  3. There are a few schools (namely Belle Vernon, Hampton, Kiski Prep, Lancaster McCaskey, Middletown, Shady Side Academy, Wyoming Seminary, and a few long-closed prep schools) that do not have ratings included in their files.  I don’t know why this is the case, but these schools will not be included because of the lack of this data.  If these ratings can be found, those schools will be added to the list.
  4. This list is mostly complete, but there is still data that is missing (see #2 above) or that possibly hasn’t been found yet.  Because of this, the list of state champions could potentially change if new information surfaces in the future.  This is a living document; new champions will be added each year and adjustments/corrections/additions will be added when found.
  5. Champions through 1987 are based on the Saylor System and champions from 1988 until today are the PIAA champions as determined by on-the-field state playoff competition.  That’s it.
  6. Only one team to earn a 500+ rating has been removed from this list.  The 1974 Aliquippa team earned a 567 rating, which would be the 3rd-highest in state history and was nearly 30 points higher than the three teams that tied for second place that season.  However, the team went 5-3-1 and didn’t play for a WPIAL title.  The year before, the Quips also went 5-3-1 and earned a rating of 467.  In 1975, they went 6-3 and earned a 466.  Because of this, I am strongly convinced that the rating for the 1974 team is a typo and chose not to include it on this list.  Historical ratings for Aliquippa can be viewed in the file shown here, under column DZ.

I’ll be devoting more posts based on this research, but please leave any comments or questions in the comments section below.  Without further ado, here’s the link to the list:

All-Time Pennsylvania State Champions