September 10, 2010

1937: Hugo Bezdek Becomes Only MLB Manager to Coach NFL Team

The Cleveland Rams franchise that joined the National Football League in 1937 had been significantly transformed from the team that played in the second American Football League in 1936. Only four players were retained from the ’36 club, and the ownership and management had been completely overhauled. Homer Marshman headed the new ownership group, and as the new head coach they signed Hugo Bezdek to a three-year contract. When the Rams hosted the Detroit Lions at League Park in their season-opening game on September 10, Bezdek became the only person to have both managed a major league baseball club and coached a team in the NFL.

The 53-year-old Bezdek, who had been born in Prague of what was then part of Austria-Hungary, had played football at the University of Chicago before beginning his college coaching career at the University of Oregon. After a year, he moved on to the University of Arkansas where he was head coach for five seasons and inspired the nickname that the school’s athletic teams use to this day when, at a rally following an undefeated season, he referred to the team as “a wild band of razorback hogs”.

From Arkansas it was back to Oregon for Bezdek, and while there he also worked as a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates of major league baseball’s National League. When Nixey Callahan was dismissed as the team’s manager during the 1917 season, Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss hired Bezdek. The new manager worked no miracles during the remainder of the ’17 season, as the Pirates finished at the bottom of the NL with a 51-103 record (30-59 under Bezdek). The results were better in 1918 (65-60) and ’19 (71-68), for an overall major league managing record of 166-187.

In the meantime, Bezdek had continued to coach football at Oregon before moving on to Penn State, where he was head coach and athletic director. Bezdek quit the Pirates when Penn State expanded his duties (he also coached the baseball team) and he stayed there as head football coach through 1929 and AD until 1937.

Bezdek had been a successful college coach, putting together winning records at every school – his tally as football coach at Penn State had been 65-30-11. Unfortunately for him, the move to the NFL did not work out so well.

Before a crowd of 24,800 on a drizzly Friday night, the Rams lost badly in the opener to the Lions by a score of 28-0. The Rams committed five turnovers, including a pass interception that was returned 45 yards for a touchdown by Detroit lineman Tom Hupke.

It was the beginning of a season in which Cleveland ended up at the bottom of the Western Division with an NFL-worst 1-11 record. After defeating the Eagles in their second game at Philadelphia by a score of 21-3, the Rams not only lost their remaining games but only scored in double figures one more time during the season (in a 35-10 loss to Green Bay).

The offense was conservative, to the annoyance of the team owners who wanted a more wide-open attack that would appeal to the fans, but Bezdek insisted that the team had to establish a consistent running game before it could pass effectively. The Rams ranked next-to-last in both rushing (930 yards) and passing (839), and were at the bottom in overall offense (1769). They also scored the fewest points, with a grand total of 75 for the year.

The owners pressured Bezdek to resign following the disappointing season, but he refused (the three-year contract was no doubt a consideration on both sides). As a result, life was made miserable for him in his second year, with the ownership interfering in personnel decisions and undermining his authority. After the club started off 0-3 in 1938, Bezdek was fired. His overall NFL coaching record was 1-13.

The pro stint effectively marked the end of Bezdek’s coaching career, although he did lead Delaware Valley College to a 2-5 record in 1949. Although an unsuccessful head coach in the pro ranks, his 127-58-16 tally as a college coach gained him election to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954, two years after his death.

As for the Rams, Art Lewis took over as head coach for the remainder of the ’38 season and went 4-4 for an overall 4-7 record. Dutch Clark, Hall of Fame tailback for the Lions who had played against Bezdek and the Rams in that first contest in 1937, became the head coach in 1939 and the team broke even at .500 (5-5-1).