March 7, 2012

1933: Lone Star Dietz Becomes Head Coach of Braves/Redskins

The franchise currently known as the Washington Redskins started out in 1932 as the Boston Braves, coached by Lud Wray and playing at Braves Field. As was common among early pro football teams, they often adopted the name of the major league baseball franchise that they shared a venue with, and that was the case with co-owner George Preston Marshall’s new club. The team went 4-4-2 and had the NFL’s leading rusher in rookie tailback Cliff Battles. It also lost $46,000 and Marshall’s three partners bailed out, leaving him as sole owner.

On the evening of March 7, 1933 it was announced that the Braves would have a new head coach in William “Lone Star” Dietz, as Wray was leaving to become head coach and co-owner of the newly-created Philadelphia Eagles. In short order, the team shifted its home field to Fenway Park and, with a name change necessary, the club was rechristened the Redskins.

The 48-year-old Dietz (he turned 49 prior to the ’33 season) was certainly an interesting and multi-talented character as well as a college football coach who had enjoyed success. While raised by white parents (his father was German), he was certain that his birth mother was Native American (specifically, Oglala Sioux) and adopted the name Lone Star (newspaper reports at the time of his hiring by the Redskins erroneously indicated that he was a full-blooded American Indian; his actual origins became a source of controversy both during his lifetime and for many years afterward). He attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania where he played tackle on the football team that was coached by Glenn “Pop” Warner and featured the legendary Jim Thorpe at running back.

From Carlisle, where he remained as an art instructor for a time (and met his first wife), he went into college coaching, becoming head coach at Washington State College (now University). The football team gained national prominence during Dietz’s tenure, most notably winning an upset victory over Brown in the 1916 Rose Bowl. While in California following that contest, Dietz arranged for the players to be hired as extras for the movie “Tom Brown of Harvard” which launched a separate film career for the flamboyant coach (who became a critic of the film industry’s portrayal of American Indians). Fond of fancy clothes, he sometimes wore formal evening wear while coaching the team – photos of him nattily attired in spats, a tuxedo, and top hat on the sidelines made it into newspapers across the country. Occasionally, he would be accompanied by a Russian wolfhound on a leash.

Beneath the trappings, Dietz had a good football mind. He had a thorough knowledge of Warner’s single-wing offense and was also considered to be an excellent defensive strategist. Most of all, he was an outstanding motivator and often was successful with underdog squads.

During World War I Dietz coached a service team of Marines that also reached the Rose Bowl, but became embroiled in controversy when he was brought up on bogus charges of impersonating an Indian in order to avoid the draft. The first trial ended in a hung jury, but he was indicted again on a similar charge and, his money running out, he pleaded no contest. He served a month in jail, a blot on his record that ended his career at Washington State, where his teams had gone 17-2-1 over three seasons and outscored their opponents by 497-38.

From 1921 to ’26 Dietz was head coach at Purdue, Louisiana Tech, and Wyoming before rejoining his mentor Warner, head coach at Stanford, as coach of the freshman team in 1927. His last stop before coming to the NFL was Haskell Institute in Kansas from 1929 to ’32.

Taking over the Redskins (who may or may not have been so named in his honor), Dietz was joined by five Native American players on the roster. The publicity-minded Marshall had the entire team pose in headdresses and war paint on the first day of practice, and he made much of Dietz’s heritage. There was certainly talent available, with Battles and FB Jim Musick in the backfield and star OT Turk Edwards anchoring the line. Dietz had a penchant for using trick plays which often didn’t work and were resented by some of the players (most notably Battles).

The team again broke even at 5-5-2 to finish third in the Eastern Division in what was the first year of divisional play in the NFL. Musick and Battles finished first and second in the league in rushing with 859 and 767 yards, respectively. They also topped the NFL in yards-per-carry, but in reverse order with Battles averaging an impressive 5.4 yards and Musick 4.7. But in this first year of liberalized passing rules (and a more streamlined ball), the Redskins ranked eighth of the ten teams in passing offense.

Expectations were higher for 1934 thanks to an influx of promising rookies, and there were hopes of challenging the Giants for the division title. But the team again went .500 with a 6-6 record. Musick sat out the season and, while Battles again received All-Pro recognition, he gained fewer rushing yards (480). Edwards was still a bulwark on the line, but overall the team underachieved.

While the club did better at the gate, owner Marshall chose to make a change after the season, dismissing Dietz in favor of former Harvard star Eddie Casey. It didn’t work out – the Redskins dropped to 2-8-1 in 1935.

Dietz returned to college coaching, again reuniting with Warner, now at Temple University, in 1935 and then as head coach at Albright College in ’37. He stayed there until 1943, when the football program was suspended during World War II. It marked the end of a coaching career that produced an overall record of 70-47-6 at the college level and 11-11-2 in the NFL. Counting all levels of football, he was 170-71-11.

Dietz was also a talented artist who produced many portraits and illustrations that typically pertained to either Native American themes or football. He founded an art school in Pittsburgh following his coaching career that eventually failed, forcing him into poverty as a result. Still, he was an interesting and accomplished character who numbered Knute Rockne, George Halas, ex-teammate Jim Thorpe, and Walt Disney among his friends, raised show dogs, and was known for his artistic as well as sports achievements.

In more recent years, long after Dietz coached the Redskins and the team moved to Washington, legal action was taken against the club to attempt to force a change of the nickname. The belief that the team was named Redskins in honor of Dietz reopened the question of his actual origins. While it is still a subject of debate (a recent and thorough biographer has concluded that he was indeed half Native American), there can be no question that Lone Star Dietz was one of the most fascinating individuals to coach a NFL team, even if not the most successful.