April 30, 2012

1921: Akron Pros Awarded APFA Title

In the early days of the NFL, there were no divisions, no playoffs, and no hugely-watched Super Bowl to determine a champion. At the very beginning, it was not even the NFL – when the league first started in 1920, it was the American Professional Football Association (APFA). Teams did not have set schedules and, at the end of that first season of play, there was no champion. At a league meeting on April 30, 1921 the Akron Pros were officially handed the crown.

As was the case with many of the new football league’s franchises, the Pros had already been in existence for several years. The team had first formed in 1908 (although there were earlier semipro clubs in Akron dating to 1904) and had been known primarily over the years as the Indians. It had been a member of the Ohio League, a direct predecessor of the NFL, and won four championships, most recently in 1914. However, the team had suffered both on the field and at the gate since then and was coming off of a 5-5 record in 1919.

Under new owners, Art Ranney and Frank Neid, Akron joined the new APFA and the franchise was renamed the Pros. Star HB Fritz Pollard, an African-American who had played collegiately at Brown and was an outstanding breakaway threat, returned from the 1919 team. Other prominent players on the roster included end Al Nesser, one of several brothers who played pro football during that period, wingback Frank McCormick, and FB Rip King, an able passer as well as runner. The Pros were coached by Elgie Tobin, who also played quarterback.

Going into the 1920 season, Akron was not considered to be on a par with several other teams that included the Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Tigers, and Decatur Staleys (future Chicago Bears). They blew out the Wheeling Stogies (a non-league opponent) and Columbus Panhandles by a combined score of 80-0 and, after shutting the Cincinnati Celts out by a 13-0 score, faced their first big test against Cleveland at home. Taking advantage of a great defensive play by end/tackle Bob “Nasty” Nash, Akron came away with a 7-0 win (Nash was later sold to Buffalo in what was the first recorded player transaction in league history).

The Pros followed up the big win over the Tigers with a trip to Canton that produced a 10-0 win over the legendary Jim Thorpe and the highly-touted Bulldogs. Following a scheduled game against Detroit that was rained out, Akron had a rematch against the Tigers in Cleveland. While the Pros gave up their first points of the season, they managed a 7-7 tie to remain undefeated, if not unscored-upon.

Next up were the Dayton Triangles, also undefeated coming into the contest. It was a tense battle for three quarters before Akron scored twice in the final period, on a King-to-McCormick TD pass and Pollard run, to win 13-0. On Thanksgiving day, the revenge-minded Bulldogs came to town for a rematch but again lost, this time by a 7-0 decision. Three days later it was off to Dayton and a second game against the Triangles, which was a 14-0 win thanks to two Pollard touchdowns to assure that the Pros were clearly the best Ohio-based team.

While there was no postseason mechanism in place, a tournament among the APFA clubs with the best records was quickly put together with the games all to count in the standings. The Buffalo All-Americans beat the Bulldogs, thus ending any last title hopes for Canton, and the Staleys of player/coach George Halas beat the Chicago Cardinals. The Pros then took on Buffalo and played to a scoreless tie. Following that, they finished up in Chicago against the Staleys and played to another scoreless draw, although the Pros came closest to putting points on the board in a hard-fought game before 12,000 fans (the biggest crowd to attend any of their contests in 1920; Halas had moved the game to Chicago in hopes of spurring attendance).

While Buffalo and Decatur made noises about having won the championship because Akron didn’t beat them, the fact was that in the end, only the Pros went unbeaten during the season and ended up with an 8-0-3 record (and gave up just seven points in compiling it). That was enough for the team managers gathered at the league meeting, and an award, the Brunswick-Balke Collender Cup, was presented to owners Ranney and Neid signifying that Akron was the 1920 league champion. Oddly enough, the cup disappeared shortly thereafter and its whereabouts remain unknown.

One newspaper, the Rock Island Argus, selected an All-Pro team for 1920 (recognized as the first in APFA/NFL history) and it included Fritz Pollard and Rip King on the first team. Second-team choices from the Pros included Bob Nash and G Alf Cobb and G Brad Tomlin made the third team.

Akron remained in the league until 1926 but did not win another championship. The Pros placed third in ’21 with an 8-3-1 record with Pollard (pictured below) serving as co-coach with Tobin, thus becoming the first black head coach in NFL history. They posted losing records in four of their last five seasons, however, before fading into history.