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Book Report: Pop Warner, A Life on the Gridiron

by Randy Snow

Original to www.theworldoffootball.com, Sunday, March 13, 2016

In the 2015 book, Pop Warner, A Life on the Gridiron, author Jeffrey J. Miller tells the story of one of the most legendary coaches in college football history. Warner was an innovator in football technology and crossed paths with some of the greatest players and coaches to ever set foot on the gridiron.

Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner played college football at Cornell from 1892-1894. He did not enter college until the age of 21 and earned the nickname of “Pop” from his younger team mates. After graduating with a law degree, he took a job with a law firm in Buffalo, NY. But in the fall of 1895, he was offered the head coaching job at the University of Georgia. He was also offered the head coaching job at Iowa State. He accepted the Georgia position but agreed to help out the Iowa State team during their fall preseason workouts. (Warner continued to assist Iowa State in the off-season through 1898) He coached at Georgia in 1895 and 1896, then became the head coach at his alma mater, Cornell, in 1897.

In a game vs. North Carolina in 1897, Warner ended up on the wrong end of a historic play. The North Carolina punter, who was under pressure and could not get a kick off, instead threw the ball in desperation. It was caught by a team mate who ran 80 yards to the end zone. Warner objected to the officials because a forward pass was illegal at the time. (The forward pass would not become legal until 1906) However, the officials said they did not see the pass being thrown and so they let the touchdown stand. It was the only score of the game.

Also that season, Cornell hosted a team from the Carlisle Indian School. Cornell won the game 23-6, but Warner was very impressed with the Carlisle players who made up for their lack of size with an extremely aggressive style of play. In 1899, Warner accepted the head coaching job at Carlisle.

From 1899-1903, Warner made a name for himself by taking the small Indian school from obscurity to national prominence, but a dispute with the school’s founder, Richard Henry Pratt, caused Warner to leave Carlisle and return to coach Cornell from 1904-1906. After Pratt was dismissed as the head of the Carlisle School, Warner returned as head coach in 1907.

It was at Carlisle that Warner created his single wing formation (originally known as the Carlisle formation) and the double wing formation, an offensive system that would be used by virtually all football teams though the 1940s.

Upon his return to Carlisle, Warner discovered he had a budding star player by the name of Jim Thorpe, but Thorpe left the school in 1909 and 1910 to play minor league baseball in North Carolina. Warner persuaded Thorpe to return to Carlisle in 1911 and when Thorpe went to the Olympics in 1912, Warner went along as well. Thorpe won gold medals in the Decathlon and the Pentathlon.

Thorpe left Carlisle for good after the 1912 football season. Warner remained at the school through 1914 and then became the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh. He was at Pittsburgh from 1915-1923. His greatest game there was in 1918, when Pitt hosted Georgia, coached by John Heisman. Pitt had a 28-game winning streak going into the game. Georgia had a 33-game winning streak including three games that season where they scored over 100 points. In the end, it was Warner and Pittsburgh who came out on top, 32-0!

In 1922, Warner signed a contract to be the head coach at Stanford beginning in 1924. He still had two years left on his contract at Pittsburgh. Therefore, he sent a couple of his assistant coaches to Stanford to install his system at the school prior to his taking over the team. Warner ran the off-season practices at Stanford for two seasons and finally took over in 1924.  

A budding star at Stanford was fullback Ernie Nevers, but he was injured for most of the 1924 season and played very little.

In his first season at Stanford, the team posted a record of 8-0-1 and qualified to play in the Rose Bowl. As the host team, they got to select their opponent for the game. Warner chose Notre Dame featuring head coach Knute Rockne and The Four Horsemen backfield.  

Nevers did play in the Rose Bowl after Warner personally fashioned a metal leg brace to protect his injured ankle. Nevers played well, but it was Notre Dame who came out on top 27-10 and were crowned college football national champions.

Warner resigned from Stanford after the 1932 season and became the head coach at Temple in 1933. In his second season at Temple (1934) Warner led the team to a 7-0-2 record and they were invited to play in the first ever Sugar Bowl game in New Orleans vs. Tulane on January 1, 1935. The Sugar Bowl was intended to be the eastern version of the Rose Bowl, featuring the best team from the south vs. the best team from the north.  Temple lost the game 20-14.

During his final year of coaching at Temple, Warner suffered from a bad hip and had to walk with a cane. It was so hard for him to walk the field at times during practices that he was known to get on a horse that would take him around the practice field.  

Warner, who had become known as the Old Fox, retired from coaching at Temple after the 1938 season, but he was not quite through yet. He signed on at San Jose State and became an advisory coach to the football team during the 1939 and 1940 seasons. One of the schools on the San Jose schedule during that time was the College of the Pacific, which was coached by another legendary figure, Amos Alonzo Stagg. Warner’s San Jose team came out on top both seasons that they played against each other.  

In May of 1940, Pop Warner and Amos Alonzo Stagg got to appear as themselves in the movie, Knute Rockne: All-American. The movie also featured Ronald Regan as Notre Dame player George Gipp.

Warner passed away in 1954 in Palo Alto, California at the age of 83. Ernie Nevers and several other former players from Stanford were the pallbearers at his funeral. His body was later cremated and his ashes were returned to his childhood hometown of Springville, NY where they were buried in the Maplewood Cemetery.

Today, his childhood home still stands at 292 East Main Street. There is also a Pop Warner Museum just down the road in Springville at 98 East Main Street.

Most people know the name Pop Warner only from the youth football program that bears his name. It started out as the Junior Football Conference in 1929. In April 1934, Warner was invited to speak at a JFC banquet in Philadelphia along with other local college coaches. However, due to bad weather, Warner was the only one who showed up. He spoke for quite a while and soon after, the organization decided to rename itself after the charismatic coach. There were only 16 youth football teams in 1934, but by 1938 the Pop Warner Football Conference had 157 teams.  

This was a great book to read and I highly recommend it. Author Jeffrey J. Miller, who, like myself, is a member of the Professional Football Researchers Association, lives in Warner’s home town of Springville, NY.  

Last summer, I actually visited the grave of Pop Warner in Springville. At the time, however, I did not know that there was also a museum in town. I guess I will be making a return trip to Springville in the near future!


The Grave of Pop Warner Article

The Pop Warner Museum in Springville, NY


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