|Palo Alto Centennial
When football was out and track was king
by Paul Gullixson
Stanford University cancel its football program? Not a chance. It would never happen.
But it did happen in 1906, the year when everything that was unlikely to happen happened.
David Starr Jordan, Stanford's president, reported in the fall after the great quake that the campus's major sport would no longer be football. Instead the game would be rugby.
The news startled a student body that had grown attached to its gridiron rivalries, especially given that the Indians were coming off an undefeated season in which they outscored their opponents 138-13.
But Jordan and other members of the faculty were concerned that the sport prevented medium-sized men from playing, too few men were involved in athletics and students were too preoccupied with winning a game that was too competitive.
"The closed formations favored by the present rules make possible unfair and brutal playing which cannot be detected," said Frank Angell, chairman of a faculty athletic committee, in a report on football. "The game . . . has become a business rather than a sport."
Students and alumni protested. But the protests fell on deaf ears.
In 1909, 261 men went out for rugby under new coach George Pressly, who in the next five years made Stanford a national force in the sport, forging a 30-8-1 record in the process.
Stanford continued to play rugby until after the war in 1919, when it returned to football.
"If football held first place in college interest and affection, track and field sports clearly came next," wrote Orrin Elliott, Stanford's first registrar.
One athlete who excelled in both was the pigeon-toed, bowlegged John O. Miller, who became known for his fleet feet and for being Stanford's first Olympian, along with pole vaulter Sam Bellah, in 1908. Miller qualified for the 400- and 800-meter runs and was expected to win a medal, but he injured himself and was not able to travel to London.
But Miller was best remembered for his many clutch victories on campus. When Sam McDonald, Stanford's popular superintendent of athletics buildings and grounds from 1908 to 1957, was asked about the most exciting moment in Stanford's sports history, he quickly noted the 1909 "Big Track Meet." In that, Miller, running the anchor leg of the final event, the mile relay, came from behind to win and gave Stanford the victory.
Bellah returned to the 1912 Olympics, but not with Miller. This time he brought with him a high jumper named George Horine, a Palo Altan who had already made a name for himself with his controversial jumping style.
In the back yard of his Channing Avenue home, Horine developed a technique known as the "Western Roll" and later perfected it at Stanford. He used it one day at the Angell Field track to break by half an inch the long-standing world record of 6 feet, 5 5/8 inches. He later shattered his own record by jumping 6 feet, 7 inches in the Olympic trials, only to place a disappointing third at the Olympics in Stockholm.
But track officials wanted to outlaw the style because they said it constituted diving over the bar.
At the 1920 Olympics trials, another Stanford athlete, Dink Templeton, who became Stanford's track coach a year later, used Horine's "Western Roll." The officials ruled that he dove over the bar and he was disqualified. But the "Western Roll" eventually became the standard technique used by high jumpers worldwide until the development of the backward "Fosbury flop" in the late 1960s.
Templeton would later coach another great high jumper from Palo Alto--Les Steers who, with an adaptation of the "Western Roll," would break many prep records at Palo Alto High School and would set a world record of 6 feet, 11 inches while at the University of Oregon. That record would last from 1941 to 1953.