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Controversy in 1913

Like a number of state titles in the early years, because there were no playoffs, it was hard to determine who was really the top team. The press usually helped crown the champion.

Before I get into this, I need to thank Jerrod Roll, the director of the Monroe County Local History Museum (Sparta) and his volunteer researcher, Barb as well as Lori Brost of the South Wood County Historical Museum (Wisconsin Rapids) for their outstanding efforts in getting me needed information.

There were a lot of contenders from around the state to charge for the title after the first four games that season. Marinette, Chippewa Falls, Oshkosh, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee North Division, Milwaukee South Division, Racine and Sparta were all in the running. The fifth week saw many of these teams fall and when it was finished it appeared that only three teams were strong enough to surge for the title matchup. But there were problems with all three remaining teams. Who would be the two finalists? Check out the schedules below and you can see that each of the contenders had blemishes.

When you look at the three contenders' schedules you will see that I matched up the schedules as closely as I could. Both Sparta and Oshkosh started the season in mid-September. Grand Rapids' first game was the last Saturday in September but they caught up with three games in the first 8 days of November, playing La Crosse on Saturday November 1, Nekoosa mid-week and Merrill on Saturday, November 8. Oshkosh only played seven games and had a long stretch between their next matchup after the Sparta game. Sparta and Oshkosh met on October 18 and following that battle the newspaper wars began. But perhaps, for the Oshkosh Northwestern it just continued as it had in previous years. The paper was always an unapologetic 'homer' for their local 11. The Northwestern was known for bashing opponents and making excuses for the hometown squad.

Alumni Games

Before I go on, I have to talk schedules a bit more. Were Alumni games really games? In some cases, they were, and in other cases they were just a scrimmage. I feel that if the Alumni game is listed in school yearbook, in their game schedule/scores or, in the case of Oshkosh, the Oshkosh Northwestern newspaper gave a full game report then the game was official. Hopefully, schools have recorded these games in their all-time list of total wins/losses. Now, the problem is the Alumni games were not always reported to newspapers when they requested a list of games played. Sparta reported their Alumni game, Grand Rapids alluded to the game but didn't include it in their list to the press and in another issue about schedules, Oshkosh didn't count college games as part of their score list. Since the Alumni games were in the yearbooks (Sparta and Grand Rapids) or covered extensively in the paper (Oshkosh) I've included them as part of their overall record. But the question of how seriously either side took the competition at a given school in a given year can be endlessly debated.

In the story about the Sparta-Oshkosh game, the Northwestern said that their team was listless, maybe because of the trip to Sparta. Only three of their starters did their part to keep the team in the game. In the third period Oshkosh tried a drop-kick that fell short. A Sparta player grabbed it but fumbled the ball to Eddie Brand of Oshkosh who crossed the goal line. Sparta claimed to the umpire that their player had never touched the ball. The officials agreed and the touchdown as nullified. The umpire, as it turned out, was Earle "Runt" Jefferson, an assistant coach at Sparta who played for that school from 1906-08. Later in the game, Sparta had the ball with a first and ten on the six-inch line. Four runs failed to score as they were thrown for losses on each play. By the way, "Runt" Jefferson's brother, Roger, was the starting quarterback for Sparta.

Ten days following the game, it was reported in the La Crosse Tribune that Oshkosh Coach Glyer stated that his team would be glad to play Sparta in a re-match. He said that he preferred to play Sparta on any neutral field, preferably in Ripon or Appleton. Quoting from the Tribune, Glyer said,

"We have it pretty straight,' he says, ' that our boys were tipped off to the Sparta boys, because of the rumors current, and from what we learned afterward. The umpire favored the Sparta boys on every play in the false calls of the ball, when the Sparta boys drew us off side we were penalized, while this year's rules call that a foul and we didn't see why we should be penalized, nevertheless we got the penalties."

"I was under the impression that our manager, Mr. Lane, had written Sparta in regard to a return game, upon asking him I found he had not, but Nov. 15 is open and we are willing to play. There was talk of a return game when we left the grounds and I think that is where the misunderstanding came in about the return game."

Well, maybe "Runt" Jefferson had favored his home team or maybe it was sour grapes on Oshkosh's feelings about the outcome. One thing is sure, someone should have pointed out to Coach Glyer that they were scheduled to play Ashland on November 15. Or were they? The information in the papers is muddled. As it wasn't until the WIAA outlawed state championship matches after 1924 and insisted that schools set schedules prior to the start of the season. Before then, many schools were added and dropped from schedules as the season went along. It was known that Marinette was trying to schedule Sparta and Grand Rapids while Oshkosh did drop a game with Racine in order to play Green Bay West.

Following the tie to Sparta it was reported in the Oshkosh Northwestern that Lawrence College had accused some of the high school players of sending information about that college's game plays to Beloit College and that is why Lawrence lost to Beloit. The paper termed the reports wrong but then accused some Lawrence players of sending special information about Oshkosh to Sparta so they knew how to deal with their opponent from the eastern part of the state. It seems that the messages that were sent to Sparta were from a Lawrence student originally from the western end. Was this just a sort of good scouting or was it cheating or revenge? The paper called the match between Oshkosh and Lawrence a 'practice game'. Lawrence doesn't feel that it was practice as the score is in the school's all-time list of scores against opponents.

Wausau Controversy

About this time there was controversy in the central part of the state. Grand Rapids would later change it's name to Wisconsin Rapids in 1920 to avoid confusion with Grand Rapids, Michigan. The local paper, the Wood County Reporter read: "GREAT FOOT BALL GAME" and "First Team Plays Wausau to a Tie," (The Second Team beat Wausau's Second in the season and in Grand Rapid's yearbook for that year the game was listed as a 2-0 victory over Wausau. Grand Rapids felt strongly that they had converted a safety. On a punt play just before the end of the half, the Wausau punter, and right guard H. Hill kicked the ball backwards behind his own end zone line. It was caught by the fullback who was tackled in the end zone resulting in what was initially called a safety. Wausau protested and after much debate the officials seemed to have changed the ruling to a touchback. Grand Rapids proceeded to fumble on multiple key plays in the second half, preventing them from taking a proper lead and the game ended in a tie according to three different papers between the two towns. Though the Wood County Reporter called the game a tie, they did say that "The decision was left entirely with the officials and they have left the matter in abeyance". It's unknown if the play had any sort of later ruling or if Grand Rapids just felt strongly enough that they decided to claim the 2-0 victory.

Whether there was a rule in 1913 that specifically addressed this, is unclear but the officials at the time seemed to have been spared the true implications of their decision to regard it as a touchback thanks to the end of half. If it were truly a touchback, where would the ball be placed? The kicking team's 20 yard line? No other situation results in a touchback of this sort. The receiving team's 20 yard line like a normal touchback? This would completely flip the field and be a massive benefit to the kicking team. The kicking team certainly wouldn't keep the ball. The only possible solution is to rule it a safety. So whether an official ruling ever came down, it seems clear that Grand Rapids was correct to claim the 2-0 victory.

Prior to meeting Sparta, Grand Rapids claimed that the game between the two was a battle for the state title. Both teams were unscored upon by high school teams to that point. Oshkosh submitted to newspapers their game results before the Sparta-Grand Rapids showdown. They reported a 3-0-1 record, omitting their games with Lawrence and Ripon. In the same story, Grand Rapids shows that they were undefeated, untied and unscored upon in seven games (but they omitted the loss to their Alumni and the game score). Oshkosh stated that Sparta should meet them on Thanksgiving. They discounted the Grand Rapids schedule. That request to play Oshkosh was refused as Sparta had a firm contest scheduled for that day with La Crosse. Sparta came back and suggested a game in very early December to be played in Madison. Oshkosh turned them down.

When the proposed Thanksgiving date was rejected, Oshkosh approached Oak Park High School in Illinois to play a home game. Oak Park had beaten Toledo (OH) Scott in a matchup for the National Championship. They were no slouches as they were four-time (1910-13) National Champs under the tutelage of Bob Zuppke (1910-12) and Glenn Thistlewaite (1913). Coach Zuppke left Oak Park after the 1912 season to coach at the University of Illinois and won four college national championships. Many teams besides Oshkosh tried to get a Thanksgiving or later game with Oak Park including Aurora West who was undefeated for the past 3 seasons. Aurora West, according to a Chicago Tribune snippet had clinched the "downstate title". I guess I can't read a map because to me Aurora is west of Chicago, not downstate. Anyway, the potential match with Oak Park fell through and Oshkosh played a game with their Alumni and the Sparta-La Crosse game went forward.

But Oshkosh wasn't through claiming to be the State Champion. In a December 11 story they stated that Sparta should have played them and they, Oshkosh, were the champs. Why could they claim to be the state champs? Oshkosh discounted Sparta's domination of Grand Rapids. They felt Sparta played a weak schedule while they had played tougher foes. Oshkosh felt that since no high school had defeated them in six seasons that they retained the the mythical title until some one did. Since 1908, Oshkosh had defeated or tied every high school opponent with their only losses coming against college or alumni teams. In the six years from 1908-1913, Oshkosh had an impressive 27-0-5 record against high schools and was 31-11-5 against all foes. That means they were 4-11-0 against college or their alumni. I don't have any school's entire game by game record for this period except for Delafield St. John's Military Academy. In comparing their six-year record against that of Oshkosh , St. John's posted a 32-10-4 overall record and was 16-2-0 against high schools/academies (one of those losses was to Oak Park in 1910) and only four of those high schools were in Wisconsin. They posted a 16-11-4 record against college or club teams. So who played the tougher schedule? Hard to say as there was little overlap in opponents. Was Oshkosh good? Yes, clearly. But were they deserving of six straight state titles? The answer I gave in my book is no. I have awarded Oshkosh three state championships in these years, 1908, 1910 and 1912 which aligns to the consensus in the press (outside of the Oshkosh Northwestern) at the time.

So who was the real state champion in 1913? It was Sparta. After they defeated Grand Rapids the Milwaukee Sentinel wrote:

“Sparta, WIS. Nov. 22--Sparta Highs have added a still stronger grip to the state championship by defeating the heavy Grand Rapids team on Saturday, 61-2.* Outweighed about ten pounds to the man, the locals put up an aggressive and varied attack that the visitors were routed at the very start. Open style play in all its stages featured the game. Sparta scored four touchdowns in the first quarter, one in the second, and the balance in the last half.

The score for the Rapids came in the last half minute of play, when the ball had been forced to Sparta’s one yard line by three successive penalties of fifteen yards each. The punt was blocked and a Sparta man recovered the ball behind the goal line, there by scoring a safety for their opponents.

The Rapids concedes the championship to Sparta, as Oshkosh has refused to play them on two separate dates. Sparta winds up their successful season with La Crosse at Sparta.”

While far from decisive, Sparta's case was further bolstered by being able to claim very strong transitive victories. The Sparta yearbook pointed out that,

"In beating Tomah we accomplished a great deal. Besides just being able to get revenge on Tomah we advanced a step bearer to the title. Tomah defeated West Milwaukee, who defeated Madison. Madison defeated Beloit and Beloit defeated Janesville. This really gives us the championship over the southern part of the state."

The 1913 Sparta 'Spartins' Championship Team**

Additional notes:

*The Wood County Reporter had the score wrong at 61-0 in the Grand Rapids loss to Sparta and so that's what the Milwaukee Sentinel reported. Both school's yearbooks had the score at 60-0.

**Look at the team photo for Sparta. I've been asked how teams were able to score over 100 points in a game in the old days. The simple answer is, count how many players were on the team. Fifteen. This was the norm for almost all teams from the 1890s until the early 1920s. You didn't have a complete second or third string to send into the game to hold the score down. Injuries happened and so some players would have to gut it out because there wasn't a comparable position replacement. More often school's had a separate "second" (junior varsity) team.

Finally, I've included the alumni games as part of the team's schedules even though some schools only briefly mention them in their yearbooks or newspapers briefly mention the games in passing. The games could go either way in the records in different parts of the country. For instance, I have records of all the National Champions game-by-game. Looking at the 1912 Oak Park (IL) record it is listed as being 11-0-0 as they counted their 8-0 win over the alumni. But in 1913 they posted a 10-1-0 record according to a wikipedia post but their 'official ; record sent to the Chicago Tribune, in the November 25 edition, didn't show the alumni game loss at the beginning of the season and instead listed it as 10-0. So it may have just been a matter of good when you win, but not counted when they lost. In other parts of the country, the alumni games were considered practice and are definitely not in the records. What do you think?

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