No, I am not making this up. In 1924, the actions of the University of Southern California resulted in the Stanford football team playing a home game at California Memorial Stadium. Against Utah. There were allegations of players being paid, a fired coach, canceled games, secret deals, a school suspended from the conference, recriminations, counter-recriminations, even Knute Rockne got involved! Think of it as a preview for “Pac-12 Gone Wild!” And it all somehow resulted in the Stanford varsity football team taking the field at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley on November 8, 1924 — as the home team. If you keep reading, I will do my best to sort out the great Pacific Coast Conference scandal of 1924.
The Pacific Coast Conference (“PCC”) was less than a decade old when the 1924 scandal erupted, and USC had only been a conference member for two seasons. The Conference had been founded in 1915, with California, Washington, Oregon, and Oregon State as the original members. Washington State joined two years later, followed by Stanford. In 1922, the conference agreed to accept two new members, USC and Idaho. By that time, USC had already been playing PCC teams for several years. California, for example, had played the Trojans regularly beginning in 1916, and had compiled a 4-0-1 record against them by 1921.
But shortly after USC joined the conference, rumors began circulating that USC was paying cash to recruits and not requiring players to be academically qualified students. Although the requirements for player eligibility were relatively minimal at that time, paying players and failing to enforce academic requirements were clear violations of the conference bylaws. By 1924, California and Stanford became convinced that the rumors were true. USC, of course, denied that it had engaged in any improper conduct. Trojan quarterback Chester Dolley claimed the the very idea that USC would pay players, “was really a joke,” not because it was against the rules, but “because the university didn’t have a dime.” But, as will be seen, USC’s football team was far from broke, and actually had tens of thousands of dollars on hand to spend on achieving football success.
Despite USC’s denials, California and Stanford decided to take action to stop what they believed to be cheating by the Trojans. On November 1, 1924 the Trojans were in Berkeley to play the Bears. Before the game, Cal officials met with USC officials and informed them that California and Stanford had jointly decided to sever all athletic relations with USC at the end of the football season. The Bears then beat the Trojans 7-0, USC’s first loss of the season and Cal’s sixth consecutive win over USC.
Only one USC player was publicly named, star tackle Bill Cole, who was declared ineligible prior to the California game based on information that he had been paid to coach high school games. However, the press reported that there were “numerous other players” whose eligibility was in question. Exactly what evidence California and Stanford had is unknown, as no public statements were made, and the entire incident has remained largely shrouded in mystery. The 1926 Stanford Quad yearbook (writing after the dispute had been resolved and there was a desire for friendly relations between all the schools), explained the situation this way:
Although the actual considerations which led the Stanford and California athletic committees to make this move will probably never be made public, it is generally known that a certain laxity in standards, culminating in an unfortunate disqualification of one of the U.S.C. varsity players just prior to the California-U.S.C. game, had direct bearing on this action.
USC expressed outrage at the actions of California and Stanford. The University and its coaches again protested their innocence and two days later, after a vote by its student body, USC decided that rather than wait until the end of the season, it would impose a preemptive boycott on the northern California schools. USC announced that it would not play the game against Stanford, which was scheduled for the following Saturday, November 8, in Los Angeles. USC’s graduate manager, Gwynn Wilson, told Stanford officials, “If we are not good enough to play you in 1925, we are not going to play you in 1924.”
The authors of Fight On!, a history of USC football, dismiss the entire incident as nothing more than “institutional arrogance” by California and Stanford:
[D]espite a full investigation of USC before it was admitted to the Pacific Coast Conference, it was reported that Stanford and California retained “a spirit of distrust and intimated frequently that they did not believe Southern California was maintaining high scholastic standards nor enforcing such eligibility rules as were they.” This may have been the first public display of an institutional arrogance that led a later USC coach, John McKay, to refer to people from Stanford as “those snooty bastards.”
However, these USC historians do not discuss the substance of the allegations against the Trojans. They make no mention of the USC player who was disqualified immediately before the California game, nor of the allegations of payments to recruits. They simply claim that the northern California schools had a vendetta against USC and did not care if there was any actual evidence of cheating or not, stating: “Whether there was any truth to the allegations about USC’s academic standards is immaterial — Stanford and Cal were determined to play hardball.”
USC’s last-minute cancellation of the game put Stanford in a bind. According to the 1926 Stanford Quad yearbook:
The Stanford-U.S.C. game was canceled by the action of the student body of the southern institution. . . . At the time of the break, Stanford’s plans for the U.S.C. game had proceeded on a mammoth scale. Special trains had been chartered, an entire hotel rented, and an elaborate schedule of events planned in Los Angeles.
Even more significantly, Stanford was in the middle of a great season, and having one less game on its schedule could have endangered its Rose Bowl hopes. Stanford scrambled to find a replacement game. According to the Stanford Quad, the school contacted all the schools in the Bay Area to see if they could schedule one of them to play the following Saturday. But no one was available. In fact, St. Mary’s would have been willing to play Stanford, but USC got to them first, booking the Gaels as their replacement opponent for the November 8 game in Los Angeles. (To USC’s shock, St. Mary’s pulled off a 14-10 upset.) Finally, as unimaginable as this may seem to a modern football fan who is used to the detailed preparations made in advance of every game, Stanford obtained the agreement of the team from the University of Utah to take the long train trip to the Bay Area with only four days notice.
Now that an opponent had been secured, Stanford faced another dilemma: where to play? The Cal and Stanford freshmen teams were scheduled to play at Stanford Stadium on November 8. Tickets had been sold, plans made, and while the “Little Big Game” was obviously not a rivalry on the scale of the actual Big Game, it was still a major event on the Bay Area sports calendar. There were no professional football stadiums in existence for Stanford to use. But there was one large stadium in the Bay Area that was going to be unused that weekend. The University of California Golden Bears were traveling to Seattle to play Washington on November 8. California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley would be empty. Calls were made between Palo Alto and Berkeley, and it was agreed: the Stanford-Utah game would be played at Memorial Stadium, with Stanford as the home team.
The California-Stanford freshman game surely could have been moved to Berkeley, leaving Stanford Stadium free for Stanford’s varsity game. Apparently Stanford believed that attendance at the hastily scheduled Utah game would be poor wherever it was played, since it was on a weekend when the varsity squad was supposed to have been on the road in Los Angeles. And many fans had already bought tickets for the popular “Little Big Game” in Palo Alto. Both schools may also have felt it would be too disruptive and confusing for fans both to schedule a new varsity game at Stanford and move the California-Stanford freshman game to Berkeley on only a few days notice. Whatever the reason reason, the freshman game was not moved. Thus, on the afternoon of November 8, 1924 for the first and only time in history, the Stanford football team ran out onto the field at California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley as the home team. They were, of course, attired in their bright red home uniforms. There is no record of whether anyone called for them to take off those red shirts.
The game itself was anti-climatic. Stanford was in the midst of what would prove to be an undefeated regular season (although California would hold them to a 20-20 tie in the Big Game), which would end with a loss to Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl. Utah was simply not up to Stanford’s level of play, and the team was also no doubt tired by the last-minute train trip to Berkeley, and ill-prepared for a game against a powerful PCC team it had not expected to play that season. The final score was Stanford 30, Utah 0.
Because of the scandal and because of its last-minute cancellation of the Stanford game, USC was suspended from the Pacific Coast Conference. But during the off-season a series of private meetings were held between the officials of the various schools and, by the beginning of the 1925 season, the Trojans had been reinstated to the conference. As with the original allegations of cheating by USC, the terms under which the dispute was resolved are shrouded in secrecy. Whatever those terms were, California was not satisfied. Despite USC’s reinstatement to the PCC, the Bears refused to play them in 1925. But by 1926, the entire dispute had been patched up, again on terms that were not made public. USC reappeared on California’s 1926 football schedule.
USC’s head coach, Elmer “Gloomy Gus” Henderson, lost his job after the 1924 season. This was in part due to his failure ever to beat Andy Smith’s California teams. But in light of Henderson’s career .835 winning percentage at USC (the best ever by any Trojan football coach), it was widely believed that the player eligibility scandal may also have played a role. As Raymond Schmidt put it in Shaping College Football: The Transformation of An American Sport, 1919-1930:
[D]espite notching winning records against improved schedules, Henderson had been unable to produce the desperately sought victory over the University of California. Athletic officials and alumni were also embarrassed over the 1924 disclosures of player eligibility and subsidization concerns at USC that had resulted in Stanford and Cal terminating athletic relations with the Los Angeles school.
But even before Coach Henderson was fired, USC began trying to lure Knute Rockne away from Notre Dame to replace him. Again, according to Raymond Schmidt:
By mid-January USC’s comptroller, Warren Bovard, who was leading the effort to land Rockne, wired that he had obtained approvals for all of the Notre Dame coach’s conditions. To clear the way for a new head coach and to satisfy Rockne’s concerns, Bovard secretly paid off Henderson for the two years remaining on his contract, along with a bonus, the total coming to $16,100 [a substantial sum in 1925]. But by late January 1925, any chances of Rockne leaving for USC had gone by the boards after details of the offer to the prominent coach had been leaked to Los Angeles sportswriters and Notre Dame officials had insisted that he would be held to his contract at the Indiana school.
In light of USC’s ability to buy out two years of Gus Henderson’s contract, and pay him a bonus, and make an offer to Knute Rockne lucrative enough to lure him away from Notre Dame, it would appear that the claim of USC’s quarterback Chester Dolley that the school could not possibly have paid recruits or players because “it didn’t have a dime,” does not quite measure up to reality.
In any event, although the other teams in the PCC were spared the arrival of Knute Rockne, the coach USC finally did hire, Howard Jones, would cause them at least as much trouble, and would turn USC into a national powerhouse. Nor, as would be seen in subsequent decades, did Gus Henderson’s departure put a permanent end to accusations that USC, as the Stanford Quad so delicately phrased it, had “a certain laxity of standards” with regard to following eligibility rules for players and recruits.