Fame may finally find legendary WSU football coach
Nearly 90 years after the late Lone Star Dietz led Washington State to its only Rose Bowl victory, the colorful coach is a finalist for induction in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Seattle Times staff reporter
For 41 years now, the answer has been buried in a simple plot in Reading, Pa., along with a rich tapestry of folklore, intrigue and racial prejudice.
Is there a spot in the college football Hall of Fame for William "Lone Star" Dietz?
With each day that passes, his story grows a little more distant, the pages of his chronicles a little more yellowed and hoary and yes, incredible.
But now there's a movement to include Dietz in the Hall, to right a perceived wrong and enshrine the only coach to have won a Rose Bowl for Washington State. It happened after the 1915 season, and it was the first victory in the series for the West Coast.
Dietz is at the doorstep of the Hall, whose 10-member honors court votes Wednesday on him and 10 other coaches. Collectively, it is not an overwhelming bunch. It includes people like John Cooper, formerly of Ohio State and Arizona State; Darryl Rogers of ASU and Michigan State; Don Nehlen, 20 years at West Virginia; Dick MacPherson, ex-Syracuse coach; and Pat Dye, whose career was spent mostly at Auburn.
This is how Dick Fry, former WSU publicist, introduced Dietz in his book, "The Crimson and the Gray."
"In the late summer of 1915, a strikingly handsome, well-built man with the bearing and movements of a well-conditioned athlete stepped down lightly from a passenger train arriving at the Northern Pacific depot in Pullman, Washington. He was wearing a smartly tailored three-piece suit and a pearl grey homburg."
Fry went on to describe what came with Dietz, an early-day clothes horse: A passel of trunks and suitcases, so many that the landlady at the boarding house rejected the baggage, leaving him to store it at the WSU men's gym.
He was a character, something he would reinforce time and again.
The move to enshrine Dietz is mostly two-pronged, advanced by a couple of the originators of the WSU Web site CougFan.com, plus a Pennsylvanian named Tom Benjey who is authoring a book on Dietz.
Cousins Greg and John Witter, the Web site operators, grew up in Spokane and spent Saturdays as youngsters at the home of their grandfather in the town of Thornton, halfway between Spokane and Pullman.
"He was a wonderful storyteller," said Greg Witter. "We figured Lone Star Dietz and Knute Rockne were one and the same."
Not long ago, the two came to communicate with Benjey, whose work on Dietz stemmed partly from Dietz's roots as a halfback alongside legendary Jim Thorpe at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.
Their campaign is mindful of the one to memorialize Shoeless Joe Jackson in baseball's Hall of Fame, a movement that not only must parse the differences in era, but has to make difficult character judgments. This much we know about Dietz: He could coach, and he was colorful. Among other talents, he was an artist who rendered many oil paintings and illustrations.
The Cougars hadn't had a winning season since 1909 when he showed up, and they went 7-0 in his first year, downing Brown 14-0 in the Rose Bowl. They allowed only 10 points that season.
It was in those Rose Bowl practices that Dietz, ever camera-friendly, had his players earn extra money scrimmaging for scenes for the movie, "Tom Brown at Harvard." (Wait 'til the NCAA gets wind of this.)
Dietz was absent for the team celebration upon its return home. Fry's book quotes the Los Angeles Express as reporting that Dietz had stayed behind in L.A. and "is going to become a movie actor."
Not for long, apparently. Dietz coached two more seasons at WSU, and his 1917 team may have been better than the Rose Bowl winners. It went 6-0-1, allowed a single field goal, and was kept from another trip to Pasadena only by World War I. Service teams from the Marines and Army played the Rose Bowl that year.
Dietz coached a Navy team to a Rose Bowl victory in 1919, about the time he had a celebrated dustup with the Selective Service office in Spokane. According to Benjey's research, Dietz was eating one day in a Spokane restaurant, when a fellow diner named J.C. Argell upbraided him for spooning too much sugar, then a rationed commodity. They argued.
Legend has it that Argell was later appointed head of the local draft board and took issue with Dietz's registration as a "non-citizen Indian."
Citing an Oregonian newspaper story in Portland that questioned whether Dietz was really Indian, Argell led a charge that resulted in Dietz's indictment for draft evasion. A jury failed to reach a verdict — standing 9-3 for acquittal, according to Fry's book — but by then, WSU had withdrawn support for the coach, and he ended with a record of 17-2-1 at the school.
Today, Fry says Dietz was the victim of racism at a time of patriotic zealotry.
"It was just one of those prejudice-laden affairs," Fry said.
Dietz was the son of a German civil engineer and an Oglala Sioux woman, who met on the plains after a confrontation of the Indian tribe and the senior Dietz's railroad-survey crew.
Lone Star Dietz embraced his heritage. In those trunks he carried to Pullman, he would break out full Indian regalia for cameras, including headdress. He is also said to have patrolled the sideline at the Rose Bowl wearing a full tuxedo, stovepipe hat with a cane.
He went on to Purdue, Louisiana Tech, Wyoming, Haskell Indian Institute and Albright, finishing in 1942. His Hall of Fame supporters were concerned about whether he passed the threshold of a .600 winning percentage. He does, at .603.
But Dietz's candidacy may be less about percentage than time and place and resonance.
In an e-mail from Tuscany, where he was traveling, Benjey wrote, "Perhaps Rube Samuelsen, Rose Bowl historian, said it best with regard to the importance of that 1916 Rose Bowl game. Besides putting West Coast football on the map (it) established the New Year's Day football tradition, the Rose Bowl and all the bowls that followed."
Benjey notes that Dietz, an exponent of the renowned Glenn "Pop" Warner at Carlisle, was considered a leader in the formative years of the single- and double-wing offenses.
"If he'd been white and been at a bigger school or whatever, he'd have long since been in there (the Hall)," argues Fry. "The guy was just a fantastic athlete and a great coach."
That judgment will be up the to the honors court, which includes people like former conference commissioners Roy Kramer and Gene Corrigan; a couple of journalists from Atlanta and Kansas City; former Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, and two Western representatives, Stanford athletic director Ted Leland and ex-Stanford coach John Ralston, now an administrator at San Jose State.
"I would say Lone Star's got a chance, I really would," says Ralston. "I don't think there's one coach who's an automatic shoo-in. That puts (Dietz) in the picture. We will be doing some horse-trading back and forth with other members."
Candidates may resurface the next year, but Ralston is skeptical that will help Dietz, who died in 1964.
"If you get on the ballot," he said, "you've got to make hay while the sun shines."
In a haunting post-script, a 72-year-old Dietz showed up in Pullman in 1956 — 40 years after the Rose Bowl victory — and made it known he was pursuing the vacant football job.
Alas, Jim Sutherland was named; Dietz didn't get through the threshold. Maybe this time.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org