When Rings Were Sacred WSU’s Deeter, UI’s Young Helped Make The Palouse A College Boxing Mecca
It is curious they should end up so much alike - a couple of aged widowers who rise alone each morning in houses so tidy they seem visited, not lived in.
Ike Deeter and Frank Young might be proving a rule of geometry: that parallel lines remain parallel forever.
Half a century ago Deeter, 95, and Young, 85, were on parallel courses 8 miles apart as two of the most successful coaches in college athletics. Deeter at Washington State and Young at Idaho coached boxing in an era when Cougars and Vandals could step in the ring with anybody and expect to win.
Boxing was a national intercollegiate sport from about 1930 to 1960. In that time WSU won eight Pacific Coast titles and a national team title in 1937. Idaho won five Pacific Coast championships and NCAA titles in 1940 and 1941, and it shared the NCAA crown with Gonzaga in 1950.
“It was a tremendous feeling for the kids, the school, the town and everybody involved,” says Young, who coached the last team. “It brought a lot of attention to this Northwest area.”
On winter fight nights, the Vandals would jam nearly 4,500 people into old Memorial Gym and the Cougs upward of 5,000 into Bohler Gym.
“We’d get as many people as we would for football and more than for basketball,” recalls Young. “The fire marshal was always raising hell.”
“They’d start coming in about 4 o’clock,” remembers Deeter, “especially when we were fighting Wisconsin, or Michigan State or Minnesota. Wisconsin would always draw them. Boy, they had tough clubs. About 6:30, I’d start wrapping hands, talking to the guys about who they were going to fight, what the plan of battle was.”
A collegiate fight consisted of three 2-minute rounds, and it was usually a kid from Yakima, Spokane, Potlatch or Wallace - a kid from some Eastern Washington farm town or North Idaho logging or mining town - who represented the local universities. The rooting interest in those fighters ran deep into the heart of the region.
“They came from all over,” says Deeter. “Eddie McKinnon, he was a good middleweight from Kamiah (and a national champion at 155 pounds in 1937). When he fought, Kamiah, Grangeville, all that area, they came down on two buses. And they were all drunk,” he chuckles. “They were tough people, so was McKinnon.”
It was the same at Idaho.
“They’d come in from all the little logging towns,” says Young. “Loggers loved that boxing.”
The lore of the sport is as flashy as the fighters’ satin robes and the stentorian pre-fight introductions that enlivened a collegiate boxing match. Much of that lore is attached to Deeter. He learned to box as a kid in Spokane and was successful enough that in 1922, while he and a friend were playing handball in a park, a man introduced himself as recreation director for the mill town of Elk River, Idaho, and said the place was beset by a couple of bullies.
“We want somebody to come up and take care of them, and we got a good recommendation from the Spokane Athletic Club for you.”
So Deeter and his friend Howard Jones spent the summer between their junior and senior years of high school earning man’s wages working at the Elk River mill and biding their time.
“We boxed a couple of times a week and got up in the mornings and ran. Boy, were we ever in shape,” Deeter says.
“We fought (the local toughs) on the Fourth of July. Both of us won by knockouts.”
Deeter came to Washington State in 1923 as a 165-pound fullback, but a knee injury that still has him limping a bit 75 years later ended his football career. He continued to box independently in college and was Pacific Coast and Northwest amateur champion at 160 pounds. After graduating, he stayed at WSU as a part-time coach and physical education teaching assistant until 1929, when he spent a year running another mill town athletic club, in Potlatch, Idaho. Then he returned to Washington State as the first full-time boxing coach.
About the same time, Louis August, of Spokane, while a student at Idaho, was organizing a team. His first Vandal squads worked out on one heavy bag, and everyone used the same pair of gloves. After he graduated in 1936, Idaho made August a full-time coach. His younger brother, Joey, boxed for him at Idaho and later organized the powerful team at Gonzaga.
“In the early days, Ike and Louie August laid a lot of the groundwork for the sport,” says Young. “Ike, in my opinion, is the dean of boxing coaches nationally.”
Young came to Idaho in 1947 as an assistant coach and took over the program in 1948.
Deeter is the lone coaching link to the Golden Age of Cougars athletics, that period from 1926 to 1942 when Washington State played in a Rose Bowl, won a boxing national title, produced Olympic sprinter Lee Orr, and played for a basketball national championship. The people with whom Deeter coached now have their names attached to buildings, courts and fields, but Deeter can still see an exasperated Babe Hollingbery exclaiming “for hell’s sake” at football practices, and his ears still ring with larger-than-life baseball coach Buck Bailey’s bellow, which was simply an echo of the joy that was Bailey’s life.
During World War II, Deeter was a physical education instructor for the Navy. A former Michigan football player worked for him: Gerald Ford.
In 1960, Deeter and Joey August were conducting boxing clinics in Berlin and afterward traveled to Rome to watch the Olympics. They were immediately pressed into service as assistant coaches by the overworked U.S. boxing coach. One of Deeter’s jobs was to ride herd on the U.S. light heavyweight, an ebullient individual who still makes Deeter chuckle fondly in remembering.
“He was really something. We always had to go find him for the workouts. He’d be fencing with somebody or watching the girls. He fought at 175 and had no trouble making the weight. What a chowhound.
“We thought he got beat in his first fight by some Italian kid, but he won, and he went on through without any trouble. Old Cassius Clay.”
Deeter himself coached an Olympic gold medalist. Pete Rademacher, of Yakima, played football at WSU in the early 1950s. He’d boxed Golden Gloves before coming to college and thus had no NCAA eligibility. The rule makes no more sense to Deeter today than it did 45 years ago. Though he couldn’t compete, Rademacher trained with Deeter and the Cougars team and in 1956. Despite an arm injury, he made the U.S. Olympic squad. At the height of the Cold War, as a one-armed slugger in the championship bout, Rademacher knocked out the Soviet Union’s Lev Mouhkine.
“Some guy from the Spokane Athletic Club called me up,” recalls Deeter. “He said ‘Hey, you know what? Your boy just won the Olympic championship.’ “I still get a Christmas card from Pete. He comes over quite a bit, and we go out for dinner.”
Deeter attends WSU football games with another old fighter, Ray “Pooch” Petragallo. Deeter tells a story about him: After winning a big tournament in Los Angeles, Petragallo began to sob uncontrollably during the medal ceremony. As Petragallo was leaving the ring, the entertainer Al Jolson, sitting at ringside, reached out a hand and stopped him.
“What are you crying about?”
“I don’t know,” Petragallo replied. “I’m just so goddamn happy.”
“Well here’s $20,” says Jolson. “That will help you.”
There was an untutored charm to those Northwest kids. The Vandals were fighting before 13,000 in Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Pavilion. Norm Walker, a talented 135-pound freshman from Wallace who would be a future national champion, looked up at the unruly, partisan throng perched precariously on the steep tiers of the old arena.
“I asked him ‘Are you kind of nervous?”’ says Young. “He said ‘No, I just wonder if anybody ever falls off those places.’ Then he went out and won his match.”
But boxing broadened horizons. The Vandals fought in the Sugar Bowl tournament in Louisiana in 1951. It was the first experience with the segregated South for the Idaho fighters. Young still remembers his team’s amazement at buses divided between black and white passengers by a white line painted on the floor.
The NCAA ended boxing in 1960 after a Wisconsin fighter was killed in the ring. Idaho had dropped the sport in 1954 for economic reasons. It received precious little administrative support at the end.
“Spectators should come to a sports contest expecting to watch a demonstration of skill and spirit,” wrote UI President D.R. Theophilus after the Vandals dropped boxing. “Too many spectators come to a boxing match hoping to see someone hurt. Every precaution was taken to protect the collegiate boxer, but I was always afraid that spectators hoping to see destructive force in the ring might be satisfied.”
The crowds loved a slugger, Deeter acknowledges. But he and Young say they stressed defensive fighting, and ring photos from both schools commonly show a boxer with a tightly tucked chin advancing from a low crouch behind the straight arm of a jab. And coaches took care of the boxers, says Young.
“If a youngster was badly overmatched, you held your guy back. You wanted to win the fight, but you didn’t want to beat the hell out of somebody.”
Deeter continued to teach in the WSU physical education department after the NCAA stopped sanctioning boxing. Young became UI’s first admissions director.
Boxing was a collegiate sport like any other, Young maintains. He is proud that every boxer who fought on his varsity teams graduated from college and they all used their degrees. None of them, not even his three-time national champion, middleweight Herb Carlson, turned professional.
The old coaches still hear from their boxers from time to time, and when Joey August died in Spokane earlier this year, Young phoned Deeter to talk about old times.
It was an era in intercollegiate sports that is even now hard to imagine and it is about to slip entirely into the mists of history. But this is the time of year when boxers would be rising at 6 a.m. to do roadwork and gathering at gyms in the afternoons to thump heavy bags, tattoo staccato rhythms on speed bags and to spar.
In the workouts, Cougars and Vandals would be anticipating that first match, usually against each other. It would take place around Christmas. People of the Palouse would come in from the cold and dark of a winter night into the warmth and light and excitement of a gym packed to the rafters. In the middle of the floor would be a ring, and in the ring would be two fighters with 10-ounce gloves and thudding hearts. And on those nights, for about three decades in the middle of the century, it must have seemed like this was the center of the universe.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:
Washington State and Idaho were boxing powerhouses under under coaches Ike Deeter and Frank Young:
The Cougars won eight Pacific Coast titles and a national team title in 1937.
The Vandals won five Pacific Coast championships and NCAA titles in 1940 and 1941, and they shared the NCAA championship with Gonzaga in 1950.
This sidebar appeared with the story: THROWING PUNCHES Washington State and Idaho were boxing powerhouses under under coaches Ike Deeter and Frank Young: The Cougars won eight Pacific Coast titles and a national team title in 1937. The Vandals won five Pacific Coast championships and NCAA titles in 1940 and 1941, and they shared the NCAA championship with Gonzaga in 1950.