Inspiring on their immediate merits, the weekly amazements at the University of Idaho and the antsy contemplation of a bowl game are made even more remarkable cast against the Vandals’ barren history in major college football.
That’s what comes from fighting out of your weight class, as the Vandals did for 40 years in the old Pacific Coast Conference and as an independent.
But Brett Perkins wonders if perhaps Francis Schmidt could have allowed them to sample some of the good life way back when, and if given a proper chance he might have changed the course of Idaho football.
That’s not the major thrust of his new book “Frantic Francis” – a biography-cum-thesis of the Hall of Fame coach and his impact on the evolution of the game – but more of a footnote, not unlike Schmidt’s brief tenure at Idaho.
If Schmidt is perhaps the most overlooked character in the school’s thin football narrative, it’s just as true in the context of the game’s history nationally. That’s what intrigued Perkins, a San Diego writer who was born in Colfax and did his share of harvest labor on his father’s Palouse wheat farm.
“Football history has always been a hobby,” he said. “I’ve got hundreds of books. One of them, with the most utilitarian title ever – ‘Great College Football Coaches of the ’20s and ’30s’ – had a chapter on Francis Schmidt. It was the tiniest chapter and I hadn’t recognized him from any other books. There were a couple of zany stories and he was really a character, but even beyond that he was incredibly influential from a strategy standpoint.
“Everyone cites Sid Gillman and his influence on offensive football, but no one ever sees that Schmidt was his mentor.”
In 24 years as a head coach, Schmidt compiled a 158-57-11 record. At Tulsa, he once beat Oklahoma Baptist 152-0. At TCU, he recruited like a bandit – he would volunteer to referee high school games to lobby players between snaps – and laid the groundwork that turned Sammy Baugh into a legend. At Ohio State, he kept pedal-to-the-medal until the final gun and became known as “Shut the Gates of Mercy” Schmidt, and birthed the phrase “They put their pants on one leg at a time,” in a speech to his team before the 1934 game against Michigan.
But he also had a playbook that grew to 500 pages, full of passes, laterals and reverses out of multiple formations in an era of football so conservative that, as Perkins pointed out, “inside your own 20, you punted on the first play.
“He tried the entire spectrum. Nothing was off-limits. Rather than playing for breaks and position, he took it to the other team, forced errors, made them keep up with him.”
This was also his undoing, at times. Obsessed with strategy, his teams were often lacking in fundamentals, making them vulnerable in big games – which Schmidt invariably lost, including a crusher to Notre Dame in 1935 that cost Ohio State the national title.
“There was a stigma there, as with the fact that he wasn’t that traditional coach – the rough-and-tumble ‘man maker,’ ” Perkins said. “He was kind of neurotic, strange and private. He didn’t have close friends or curry favor. He was just a bizarre guy – he probably could have used medication. Everything with him was just overboard.”
With his relationships with players, bosses and boosters fractured at Ohio State in 1940, he was fired – and after years of being pursued by schools, he was ignored until Idaho offered a contract for $4,500, barely half of what he’d made in Columbus.
The Vandals were already horrible – they had been shut out in their first six games of 1940. Improper recruiting got 11 sophomores declared ineligible for the 1942 season, and the roster was further depleted by the wartime draft. After just two years and seven victories, Schmidt saw the plug pulled on his program. He stayed on campus to help condition service trainees, but barely a year later he grew ill and on Sept. 19, 1944, died at St. Luke’s Hospital in Spokane.
“You wonder, after years of such intense devotion to football, if it was a matter of his mind being turned off and his body being turned off with it,” Perkins said.
“It’s hard to say what would have happened at Idaho if the war hadn’t screwed it up. Because those were the situations where he had an advantage. When he didn’t have the manpower other teams had, that’s when his offense and his crazy schemes were most effective. I’m not saying Idaho would have become a powerhouse, but he might have changed their DNA.”