National Champions; National Heroes
Feb. 25, 2007
Editor's Note: This season marks the 90th anniversary of the 1917 Washington State College national champion basketball team. The 1917 team won 25 of 26 games and captured the first Pacific Coast Conference championship.
Several decades later, the team received its greatest honor, and in the process would forever go down in history, when it was declared the 1917 basketball national champions by the Helms Athletic Foundation.
With the United States entry into World War I, several members of the team served in the military soon after the historic 1917 season. One, Ivan Price, made the supreme sacrifice when he was killed in action, Nov. 3, 1918.
Price's name is etched along with the names of 41 other Washington State College students on the World War I Memorial at the Washington State University campus.
The following story is dedicated to their memory.
By Jason Krump
Dating back to the beginning of the 20th Century and 106 seasons, the Washington State men's basketball program has a long and storied history.
With every season that makes up this history, a different story is told, unique to any other.
Ninety years ago, a team from the Pullman campus accomplished feats so exceptional; on the court and off, that while time may do its best to erode the memories of the team's deeds, the 1917 season will always hold an extraordinary place in the history of Washington State Athletics.
The achievements came through the hard work, resolve, and courage demonstrated by the players throughout the course of the season. A year later, the same traits were applied by many members of the team in a much different battle, half a world away, against a different type of opposition.
The 1917 team's performance on the court was that of champions; off the court it was heroic.
Despite coming off an 18-3 season and a Northwest Conference championship in 1916, there were doubts about the Crimson and the Gray (the teams would not be known as Cougars until 1919) heading into the 1917 campaign. Washington State's legendary Coach and Athletic Director J. Fred "Doc" Bohler was entering his ninth season as head coach of the basketball team, and he was returning the core of his outstanding 1916 team: Roy Bohler (captain and brother of the coach), Ed Copeland, Bob Moss, Ivan Price and Al Sorenson.
Roy Bohler was 5-foot-11 and played center for Washington State College; Price and Moss were at the forward positions, and Copeland and Sorenson were the guards. Although this quintet possessed a great deal of experience, after the starting five, the bench seemed thin. At least that was the perspective of those covering the team.
A headline in the Dec. 21, 1916 Daily Evergreen read: "Lack of Second String Men Serious Handicap to Coach Bohler." The accompanying story said the starting five looked to be the lightest of all the teams in the newly formed Pacific Coast Conference, and that "Coach Bohler must rely solely on the speed he can develop in his players. There is no second string material showing much varsity class to date, and this lack of competition may cost some games for the Crimson and Gray."
The suspected lack of depth did not seem to affect the team negatively at the start of the season. To open the 1916-17 season, Bohler took his team on a five-game road trip to face Davenport High School and various athletic clubs throughout the Inland Northwest. Washington State College won all five games by a combined score of 253 to 78.
In Dick Fry's 1989 book about the history of Washington State University Athletics, The Crimson and the Gray, Copeland looked back on the importance of the team's season-opening road trip.
"Doc took us on a trip during the Christmas vacation that year," he said. "Might have been pretty good thinking on his part. It got us used to playing on strange floors."
In spite of the wins, the concern by the school's newspaper over the team's supposed lack of depth would not dissipate.
To describe WSC's 64-22 victory over Whitman at Pullman (the first of only eight games the team would play at home all year) the headline in the Evergreen read: "Varsity Wins Practice Game Easily but Visitors Give Second Team Trouble."
Bohler did not send his "second" team in until the Crimson and Gray held a 56-8 advantage with five minutes remaining. The Evergreen recap went on to read, ". . . the lack of size and weight on the team was not a serious handicap as it will probably be in the conference games, and the strength of the team seems to be in teamwork rather than individual play."
After taking care of Whitworth, WSC opened conference play hosting Washington for two games. WSC defeated its intrastate rival by a double-digit margin in each contest. The Evergreen story stated that neither game was in doubt after the first five minutes.
With an 8-0 start, WSC now embarked on a critical stretch of its schedule. This began with two games against Washington, this time in Seattle, and with the "State Championship" at stake.
As a result of its sweep of Washington at Pullman, WSC needed to win only one of the two games at Seattle to earn a trip south to play at California and Stanford in two weeks time. However, if Washington were to win both games, a fifth game was to be played to decide the "State Championship" and determine which of the two schools would go to California.
WSC went into the Washington series anything but healthy. Bohler's knee was injured, Moss was battling the flu, and an old sprain was bothering Price, so much so that the Evergreen reported he was seen hobbling around the WSC campus on a cane.
A small piece of the Evergreen's analysis prior to the games said, "Should WSC be in shape to go through the two games without substitutions, chances look bright for victory, but if injuries put any one of the team out of the game, the University may yet win the State Championship."
As it turned out, no substitutions were needed for WSC. The starters played every minute of both games. The Crimson and Gray clinched the State title with a 31-24 win and followed that up with a 26-14 triumph to improve its record to 10-0.
WSC took its record to 15-0 with two wins over Whitman, two over Idaho, and a 35-18 win at Willamette in Salem, Ore. That game, Jan. 31, marked the first of seven road games in an 11-day stretch for WSC.
Two days later, the team faced California for the first of back-to-back games. In the first game, WSC led 11-8 at half, but California came back and handed WSC its first, and -- as it turned out -- only loss of the season, 28-20.
A portion of the Evergreen's account of the game read, "game was one of the roughest seen on the California floor . . . time was taken out five times for injuries . . . Price suffered a severely wrenched shoulder."
Yet, as was the theme all season, the Crimson and Gray responded to adversity. WSC avenged the loss with a 32-29 victory over California the following day. This win ensured that if the Crimson and Gray could make it through the rest of its conference schedule unscathed, it would clinch the Pacific Coast Conference title.
Two wins at Stanford (36-18 and 23-15) followed, and WSC headed back north to play the Oregon schools to complete its conference schedule before returning home.
However, on the train trip up to Eugene, the team was delayed five hours by a wreck forcing Bohler to wire cancellation of the Oregon game. Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) was scheduled the following night. Worn down by all its travel, WSC was in a fatigued state, and Coach Bohler attempted to have the OAC game cancelled as well. The Aggies, as the school was called then, refused, and the game was played as scheduled.
It was a decision OAC would regret. WSC ran over the Aggies 28-17. The lack of size that seemed to be a concern at the beginning of the season now was the team's greatest asset judging from the Evergreen's account:
"(The starting five) was simply a combination that couldn't be beat and the Aggie fans were forced to admit what the southerners did, that Washington State has the fastest five that was ever seen on the Coast."
After disposing of the Multnomah Athletic Club team, 28-11, in Portland, Feb. 10, the marathon road trip was finally complete. From Jan. 19 to Feb. 10, WSC had played 12 of 13 games on the road, winning nine of those games by double-digit margins.
The team wrapped up its season playing four of its final five games at Pullman, with a lone road contest at neighboring Idaho. WSC completed the season by winning all five games by a combined 213-107 score, wrapping up the season at home with a dominating 53-10 win over Idaho, March 1.
The headline in the Spokane Chronicle summed up WSC's season succinctly: "Play Twenty-Six; Win Twenty-Five."
WSC finished the 1916-17 season 25-1 and 8-1 in Pacific Coast Conference play. It was a record even more remarkable considering the team played 18 of its 26 games on the road. In addition, the quintet of Bohler, Copeland, Moss, Price and Sorenson started all 26 games. Glenn Glover was the only other letterman on the team, seeing action in 12 games.
Although WSC and California lost only the one game (to each other) over the conference schedule, WSC played more conference games (nine to California's four), making the Crimson and Gray's winning percentage better than their southern rival's, and giving WSC the conference championship.
The championship was not the only reward WSC enjoyed in the postseason.
E.A. Hinderman, who, the Spokane Chronicle reported, was "...considered one of the best basketball referees in the Northwest, and who has officiated many championship contests this season," selected three WSC players -- Price, Bohler and Copeland -- to the five-member All-Northwest Team. "Doc" Bohler, who was responsible for choosing the All-Pacific Coast team, named two of his players, Price and Bohler, to the squad. The WSC coach would say he would have selected his entire team to the squad if it wouldn't have caused so much controversy.
Hinderman was of a similar mindset: "It is a hard matter to turn away from the entire WSC team," he said to the Spokane Chronicle. "To my mind Coach Bohler's team is the best that has ever represented a Northwest Institution. The five men play together like clockwork. The players are fast, great passers, good dribblers and excellent floor workers."
WSC had secured a conference championship and individual accolades but the greatest honor for the team wasn't bestowed until several decades later.
In 1917, there was no "national champion" designation awarded to a team at the end of a season. The first "National Championship" tournament was played in 1939 and was conducted by the National Association of Basketball Coaches and sanctioned by the NCAA (which took over the tournament in 1940). Coach Jack Friel's Washington State Cougars just missed a national title in 1941 when they fell to Wisconsin, 39-34, in the championship game.
How were national championships awarded prior to 1939? In 1936, the Los Angeles based Helms Athletic Foundation was founded by Bill Schroeder and Paul Helms. It put together a panel of experts to select national champion teams and make All-America team selections in a number of college sports including football and basketball. The panel met annually until 1982, when it dissolved, to vote on a national champion. The foundation retroactively ranked football teams dating back to 1883 and basketball back to 1901. When the foundation dissolved, its historical holdings were absorbed into the collection of the Amateur Athletic Foundation, also based in Los Angeles.
In 1915, Washington State College fielded what would prove to be its most successful football team in school history. Guided by celebrated and legendary Head Coach William "Lone Star" Dietz, WSC put together a perfect 7-0 record and capped the season with a 14-0 victory over Brown in the Rose Bowl. Despite the Rose Bowl win, Helms retroactively chose Cornell as the 1915 national champion. However, the foundation did not overlook WSC when it chose the basketball champions of 1917.
According to Michael Salmon, librarian at the Amateur Athletic Foundation, in 1943 Helms retroactively selected national champions but only back to the year 1920. Sometime between the 1957 national championship selection press release and the 1958 national championship selection press release, Helms selected national champions dating back to 1901. In Helms' 1958 press release, when Adolph Rupp's Kentucky team was chosen national champions, Washington State is listed as the 1917 national champions in the foundation's past listings.
In addition, WSC is listed as Helms' 1917 national champions in the NCAA Men's Basketball Records Book.
THE "WAR TO END ALL WARS"
Prospects looked bright for WSC entering the 1917-18 season. Coming off two Northwest Conference titles, a third consecutive crown was likely, considering three of the five starters would be returning. Roy Bohler, who had graduated, and Moss, who had enlisted with the service in July, were the only players lost from the 1916-17 team. Copeland, Price, and Sorenson, who was named captain to replace the departed Bohler, were with the team when practice started heading into the 1917-18 season.
In April of 1917, the United States entered World War I, which had been ongoing in Europe since 1914, altering the lives of thousands of Americans -- including the men preparing for the 1917-18 basketball season. The war would take Price and Copeland, leaving Sorenson as the lone representative on the WSC team that played in 1916-17.
Price entered the service with the Marine Corps; Moss served as a radio electrician with the Navy; Copeland served with the Air Service and saw action in the war. In addition, Roy Bohler enlisted in the Army and Glover enlisted in the Air Service. * **
While Bohler, Copeland, Moss, and Glover would return home, sadly, a different fate was reserved for Price. Serving with the 5th regiment, 51st Company, Price trained at Mare Island, Calif., San Diego, Calif., and Quantico, Va. before sailing overseas in August 1918. *
Price fought in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the biggest operation and victory of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) during World War I. A total of 26,277 AEF troops were killed in the battle that ran from Sept. 26 through the signing of the armistice that ended the war, Nov. 11.
Price was one of the 26,277. He was killed in action, Nov. 3, 1918, just eight days before the end of the war. His final resting place is at Plot A, Row 21, Grave 27 at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Romagne, France. (Price is one of the 42 names listed on the World War I Memorial adjacent to the Veterans Memorial on the WSU campus.)
The Jan. 8, 1919 edition of the Evergreen delivered the sad news to the Pullman campus. A portion of the story described Price as a "class of man who would ungrudgingly give his last penny to his friend and take chances on his own comfort, and as a result of his unselfish disposition and his spirit of whole heartedness his circle of friends included the entire community."
"Price was an excellent floor man," Copeland said in The Crimson and Gray. "I often thought of that when he went off to war and was one of the first killed -- how valuable he was to our team."
A SPECIAL PLACE
The first season of Washington State basketball was in 1901-02. The team played just two games that year, losing both to the Spokane YMCA. The 2006-07 season marks the 106th season of Washington State basketball; as the conclusion of the regular season nears, the team has already accomplished several milestones, some not seen in over a half century.
During the time in between, there have been memorable seasons for the school. The aforementioned 1941 national runner-up team; Jack Friel's 1937 & 1950 Northern Division Champions; George Raveling's 1980 and '83 NCAA Tournament teams, and the 1994 NCAA Tournament team coached by Kelvin Sampson are among the most noteworthy.
As extraordinary as those seasons were, it's the 1917 team that holds a special place in Cougar annals.
It is a team that posted a 25-1 record, an accomplishment impressive on its own. It is made more amazing when the fact that the team played 18 of its games on the road, and used essentially a five-man roster for the season, is taken into consideration.
It is a team that became national champions decades after the fact, but were national heroes well before then.
It is a team that, despite time's best efforts, will never be forgotten.
* With the Colors (1920). An honor roll containing a pictorial record of the loyal and patriotic men from Whitman County, Washington, U.S.A., who served in the world war, 1917-1918-1919.
** The State College of Washington Service Record (1920). A record of the alumni, former students and faculty of the State College of Washington who were in the military service of the Allied Countries during the war with the Central Powers.
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