Original publish date: March 5, 2020
The September 2, 1915 Indianapolis Star ran the headlines: “Jim Thorpe to Coach Indiana”…”World’s Greatest Athlete Will Help Childs with Backfield Men” and “Noted Indian Will Start Work When Baseball Season Is Ended.” The article reported, “This news, coming as it does on the eve of the opening of the season, should serve to act as a tonic to athletics at the Bloomington institution…Thorpe should be – and no doubt will be – of great assistance to Coach Childs in developing a powerful football eleven at Indiana this year. Coach Childs said last night over the long-distance telephone that he proposes to turn over the backfield men to Thorpe and devote most of his own time to the linesmen. Thorpe probably will be unable to join Coach Childs’ staff until the close of the National League baseball season, for he is now playing with the New York Giants.”
The September 28 Indiana Daily Student announced, “James Thorpe, the famous Carlisle Indian athlete, reputed the world’s greatest athlete, will arrive here in a few days to assist Coach Childs in football …Thorpe will take charge of the backfield upon his arrival and will, no doubt, be able to turn out a strong offensive from the fine material on hand…. As Coach Childs has a large squad of nearly forty men, Thorpe will be of great assistance.”
It is hard to put that announcement into perspective today. Imagine if NBA & Olympic star Michael Jordan had paused at the height of his career to come and coach the foundering IU football team. No one knows for sure when Childs contacted Thorpe about joining the Hoosiers football staff, but what is certain is that by early October, Thorpe was in Bloomington.
The Indianapolis star reported, “After some three weeks of anxious waiting, (John) McGraw’s national pastimers turn over to the University coaching staff one of the greatest athletes the world has ever known, James Thorpe. He and his family will arrive in this city Thursday evening at 7 o’clock. Thorpe will take up his duties as assistant coach Friday afternoon…Students, alumni and, in fact, the entire college world looks forward to the coming of this great athlete, with great eagerness to know exactly how his coaching will compare with his known ability as a player. In fact, the thing foremost in the minds of these men is, can this All-American star teach the Indiana backfield men the tricks that made him so famous at Carlisle?”
An article in a Greencastle newspaper noted, “Thorpe, however, wouldn’t arrive in time to help the Hoosiers for their season opener vs. DePauw. Still, as the campus buzzed over the unveiling of plans for a new gymnasium to be built north of Jordan Field, Childs and his IU squad got off to a fast start to the season, beating DePauw 7-0. A player only identified as McIntosh scored the only touchdown of the game in the second quarter.” The campus was abuzz when, a few days after the DePauw victory, it was announced in the Daily Student newspaper that Jim Thorpe would be arriving by train in Bloomington on Thursday, Oct. 7. The news sent a shockwave through the Indiana football community.
Thorpe made his first appearance on campus the next day. Even though it was just a practice, the IU faithful showed up in droves, first gathering at 4 p.m. outside the Student Building before marching through campus to Jordan Field. Chic Griffis, the yell leader for the Hoosiers, taught the standing room only crowd new cheers for the game including one called “nine cheers for Thorpe,” and another named “nine cheers for Childs” as the Hoosiers practiced. A number of alumni made their way into town to get a glimpse of the superstar on the Hoosiers’ staff. The next day, Thorpe made his Hoosier coaching debut against the Miami Redskins.
Thorpe’s presence fired up the crowd as IU jumped out to a 34-0 lead by halftime. IU fans thrilled to the sight of Thorpe pacing the sideline. IU hammered Miami 41-0 in front of a huge crowd at Jordan Field. By the next Tuesday, Thorpe was finally getting in some real work with the kickers. The Daily Student noted, “Before the scrimmage, assistant coach Thorpe had the kickers out in the center of the arena instructing them in getting off their punts in good form…The Indian’s long, twisting spirals were not duplicated by either Scott or Whitaker, although both Crimson backs showed much improvement over past performances.”
A few days later, before the University of Chicago game, Thorpe wowed observers again. The IDS observers noted, “In showing the kickers how to boot the ball, the Indian sent the pigskin seventy and seventy-five yards on an average and was roundly applauded.” Despite Thorpe’s expert training, the Hoosiers’ lost to Amos Alonzo Stagg’s Maroons 13-7. The Chicago media hyped Thorpe’s appearance in the city, completely overlooking the fact that Childs, not Thorpe, was IU’s head coach. One paper described the team as “Indian Jim Thorpe’s Hoosier footballers” and Thorpe far overshadowed the IU football team.
After the game, Thorpe spent his time on Jordan Field practicing kicking by himself. One IDS reporter noted on October 19th, “No one was around – there was no grandstand play – just a step, a quick swing of the leg and a double-thud as the ball hit ground and cleated shoe at the same instant. The kicker was “Jim” Thorpe, late addition to the Crimson coaching staff. He stood on the line which divides the gridiron into two equal portions, a little toward the sideline to avoid the mud. There was a flash of red and brown as his leg swung to meet the rising pigskin and away sailed the ball, end over end, squarely between the white posts at the end of the field. The long kick was accomplished with so much ease and grace that it appeared the least difficult feat in the world, but the big Indian merely smiled. It’s not “being done” on many gridirons this season, however, so old Jordan Field ought to feel mighty proud.”
With a bye week on the schedule following the Chicago game, the coaching staff focused on the fundamentals during a closed practice on Jordan Field. Barbed wire was placed along the top of the wooden fence surrounding the field and guards were posted at every entrance and more were on hand to discourage anybody peeking through a knothole. It was during Thorpe’s tenure at IU the ground was cleared near the football field for the new Men’s Gymnasium. Tradition claims that Jim Thorpe was on hand for the groundbreaking when axes were handed out and male students chopped down an apple orchard that occupied the site. Coeds handed out cider and sandwiches, and a good time was had by all.
Next, the Hoosiers traveled to Indianapolis’ Washington Field to take on Washington and Lee Oct. 30 in a sold out game attended by an estimated three-quarters of the IU student body. Indiana Governor Sam Ralston was also in attendance. Despite all of Thorpe’s work, IU’s kickers missed twice in the third quarter, one from less than 40 yards out. Those misses were critical in IU’s 7-7 tie with Washington and Lee in front of the largest crowd ever to see a game in pre-Hoosier Dome Indianapolis-8,500. Thorpe’s presence in the capital city translated into big money for the University as IU cleared between $5,000-$6,000 for the game, a staggering amount for the time worth over $ 150,000 today.
Indiana then traveled to Ohio State Nov. 6. Perhaps in shades of things to come, the Buckeyes won 10-9 in a game that saw the Hoosiers flagged for more than 100 yards in penalties. Once again, Thorpe’s work with the kickers didn’t pan out as IU missed five field-goal attempts, including one that skidded across the ground and over the goal line and another that was blocked. Childs returned to Bloomington and drilled his squad hard while Thorpe worked with the offensive players in search of a new kicker. He found one in a freshman walk-on who went 6-of-8 from 40 yards in practice.
Indiana traveled back to Chicago by train for its Nov. 13 battle with Northwestern. After falling behind 6-0 in the first quarter, the Hoosiers scored a pair of touchdowns and kicked both extra points to lead Indiana to a 14-6 victory. At halftime, Thorpe wowed the windy city crowd with a kicking and punting exhibition. By now, reality was setting in for Jim Thorpe. His love for football could not overcome his impatience for coaching others to perform a task that he was still the best in the game at. So Jim Thorpe went back to what he knew best.
He signed his contract with the Canton Bulldogs of the Ohio League and took a train from Chicago to Massillon (Ohio) while still under contract as an IU coach. In that Nov. 14 game, Thorpe came off the bench for the Bulldogs and although Canton lost 16-0, more than 5,000 fans packed the stands to watch the game. Since previous attendance had been 1,500 fan, it was obvious that most of them were there to see Thorpe. After the game, Thorpe hopped a train back to Bloomington just in time for the old oaken bucket game and Homecoming Weekend. Adding to the excitement was the thought that Jordan Field would be hosting its last game. The new football stadium, next to the Men’s Gymnasium, was under construction.
On the day of the game, Nov. 20, Jordan Field was covered with sawdust to try to dry the water left by the snow, sleet and the rain of the past week. A crowd of more than 7,000 packed Jordan Field to see IU battle the Boilermakers in the old oaken bucket game. Purdue won 7-0. Thorpe put on another punting exhibition for the crowd at halftime. This one wasn’t as spirited as the Chicago exhibition the week before. Understandable because, Thorpe had a game to play the next day in Canton. Thorpe arrived in time for the second game in three weeks between Canton and Massillon, and he took over as head coach of the Bulldogs. In the game, Thorpe drop-kicked a field goal from 45 yards out in the first quarter and added a place kick of 38 yards in the third quarter to push Canton to a 6-0 victory.
And just like that, the Jim Thorpe Era at IU ended. Thorpe proved to be a better player than he was a coach. His much ballyhooed addition to the staff did not help the Hoosiers that season. They finished with a 3–3–1 record; eighth place in the Western Conference. While Thorpe remained a hero on campus and in the Bloomington community for years to come, coach Childs was fired and replaced in early December by former Nebraska coach Ewald O. “Jumbo” Stiehm. Childs never coached football again. He was sent to France, where he served in the Army during World War I, and eventually he became the athletic director at the Colombes Stadium in Paris. He left the military with the rank of major, and he became an industrial engineer. He passed away in Washington, D.C., in 1960.
Jim Thorpe left Bloomington to continue his professional athletic career in baseball and football. He helped Canton win three Ohio League championships, reportedly sealing the 1919 title with a wind-assisted 95-yard punt late in the game. Thorpe eventually played for six NFL teams, although he never won a title, and he retired from football in 1928. He played Major League Baseball with the Giants, the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Braves, compiling a career batting average of .252 in 289 games before retiring in 1919. He would be named the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.
After his playing days ended, Thorpe struggled. He dabbled in Hollywood with little success, descended into alcoholism, and he worked a number of odd jobs later in life, including serving as a doorman, a ditch digger and a security guard. When he was hospitalized for lip cancer in 1950, he was broke and had to be admitted as a charity case. Thorpe finally succumbed to his third heart attack March 28, 1953 at the age of 64. Following his death, the town of Mauch Chunk purchased his remains and erected a monument in his honor, even though there is no proof he ever visited the area in life. The town renamed itself Jim Thorpe, Pa. In 1982, the Olympic committee reinstated Thorpe’s Olympic gold medals from the 1912 games.
One of Thorpe’s odd jobs was serving as a traveling softball umpire. When I was young collector, I purchased an old World War II softball in a box. It belonged to man who had received the ball as his own personal trophy for being named MVP of some long forgotten tournament. He mentioned that the ball had been signed by the tourney umpire. A man named Jim Thorpe. I opened the box and looked at the fountain pen signature, crisp as the day it had been signed. “You probably don’t know who that is.” the old man said. To which I answered, “Oh, I know who it is,” I answered. I’m an IU grad as are both of my children. And for a time, Jim Thorpe was one of us. That ball was sold off many years ago when the responsibility and expense of raising children trumped the need for sentimental objects. But the memory remains,
Oh, and that coach that C.C. Childs passed over in favor of Jim Thorpe? Well, that was a young man who was working as a lifeguard at Cedar Point in the summer of 1913. A young man named Knute Rockne. He would go on to become one of the greatest coaches in the history of college football for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.