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Bummy Booth and the first Cornhuskers

Monday, September 13, 2010

1902 Cornhuskers, undefeated, untied, unscored on. Won 9 games, by a score of 186-0. Bummy Booth, inset.
The University of Nebraska played its first game of football in 1890, and by the turn of the century had already become something of a powerhouse in the Midwest, behind such stars as Ebenezer Mockett, and George Flippin.

Flippin was the first black player to play for the University, and went on to become a successful physician at Stromsburg, Nebraska. He started the first hospital in that city, and was also the owner of the first automobile in that part of the state. He probably bought that automobile from his friend, and former teammate, Ebenezer Mockett, who became a very successful, and one of the first automobile dealers in Lincoln.

In that first decade of football the University had a hard time finding its identity. The team went through some eight coaches. There were some years with poor coaches, one year with no coach, and three Hall of Fame Coaches (Frank Crawford, Eddie "Robbie" Robinson, and Fielding Yost). The team also suffered through a number of nicknames -- the "Antelopes," the "Rattlesnake Boys," the "Tree Planters," the "Nebraskans."

When the school officially adopted Scarlet and Cream as the school's colors they were forced to give up their name of "Old Gold Knights."

The best-known early nickname for the team was the "Bugeaters." This name was applied to Nebraskans generally after an eastern newspaper reporter came to Nebraska to write about the effects of the severe drought of 1870. He wrote that because bugs had eaten such a significant percentage of the state's crops, there was little for Nebraskans to eat but the bugs. Instead of being offended by the obvious slur to the state, many people saw it as a reflection of the rugged persistence and will to survive that characterized the hearty Nebraskans.

Cy Sherman, the sports editor of the Nebraska State Journal was one fellow who was offended by the name, Bugeaters. He felt that there had to be a better nickname for the team. Ironically, after a loss to the University of Iowa, a student newspaper (insultingly) referred to the Iowa team as the "Cornhuskers."

Sherman, though, liked the name and promoted it in his newspaper as the nickname for the Nebraska team in 1899. By 1900 the name had gained popularity among the students on the Nebraska campus. In 1946 the State Legislature formally passed legislation, making Nebraska the "Cornhusker State."

In its first 10 years of competition, the Nebraska footballers had never had a losing season, and had become quite cocky.

That all changed in 1899, when the team, under the coaching tutelage of Edwin Branch achieved a dismal 1-7-1 record. His 1899 team was outscored 154-43. Even in that early day, this was a shock to the whole school, and after just one season the hapless Coach Branch was gone.

In 1900, Nebraska officials began the new century by turning the football coaching duties over to Walter Cowles "Bummy" Booth, a Princeton graduate, who had been a standout football player for the Princeton Tigers. There was an immediate turnaround, perhaps one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history. Booth's 1900 squad outscored its first seven opponents 100-0 on the way to a 6-0-1 record, before losing to Minnesota 21-12 in its final game, for a season 6-1-1 record.

But under Booth, things got even better for the Cornhuskers. After going 6-2 in 1901 (losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin), in 1902 the team began a 24-game winning streak that was only broken in 1904 with a 6-0 loss to Colorado. That streak held up for more than 90 years, until the NU Championship teams of '94-'95 produced a 26 game win streak (broken by Arizona State in 1996).

Even though Booth's teams were formidable on the field, they were not much to look at. In 1902, before a game with Illinois, both teams were housed in Lincoln's Windsor Hotel. The Illinois players were less than impressed with the players' uniforms, No two were alike -- as diverse as the players themselves. The scarlet and cream jerseys were cherished by the lucky few who got to wear them. The best-dressed players wore canvas jackets, which fit tightly at the waist. But regardless of how they looked, they proved to Illinois that they could play good football.

Booth's 1902 team was probably his best. Led by stars, Johnny Westover, RT, and Johnny Bender, HB, the team rolled over opponents 186-0. It was somewhat of a mixed schedule, including opponents Minnesota, Northwestern, Kansas, Missouri, and Colorado, who were formidable indeed. It also included victories over Doane, Haskell Indians, Grinell (Iowa), Knox (Illinois), just a 7-0 victory, and Lincoln High (27-0).

Johnny Westover, at right tackle, was a standout in the line, both on offense and defense, ("No greater Western tackle than Westover" according to a student newspaper) as well as an occasional ball carrier and kicker.

He also served as an assistant coach, and is only one of two players to be elected TWICE as captain of the team. A social person, Westover belonged to four campus fraternities, and later became a prosperous steel contractor in Lincoln.

Johnny Bender, a Sutton, Nebraska, native, was nicknamed "The Sutton Comet" and "Twister." He was fleet of foot and a deceptive runner, and was a standout in baseball and track.

He lettered for the Nebraska team five years in a row, in those days of relaxed eligibility. At the time he left the university, he had a nationwide record for the most points ever scored by a college football player. He was also a captain of the team. He went on to have a successful career as a coach in both football and basketball at Washington State, Tennessee, and Kansas State. At K State he is credited for inaugurating the annual homecoming celebration, as well as giving the Kansas State team their nickname of the "Wildcats."

Both Westover and Bender are members of the Nebraska Hall of Fame.

Booth's Cornhuskers accomplished a great deal -- 48 wins, eight losses, one tie, a 825 record, second All-Time at NU, behind Jumbo Stiem, but ahead of No. 3, Tom Osborn.

Booth's last two teams at Nebraska, 1904 and 1905, did not live up to the standards that the University had become accustomed, even though the teams went 7-3-0 and 8-2-0. There was discontent, too, that Booth's salary had gone from $600 per year in 1900 to $2,000 per year in 1905, the highest salary of any professor at NU.

At NU, Booth had earned his law degree, and decided that it was best to move on. He spent his remaining years in his own law practice in NYC, including work for the Grenfell Mission to Labrador, a Medical and Religious Mission for the poor.

Booth had never earned a letter at Princeton (they did not award letters until the 1930s). He never won a Conference Championship (during Booth's years at Nebraska the school competed as an Independent). But he left a lasting legacy at NU. A student newspaper summed it up nicely, "Booth raised Nebraska from a 2nd-rate team among those in the Missouri Valley to a position where even the leaders of that Conference look upon her as an opponent to be feared."

Sources: Husker.com, NU Football Legacy, by Mike Babcock, Husker Century.com

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By