Football Urban Legends Revealed #27

This is the twenty-seventh in a series of examinations of football-related urban legends and whether they are true or false. This week, marvel at the quarterback that the Giants purchased a whole team just to acquire, learn whether the Florida Gator was invented at the University of Virginia and find out whether a player really pulled a gun on a general manager after being cut.

Click here to view an archive of all the previous football urban legends.

Let’s begin!

FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: The owner of the New York Giants once purchased an entire franchise just to get their star quarterback.

STATUS: True

Earlier this year, Eli Manning won his second Super Bowl MVP after leading the New York Giants to their second Super Bowl victory in four years. While the Giants are surely pleased with their star quarterback, he cost the Giants plenty to acquire. Manning was drafted by the San Diego Chargers with the #1 overall pick in the 2004 National Football League (NFL) Draft. After informing the Chargers that he would refuse to play in San Diego (a tactic that John Elway famously used in the 1983 NFL Draft to get the Baltimore Colts to trade his rights to the Denver Broncos), the Chargers agreed to trade him to the Giants for quite a haul – the Giants 2004 first round pick (#4 overall), the Giants’ 2004 third round pick, the Giants’ 2005 first round pick and the Giants’ 2005 fifth round pick. San Diego used the picks respectively on Phillip Rivers, Nate Kaeding, Shawne Merriman (all three would go on to make the Pro-Bowl) and in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Roman Oben. That is a lot to give up for one player. However, amazingly enough, the Giants once spent a whole lot more to acquire a star quarterback. In fact, they once purchased an entire franchise just to get a quarterback!

Tim Mara was a successful businessman (much of his fortune was built on his bookmaking business, which was legal at the time) when he purchased a New York franchise for the still-new NFL in 1925. Mara, a consummate marketer, was confident that he could eventually turn his professional football team into a success, even though he was not a football fan himself before he founded the franchise. Mara barely made a profit in his first season (due entirely to a single game against the Chicago Bears and their famed player, Red Grange – that one game made enough money to clear Mara of the $40,000 worth of debts he ran up for the Giants that first year) and the Giants followed their inaugural season with three more seasons where the Giants continued to lose money hand over fist.

In 1926, the Giants finished 8-4-1 but lost somewhere in the vicinity of $50,000. Mara felt that an outstanding team would draw a bigger crowd, so he spared no expense in putting out a great tram in 1927. The Giants did, in fact, go 11-1-1 in capturing their first NFL Championship. However, their great success led to them only barely breaking even. So Mara ordered the team to cut costs for the 1928 season. The Giants went 4-7-2 and Mara lost another $40,000. However, two games from that failed season caught Mara’s attention. A 28-0 rout of the Giants by the Detroit Wolverines in Detroit and a dramatic 19-19 tie against the Wolverines later in the season in New York. More than the scores in the games, Mara was enthralled with the star quarterback for the Wolverines, Benny Friedman.

Benny Friedman was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He attended the University of Michigan where he became a star athlete, leading the Michigan Wolverines to consecutive first place finished in the Big Ten Conference in 1925 and 1926. In his senior year, he was a consensus first-team All-American and was named Most Valuable Player of the Big Ten. Friedman was a clear star coming out of college (not quite Red Grange, but close). He decided to join the NFL franchise in his native Cleveland, the Cleveland Bulldogs. Friedman was a rarity in that he was a passing quarterback during a time when players rarely passed (the ball was rounder than it is today and not conducive to throwing). While Friedman played well for the Bulldogs as the team finished a respectable third in the NFL in 1927 with an 8-4-1 record, the team was having trouble financially and 1927 was its last season. It appears likely that Detroit businessman Eddie Fisher purchased the team since many of the Bulldogs played for Fisher’s brand new NFL franchise the following year, including Friedman and the coach of the Bulldogs, LeRoy Andrews. In an attempt to cash in on Friedman’s popularity in Michigan, the team was dubbed the Detroit Wolverines.

The Wolverines went 7-2, finishing third in the league. The aforementioned 19-19 tie against the Giants in New York showed Mara something other than the effectiveness of Friedman (who drove his team back from a 19-7 fourth quarter deficit), it also showed him that Friedman could work as an attendance draw as the game drew the second-most fans that the Giants had seen at the time (the most being the aforementioned game against Grange and the Bears). Mara felt that the Jewish Friedman would appeal to New York’s large Jewish population. Also, of course, he felt that Friedman would help improve the team and make it a winner and winning tends to attract crowds, as well.

Mara approached Fisher about acquiring Friedman. Each time Mara made an offer, Fisher turned him down. This went on for awhile before Mara finally reached a solution. The Wolverines weren’t doing particularly well, either (not many NFL franchises were flush during the 1920s), so Mara just offered to purchase the entire franchise from Fisher. Unlike most other NFL owners, Mara was still quite well off (he took a big hit in the 1929 Stock Market Crash, but that was still a year away) so his attitude was that he would use his wealth to make the Giants as attractive an option for fans as possible. Fisher agreed and Mara purchased the Wolverines franchise and promptly disbanded it (I have not been able to find the terms of the purchase – I’ve seen some extremely small figures thrown out there, like $3,500, but I find them hard to believe, as Friedman alone would be worth that much).

Besides Friedman (who Mara paid $10,000 for the 1929 season), a number of other Wolverines joined the Giants for the 1929 season. In fact, Coach Andrews also took over as the coach of the Giants. After also adding future Hall of Famer Ray Flaherty from another defunct NFL franchise (NFL franchises dropped like flies during the 1920s), the Giants went on to a 13-1-1 season, losing only to the undefeated Green Bay Packers. The Giants turned a small profit in 1929. Friedman, for his part, threw 20 touchdown passes. It would be nearly fifteen years before another NFL team threw 20 touchdown passes, let alone a single player.

While the Giants never won a championship under Friedman (who took over coaching the team in 1930), they continued to be profitable despite the start of the Great Depression, buoyed in part by a highly-publicized charity game in 1930 where they defeated Knute Rockne’s famed Notre Dame Fighting Irish (thereby demonstrating the superiority of the professional game from a talent standpoint, something that was somehow still in doubt in 1930). Friedman left the Giants after the 1931 season because Mara refused to give Friedman a piece of the team, insisting that the team was always to be a family business, that it was for his sons (Mara actually had transferred ownership of the team to his sons John and Wellington following the Stock Market Crash, to insulate the team from any creditors. Each brother received a 50% share in the team). The Giants continued to become one of the wealthiest franchises in the NFL and it remains to this day owned by the Mara family, as Tim Mara’s grandson John Mara (son of Wellington) was the first person to receive the Vince Lombardi Trophy from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell this past Sunday (Bob Tisch purchased half of the Giants from the son of the elder John Mara in 1991 and Tisch’s son, Steve, received the trophy right after John).

Benny Friedman retired from the NFL in 1934. He served as the Athletic Director of Brandeis University from 1949-1961 and Head Football Coach from 1951-1959. He lost his job when the University cut its football program. Late in his life, Friedman was angry that he was not inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He felt that he was a deserving candidate and was quite vocal with his displeasure. In 1982, after losing a leg to complications from diabetes, Friedman took his own life. In 2005, one hundred years after he was born, Benny Friedman was finally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: OThe nickname and the logo of the Florida Gators football team was created and developed at the University of Virginia.

STATUS: Going with a False

When it comes to the origination of college football team’s nicknames and mascots, they typically come from one of two sources. One would be a school newspaper (sometimes even newspapers outside the school), like the Stanford Cardinal (who got their name from the coverage of the first “Big Game” against Cal, where the headlines read “Cardinal Triumphs O’er Blue and Gold”) and the other would be the student populace itself (like the Yale students who decided to name their football team the Bulldogs after their self-adopted mascot “Handsome Dan”). In the case of the University of Florida and the Gators, however, not only did their name and mascot not come from a newspaper or a Florida student, it may not even have originated in Florida!

Read on to discover how the famed Florida Gators of the University of Florida may have been born in Charlottesville, Virginia at the University of Virginia.

What we know today as the University of Florida was formed in an odd manner in the early 20th Century. Florida legislator Henry Holland Buckman pushed a piece of legislation through the Florida legislature in 1905. The legislation, known as the Buckman Act, reorganized the universities in Florida into three distinct major universities – one for Caucasian men, one for Caucasian women and one for African-Americans, regardless of gender. As a result of the Buckman Act, four separate schools; the University of Florida at Lake City, the East Florida Seminary (in Gainesville), the St. Petersburg Normal and Industrial School and the South Florida Military College (in Bartow) were merged into the new University of the State of Florida.

Football had begun at a number of Florida universities beginning in the late 1890s (two of the schools merged into the University of Florida had even played against each other), so it was no surprise that the newly merged University also had a football team. Florida State College’s football coach, Jack Forsythe, became the first head coach of the new school’s football program, which began play in 1906, the first year that the University opened their Gainesville campus (for the first year of the University’s existence, classes were held in Lake City).

When the school opened the Gainesville campus, one businessman that greatly benefited from the new university was local store owner Phillip Miller. Miller (born 1857) had opened the very first wholesale and retail grocery store in Gainesville in 1875. After moving to Jacksonsville to open a similar operation at the tail end of the 19th Century, he returned to Gainesville around the turn of the century to open a stationery office supply and soda fountain business known as Miller’s that he would run for the next three decades. Upon the opening of the new consolidated university in Gainesville, Miller’s became a popular sport for students to pass the time (drinking their malts, or whatever college students did for fun in 1906).

Miller’s son, Austin, enrolled in the University of Virginia’s School of Law in 1907 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Phillip went to go visit with his son at the school in the fall of 1907. While in Charlottesville, Miller decided to do a little business during his visit with his son by also paying a visit to the Michie Company, which was a company (founded in 1897) that was best known for producing law books (they were purchased by LexisNexis in the 1980s) but also produced school pennants and various other school regalia (banners and the like). Miller thought that it would be a smart idea to get some pennants for the new school that he could sell in his store. However, in the Fall of 1907, the school had not yet come up with a nickname or a mascot. In the early years of the football program, the team was simply called “Florida.” Austin Miller later recalled that he and his father determined to change this.

After consulting with the Michie manager over what animals were used by other schools, the younger Miller suggested an alligator for the Florida mascot. After all, alligators did live in Florida and no other school was using an alligator as their mascot. Their endeavor hit a bit of a snag when the Michie manager explained to the men that he did not know what an alligator looked like. So Austin went to the University of Virginia’s library and returned to Michie with a drawing of an alligator.

The orange and blue pennants and the banners went on sale at Miller’s store in time for the beginning of the 1908 school year. They proved popular. The 1911 football team (coached by George E. Pyle, who had taken over as head coach from Forsythe in 1909, the same year that the school shortened their rather cumbersome name “University of the State of Florida” to simply “University of Florida”) was the first Florida football team to be known as the Florida Gators. That team finished 5-0-1, the first (and so far the only) Florida Gators team to finish the season undefeated.

Austin Miller graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1910. He moved to Jacksonsville where he practiced law for decades, including a two decade stint at Jacksonsville’s City Attorney. His father, Phillip, passed away in 1939.

However, while the University of Florida has essentially accepted this story as the origin of the Florida Gators nickname (they list it on their history section here), Carl Van Ness, the Curator of Manuscripts & Archives Department for the University of Florida, wrote in to posit that the story is likely untrue. Here is Carl on the story:

The most likely source for the nickname is Neal “Bo Gator” Storter and a quasi-mythical student organization called the Bo Gator Club. The Bo Gators were founded in 1907 with Storter as the Club’s Chief Bo Gator. Fictionalized accounts of the Bo Gators were featured in the student paper and the yearbook from 1907 to 1910. (The original name of the yearbook was The Seminole. How weird is that?) Storter captained the 1911 football team which, as you note, was the first team to be called the Alligators. Alligators and Gators were used interchangeably for about five years and then everyone agreed it was the Gators. The problem with the Bo Gator explanation is that Storter denied the honor when it was first offered in 1928.

Instead, Storter pinned the name to a 1910 football game with the Mercer Bears in Macon. The day before the game a headline in the Macon Telegraph declared “Macon to be invaded by a bunch of alligators from Florida.” The Bo Gator explanation resurfaced in 1962 and this time Storter remarked that the story “bordered on the truth.” However, he stuck with the headline explanation throughout his life although he later placed the headline in South Carolina in 1911.This version actually jibes with the naming of the team during a road trip to South Carolina in October of that year.

Finally, there is the explanation offered by Klein Graham who served as the university’s business manager from 1905 to 1950. When asked, he stated that there was no real explanation other than it was a good name for a Florida team and pointed to the existence of alligators in Lake Alice, one of our signature campus landmarks.

The Miller explanation has a problem. We have a number of photographs of people holding pennants from that time period and I have never seen a Gator on a pennant. I have also never seen a wolverine on a vintage Michigan pennant or a yellow jacket on a Georgia Tech pennant, etc. In fact, it was very rare to place graphic elements on sports pennants in 1907. Austin Miller probably confused the school colors with the mascot. In 1907, most people thought the school colors were Blue and Gold, and they may well have been. Others thought the colors were Blue and Orange. If Miller ordered Blue and Orange pennants in 1907, he may have influenced the decision to gowith orange over gold in 1910. He told the mascot tale in 1948 and, in the space of forty years, he may have simply mixed up the story.

Carl convinced me! Thanks to the late Austin Miller and the Florida Times-Union for his version about the formation of the “Gator” name (plus thanks to the Times-Union for information about the elder Miller from his obituary). And, of course, thanks to Carl for the amazing information. You rock, Carl!

FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: A waived player once pulled a gun on his general manager.

STATUS: True (but there is more to the story than just “he was waived”)

In November of 1968, Houston Oilers general manager Dan Klosterman was at the Oilers team complex when a former player, Charles Lockhart, entered. Lockhart had been waived by the Oilers before the season.

Lockhart had suffered a shoulder injury while in training camp with the Oilers. He had an operation. According to NFL rules, if a player was still injured, he would be owed his full salary. The Oilers claimed that the surgery fixed Lockhart. Lockhart disagreed. He talked to the NFL Commissioner’s Office about the issue and they said he had to talk to the Oilers about it.

He talked, all right, but after Klosterman refused to give him his money, the 23-year-old former Texas State standout (younger brother of New York Giant Pro-Bowler Carl “Spider” Lockhart) pulled a gun on Klosterman. Tom Williams, an Oiler scout, saw the incident occurring and shouted to Lockhart to stop. He jumped on Lockhart and disarmed him. Klosterman amusingly stated about Williams, “He’s not only a great talent scout but he saves general manager’s lives!”

Lockhart later stated that he never would have actually used the gun. Klosterman did not pursue an assault or attempted murder charge. Lockhart ended up serving three months in jail for carrying a pistol.

Crazy stuff.

Okay, that’s it for this edition!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

-Brian Cronin

2 Responses to “Football Urban Legends Revealed #27”

  1. In discussing the “FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: The owner of the New York Giants once purchased an entire franchise just to get their star quarterback,” you make this statement: (the Giants) continued to be profitable despite the start of the Great Depression, buoyed in part by a highly-publicized charity game in 1930 where they defeated Knute Rockne’s famed Notre Dame Fighting Irish (thereby demonstrating the superiority of the professional game from a talent standpoint, something that was somehow still in doubt in 1930). This is in itself an urban legend – the Notre Dame team was made up of some college players and some pro players who were Notre Dame former players. One big draw was the reunion of the Four Horsemen who had played their last college season six years before and who had all subsequently played in the pros.

  2. Very fair point, Michael, I’ll correct that! Thanks!

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