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History Class: Edgar Wingard Era (1907-09)

LSU’s first great coach recruits LSU’s first great player: Doc Fenton

Doc Fenton, Edgar Wingard, and W Hillman; excerpt from Arkansas vs. Louisiana 1908 football program
LSU University Archives Print Materials Collection

“I saw Jim Thorpe, but Doc Fenton was better.” – Troy Middleton

LSU fired coach Dan Killian after a dismal 1906 season. It’s not that the team was terrible, LSU was a respectable 2-2-2, but the style of play was dreadful. Still trapped in the thrall of the flying wedge which had killed 20 people in 1905, LSU won by scores of 5-0 and 17-0 and the two ties? Both scoreless draws.

Change came in the form of Edgar Wingard, a “notorious hell raiser”, who quickly installed a fast-paced offense which relied on deception, speed, and the newly invented forward pass. He had his charges play soccer in practice to learn footwork and agility. But for all of his forward-thinking ingenuity as a strategist, LSU truly hired Wingard for his skill as a recruiter.

George “Doc” Fenton of the Louisiana State University Tigers poses for a portrait circa 1908 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Collegiate Images/Getty Images

Wingard immediately went to work on recruiting his fellow Pennsylvanian, Doc Fenton. In 1904, Fenton starred on the rugby team of St. Michael’s College in Canada. He returned to Pennsylvania in 1906 to play football at Mansfield State Normal School. Fenton was eyeing a move South and had been in contact with Mississippi A&M coach Fred Furman.

Wingard made up for lost time, bringing Doc on a recruiting trip to Baton Rouge, sealing the deal with the promise of nickel beers and a reminder of Starkville’s blue laws. That was enough for Fenton, who signed with LSU and immediately transformed the team.

Furman would take issue with Wingard’s recruiting tactics and fumed about possible payments made to Fenton. However, Fenton kept all of his letters from Furman, which detailed the promises he made for Fenton to attend A&M. The matter was quickly dropped.

The Bacardi Bowl

A team that had scored just 34 points in six games in 1906 scored 28 points in its season opener in 1907. After some midseason struggles, the Tigers finished up their campaign with a 48-0 blowout win over Baylor and an invitation to play the University of Havana in the Bacardi Bowl, becoming the first American college team to play on foreign soil. It was a bold trip, given that nerves in Cuba were still raw over the Spanish-American War.

Fearing the game would be a financial disaster, the promoter tried to back out of the game, but the Havana locals ensured the game would be played. Speculators sold tickets for as high as $10, and nearly 10,000 fans, including Cuban high society and local American servicemen, witnessed Fenton and LSU whip the hometown team 56-0.

1907 LSU Tigers
LSU University Archives

Havana had recruited a mammoth 300-pounder to play, but Fenton observed the player drinking more than his share of wine before the game. He instructed a teammate to hit him in the stomach on the game’s first play, and according to Fenton, “the big guy spouted wine like an artesian well. We nearly had to swim out of there.” LSU dominated from this point on, and Cuban fans lauded Fenton as “El Rubio Vaselino,” the “Vaselined Redhead” for his amazing play and slippery moves in the open field.

The story of the game is not all rainbows and unicorns, though. The contract LSU signed for the game stipulated that Havana could not field a team with any players of African descent, strictly enforcing the policy of American segregation on foreign soil. Furthermore, the American servicemen raucously cheered on the LSU squad with the cheer of “Lick the Spics! Kill the Spics!”

However, the game was such a success that Cuban officials attempted to schedule a second game before the players returned home. According to Marshall Gandy, the players received $25 to play a second game a few days later, even loaning some players to the Cuban side to even up the rosters. LSU won that game as well, but now, technically, every single player on LSU’s roster was now a professional. This will be important.

Two Seasons: 1908 and Next Year

Only one player graduated from the 1907 team (we’ll get to him later), and Wingard replaced the loss by recruiting the Smith brothers of Tulane protest fame back into the fold. Wingard grabbed another player out of Pennsylvania, Mike Lally, and then moved his star, Doc Fenton, to quarterback so he could handle the ball on nearly every play. The roster moves worked.

LSU became a point-a-minute team. LSU outscored its opponents 442 to 11 on the season. That is not a misprint. Mike Lally scored 14 touchdowns and 81 points. Not to be outdone, Doc Fenton scored 13 touchdowns, 6 field goals, and 125 points. By modern scoring rules, Doc Fenton would have scored 144 points. The National Football Foundation recognized Fenton as the retroactive Heisman winner.

1908 National Champion LSU Tigers
LSU University Archives

Going back to that Vaselined Redhead nickname, this is because Wingard soaked Fenton’s shirt in a mild acid solution before each game, causing the fabric to weaken and tear when defenders tried to grab a hold of him. Wingard essentially invented the tear-away jersey a half century before its time.

On Halloween, LSU traveled to Drill Field to play SIAA preseason favorites Auburn. Trailing 5-0 in the first half, Auburn blocked an LSU punt, recovered by Doc Fenton in the end zone. A fan then hit Fenton over the head with his cane, knocking Fenton unconscious before he could get out of the end zone. It would be Auburn’s only points of the game, and LSU held on for 10-2 win without the services of Fenton in the second half.

Auburn responded the way you would expect Auburn to respond: the local paper asked “Who are these LSU people?” and steadfastly refused to admit the game was lost, that instead LSU had cheated. It was the same charge they lobbed at Alabama in 1907 without any proof. Auburn would claim their 1908 team went undefeated as Dan Reynolds claimed, “We won every game that fall but LSU. But LSU had a pro team.”

The story picked up steam when famed sportswriter Grantland Rice picked up the mantle, accusing LSU of employing ringers and that he had the proof. Of course, he never produced the proof. It’s also important to note he was a Vanderbilt grad and wrote for The Nashville Tennessean, and Vanderbilt was the southern football power of this era. Its coach, Dan McGugin, wielded considerable power in the SIAA. LSU spent all of 1908 trying to schedule a game with Vanderbilt to no avail. Rice’s article gave McGugin cover to avoid the LSU behemoth. It is also notable that McGugin never publicly accused LSU of cheating.

In Rice’s words:

It all came about this way. The night that Chez Clarke, Rose Poly’s coach, was in The Tennessean office, he offered this statement: “So they say L.S.U. is going to have a crack team. Well, I guess she ought to have.” And then picking up the 1907 guide he picked out at least two men whom he said were playing under assumed names, one of them the team’s captain - adding that he had been offered a good monthly salary to come down this fall - the only requirement being that he switch the title by which he was christened.

If L. S. U. can show that she has been done an injustice we will be more than pleased to present her side of the case.

You can guess correctly if he ever presented LSU’s case. Also, Doc Fenton was the team captain, and charging that he was playing under an assumed name is too ridiculous a claim to even rebut. He was one of the most well-known college players in the country.

However, the charges stuck. Doc Fenton would long tell the story about how Edgard Winard gave him $70 for some new clothes so he would consider changing position to quarterback after the 1907 season. And the players of the 1907 team did receive $25 to play in a second exhibition after the Bacardi Bowl. But this was small potatoes, and not the sums, even back in 1908, that would lure top tier football talent. Walter Camp’s slush fund for “tutoring” was $100,000 per season, to give you an idea. Charging that Doc Fenton should be ineligible over $70 is absurd.

Auburn coach Mike Donahue, committed to “clean sports”, lodged a formal complaint with the SIAA. The charges simply enraged LSU, and they proceeded to take their frustrations out on the competition. LSU beat Mississippi A&M 50-0 and Baylor 89-0 in the next two games. LSU wouldn’t give up another point until its final game, a 36-4 thrashing of Arkansas.

Early smack talk from the 1908 LSU Arkansas football game program

Both Edgar Wingard and Thomas Boyd provided affidavits to the SIAA, swearing to their players’ eligibility, and Fred Furman of Mississippi A&M came to LSU’s defense in The Daily State-Times:

The charges being made against Louisiana are serious indeed, but if they are not better founded than appear on the surface, they are fated to fall flat. Fenton and Lally came to L. S. U. from Mansfield State Normal, Pennsyl­vania, where their strict amateur status was never questioned. Assistant Coach Bobson, of Georgia Tech, is quoted as calling them ex-Peddle Institute [NJ] men. That is a mistake, as I remember Lally was there during the fall of 1906, his second year at Mansfield, for about three days. Fenton never was there. They are playing under their own names, and I don’t think that they receive any remuneration.

The explanation of their presence in the South looks simple to me. They are from the school that sent Davis to Princeton; ... and other stars to other colleges.

Now these boys wanted to play football, too, and probably found that they could enter L. S. U. with less preparation than is required at the great Eastern Universities. At any rate, my knowledge of them is too great to permit me to believe an unsupported charge of professionalism against them.

If Vanderbilt refuses to play them, the South will miss a grand exhibition of the best game ever devised.

But the SIAA refused to honor a team as champions while it was under investigation. The title passed to, shock of all shocks, Auburn. Grantland Rice leveraged his considerable influence to block all LSU players from the postseason All-South team. Walter Camp, hilariously, followed suit, and refused to place any LSU players on the national Walter Camp All-American team. It was an epic screw job, and the SIAA investigation would eventually clear LSU.

Two irregularities were found: Martin Lally took money to play baseball in 1908, so was ruled ineligible, and Charles Bauer was a ringer playing under an assumed name. He was the sole player who graduated in 1907 and wasn’t even on the 1908 team. LSU would still fire Edgard Wingard in the offseason.

To this day, LSU does not claim the 1908 national championship. It absolutely should. The SIAA cleared the team of using ringers and even if they did, so what? Professionalism was so rampant in the 1900s that if we excluded a team from title consideration for it, there literally wouldn’t be any national champions from this era.

The evidence against the team is circumstantial and its primary accusers both reaped benefits by pushing aside LSU’s claims to the title. Auburn got the SIAA title and mythical Champions of the South honor, while Vanderbilt avoided playing the best team in the South. Yes, LSU played a weak schedule, as the South was the weaker region, but they also bludgeoned that schedule by a margin over 400 points. There’s also no undisputed candidate from the North. Think of 1908 LSU like 1983 BYU.

Do it, LSU. Do it for Doc Fenton. Claim the 1908 title.

Before Edgar Wingard and LSU parted ways, Wingard became LSU’s first basketball coach. LSU would win its first hoops game and finish the season 5-2. LSU would bring in Joe Pritchard for Doc Fenton’s senior season. It did not go well. As Fenton would later claim, Pritchard spent the entire year trying to prove he was a better halfback than Fenton, taking away Doc’s touches. Spoiler alert: he wasn’t.

Pritchard wouldn’t even last a season, as John Mayhew took over after LSU lost to Sewanee, the eventual SIAA champion. Things got worse in 1910. Without Doc Fenton or almost any of the players Wingard recruited, LSU would lose its final five games of the year, only scoring a single touchdown in all of the losses combined. The Wingard Era ended almost as suddenly as it had begun.

Program Overview 1907-1909

Athletic Director: Edgar Wingard, sort of

National Titles: Football 1908 (unclaimed)

Conference Titles: Football 1908 (SIAA)

Programs Added: Basketball (1909)

Facilities Added: None

First row: S.A. Larcade, J.Y. Sanders, W.J. Phillips. Back row: Manager, J.C. Pugh, J.R. Keeny, L.R. Lesher, C.B. Johson. Outdoor court on athletic field, with Hill Memorial Library, Garig Hall, Irion Hall, and Alumni Memorial Hall in distance
LSU University Archives

I don’t want to get bogged down in individual years, as I’m trying to do an overview of the AD’s first and foremost, but the seasons of 1907 and 1908 are too important in Tiger Lore to gloss over. Also, the tumultuous three-year tenure of Edgar Wingard cast a long shadow over the program. The program would spend a long time trying to recapture the lightning he bottled. After the SIAA cleared LSU of wrongdoing, it awarded LSU the conference title, though Grantland Rice and company never got around to amending The Spalding Guide to reflect LSU as Champions of the South. Funny, how that worked out.

Wingard lived to see the 1958 national champions team and legend has it that he was asked whether Billy Cannon was the best player he ever saw play for LSU. He replied that Cannon has to be pretty damn good to be better than Doc Fenton. His 1908 team could play a little, too.

In 1958, Next Year finally came. But there will never be another Doc Fenton.