1902 was a great year for Nebraska football. It was our beloved Cornhuskers first real undefeated team, as lead by Walter C. “Bummy” Booth, a coach who would ultimately end up as the second-best Nebraska football coach in history.
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In 1899, Nebraska football had their first losing season, with one win, seven losses, and one tie, being outscored 154 to 43. Coach Alonzo Edwin Branch was replaced by Walter Cowles Bumme Booth, who had played football at Princeton. Booth’s first season saw a 6-1 record, but they lost to Minnesota. Nebraska aimed to establish itself nationally. In 1901, they went 6-2, losing to Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Booth led Nebraska to an undefeated 9-0 season in 1902, starting a 24-game winning streak. Johnny Bender was a standout player. He later coached at various universities and gave them their nicknames. Booth left Nebraska in 1905, finishing with a 46-8-1 record. His contributions put Nebraska football on the national map, setting the stage for future success.
In 1899, Nebraska football suffered their first losing season. The team had one win against seven losses and one tie. They were outscored 154 to 43. The head coach was Alonzo Edwin Branch. Nebraska had only been playing football since 1890, but they had become accustomed to winning. Branch did not return and in his place Nebraska hired Walter Cowles Bumme Booth. Booth would prove to be an excellent choice.
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Booth had played football at Princeton and in 1900 Princeton was a member of the Big Four along with Yale, Harvard and Penn. They were the top four teams in football and many other players were highly sought after to coach for other teams.
Nebraska hired Booth and he was given a salary of $600 per year. Booth had immediate success. He went six and one in his first season, outscoring his first six opponents 100 to zero, but losing to powerhouse Minnesota at the end of the year. Up to this point Nebraska had had some success in football, but they’d also had nine coaches in 11 years and it was time for Nebraska to settle down, discover their football identity and propel themselves from being a regional power and make the next step to national prominence.
1901 saw more success under Booth with a record of six and two. The two losses came against Minnesota and Wisconsin where Nebraska was outscored 19 to nothing and 18 to nothing respectively.
At the time Nebraska played as an independent while Minnesota and Wisconsin were members of the Western Conference, a forerunner of the Big Ten. It was the second loss to Minnesota, but the first meeting with Wisconsin. In 1902 Booth led Nebraska to their first undefeated season in school history. Now I know that Nebraska was unbeaten and unscored upon in their first year, 1890, but they only played two games that season and they weren’t even both in 1890, so not much of a record on which to hang your hat.
The 1902 team went 9 and 0 and outscored their opponents 186 to nothing. The 1902 team started a 24 game winning streak that was broken by a loss to Colorado in 1904. That winning streak would last until the 1994 through 1996 seasons when those teams had a 26 game winning streak broken by Arizona State in 1996.
One of the best players on the 1902 Nebraska team was Johnny Bender from Sutton, Nebraska. He was nicknamed the Sutton Comet and Twister and he led in a remarkable life. He lettered five years in Nebraska when there were relaxed rules about eligibility. He was a team captain and when he left Nebraska he held a national record for the most points ever scored by a college football player. Bender went on to coach football and basketball after playing at Nebraska. He coached at St. Louis University where reporters said he looked like a doll called a Billiken. The team became known as Bender’s Billikins. The Billiken nickname is still used by St. Louis today. They’re known for their basketball as they dropped football in 1949.
Bender wasn’t done doling out traditions as he also coached at Kansas State where he gave them the nickname Wildcats and started their homecoming tradition. But wait there’s more. He also went to Houston where he was a physical education instructor.
Guess where Houston got their nickname and mascot. If you guessed from Johnny Bender you’d be right. So Houston is known as the Cougars. There was a story about how he gave Washington State their Cougar nickname as well. But when you look at the Washington State sites they don’t mention John Bender so it is kind of a contradiction. But maybe he would have given out more nicknames if he wouldn’t have passed away at the age of 46 on July 4th 1928 from complications following gall storm surgery. Johnny Bender from Sutton Nebraska is in the Nebraska Hall of Fame. What an overachiever.
Back to the 1902 Nebraska football team under Bummy Booth. Nebraska beat Minnesota 6-0 on October 18th 1902. It was the first Nebraska win over a team from the Western Conference. And the Western Conference was the forerunner of the Big Ten so it was a pretty big deal at the time.
Minnesota’s coach Henry L. Williams was in his third year and was nationally well known. He was a former Yale player who had invented the tackle back formation along with what was called the Minnesota shift. The Minnesota shift was the forerunner of pre-snap motion when an offense shifts from one offensive formation to another right before the ball is put in play. Minnesota’s Williams Arena where the Gophers play basketball is named in his honor. After Minnesota Nebraska went on to beat Missouri, Haskell, Kansas, Knox and another Western Conference team, Northwestern.
Booth left Nebraska after the 1905 season. Booth was making $2,000 a year then but felt that it wasn’t enough. The University of Nebraska administration disagreed. Booth left to go back to a law firm in the east and ultimately ended up making his living in the insurance industry until he passed away on April 5th 1944 in Manhattan New York.
Booth finished with a record of 46 wins, eight losses and one tie not counting exhibition games. He won eight more games if you include exhibitions. These were usually played against high schools and you will find some discrepancies in how his record is listed because of whether or not the exhibition games are counted. His winning record of 845 is ranked second among Nebraska football coaches historically only after Ed Wald Steem’s record of 913 who coached from 1911 to 1915.
Booth is just ahead of Tom Osborne who finished with a career record of 836. Walter Cowell’s Bummy Booth is important because he put Nebraska football on the map nationally. His wins over the Western Conference got Nebraska noticed as an up-and-coming football program. It would take until 1915 for Nebraska to fully be recognized nationally but that’s a story for another day.
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This is Jon Johnston with hardcore college football history. Thank you.