Tonight Dana Altman, technically a former Arkansas Razorbacks coach, leads his Oregon Ducks against North Carolina in the Final Four. Altman’s one-day-long fiasco at Arkansas back in 2007 is well known by now. But the Oregon head coach has put that awkward chapter behind him, going on to rack up the last 187 wins in his program’s history. The next one, if it comes against a Tar Heels squad favored by 4.5 points, would be his most impressive yet.
Less well known is that the Ducks’ first ever-win was notched by another former Arkansas coach.
Hugo Bezdek, who led Arkansas football to its first undefeated season, was one of the most versatile coaches this nation has ever seen. A Czech immigrant, Bezdek emerged as a baseball and football star in Chicago and went on to become the only man to ever manage an MLB team (Pittsburgh Pirates) and be the head coach of an NFL team (with the Rams franchise). He began his College Football Hall of Fame career, however, in Eugene, Oregon, in 1906. Just out of college, Bezdek led Oregon football to a 5-0-1 record while also serving as athletic director. In the winter, he became basketball coach.
At that point, Oregon basketball was in shambles. The 4-year-old program had lost all 12 of the games in which it had ever competed (seven of those losses came at the hands of Oregon State). The narrative finally changed, though, on February 13, 1907. That was the day Bezdek and his intrepid band of ‘Lemon-Yellows” took down Roseburg.
Here’s the original report, taken from the Morning Register the next day:
No matter said first-ever victory appears to have been reported by someone who might have qualified as the worst reporter in Oregon history. Or that it appears to have been against a high school. Everybody needs a gimme every now and then.
After his successful football and basketball coaching debuts, the 24-year-old Bezdek was whisked away by the University of Arkansas to coach football, baseball and track (the basketball program wouldn’t begin until 1923). Bezdek’s hire represented the dawning of a new age for Arkansas, whose teams were then known as the Cardinals. Bezdek was the first coach whom the school hired. Until then, “Arkansas students elected a senior as student manager of athletics and hired a coach,” Orville Henry wrote in The Razorbacks: A Story of Arkansas Football. “The students guaranteed the coach a sum for his season’s work, and if gate receipts (25 cents a head) failed to cover it, the manager had to coax the difference out of the students’ pocket or pay for it themselves.”
Had the poor students still been poneying bullion for Bezdek’s services during his five seasons on The Hill, they would have gotten their money’s worth. During one stretch in the 1909-1911 seasons, Bezdek went 17-1 and outscored all opponents by a total of 617-42.
Bezdek’s most signifcant contribution comes from a story to Orville Henry and Jim Bailey by Phil C. Huntley, who played center for Bezdek from 1908 to 1911. “We were on a trip in Texas, getting off the train for a stroll—I think in Dallas,” Huntley recalled in The Razorbacks. “Someone yelled, ‘Here come the hogs.’ See, there were a lot of jokes about Arkansas at that time.
Bezdek stopped and thought a minute. He said, ‘Hmmm, boys, I like that. We’re the Razorbacks from now on.’ I’ve heard and read a lot of ways it was supposed to have come about, but that’s how it really was. It took a year or two for it to catch on with everybody, but it started right there.”
It should be noted there is plenty of evidence that “Razorbacks” was used to describe U of A athletes before Bezdek’s arrival. It should also be noted that once, in Portland, he was reportedly chased out of a fine restaurant by a cook wielding a long carving knife.