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Great Lakes Naval, Northwestern, and the 1919 Transfer Port(al)
Before the NCAA's power grew in the 1950s, conferences rules governed player eligibility, including whether transfers and first-year students could participate in varsity athletics their first year on campus. To discourage the "proselytizing" or recruiting of transfers and freshmen, the Big Ten in 1895 became the first conference to require athletes to be on campus for six months to be eligible for varsity competition. Later, the rule changed to require one year of residence. However, as occurred in 2020-2021 due to COVID-19, some conferences and schools altered their rules during and after WWI to allow freshmen to play and to provide returning vets greater flexibility.
In 1919, colleges nationwide encouraged their student-veterans to return to school and sought others to enroll for the first time. Schools looking to enhance their athletic teams were particularly interested in servicemen involved in athletics. No military base had more athletes than the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, the largest training facility of the war.
In August, Great Lakes had 500+ sailors try out for the football team before whittling the group down to a sixty-man varsity roster split into varsity and reserve teams. Of those, fourteen saw action in the NFL post-war, five coached in the NFL, and three are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Another player, Charlie Bachman, entered the College Football Hall of Fame as a player and coach and is the primary reason for writing this story. Bachman, a heady lineman, enjoyed an All-America career at Notre Dame, overlapping Rockne's time as a player and assistant coach. He also competed in track and field, throwing and jumping for the Irish.
Great Lakes finished the 1918 season with 6-0-2 record, including a victory over the Mare Island Marines in the 1919 Rose Bowl. By then, the armed forces were busy mustering out U.S.-based servicemen, particularly those looking to attend school during the spring semester. Likewise, some schools, such as Northwestern, modified their 1919 academic calendar by splitting the spring semester into two quarters and adding a third, summer term. Doing so helped returning vets take an entire year's worth of classes between January and August.
By early February, Harry Eielson, Great Lakes' starting right halfback, and Charles Knight, the second-string center, returned to Northwestern, where they had played as freshmen in 1917. Eielson arrived in Chicago from Pasadena by train on January 8th and started for the Wildcats basketball team three days later. Eielson won the Big Ten indoor pole vault championship that spring and looked forward to playing a significant role during his sophomore football season. Charles Knight did not participate in a spring sport but also got himself ready for the football season.
Two other Great Lakes players, Chester Langenstein and Bernard "B. H." Miller, enrolled at Northwestern in January. Both joined the Navy directly from high school, so they arrived at Northwestern as true freshmen.
Another pair setting sail for Evanston was the twin Barnard brothers, Chester and Lester. Multi-sport stars and excellent students at Springfield Normal School, now Missouri State, the Barnards chose to stay in the Chicago area rather than return home for their senior year.
Eielson and Knight returning to Northwestern surprised no one but having six of the twenty-two players on Great Lakes' Rose Bowl roster end up at Northwestern raised a few eyebrows. Additional eyebrows were elevated in late January when Northwestern named Charlie Bachman, Great Lakes' starting center, the coach of Northwestern's football and track and field teams. Things were different back then and, while most everyone did some recruiting, it was considered improper in the Big Ten and more so at Northwestern and Chicago, the Big Ten's private schools. So, the arrival in Evanston of Bachman and four of his teammates seemed oddly coincidental. Adding Great Lakes' star quarterback and Northwestern alum, Paddy Driscoll, as an assistant coach did not help matters.
Add to that the decision by another Great Lakes player, Hal Erickson, to enroll at Northwestern in late February. Erickson spent his freshman year in 1916 at St. Olaf, which did not have football. He then joined the Navy, starting at right halfback for Great Lakes in 1917 and 1918, while also playing basketball both years. Though still developing as a football player, Erickson was one of the best running backs in the nation by the end of the 1918 season. Every purple heart in the Midwest pitter-pattered with the thought of Eielson and Erickson, the starting halfbacks for Great Lakes, lining up the Wildcats in 1919.
Unfortunately for Wildcats fans, two factors threatened the influx of talent: one internal to Northwestern and the other at the Big Ten level. Northwestern's internal issue was the faculty's increasingly dim view of athletes, particularly those who struggled in the classroom. Although the specific reasons are now unclear, Northwestern's faculty deemed Eielson and Erickson ineligible that summer. The two quickly transferred to Washington & Jefferson in Pennsylvania, then a mid-tier football team. Eielson played there for two years before returning home to help run the family business after his father fell ill. Erickson graduated from W&J one year later, but not before leading the Presidents to the 1922 Rose Bowl and a 0-0 tie with California. (That made Erickson the only person to play for two Rose Bowl teams, neither of which plays Division I football today.)
The Wildcats' second factor was the Big Ten faculty committee deciding not to modify the conference's one-year residency requirement for servicemen. Since Northwestern had changed its spring and summer academic calendar for all students, they believed their new players were in the clear and proceeded as such until Wisconsin challenged their position before their October game. The conference faculty committee met in an emergency session, ruling that students who attended both spring and the summer terms were eligible for athletics, making the remaining five eligible to play. Amos Alonzo Stagg and Chicago broke off athletic relations with Northwestern despite the ruling due to their perceived recruiting practices.
During the 1919 football season, Chester Barnard started at right end for the Wildcats, while Lester Barnard held down the left end position all season. Knight and Miller started a few games at center and guard before injuries moved them out of the lineup, at which point, Langenstein took one or the other's place. So, all five former sailors were contributors on a team that finished a disappointing 2-5, with their only wins coming against DePauw and Indiana. Oh, what might have been.
Of the two former sailors remaining at Northwestern, Miller was elected the sophomore class president and opted to pursue those interests rather than football the next three years. Charles Knight, meanwhile, stayed in school but spent his junior and senior seasons playing for and getting paid by the Racine Cardinals of the AAPC, soon-to-be-rechristened the NFL's Chicago Cardinals. Who said Northwestern football players were not smart?
The final blow to the Northwestern athletic program came when Bachman and other coaches were asked to resign at the end of their spring seasons. Bachman's replacement was announced in late May, several days before Bachman was named head coach at Kansas State. Bachman later coached at Florida, Michigan State, and elsewhere, compiling a 137-83-24 record.
No one can know what the future might have held for Northwestern's athletics had the faculty held a different view of athletes and their academic progress. Still, they wanted to avoid any appearance of shenanigans and succeeded in doing so.
Over time, conferences and the NCAA limited the eligibility of first-year students and transfers, though we have steered hard to port(al) in the last year. It remains to be seen whether student-athletes using their one-time transfer exception results in a sea change for college athletics, but that appears to be the case so far, to say nothing of coaches jumping ship on a whim.
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