The 1917 Postseason and the AWOL Football Coach
As the bowl season comes to a close, it is easy to think the football world has always had a bowl system similar to today's, but it was not until the rise of the Orange, Sugar, Cotton and Sun Bowls in the mid-1930s that a consistent set of postseason games emerged. Before that, there was the Rose Bowl and a mishmash of other games, many of which were one-time arrangements with only a few lasting more than one year. One such game was played between two military teams in San Diego on New Year’s Day 1918. Like the 1918 Rose Bowl, the game featured teams representing military camps, but the most remarkable aspect of the game was the disappearance of one of the teams' head coaches a few days before kickoff.
As the 1917 football season came to a close, the Tournament of Roses set their eyes on the Mare Island Marines as their West Coast representative. Mare Island, then the recruit training depot for Marine enlistees west of the Mississippi River, was undefeated after playing a strong schedule of college and military teams along the coast. For the Eastern representative, the committee considered college and military teams before inviting the United States Army Ambulance Service (USAAS) team from Camp Crane in Allentown, Pennsylvania. After receiving the invitation, however, the USAAS team suffered their third loss of season to Georgetown and then was unable to gain permission from the War Department to make the cross-country trip to Pasadena.
With USAAS unable to play in the Rose Bowl, the committee's next best choice was the team from Camp Lewis, an Army camp located near Tacoma that hosted the 91st Division. Mare Island had beaten Camp Lewis earlier in the season, so Camp Lewis was not expecting a Rose Bowl invitation. Instead, they were in the process of scheduling a Christmas Day or New Year's Day game with Camp Kearny from the San Diego area. Scheduling a game with the undefeated team from the Navy’s Balboa Park Training Station was an option as well.
In the end, Camp Lewis received their invitation to the Rose Bowl and dropped further discussions with Camp Kearny, but the idea of a post-season game in San Diego remained attractive, particularly because there were unresolved questions about which team was best on that part of the coast. San Diego was a major military training center during WWI and a number for those training centers competed with one another on the football field. Camp Kearny was the training location for the 40th Infantry Division which had regimental football teams competing with one another. The champion of the Camp Kearney teams was the 145th Field Artillery, which had been formed when the First Utah, a National Guard unit, was federalized after America entered the war. Given the unit’s background, their football team was popularly known as the Utah Artillerymen.
The Utah Artillerymen lost 21-6 to Utah State early in the season before being transferred to Camp Kearny. They were undefeated at Camp Kearny before playing a December 9 match with the Balboa Park Naval Training Station. Touted as the championship game for San Diego that year, the game ended in an unsatisfying 3-3 tie. With a desire in San Diego for a game comparable to that of Pasadena's, a rematch was scheduled for New Year’s Day at Balboa Stadium.
The Balboa Park team was coached by Gunner W. A. Linthwaite, a veteran sailor and football player. Prior to the 1930s, Navy cruisers and battleships had football teams that played one another as well as various Army or college teams. Linthwaite played for such teams when stationed on the East Coast and was a multi-year starter for the U.S.S. Maryland, the West Coast fleet champion several times in the early 1910s. His experience allowed him to mold a top-notch team at Balboa Park.
While Linthwaite was a steady presence, the Utah Artillerymen were led by Captain Richard (R. F.) King, who served with the First Utah along the Mexican border in 1916. As commander of Battery F of the 145th Field Artillery, King was considered a solid military man and a very effective football coach, but his background was a tad mysterious. King, it turned out, was a confidence man, but that fact would not become clear to his team until the end of the football season.
King told some that he had spent two years at West Point, others that he played four years at Lehigh, and still others that he was the brother of Phil King, the former Princeton All-American and successful coach at Wisconsin. Many understood that King had once coached the University of Arizona football team, which turned out to be true. King had told the same stories about Lehigh and his brotherly connection before taking over at Arizona one game into the 1913 season. (Arizona's football records list him as Frank A. King, but the newspapers and school yearbook refer to him as R. F. King.) While he was viewed as a solid football tacticians, administrative irregularities led Arizona’s athletic director to conduct a background check on King leading to the discovery that no one at Princeton or Lehigh had ever heard of R. F. King. Of course, King skipped town just as he was being outed.
Little is known about King's whereabouts in 1914 and 1915 other than a newspaper article concerning a 1914 Kansas high school football game listing R. F. King, "formerly of Lehigh," as the game's referee. (Box scores commonly listed each football officials' college affiliation in those days.) Some information indicates that King worked on the railroads, but little is confirmed until he joined the First Utah.
Whatever his background, King was respected professionally during his time with the 145th Artillery. His personal habits were viewed less favorably since King borrowed widely, spent lavishly, and presented more than one woman as his wife. Confronted by a superior officer who ordered him to clean up his personal affairs, King took unauthorized leave from Camp Kearny over Christmas and never returned, leaving Battery F without a captain and his team without a coach several days before the big New Year's Day game. Money from Battery F's mess fund was missing as well.
A police investigation revealed that King was seen carousing in Los Angeles over Christmas break, but they were unable to locate him. The mystery deepened when the team received a telegram from King shortly before the game reading: "I am with you in heart and wish I could be with you in body. Good luck and win. Captain R. F. King (Somewhere in France)." Of course, since the only way to get to France in those days was to travel by boat, everyone understood that King was not in France. He was simply on the lam.
Despite missing their coach, the Utah Artillerymen played a competitive game before the crowd of 15,000. The sailors kicked a field goal to take a first quarter lead, while the Artillerymen responded with a long second quarter drive to lead 6-3 at halftime. The second half saw an energized Navy team score 21 points while the Artillerymen managed only 7, giving Coach Linthwaite and the Navy a 24-13 victory.
Following the game, the soldiers and sailors returned to their military training. Over the coming months, the Balboa Park players were scattered to various ships or other training destinations. W. A. Linthwaite remained at Balboa Park and coached the football team during the 1918 season as well. That team also proved quite strong, losing to the Mare Island Marines on Christmas Day 1918 in a playoff game for the right to meet the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in the 1919 Rose Bowl.
The 40th Division shipped from Camp Kearny to France in June 1918, where it was broken apart; its units and men became replacements that brought other divisions up to full strength. Through it all, the 145th Field Artillery remained largely intact. Its football team competed in the leagues that formed in France following the Armistice.
So, what became of the Captain R. F. King? Shortly after Christmas 1917, King was seen in El Paso and was rumored to have crossed the border into Mexico, but he actually headed north. He mailed letters from El Paso and Chicago indicating he was on the way to Washington, D.C. to clear his name at the War Department, but he never arrived. Instead, he enlisted in the Army at Camp Grant in Illinois under an assumed name (Richard Royce Brett). As Brett, he shipped to France as a private in the 13th Engineers, a unit that operated segments of French railroads to facilitate American troop and supply movements. By chance, a soldier who had served under King in the U.S. spotted him in France, leading to his arrest. King was returned to the U.S. by mid-June 1918 where he escaped. By early August, he enlisted under a third name (Riley Moore Douglas) and served stateside with the 31st Field Artillery.
As Riley Moore Douglas, King was promoted from private to corporal to sergeant before being discharged to accept an officer's commission. By July 1919, 1st Lt. Riley M. Douglas (aka King) was preparing to ship to Siberia with the Russian Railway Service Corps, a U.S. Army unit that ran the Trans-Siberian Railway in the aftermath of the Russian revolution. A few days before sailing, Douglas (aka King) married a young woman in San Francisco, passing several forged checks during their courtship and honeymoon. Though he sailed before being found out, he was arrested when the ship stopped in Honolulu and was sent back to San Francisco on the next troopship heading East.
Once again, we lose track of King / Brett / Douglas after he boarded the troopship. Military records show the Army ultimately linked his three identities, but it is unclear whether he suffered any consequences for his actions. The last known information about King came in 1923 when he, under the Riley Douglas identity, and his young wife were summoned in San Francisco for child abandonment. The trail goes cold for all three of his known identities after that. Perhaps another sleuth can pick up his scent and reveal what became of the talented confidence man that coached the Utah Artillerymen.
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