Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc.
Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc.
NAIC: 711211 Sports Teams and Clubs
Based outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc. (PWLS), is a nonprofit organization that runs youth football and cheer and dance programs for children ages five to 16. All told, more than 380,000 children in about 43 states and six countries participate in 6,300 tackle football teams, almost 900 flag football teams, and 5,400 cheer and dance squads (including majorettes, pom squads, and pep squads). Children playing tackle football are assigned to leagues according to age and weight categories, ranging from Tiny-Mites, 5- to 7-year-olds weighing as much as 75 pounds, to Bantams, 13- to 15-year-olds weighing as much as 175 pounds.
PWLS also offers several low-cost football and cheerleading camps around the country for its members. In order to participate in PWLS programs children are required to maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average, although exceptions can be made for children that school administrators believe will benefit from the program. Outstanding performance in the classroom is recognized through the reward of Academic All-American status each year, the winners honored at the organization’s National Scholar Banquet. PWLS also makes sure that everyone has a chance to play by imposing a mandatory play requirement on leagues, which has the discretion to increase the number of minimum plays if desired. National championship tournaments for football and cheer and dance are conducted each December at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. At the heart of the Pop Warner programs are 40,000 volunteers and coaches.
ORGANIZATION FOUNDED: 1929
PWLS was founded in Philadelphia in 1929 by Joseph J. Tomlin. Born in 1902, he was the son of an immigrant coal mine crew chief. As a student at Philadelphia’s Frankford High School he was an all-city tackle in football. He then earned a degree from Swarthmore College and spend a year at Harvard Law School before quitting to take a job on Wall Street as a stockbroker. He continued to maintain close ties to Philadelphia, and in 1929 he was asked by a friend who owned a factory in northeast Philadelphia if he had any ideas about how to stop local youths from throwing stones and breaking his large ground floor windows.
Tomlin suggested a sports program to provide the teens with something better to do than vandalize the neighborhood. He agreed to organize the program on the weekends, and soon established the Northeast Boys’ Club and the four-team Junior Football Conference (or Junior Football League). Tomlin would soon have plenty of time to devote to the task. Shortly after the league began playing its games in October 1929, the stock market crashed, putting him out of a job and setting off the Great Depression of the 1930s and prompting him to move back to Philadelphia.
The Junior Football Conference expanded to 16 teams over the next four years, and in 1934 assumed a new name: Pop Warner Conference. The previous fall, legendary college football coach Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner came to Philadelphia to coach the Temple University squad. He had not learned the game until enrolling at Cornell in 1891 at the advanced age of 21, hence his teammates called him Pop. He proved adept at the game, however, and after briefly practicing law he took a job as a football coach at Iowa State Agricultural College, the start of a lifetime devoted to college football.
When the rules of the game were changed in the early 1900s he became a pioneer in the new offensive formations, the single wing and double wing, that relied on guile and quickness. As the coach of the tiny Carlisle Indian School he began to defeat the powerhouse teams in the country, and gained even more notice when he coached Jim Thorpe, arguably one of the best athletes in history. Warner then coached with great success at the University of Pittsburgh and Stanford University. Following a disappointing 1932 season at Stanford, he quit to take over the football program at Temple.
POP WARNER NAME ADOPTED: 1934
In April 1934 Tomlin organized a clinic at which several area football coaches were scheduled to appear, but poor weather and icy conditions led to all but one of the coaches from calling in to offer their regrets. Only Warner failed to phone, and because Tomlin assumed that he too would be unable to make the trek to Frankfort he put together an impromptu program for the 800 boys who had showed up, not knowing if the clinic would be canceled or not. They were delighted when the great Pop Warner suddenly arrived, then proceeded to give a two-hour presentation and take an additional hour to answer the boys’ questions.
That day Pop Warner, in essence, became the spiritual father of the small youth football league and at the end of the evening Tomlin asked if Warner would mind if they took the name Pop Warner Conference. Warner agreed and forged a deep friendship with Tomlin. He became the godfather of Tomlin’s son, David, in 1938, the same year that Warner left for California to coach one more season at San Jose State before retiring. He died in 1954.
As the Pop Warner Conference, Tomlin’s football league grew quickly, the number of teams involved increasing to 157 by 1938, spreading out beyond Philadelphia to include suburbs in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. At the time most of the players were older than 15, some of them more than 30, but in 1937 the organization began forming teams of boys 11 to 14 years of age, comparable to PWLS’s Midget category. The idea of providing youth with structured athletics was credited with reducing juvenile delinquency in the Philadelphia area, and Tomlin received a great deal of acclaim in the mid-1930s, which he used to assemble a board of directors that included influential members of the city’s high society: the railroad, coal, and other industrialists that populated Philadelphia’s famous “Main Line.” He hoped that these board members would then help to raise money to buy equipment and create playing fields for the less fortunate in the community, who were even more downtrodden because of the Depression. Instead, according to David Tomlin, who researched and wrote about his father’s work, “the board urged the teams to collect more [money] at games and tithe some back to the Conference!”
The mission of Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc., is to enable children to benefit from participation in team sports and activities in a safe and structured environment. Through this active participation, Pop Warner programs teach fundamental values, skills and knowledge that children will use throughout their lives.
Tomlin was also willing to accept help from other parts of the social spectrum. In 1932 the Junior Football League began holdings its annual banquet at Palumbo’s Café-Restaurant in South Philadelphia, which charged the organization only for its costs. The owner was Frank Palumbo, a restaurateur in his early 20s who was gaining a reputation as a well-connected man, whether that meant ties to politicians, who ate at Palumbo’s and in time sought his backing, or entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, and Rosemary Clooney, whom he promoted in his adjoining nightclub when they were struggling to make their careers. Frank Palumbo would also, however, be connected to gangsters, reportedly serving as their political fixer. At one time he coman-aged boxers with Mafia member Frank S. Palermo, Sr., who eventually served prison time for interstate extortion related to his boxing activity.
To the Italian residents of South Philadelphia and much of the city at large Palumbo was a benefactor, known for his generosity, and regarded as a man who never lost the common touch, even after he bought a home on the Main Line. In the 1930s Tomlin tried to get Palumbo on the board of directors of the Junior Football Conference, only to have the upper-crust board members reject him. They then moved the banquet from Palumbo’s and held it at the hotels where they conducted their business lunches. Nevertheless, Tomlin and Palumbo maintained a strong bond, one that would have a significant impact on the growth of Pop Warner football.
In 1938 Tomlin formed the Connie Mack Baseball Conference, named after the longtime owner-manager of the Philadelphia A’s major league baseball team, the same year that Little League baseball was taking root in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. To handle fund-raising for both Pop Warner Football and Connie Mack Baseball, the Sandlot Sports Association (SSA) was established as an umbrella organization, headed by H. Birchard Taylor.
Tomlin worked for SSA during World War II, when so many young men were called into the service that the number of Pop Warner football teams fell to around 40. He began to rebuild the organization when the war ended, but in early 1947 he wanted to quit SSA and take the Pop Warner and Connie Mack programs with him. Needing a job, he turned to Palumbo, who promptly found him employment with the Chamber of Commerce. Later in the year, according to David Tomlin, Palumbo would ask a favor of Tomlin: to host a championship youth football game between a Philadelphia team sponsored by Palumbo and a New York team sponsored by Frank Sinatra. It would be called the Santa Claus Bowl. According to PWLS, Palumbo suggested the first-ever “kiddie” bowl game as a way to bring attention to Pop Warner football and spread the program across the country.
David Tomlin maintained that Palumbo’s actual motivation was good public relations for both himself and Sinatra. Early in 1947 the singer had been photographed in Havana, Cuba, in the company of mobsters, and in November of that year he and Palumbo were caught up in a controversial fight in Madison Square Garden, in which Jake LaMotta was knocked out by Philadelphia’s Billy Fox, comanaged by Palumbo and Palermo. It was the first time LaMotta had been knocked out, raising suspicions and resulting in a probe conducted by New York City’s district attorney’s office. No charges ever came out of the matter, although in 1960 LaMotta told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that he actually turned down $100,000 from Palermo but admitted to throwing the fight in exchange for receiving a later championship title fight.
Tomlin agreed to host the Santa Claus Bowl, which almost did not take place on December 27, 1947, due to a snow storm, but the New York team managed to make their way to South Philadelphia High School field, where about 2,000 spectators watched Palumbo’s Clinkets defeated Sinatra’s Cyclones 6–0 in six inches of snow. With the help of Palumbo’s and Sinatra’s publicists, the game received plenty of press coverage, some of it over the top. The Philadelphia Daily News, for example, claimed that Philadelphia “outbid” a number of rival cities to secure the rights to the Santa Claus Bowl.
In 1948 the Santa Claus Bowl was again played in Philadelphia, but in subsequent years was held in Omaha, Nebraska, and Lakeland, Florida, where the Mutual Radio network covered the game. Pop Warner football was then taken to other parts of the country in a number of different formats, including the Pony Bowl and the Kids’ Army-Navy Game. In 1959 Pop Warner Football first teamed up with Disney, playing the Citrus Bowl/Piggy Bank Bowl in Anaheim, California, leading to the 1960 made-for-TV film Moochie of Pop Warner Football, which helped to further popularize Pop Warner Football.
- Joseph Tomlin organizes Junior Football Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
- Organization assumes Pop Warner Conference name.
- Santa Claus Bowl first played.
- Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc. (PWLS), is formed.
- Cheerleading program added.
- Flag football introduced.
- Championship football game becomes Pop Warner Super Bowl.
- First international games played.
- PWLS hires a public relations firm.
By 1957 there were 1,000 Pop Warner football teams playing across the country, prompting the organization to issue its first rule book to provide some national consistency. Two years later Pop Warner football was reorganized as a nonprofit corporation in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, taking the name Pop Warner Little Scholars at the behest of its founding chairman, Samuel H. Daroff, who wanted to emphasize the group’s commitment to education.
In the early 1960s PWLS began clarifying the age and weight classifications of the players. By 1965 there were 2,000 football teams competing in the program, which continued to expand, reaching out to smaller communities across the country. By the end of the decade there were 3,000 Pop Warner football teams. Also of note, in 1966 PWLS received the trademark and service mark rights to the Pop Warner name. The championship game remained the Citrus Bowl/ Piggy Bank Bowl through 1968 and then moved to Orlando, the site of the new Disney World, and now took the name Walt Disney World Bowl.
REGIONAL ORGANIZATION ADOPTED: 1972
With the number of football teams continuing to grow, in 1972 PWLS divided the country into regional organizations, which then met each winter to confer on rule changes. In 1977, PWLS reached the 6,000 mark in the number of participating teams, but more than just adding teams the organization changed in other ways during this 1970s. Coaches were required to be certified and minimum playing time standards were implemented. More revolutionary was the participation of girls in PWLS in 1973, as cheerleading programs grew out of the “sideline squads” that had grown up around Pop Warner football games.
At the end of the 1970s, PWLS launched the Pop Warner Hall of Fame to mark the 50th anniversary of the organization. Some of the charter inductees included coaches Vince Lombardi, George Halas, and Don Shula; and football players such as Jim Brown and Johnny Unitas, as well as hometown Philadelphia Eagles’ stars Steve Van Buren and Chuck Bednarik.
More changes came in the 1980s. The flag football program got its start in 1983. The cheerleading program published its first official set of rules in 1985, and in 1988 PWLS held its first National Cheerleading Competition in DeKalb County, Georgia. The 1980s also saw the passing of the organization’s founder, as Joe Tomlin died at the age of 85 in 1988. His son David, who had been part of the PWLS staff since 1965, took over as the organization’s president. At the time of Tomlin’s death, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that PWLS boasted 200,000 participants on 4,100 teams located in the United States as well as Mexico and the United Kingdom. In that same year of 1988 PWLS also expanded to Japan with the launch of the Chestnut League. The organization received more exposure in the United States when the Nickelodeon cable television channel covered the Midget Championship Game in 1988.
The championship game had returned to California after six years in Orlando, once again becoming the Citrus Bowl/Piggy Bank Bowl in 1975. After four years the game was dropped but revived in 1983 when the Russell Athletic sportswear company sponsored the game for three years in Alexander City, Alabama, as the Russell Athletic Bowl. In 1986 the championship game was played as the Surf Bowl in Winter Park, Florida, before becoming the National Pop Warner Football Championship in 1987. Under this name the game was played in Doralville, Georgia; Mountain View, California; Jacksonville, Florida; and Santa Clara, California. Then in 1995 the game returned to Orlando’s Disney World complex. It also took a new name, becoming the Pop Warner Super Bowl. In 1997 the game was moved to a permanent home at the new Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in nearby Lake Buena Vista, Florida, where the National Cheer and Dance Championships would also be held.
PWLS established a football association in Russia in 1997, and two years later a Midget squad from Jacksonville, Florida, traveled to Russia to play in the organization’s first international competition. The number of participants in PWLS programs continued to expand in the new century. The Cheer and Dance Squads enjoyed the most growth, with the number of squads increasing from 4,500 in 1999 to 5,400 in 2004. To help promote the organization and what it had to offer, as well as differentiate itself from other youth programs, PWLS hired Massachusetts-based Conover Tuttle Pace to handle its public relations in 2005.
Balthaser, Joel D., Pop Warner Little Scholars, Mount Pleasant, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 1994, 128 p.
Gemperlein, Joyce, “Frank Palumbo, 72 Owner of Nightclub, Friend to Many,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 13, 1983, p. H15.
“Pop Warner Selects Conover for PR,” Adweek New England Edition, October 19, 2005.
St. George, Donna, “Joseph J. Tomlin, 85, Pop Warner Founder,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 18, 1988, p. E10.
Tomlin, David G., “Frank Sinatra, a Thrown Fight, & the Rise of Pop Warner Football,” 2006, http://www.davtom.com.