American football coach
Among the winningest coaches in the history of the National Football League (NFL), George "Papa Bear" Halas amassed 324 career victories. As owner of the Chicago Bears for over sixty years, he coached for more than forty of those years and played with the team for a decade. Prominent at the organization of the American Professional Football Association (APFA, later the National Football League—NFL) in 1920, Halas throughout his lifetime played a visible role in the history of professional football in the United States. During the 1930s he lobbied successfully for league rules that enhanced scoring capabilities and thereby contributed to the growth in the popularity of the game. By his avocation to the game he helped to bring respectability to the young sport and contributed to its evolution into a major sporting industry.
George Halas was born on February 2, 1895, in Chicago, Illinois. His parents, Frank Sr., a tailor, and Barbara, a grocer, immigrated from Pilsen, Bohemia, in the 1880s. Halas, one of four siblings, was the youngest of the three boys in a family that encouraged sports. He developed a plucky, competitive spirit as a result. After his father died in 1910, Halas and his brothers and sister helped with the grocery store and with the upkeep of their apartment building, which was owned by the family. Professional football was a young sport during Halas's formative years. History records the first professional football game in history in 1895, the same year that Halas was born.
As a youth Halas played indoor baseball, a popular league sport, now known as softball. Later, at Chicago's Crane Technical High School he played baseball, basketball, and—although he was slight of build—football. After graduation in 1913, he entered the University of Illinois, having developed into a modest athlete.
As an outfielder at Illinois, Halas batted .350. During the summer of his sophomore year he played baseball with the Western Electric company team in Chicago. Additionally he captained the varsity basketball team during his senior year, but his football skills remained marginal. At six feet tall, he was slim at 170 pounds. Despite his enthusiasm Halas was often overpowered by larger players; he broke his jaw during sophomore year and broke one of his legs as a junior. Illinois head coach Bob Zuppke, keenly aware of Halas's physical shortcomings, admired the young man's spirit nonetheless and played him regularly, positioning Halas at the end and away from the center of the fray.
Halas graduated from Illinois in 1918 with a degree in civil engineering, only to be caught up in World War I. While serving as an ensign at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station he played football with the Great Lakes team. The football in those days was much larger and more awkward, and the game as a result focused on rushing more than passing. He nonetheless caught two touchdown passes during the Rose Bowl game on New Year's Day in 1919. He also returned an interception for seventy-seven yards that day, earning a taste of minor celebrity as a football star, as Great Lakes defeated the Mare Island Marines by a score of 17-9.
Halas was discharged soon after the Rose Bowl and reverted to baseball pursuits. He signed with the New York Yankees in March of 1919. Although he made a professional debut with that team on May 19, 1919, he played only eleven games and left a career record of meager statistics. As a right-handed batter he was extremely weak. With a batting average of .091, he never scored, nor did he bat in a single run. The lasting effects of a hip injury caused by a mishap during training camp in Jacksonville, Florida, in March 1919 further hastened his retirement from baseball.
He played briefly with a minor league team in St. Paul, until a contract dispute put an end to his career. Halas returned to Chicago for the duration of 1919 and worked as an engineer for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad. Turning elsewhere from professional baseball to satisfy his sporting interests, he joined a semi-professional football team called the Hammond Pros.
In 1920 he accepted an offer of full-time employment at the Staley Starch Works in Decatur, Illinois, where he served as athletic director and part-time coach of the company football team in addition to his full-time duties as a starchmaker. Despite his bad hip he spent summers on the company's baseball team and played right end on the football squad. His employer, A. E. Staley, provided generous support for the company football program, offering players a share of the gate receipts. Halas as a result met with success in recruiting a number of promising athletes from colleges nationwide. Among those early team members, the former Illinois halfback Ed (Dutch) Sternaman and Notre Dame center George Trafton hired into Staley's and played for the Staley Starchmakers.
The 1920s: New League, New Team
To expedite scheduling of games with other teams, Halas contacted the managers of other football organizations in support of forming a league. Halas and the Starchmakers, along with Ralph Hay and the Canton Bulldogs and ten other teams, collaborated under Hay's guidance to organize the APFA in 1920. As a formality, participating teams were required to ante $100 as a franchise fee, but history holds that no money actually changed hands.
|1895||Born February 2 in Chicago, Illinois|
|1919||Plays baseball with the New York Yankees|
|1920||Organizes the Decatur Staley's and takes the team to 13-1; formation of the American Professional Football Association in Canton, Ohio|
|1921||Receives $5,000 from Staley's Starch to start a franchise team in Chicago; reorganization of the APFA into the National Football League (NFL)|
|1922||Renames the Staley's team officially to Chicago Bears; marries Minnie Bushing on February 18|
|1925||Signs University of Illinois gridiron sensation Harold "Red" Grange to play with the Bears|
|1930||Retires permanently as a player and temporarily as a coach|
|1932||Buys out Bear's partner, Dutch Sternaman, for $38,000; serves as chairman of the NFL rules committee|
|1933||Emerges from retirement to coach the Bears|
|1943-45||Serves in the Pacific with the U.S. Navy|
|1955||Retires temporarily from coaching|
|1958||Returns as coach|
|1968||Retires altogether from coaching|
|1983||Dies in Chicago, Illinois|
Halas and the Staley team, with a record of 13-1 in 1921, were undisputed APFA champions that year. By 1922 the APFA had evolved into the NFL. Halas and Sternaman meanwhile moved the Starchmakers to Chicago where they arranged to lease Wrigley Field as a home stadium. The move to Chicago was funded by a $5,000 donation from Staley who could no longer support the team on a permanent basis. In Chicago, Halas sold cars while Sternaman pumped gas to subsidize the team. Although the rental of the field was based on a percentage of the gate profits, the Starchmakers operated at a loss of $71.63 in 1921. Halas took a job as a night watchman at a refrigeration plant to help make ends meet. Renamed the Bears in 1922, the team finished in second place for the next two seasons, upstaged by the Canton Bulldogs both times. Halas and Sternaman watched their profits mushroom from $1,476.92 in 1922, to $20,000 in 1923. Despite the impressive figures, finances were fragile. The surplus was not enough to guarantee solvency in an as yet untested professional sport.
After posting finishes of 9-3 in 1922 and 9-2-1 in 1923, the Bears, with a less-impressive season record of 6-1-4 in 1924, played runner-up to Canton for a third consecutive season. Undaunted, Halas refused a buyout offer of $35,000 and continued his strategy of recruiting the most promising young players from the colleges. The dynamic new football league had grown to support eighteen teams by that year, even after the loss of two teams over the previous season.
Finances and championships aside, Halas—playing at right end for the Bears—gave the early NFL one of its more memorable moments during a contest with the Oo-long Indians of Marion, Ohio, on November 23, 1923. Playing for the Indians at that time was Jim Thorpe , a runner of unusual speed. The stadium at Wrigley Field was drenched in rain that day when Halas and Bears' tackle Hugh Blacklock brought Thorpe to the ground, just as he was on the verge of scoring. As Thorpe hit the soggy field, he lost his grip on the ball. Halas intercepted the fumble at the two-yard line and returned the ball the entire length of the gridiron, scoring a 98-yard touchdown run, with Thorpe in hot pursuit.
In late November 1925, a dubious but shrewd business move by Halas attracted widespread interest for the Bears and for football in general. In the week before Thanksgiving, a young back—known as Harold Red Grange from the University of Illinois—signed to play with the Bears. A public controversy brewed over the legitimacy of signing a recruit while the player was still in college. Regardless, with Grange on the roster the Bears drew their first sellout crowd to Wrigley field. Beginning with a season opener against their hometown rivals, the Chicago Cardinals, the Bears attracted a total of 360,000 spectators in nineteen games that year.
At the end of the season—after settling with Grange and his manager for $250,000—Halas had profited $100,000 for the team. More importantly the strategic use of Grange as a nationwide box-office draw boosted professional football to unanticipated popularity. Grange and his manager abandoned the Bears in 1926 and established a rival football league, called the American Football League (AFL). Grange played that year for an AFL franchise, the New York Yankees. The AFL folded quickly, and the Yankees joined the NFL in 1927. A knee injury that same year put Grange on the bench for much of 1927 and for the entire 1928 season. Without Grange on the field, the New York team went out of business, and Grange returned to play with the Bears in 1929.
George Halas that year retired as a player and abandoned coaching for other business interests including a laundry, two retail establishments, and part ownership in a professional basketball team called the Chicago Bruins. His interest in football remained keen.
With support from Halas, the NFL saw dynamic changes in the 1930s. In 1932 he assumed the chairmanship of the league's rules committee and has been credited with a number of policy changes that contributed to make the game more exciting. To minimize ties and scoreless games he sponsored a rule to allow forward passing from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. Before this rule, yardage gains were usually small because players had to be five yards behind the line of scrimmage in order to throw a legal forward pass, making it easier to run the ball than to pass. To encourage field goal scores, Halas repositioned the goal posts to sit on the goal line instead of ten yards back in the end zone. Also at his urging, the college draft system for recruiting players went into place in 1936, breathing new life into professional football. Later in the decade he embraced a new practice of spotting plays from the bleachers. Critics regard these innovations as Halas's legacy to professional football.
The first NFL championship playoff game was called in 1932, to break a tie between Chicago and the Portsmouth, Ohio, Spartans for the league championship. The Bears won by a score of 9-0, and the game inspired NFL executives with a scheme to extend future NFL seasons by splitting the league into two regional divisions: Eastern and Western. Division champions would then meet in a playoff for the league championship. When Halas returned to coach the Bears in 1933, the team posted a season record of 10-2-1, securing the first-ever Western Division championship. The Bears went on to conquer the Eastern Division champions, the Giants, in the first annual NFL championship game. Attendance at Bears games swelled to 280,000 for the season.
Related Biography: Coach Bob Zuppke
Bob Zuppke, head coach of the University of Illinois's Fighting Illini from 1913-41, brought the team to four National Championships. Born on July 2, 1879, he rejected a career as an artist and chose instead to begin coaching at the high school level in the early 1900s. After winning a Michigan state championship during his first year, he eventually transferred to teach at Oak Park High School in Illinois where he invented a notorious flea-flicker play before stepping up to the college level at Illinois. Zuppke died in 1957.
The Illini won seven Western Conference titles during Zuppke's 29-year reign and won national titles in 1914, 1919, 1923, and 1927. He is credited with many innovations, including the development of the linebacker position, the use of the huddle, and the screen pass. In addition to coaching George Halas, Zuppke's prodigies included the Chicago Bear's star back, Red Grange.
In 1934 Halas spearheaded a move to sponsor an annual college All-Star game between the reigning NFL champions and the strongest college players in the country. For the first All-Star game the spotlight landed on the 1933 NFL Champions, the Bears, to play against the collegiate standouts. To the shock of Halas and his so-called Miracle Bears, the contest ended in a scoreless tie.
The NFL Championship of 1934 was also disappointing for Halas, who went into the playoffs on the surge of an unbroken string of thirty-three games without a loss. The game was played at the New York Polo Grounds, where the field that day was a sheet of ice, so frozen that the Giants abandoned their cleats for sneakers during halftime. With Halas watching helplessly from the sidelines, the Bears suffered a 13-0 loss to the Giants. The unusual shoe-switching strategy had provided the New York team with a unique advantage in what came to be called the Great Sneaker Game.
In 1935 the Bears went 6-4-2. They finished 9-3 in 1936. In 1937 the Bears secured the Western Division title with a 9-1-1 record but lost the championship to the Redskins by a score of 28-21.
The following year Halas replaced the single wing formation with a man-in-motion T formation devised by coach Ralph Jones in the early 1930s, but the Bears dominated in only six of eleven games for the season. In 1939 Halas signed Columbia University tailback Sid Luckman and repositioned the future Hall of Famer to quarterback. The team finished second that year.
Beginning in 1940, after intensive coaching from Halas, Luckman led the Bears through a decade of glory days. Most memorable among these victories was the championship game in December of 1940, between the Bears and the Washington Redskins. The Bears, after posting eight wins and three losses that year, played the Redskins for the NFL Championship on December 8, 1940. Included among the Bears' three losses during the regular season was a bitterly disputed loss to the Redskins. At the subsequent meeting between the two teams for the championship, the Bears held the Redskins to a paltry three yards rushing, to win the NFL title by a score of 73-0. Remarkably, the Bears had scored eleven touchdowns in one of the classic revenge games of all time.
The Bears won the title in 1941 and again in 1943. In 1942, despite an 11-0 season, the team lost the championship in a 14-6 upset to their nemesis, the Redskins. It was their only loss between mid season 1941 and mid season 1943. During that time Halas brought the Bears to twenty-four consecutive regular season wins.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many of the dominant NFL players joined the military, and the sport of professional football took a back seat to United States involvement in World War II. In mid 1942 Halas re-enlisted in the Navy as a lieutenant commander. He served in the South Pacific and was promoted to full commander; he returned on Thanksgiving Day 1945. The team failed to make the playoffs during his absence.
From 1946-49 professional football took a new turn, which marred the joys of homecoming for Halas. A new professional league in direct competition with the NFL cropped up, called the All-American Football Conference (AAFC). In addition to the league, a third professional team, called the Rockets, sprang up in Chicago. With Halas's encouragement, the NFL franchises refused to recognize the new league in the hope of bringing about its demise. The strategy proved successful, and by the end of that decade the AAFC was a thing of the past.
Increased competition for good players during the AAFC years caused player salaries to nearly double. Despite the hardship, Halas continued to rely on Luckman at quarterback and held on to other players good enough to take the NFL Championship in 1946. In 1947, after taking a 30-21 trouncing from the Cardinals in the final game of the regular season, the Bears emerged second in the Western Division with a record of 8-4. Four successive second place finishes followed from 1948-51. Luckman retired in 1950, and his replacement, John Lujack, retired in 1951 after an injury to his arm.
Halas suffered two more demoralizing losing seasons: in 1952 and again in 1953. He regrouped and recorded back-to-back seasons of 8-4, from 1954-55. At the end of the 1955 season, Halas retired for a second time, naming his long-time aide, Paddy Driscoll, as a successor. The Bears won the Western Division title in 1956, followed by a dismally deficient season in 1957. The downturn prompted Halas—at age 63—to remove Driscoll and resume the reins as coach in 1958.
Halas tried for five years to resurrect the glory that was the Chicago Bears of earlier decades, but the team was 8-4 for the next two years, in 1958-59. According to some critics, Halas's failing was his refusal to update from the T formation of the early years to the finesse of the modern slot offense that ruled the postwar NFL. A mediocre showing early in the 1960 season was fueled by a mid season upset loss to the Baltimore Colts; the Bears ended that year at 5-6-1. Despite the acquisition of veteran Rams quarterback Bill Wade after the 1960 season, the Bears were 8-6 the next year and slightly better at 9-5 in 1962.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1919||Named Most Valuable Player, Rose Bowl|
|1921||Wins American Professional Football Association Championship|
|1933||Wins the first National Football League title game|
|1940-41, 1943, 1946||National Football League Championship|
|1963||Named National Football League Coach of the Year; inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame, charter member; National Football League Championship|
|1965||Named National Football League Coach of the Year|
|1997||Stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service to honor Halas Halas retired in 1963 with a career coaching record of 324 wins.|
By 1963 Halas had manned an updated offense, with Mike Ditka at tight end and John Farrington at wide receiver.
Halas further assumed responsibility for coaching the defense and successfully brought the Bears to reign as the NFL Western Division champions. The 1963 NFL championship game, held at Wrigley field on December 29, pitted the Bears and Wade against the New York Giants with quarterback Y. A. Tittle. When the shouting stopped, Halas and the Bears had taken their first NFL Championship since 1946. Halas bowed out of his coaching responsibilities officially in 1968, although, as owner of the team, he never left the sidelines nor ceased to keep a tight grip on the workings of the team.
Halas, who married Minnie Bushing on February 18, 1922, during the infancy of the NFL, was left widowed after forty-four years of marriage with the death of Bushing on February 14, 1966. The couple had two children, George S. Halas Jr., and Virginia Marion McCaskey, both of whom became involved with the league in adulthood.
Halas died in Chicago on October 31, 1983. His remains lie at St. Adalbert's Cemetery in Niles, Illinois. In tribute to Halas, the Pro Football Hall of Fame is situated on George Halas Drive W. in Canton, Ohio. The National Football Conference championship trophy is named for Halas. In 1999 the Sporting News listed Halas among the "The Most Powerful People In Sports For The 20th Century." To the team that he nurtured for sixty-three years, Halas is remembered affectionately as "Papa Bear."
Sullivan, George. Pro Football's All-time Greats. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1968.
Vass, George. George Halas and the Chicago Bears. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1971.
Gietschier, Steve. "The Most Powerful People In Sports For The 20th Century." Sporting News (December 20, 1999).
"George S. 'Papa Bear' Halas Sr." http://www.geocities.com/dibears201.geo/halas.html (September 17, 2002).
"No. 26—Bob Zuppke," The Pigskin Post. http://www.pigskinpost.com/no_26_-_bob_zuppke.htm (October 2, 2002).
Sketch by Gloria Cooksey