How It Was: The first great coach

The pun was based on coach Ewald O. Stiehm’s last name. And apparently Stiehm didn’t appreciate puns, or at least those involving his name – which was pronounced “steam.”

The sports editor of the university student newspaper wrote that the Nebraska football team, for which Stiehm was head coach, “would ‘go’ because there was so much Stiehm behind it.”

According to the 1915 student yearbook, The Cornhusker, “that was a mistake. These things make Ewald angry.” So angry that Stiehm stormed to the student newspaper offices and confronted the sports editor. The yearbook entry said Stiehm “devastated” the sports editor.

Stiehm, whose nickname was “Jumbo,” was an imposing figure, standing 6-foot-4, though the nickname was because of his feet rather than his height. They were large like an elephant’s, which is why referring to him by “Jumbo” could be “dangerous,” too, the student yearbook said.

There is no evidence the sports editor of the student newspaper called him “Jumbo” in this instance.

But after the encounter with Stiehm, the sports editor resigned.

That anecdote notwithstanding, the popular nickname of the teams Stiehm coached at Nebraska was based on such a pun. They were known as the “Stiehm Rollers” (or “Stiehm Roller,” depending on the source), and they were the winningest teams by percentage in Cornhusker history.

SIMPLY THE BEST

Stiehm was Nebraska’s coach from 1911 through 1915, and his record was 35-2-3 (.913). His Huskers won or shared five Missouri Valley Conference championships.

A still-school-record 34-game unbeaten streak began four games into the 1912 season and continued into the first season under Stiehm’s successor, E.J. “Doc” Stewart, in 1916.

Stiehm’s departure was unexpected. More about that shortly. But what he accomplished in five seasons was significant. Omaha World-Herald sports editor Frederick Ware wrote in a history of the first half-century of Nebraska football published in 1940 (in collaboration with Gregg McBride): “Cornhusker football today is fundamentally the football of the Stiehm Roller era.”

Stiehm was Nebraska’s first full-time coach, at an annual salary of $2,000. He was hired in February of 1911, at age 24, after a year as coach and athletic director at Ripon (Wis.) College.

He wasn’t exactly a stranger to the Huskers, having scored 28 points for Wisconsin in a 43-4 basketball victory against Nebraska at Madison, Wis., in 1908, his senior season. He also played football for the Badgers and competed in track and field, as well as playing semi-pro baseball.

MIGHTY MINNESOTA

Stiehm replaced W.C. “King” Cole as Husker head coach. Cole’s record in four seasons was 25-8-3, including a 119-0 victory against Haskell in his final game in 1910. He left because of money and because he had no interest in becoming a full-time coach, as mandated by the Missouri Valley Conference in a rule passed two years before. Plus, not everyone was happy with Cole, despite a 7-1 record in 1910. Of particular concern was a 0-3-1 record against Minnesota under his watch.

Stiehm’s first two teams at Nebraska also lost to Minnesota, the only losses during his tenure. In 1913, however, the Huskers upset Minnesota 7-0 in Lincoln.

Nebraska won by nullifying the “Minnesota shift.” During the 1912 game at Minneapolis, Stiehm had assistant coach Owen Frank take photographs of the shift, which the Huskers then used in preparation for the 1913 game.

Minnesota coach Dr. Henry Williams was so angered by the loss that he refused to schedule the Huskers, who wouldn’t resume playing Minnesota on a regular basis until the 1930s.

Two years later, Notre Dame replaced Minnesota on Nebraska’s schedule, an annual series that continued through 1925, when anti-Catholic sentiment contributed to its cancellation.

During Stiehm’s time, Nebraska Field, which ran east and west and was located about where the south stands of Memorial Stadium are now, included a special section for women so that they wouldn’t be subjected to the off-color language directed at officials and opposing players.

TOUGH GUYS

By all accounts, Stiehm’s players were disciplined and rugged, relatively few in number and for the most part small. “Seldom did injuries take them from the lineup – not even broken bones,” Ware wrote.

They “had to obey without question orders that often were a dictator’s iron commands.”

Nineteen of Stiehm’s victories were by shutout and one of the ties was scoreless. His final team was 8-0 and outscored opponents 282-39. And 19 of those 39 were scored by Notre Dame.

At the end of the 1915 season, Nebraska was considered for the Rose Bowl, but the Athletic Board, fearing an over-emphasis on athletics, dismissed any such interest.

Also by then there was serious talk of building a concrete and steel stadium to replace Nebraska Field and its wooden stands (covered on the north side) to accommodate larger crowds.

Athletic revenue in 1915 was reported to be $35,000, with Stiehm’s salary at $3,500.

Indiana contacted him and offered more, $4,500. Stiehm who had a gentleman’s agreement but not a contract, said he would stay if Nebraska would increase his salary to $4,250.

Lincoln businesses said they would make up the difference, but the university faculty pressured the Athletic Board to decline such financial involvement from outside sources. Plus, the faculty said, a football coach shouldn’t be paid more than full professors, though Stiehm already was.

So Stiehm, who also had coached the Husker basketball team to three conference championships, left for Bloomington, where he coached and served as athletic director.

His record at Indiana was 20-18-1, including 3-4-0 in his final season, 1921.

He “was forced to give up his work as football coach,” The New York Times reported in October of 1922, “and undergo a serious operation in a Rochester, Minn., hospital.”

The operation was for “stomach trouble.”

Less than a year later, Stiehm died. He was 37 years old.

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