Players Of 1920s, Big Ten Basketball And Something To Prove
By: Kenny Thompson
The dedication game of Ross-Ade Stadium on Nov. 22, 1924 was like a national holiday for those living anywhere close to the Purdue University campus.
More than 125 businesses and services – from car dealerships to grocery stores, banks to department stores – were closed between 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. according to the Journal and Courier, which must have made a small fortune from all the advertisers asking customers to visit before and after the football game against Indiana.
Purdue’s 26-7 victory against Indiana was “a glorious success” according to the Journal and Courier. Caught up in the spirit of the occasion, sports editor T.A. Day declared “the Boilermakers could have trounced any Big Ten team on Saturday and that they could have given Knute K. Rockne’s ‘Four Horsemen’ a great battle.”
The team James Phelan fielded five years later would have lived up to that hyperbole.
There were three memorable games played at Ross-Ade Stadium in the 1920s: the dedication victory against Indiana and a pair of victories against Michigan and Iowa in 1929 that led to the only undisputed Big Ten Conference championship in Purdue football history.
Up until 1929, Purdue’s other Big Ten title was a three-way share in 1918.
The Boilermakers left little doubt who was the Big Ten’s king in 1929, giving up 16 points to conference rivals while going 5-0 in league play and 8-0 overall.
According to Tom Schott’s “Purdue University Football Vault,” the 1929 Boilermakers were led by three senior standouts – quarterback Glen Harmeson, tackle Elmer Sleight and halfback Ralph “Pest” Welch. Talented sophomores Charles Miller at center and Alex Yunevich at fullback added to the expectations.
Michigan led 16-6 after three quarters on Oct. 12, but Yunevich ran for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to lead a 30-16 comeback victory before 25,000 fans. Yunevich rushed for 127 yards on 21 carries in his first Big Ten game. Harmeson, forced to shift to halfback, picked up 126 on the ground.
Purdue was 6-0 when Iowa traveled to West Lafayette for Homecoming on Nov. 16. The Exponent student newspaper merely called it “the most crucial game ever played by a Boilermaker football team.”
Harmeson’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Bill Woerner was the game’s only score before the largest crowd in Ross-Ade history, 26,000 fans. The 7-0 victory wrapped up the championship. The following week’s 32-0 win at Indiana was anticlimactic.
“It’s been a long, hard climb, but after more than thirty years of waiting, a Purdue football team is finally perched on the Big Ten gridiron throne, lording it over nine other inferior elevens who for weeks have been fighting to attain the same exalted position now held by Jimmy Phelan’’s courageous group of warriors,” wrote Journal and Courier sports editor Gordon Graham.
Top players of 1920s Ross-Ade era
Sleight and Welch were selected the first All-Americans in school history. Miller would be selected an All-American in 1931 before blocking for Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski with the Chicago Bears.
“I don’t think we should have ever lost a game the entire time I was in college,” Miller told me in 2000, still quite sharp mentally at 90 years of age. “Red Sleight, Pest Welch, Glen Harmeson and Alex Yunevich were great players. Man for man we were as good as anybody in the country.”
Miller’s class led Purdue to a 23-3 record from 1929 to 1931. The three losses were by a total of nine points.
Yunevich was posthumously elected to the Purdue Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame earlier this year. Unfortunately for Yunevich, his path to All-Big Ten and All-America honors were blocked by Nagurski’s feats at Minnesota.
Harmeson won nine letters at Purdue, adding a Big Ten title in basketball in 1930 alongside Naismith Hall of Famers John Wooden and Charles “Stretch” Murphy. Harmeson also lettered three times in baseball as a centerfielder.
“Glen was one of the most talented and graceful athletes I ever saw,” Wooden said in 1983 shortly after Harmeson’s death at age 75. “Glen was a big key in our success.”
Harmeson’s football coaching career included a stop at Wabash College from 1946 to 1951.
Big Ten basketball schedule released
Purdue and Indiana will headline Big Ten opening night games Dec. 1. The defending champion Boilermakers travel to Northwestern, while the Hoosiers host Maryland.
The other pre-Christmas league games will include Purdue hosting Iowa on Dec. 4 and Indiana traveling to Michigan on Dec. 5.
Similar to the 2022-23 season, Purdue will have the bulk of its home Big Ten games in February. The Boilermakers get just four home games in the first half of the 20-game league schedule.
Once again, Purdue will travel to Indiana (Jan. 16) before hosting the Hoosiers on Feb. 10.
Michigan State, mentioned along with Purdue as one of the Big Ten favorites, comes to Mackey Arena for its only matchup with the Boilermakers on March 2. Notably, Purdue will have six days to prepare for the Spartans following a Feb. 25 trip to Michigan.
Purdue’s Senior Day is March 10 against Wisconsin. Regrettably, the Big Ten Tournament will be held at the Target Center in Minneapolis from March 13 to 17.
Oddly enough, Michigan State also has to travel to Indiana for the lone game in the rivalry. Dramatically, perhaps, that matchup is set for March 10, the final day of the regular season.
Game times and TV will be announced at a later date.
Something to prove
CBS Sports recently asked a group of college basketball players, promising anonymity, whether Purdue star Zach Edey will repeat as national player of the year.
Since 1958, 12 men have repeated as national player of the year. Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Bill Bradley, Lew Alcindor, Pete Maravich, Bill Walton,
David Thompson, Mark Aguirre, Ralph Sampson, Michael Jordan, Jay Williams and Luke Garza.
Note that Williams and Garza are the only repeat winners in the 21st century. Chalk that up to the millions of dollars awaiting in the NBA in most cases. Kentucky center Oscar Tshiebwe, the 2022 winner, fell victim to the struggles the Wildcats endured last season.
Edey ended up with 63 percent of the vote in the CBS coaches survey, with Michigan transfer Hunter Dickenson of Kansas, Kyle Filipowki of Duke, Armando Bacot of North Carolina, Donovan Clingan of Connecticut and Ryan Kalkbrenner of Creighton receiving multiple votes.
Here’s a sample from Edey supporters.
“Guy puts up video game numbers.”
“Edey is the most dominant force in the college game and the college rules allow him to remain dominant as a true low-post center. There is not a player in America that impacts the college game like he does night in and night out. He forces a double team on offense, is nearly impossible to block out and completely takes away the paint defensively.”
“It’s hard to think of someone else winning [player of the year] over Edey. He’s the most dominant player in college basketball. Last year we played at Purdue, and everything they run goes through him. The underrated reason why I believe he has a chance to repeat is he is playing with great guards in Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer. As freshmen they did a hell of a job playing with Edey. You’d have to imagine with another year of chemistry, Edey may be even more dominant, if that’s possible.”
Now some lazy reasons for choosing someone other than Edey:
“History tells us no, so I’ll say no.”
“Just like Edey last year, somebody not being discussed and off the radar will win it.”
“No, only because it’s very hard to win back-to-back. You have to be that much better than you were the year before.”
CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander casts his vote for Edey.
“The table is set for Edey to repeat.
“The story of Purdue’s push for March redemption will be one of the biggest in college hoops in ’23-24. How Edey handles new defensive tactics tossed his way will be another. He could have gone to the NBA and, in my opinion, would have been drafted. It’s better that he decided to return. In coming back, he’s chasing college basketball immortality. I think he gets there.
“It’s a wonderful thing for men’s college basketball to have someone like Edey opt back in. For him, last season was special. This season could be legendary.
“His potential makes him, and his team, arguably the biggest story heading into the season. And when we get to the end of it, even if Purdue doesn’t win a national championship or get Matt Painter to his first Final Four, I believe Edey will again be holding up his hardware, adding to his crowded trophy case and solidifying his name amongst the all-time legends of the game.”
– Kenny Thompson is the former sports editor for the Lafayette Journal & Courier and an award-winning journalist. He has covered Purdue athletics for many years.
Ralph “Pest” Welch courtesy of Purdue Athletics