Hugo Francis Bezdek (1884–1952)

As head coach of the football team at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), Hugo Bezdek changed the path of UA athletics. He served in that role from 1908 to 1912 before leaving Arkansas to go on to other coaching positions. Bezdek was later inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. In Arkansas, he is best known for inspiring the “Razorbacks” name of the UA team.

Hugo Francis Bezdek was born to Valcav (later James) Bezdek and Frances Hauner Bezdek on April 1, 1884, near Prague in the present-day Czech Republic. His extended family included teachers and athletes. The Bezdek family immigrated to America in 1891 when Hugo was six years old, settling in Chicago, Illinois. Bezdek enjoyed sports of all kinds, especially football, but his high school did not have a football team. Instead, at age sixteen in 1900, he joined a community athletic group. There, he played football and was also considered to be an assistant coach.

Entering the University of Chicago in 1902, Bezdek played as a fullback for the legendary football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. Bezdek earned recognition as an All-American at Chicago in 1905, helping to lead the team to the national championship that year. The following year, in 1906, he took a coaching job at the University of Oregon.

Bezdek arrived at Fayetteville in 1908 after accepting the position of head football coach for UA. Previously, UA athletic teams were generally coached by faculty members or administrators such as John C. Futrall, who taught Latin and went on to become president of the university.

On Saturday, November 13, 1909, UA played Louisiana State University (LSU), winning the late-season game over LSU by a score of 16–0. After hearing the news of the team’s victory via Western Union telegraph in Fayetteville, a crowd of enthusiastic fans and students awaited the team’s arrival at the town’s railway depot. According to newspaper accounts of the day, when their rail car pulled into the station at Fayetteville, Coach Bezdek jumped down from the train, proclaiming that the Arkansas team had played “like a wild band of Razorback hogs!” UA students voted to change the school’s mascot from Cardinals to Razorbacks starting the following school term. Since 1910, UA athletic teams have played as the Razorbacks, including UA women’s sports teams, who dropped the usage of “Lady Razorback” and “Lady Back” nicknames in 2008.

In 2009, the UA Athletic Department held an event to re-enact that famous day in 1909. Dignitaries including former athletic director Frank Broyles were in attendance. Portraying Bezdek, a local actor emerged from a special rail car that arrived at the Dickson Street depot in front of several hundred fans. With a re-creation of the “wild band of Razorback hogs” speech, the event kicked off “100 Years of the Razorback,” a year-long celebration of all UA athletic teams that play under the Razorback name. A plaque was placed in recognition of 100 years of the Razorbacks across Dickson Street from the former Frisco Railroad Passenger Depot, near the street address of 551 West Dickson Street.

Bezdek also coached baseball at UA from 1909 to 1913. He left UA to coach football at the University of Oregon from 1913 to 1917, followed by coaching jobs at Pennsylvania State University (1918–1929) and Delaware Valley College (1949). In addition, he coached the Mare Island Marines football team, which represented the U.S. Marine Corps stationed at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California, leading them to the 1918 Rose Bowl game. Bezdek remains the only coach to bring three different teams to the Rose Bowl: the University of Oregon (1917), Mare Island (1918), and Pennsylvania State University (1923).

Bezdek’s career record as college football coach was 127–58–16. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach in 1954 and was named to the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 2022.

Bezdek’s career in athletics was one of the most eclectic in sports history. He was coach for the Penn State football from 1918 to 1929, and also their interim basketball coach in 1919 before serving as the school’s athletic director from 1930 to 1936. Bezdek coached basketball at Oregon from 1906 to 1907, and again from 1913 to 1917. In professional sports, he served as manager for Major League Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates (1917–1919) and the National Football League’s Cleveland Rams (1937–1938). He was also the only person in sports history to be manager of a major league baseball team and head coach of an NFL franchise.

Hugo Bezdek and his wife Victoria Elizabeth Benson Bezdek had two children: Hugo Frank Bezdek and Frances Elizabeth Bezdek. Bezdek died in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on September 19, 1952. He and Victoria, who died in 1980, are buried at Whitemarsh Memorial Park in Ambler, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia.

For additional information:
Bailey, Jim, and Orville Henry. The Razorbacks: A Story of Arkansas Football. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1996.

Cook, Marty. “UA Honors Mascot with Marker.” Whole Hog Sports, July 22, 2009. https://www.wholehogsports.com/news/2009/jul/22/ua-honors-mascot-marker-20090722/  (accessed April 30, 2024).

“Hugo Bezdek.” National Football Foundation Hall of Fame. https://footballfoundation.org/hof_search.aspx?hof=1426 (accessed April 30, 2024).

“Hugo Bezdek.” Sports History Network. https://sportshistorynetwork.com/football/nfl/hugo-bezdek/ (accessed April 30, 2024).

“Hugo Bezdek and the 1909 Razorbacks.” Arkansas Razorbacks. https://arkansasrazorbacks.com/hugo_bezdek_and_the_1909_razorbacks_204785125/ (accessed April 30, 2024).

Schaeffer, Rick. University of Arkansas Football Vault: The History of the Razorbacks. Atlanta, GA: Whitman Publishing, 2008.

Schroeder, George. Hogs! The Story of Razorbacks Football. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Nancy Hendricks
Garland County Historical Society

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