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The Best Big Ten Basketball Coaches of the 1920s Decade

A decade of basketball coaches best known for other sports

A.A. Stagg and the Chicago Football Team Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Apparently I didn’t hit post on this last Thursday. So, you get it this week instead.

Continuing the series about coaches from your great-grandparents’ childhood, we move into the 1920s decade today. The roaring 20s marked a reverse of the national success the Big Ten had the previous decade and marked the first decade that the Big Ten would not win a national championship. Luckily this drought would end early in the 1930s and Big Ten fans of yesteryear didn’t suffer through as long of a drought as we have today. Perhaps because of the lack of national success and perhaps because the top two coaches of the decade had extremely similar accomplishments, I struggled to pick a winner of the Big Ten coach of the decade for the first time.

Previous top B1G coaches Louis Cooke and Ralph Jones finished off their Big Ten careers in 1924 and 1920 respectively. Dutch Lonberg would begin his career at Northwestern in 1928 and go on to be their most successful coach ever. Harold Olsen also began his long Big Ten coaching career at Ohio State in 1922, but his accomplishments this decade would pale in comparison to his contributions to the sport in the 30s and 40s.

Outside of the Big Ten or national spotlight, but inside our current Big Ten family, Benjamin Van Alstyne began his 23 year reign of okay coaching at Michigan State with the 1926-27 season. Frank Hill was in the middle of his 27 years of mediocrity at Rutgers. Nebraska was a consistent middle of the pack Missouri Valley squad throughout the decade. Maryland would finally begin to consistently field a team starting with the 1923-24 season and coach Burton Shipley would helm the rudder of the Terrapins in the Southern Conference until 1947. His 1920s decade included a 21st place finish in the Southern Conference for the 1928-29 season with a 2-6 conference record. You would think a 21st place finish in conference play should probably put him on the embarrassment of the decade list except he still finished in front of two conference peers that season.

Embarrassment(s) of the decade:

Ray Elder (Northwestern Wildcats)

1920-21 season. Record during decade: 2-12 (1-11 in conference play)

A dangerous wild cat
Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images

Ray coached Northwestern for a single season finishing dead last in the Big Ten. Nothing else is known about him.

Harold Taylor (Minnesota Golden Gophers)

1924-27 seasons. Record during decade: 19-30 (12-24 in conference play)

Chernobyl: General Imagery Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Harold took over for the legendary Louis Cooke and promptly tanked the Minnesota program. Although his first two seasons were of .500 quality, by his third and final season Taylor had Minnesota tied for last place in the Big Ten with a 1-11 conference record.

Honorable mention(s):

Amos Alonzo Stagg (Chicago Maroons)

1920-1921 season. 14-6 record (6-6 record in conference play)

Football Coach Alonzo Stagg
Finally, a picture of a coach I can use
Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Okay, so Stagg wasn’t an all-time great basketball coach. Arguably guys like Craig Ruby (Illinois), Harold Olsen (Ohio State), George Veenker (Michigan), or Nelson Norgren (Chicago) should be on the honorable mention list before him since they all won 1 conference title in the 1920s. But a) I’m making up the rules as I go, b) I want to touch on Stagg’s contribution to the Big Ten and college basketball one more time, and c) Stagg’s single season with a 14-6 record is a better overall winning percentage than any of those guys had.

Stagg, as you may recall from earlier editions of this series, was an instructor at the Springfield YMCA when Naismith invented the game and played in the first public basketball game. While athletic director (and football, baseball, and track coach) at Chicago, Stagg would help popularize the 5 on 5 basketball game over the 8 on 8 variety that had been played previously. As a result of his influence Chicago would play Iowa in the first 5 on 5 college game in 1896.

Stagg is most famous in Big Ten circles for coaching football at Chicago from 1892-1932 during which time he helped develop things like the huddle, the forward pass, the lateral pass, and the Statue of Liberty play. He was also the athletic director for the entirety of this period and coached baseball and track for 20 and 22 years respectively. His single season of coaching basketball is a footnote on the rest of his athletic contributions, but his involvement in the development of the game at Springfield and later into the 5x5 version gets him included as an honorable mention here.

Dutch Hermann (Penn State Nittany Lions)

Coached at Penn State 1915-1917 and 1919-32. Record during decade: 114-38 (independent).

NCAA Basketball: Wagner at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Dutch had played for Penn State during the early part of the 1910s and is sometimes credited as their first official coach for his role during the 1915-17 seasons. Like many basketball coaches of the era, Hermann would take a year off of coaching to go fight in WWI. When he returned to the states he once again took up the Penn State basketball coaching job. During the first half of the decade, Dutch would 61-11. Although his winning percentage would start to tail off somewhat in the latter half of the decade and the competition as an independent basketball program is somewhat suspect, his overall record at Penn State of 148-73 is the best winning percentage of any Penn State coach who coached for more than 2 seasons.

The Top Whatever of the Decade - this decade it is 5:

No. 5 Sam Barry (Iowa Hawkeyes)

Coached at Iowa 1922-29. Record: 62-54 (43-39 in Big Ten). 2 Big Ten titles (1923 and 1926 - both shared).

Basketball Player Towers over Babe Didrikson
This showed up in my image search for Iowa basketball. I have no particular reason why I chose it.

There is a reason Iowa had previously not appeared in this series of articles. They weren’t any good. Sam Barry would change all of that. Under Barry, Iowa would go from a backwards, illiterate state to a backwards, illiterate state with two Big Ten basketball titles. Barry would win the Big Ten title in his first season leading the Hawkeyes. His two Big Ten titles are still tied for the most in Iowa’s history and that looks unlikely to change anytime soon since Iowa hasn’t won a conference regular season title since 1979.

Following the conclusion of the 1928-29 season, Barry fled the state of Iowa for the greener pastures of Southern California where he would remain their head coach until his death in 1950. In the season after his departure, Iowa was banned from participating in Big Ten basketball due to violations of league rules - I believe the league was punishing them for claiming that yellow was gold.

At USC, Barry would win the Pacific Coast Conference 4 times, make the second Final Four ever, and be awarded the 1940 Helms Foundation National Championship. It should be noted that this “championship” probably should not be considered legitimate as USC won neither the NIT nor the NCAA tournament that year and both tournaments existed at that time. Barry is one of 13 coaches to have 4+ 1st team All-Americans (all at USC), has the longest winning streak by a coach against a single opponent (40 straight against UCLA), and is one of only 3 coaches to make a Final Four and a college baseball World Series. He is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

No. 4 Everett Dean (Indiana Hoosiers)

Coached at Indiana from 1924-38. Record during the decade: 59-26 (39-21 in Big Ten). 2 B1G titles (1926 and 1928 - both shared)

Rosenblatt Stadium Omaha Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Everett had played basketball at Indiana from 1918-21 and was named to the 1921 Helms Foundation All-America team making him the first basketball All-American at Indiana. After coaching basketball for three seasons at Carleton College in Minnesota, he returned to his alma mater for the head job where he would win the first 3 Big Ten championships of Indiana’s 22 (the third one was also under his leadership in 1936). He even won his first game against rival Purdue, although he would go just 4-16 against the Boilermakers.

As head coach of the Hoosiers, Dean would go 162-93 overall and 96-72 in Big Ten play. He would also coach the Hoosiers baseball team during this time frame. Following the 1938 spring semester, Dean was named the head basketball coach at Stanford. He would coach Stanford’s basketball team until 1951 and win the NCAA Championship in 1942. In 1950 he was given the head baseball coach job at Stanford which he would hold for six seasons. Under his leadership, Stanford would win the 1953 College World Series. Dean is one of only 3 coaches to make a Final Four and a college baseball World Series (hey! I already wrote about this achievement for someone else in this article) and is the only coach in both the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and College Baseball Hall of Fame.

No. 3: E.J. Mather (Michigan Wolverines)

Coached from 1919-1928*. Record: 108-53 (64-43 in conference play), 3 conference titles (1921 and 1926 shared, 1927 outright)

Basketball Game in Action
While this photo isn’t from the Mather era, it’s still a black and white photo of Michigan basketball.

E.J. Mather had graduated from Lake Forest College in 1910 where he played football and basketball. He was hired in the fall of 1919 to coach the Wolverines basketball team. Under Mather, Michigan would have their first two All-Americans (Richard Doyle in 1926 and Bennie Oosterbaan in 1927) and win their first three Big Ten championships. Mather’s 3 Big Ten titles is tied with Dave Strack for the most of any Michigan basketball coach.

Sadly, Mather had surgery for cancer following the 1927 season. While he remained the coach for the 1927-28 team in title, he would have to step away from in-game coaching following the advice of doctors. Fielding Yost would have to take over the role of coach but Mather continued to visit the team during practices. Mather would pass away from cancer in August of 1928 at the age of 41.

*Although Yost was the actual coach for the 1927-28 season, most sources list Mather as the official coach for the season and the records for that season are given to him, not Yost.

No. 2: Walter “Doc” Meanwell (Wisconsin Badgers)

Coached the Badgers for the 1911-1917 seasons, returned to Wisconsin for the 1920-34 seasons. Record at Wisconsin during the decade: 102-50 (68-40 in conference play), 4 conference titles (1921, 1923, 1924, 1929 - all shared).

John Doyle Of The University Of Wisconsin
John Doyle was the co-captain of Wisconsin’s 1928-29 team
Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Doc Meanwell returned to Wisconsin for the 1920-21 season following his previous success their in the 1910s as well as a couple of stops at Missouri and over in France for WWI. While he wouldn’t quite reach the heights of his previous Wisconsin years he continued to have success and win conference championships pretty regularly during the 1920s.

Although Doc would coach at Wisconsin thru the 1934 season, 1929 marked his last Big Ten title. All told, Meanwell won three national titles, 8 Big Ten conference titles, and 2 Missouri Valley titles (at Missouri) in 22 years coaching. His teams were known for a tight zone defense, short passing, and crisscross dribbles and his overall record at Wisconsin was 246-99 (158-80 in Big Ten). Meanwell ranks 18th in wins by a Big Ten coach and 20th in winning percentage (6th among coaches with 5+ seasons). His three national championships is tied for the most by a Big Ten coach and his 8 Big Ten titles ranks 4th.

Two consensus All-Americans played under Meanwell: George Levis in 1916 and Harold “Bud” Foster (remember this name for later articles) in 1930. He had 9 other Helms Athletic All-Americans in the 1910s at Wisconsin including future Ohio State coach Harold Olsen. Doc also served as the athletic director for the Badgers from 1933-1935. He retired from coaching in 1934 and practiced medicine in Madison until his death in 1953. He is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

No. 1: Ward “Piggy” Lambert (Purdue Boilermakers)

Coached from 1916-17 and 1918-46. Record during decade: 127-45 (80-34 in Big Ten), 4 Big Ten championships (1921, 1926, and 1928 shared, 1922 outright).

Purdue University Terry Dischinger
Dischinger didn’t play under Lambert, but he did play in Lambert Fieldhouse
Set Number: X7135 TK1 C7 F17

Born in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, Lambert would play basketball under Ralph Jones at both Crawfordsville HS and Wabash College. He was given the nickname “Piggy” for hogging the ball following his sophomore year at Wabash when he led the team in scoring. Lambert started his coaching career at Lebanon HS before taking the Purdue job in the fall of 1917. Like many other coaches during this time period, he served in WW1, and retook his job after the war.

Although Doc Meanwell arguably had the better career overall, Lambert’s better record during this decade and lack of any losing seasons in the 1920s won him the #1 spot as the two coaches were otherwise equally accomplished for the decade.

During the 1920s, Lambert coached one consensus All-American (Charles “Stretch” Murphy in 1929) and had 4 other Helms All Americans. In this decade Lambert also served as Purdue’s baseball coach and the former Purdue baseball stadium (demolished in 2012) was named after him. A full summary of Piggy’s accomplishments will have to wait until next week however since his greatest accomplishments at Purdue would occur during the 1930s.

Disagree with my order? Have a request for next week’s article? Let us know in the comments.



Best coaching name of the decade?

This poll is closed

  • 20%
    Doc Meanwell (Wisconsin)
    (15 votes)
  • 56%
    Piggy Lambert (Purdue)
    (42 votes)
  • 10%
    Amos Alonzo Stagg (Chicago)
    (8 votes)
  • 1%
    Nelson Norgren (Chicago)
    (1 vote)
  • 10%
    Dutch Lonborg (Northwestern)
    (8 votes)
  • 1%
    OTHER - I won’t tell you in the comments, because I’m a coward
    (1 vote)
75 votes total Vote Now


Best coach of the decade?

This poll is closed

  • 50%
    Piggy Lambert (Purdue)
    (29 votes)
  • 36%
    Doc Meanwell (Wisconsin)
    (21 votes)
  • 0%
    E.J. Mather (Michigan)
    (0 votes)
  • 5%
    Everett Dean (Indiana)
    (3 votes)
  • 7%
    I’m an Iowa fan and want to vote for Sam Barry
    (4 votes)
  • 0%
    OTHER - Tell us in the comments
    (0 votes)
57 votes total Vote Now