The History of Pepperdine Football
1946 Season -- The Beginning
It all started on a small 34-acre campus located in the Vermont Knolls area of Los Angeles, just a few miles south of downtown. Pepperdine College was founded in 1937 under an endowment by George Pepperdine, retired president of the Western Auto Supply Company stores.
In 1946, George Pepperdine College had an enrollment of 1,200 students, 300 of which lived on the Los Angeles campus. World War II had come to an end and many young men who served their country were returning home to the lives they left behind. For many, starting life anew meant enrolling in college.
Al Duer, the Director of Athletics at the time, introduced Warren Gaer as the school's first head football coach. This was Gaer's first position on the college level after coaching 10 different high school football teams. His coaching resume began in Missouri Valley, Iowa, in 1935 and concluded 10 years later in Milwaukie, Wis. Gaer played collegiately at Drake University in 1932-35, captaining the team his senior year.
In September the two assembled 50 men to form Pepperdine College's first intercollegiate football team. The school was already widely known for its success on the track and basketball court.
"We had about 80 men interested in reporting for football when we definitely decided to enter collegiate competition in September," Gaer said, "but we had to limit the squad to 50 because that was all the good uniforms we could buy on short notice."
Most of the men who turned out for the team had no connection with the sport since their high school or junior college days prior to their departure for the war. Mostly freshmen, none of the men had ever played together against college competition. There was no such thing as a returning letterman.
The newly assembled team practiced together to prepare for their inaugural season. The coaching staff had little time to thoroughly evaluate the talent, basing their lineup appointments on limited team practices and play from three or four years prior.
Still, the Pepperdine College Waves took the league by storm.
Their very first game was September 28, 1946 versus Whittier College. It would also be their first win. Dale Drager and Darwin Horn each scored touchdowns for the offense while the Waves' defense held the Poets' offense to just 157 yards in a 13-0 win.
Amazingly, the league newcomers were victorious in seven contests on their schedule. Most impressive was a 21-6 triumph over crosstown rival Loyola University in the first annual "Big Little Game". The only blemish on the season, a one-point loss to Arizona State (Tempe) in the second game, kept the Pep gridders from a perfect season -- an incredible accomplishment considering the circumstances.
Pepperdine was an immediate contender.
With its unprecedented success during the regular season, Warren Gaer and his men were invited to play in the first annual Will Rogers Bowl Classic held on New Years Day in Oklahoma City, Okla.
The momentum continued from a seven-win regular season as George Pepperdine College defeated a previously unbeaten Nebraska Wesleyan squad. The Waves went into halftime down 7-0. They emerged from intermission to score 38 points in the second half of play, allowing just six for the Plainsmen. Five different Pep gridders shared scoring honors as Terry Bell, Darwin Horn, Chuck Calvert, Norm Stillwell and Jack Drager found the end zone.
National Champions of 1947
The George Pepperdine eleven returned to the gridiron after a breakout first season to face a more challenging schedule. The squad consisted of 31 sophomores, 25 of them returning lettermen, and nine newcomers.
Utilizing a devastating single wing attack, the Waves were a force to be reckoned with.
After two impressive early season victories over Arizona State (Flagstaff) and Redlands University, the Pep gridders avenged their one-point loss of the previous season by defeating Arizona State 27-6 in front of 10,250 fans in Tempe.
The fourth game of the '47 season showcased the Pep uniformed band, making its first appearance ever thanks to a $3,000 gift presented to the school by W.S. James.
The Waves really turned it on during a midseason four-game stretch, outscoring their opponents 198-0. Convincing wins over Whittier College (49-0), Cal Poly (47-0), Humboldt State (56-0) and Cal Tech (46-0) set the tone for a special season.
Carrying a 7-0 record into the last game of the season, the Pep gridders were set to face a Loyola University team that had become their fiercest rival. The second annual "Big Little Game" between the two crosstown schools was played at Gilmore Stadium in front of 8,000 fans and broadcast on KLAC television.
The men from Pepperdine College were playing for a perfect season and an invitation to a New Year's Day bowl game. Having outscored their opponents 337-26, the Waves (needing nine points) also could surpass college football powerhouse Michigan as the nation's highest-scoring collegiate team.
Pepperdine was ready. A hard-fought game in hostile territory in front of 8,500 ended with Loyola being shut down and the Pep gridders taking the victory 13-0. Those points brought their season total to 350 points, enough to be crowned the nation's highest-scoring collegiate football team. The highlight of the game was Terry Bell's 72-yard punt return for a touchdown. Darwin Horn scored a touchdown, bringing his season total to 115 points. The punishing fullback tied Chuck Schoenherr of Wheaton (Ill.) College for the national college football scoring title.
The Pepperdine College football team had secured a perfect record and was named the 1947 National Small College Champion in just its second year of existence.
The Waves received a number of postseason bowl invites, including the Salad Bowl in Phoenix, Ariz., but Pepperdine athletic officials "failed to find one which would supply a forward step from the Waves' New Year's Day triumph over Nebraska Wesleyan last year."
Tougher Challenges Ahead
Following two dominating seasons in its first two years on the gridiron, the football squad from Pepperdine College faced an increasingly difficult schedule.
The 1948 season opener opposite BYU was the squad's most formidable challenge in its young existence. The Waves traveled to Provo, Utah, to take on the Cougars in front of 10,000 fans.
It would prove to be too much as BYU ended Pepperdine College's win streak at 16 games, dating back to the 1946 season. Adding insult to injury, the 13-0 defeat also cost Warren Gaer's squad their best player. Big Darwin Horn had to leave the game, having suffered an injured knee.
There was no bouncing back for the Waves. The second game of the season pitted the squad against a much-improved Arizona State (Tempe) team looking for revenge. The Sun Devils completely dismantled the out-of-sync Pepperdine eleven. The team gained just 29 yards on the ground in a 33-7 loss in front of 10,000 delighted Devil fans.
Over the course of the 1948 season the men from George Pepperdine gave it all they had, trying to live up to the great expectations that came with their early success.
It was not meant to be. Additional losses to San Jose State, Fresno State and the University of Portland made it a tough year for players and fans alike.
Putting the losses behind them, the Pepperdine eleven bounced back in the season's final contest, earning a hard-fought 14-13 victory over rival Loyola in the third-annual "Little Big Game".
The 1948 season would be the last for Head Coach Warren Gaer. He made the decision to return to his alma mater of Drake University to take the same post. Ray Richards was named the new head coach following 10 years as an assistant at UCLA. His first move was to make a change to the Wave offense. The T-formation was installed after three seasons in the single-wing attack.
In the coming seasons, the men from Pepperdine College struggled against more experienced football squads.
The colleges on the Pepperdine schedule had much larger enrollment numbers in which to form their teams. Many opponents had their freshmen and junior varsity teams up and running, unlike GPC. These underclassmen were always preparing for the time they would compete on the varsity level.
Just 1,400 students were enrolled at Pepperdine College at this time. This put the Waves at a great disadvantage in many ways. Despite this, the team continued to welcome the stiff competition, joining the California Collegiate Athletic Association in the summer of 1949. New Head Coach Richards said his team was out to show they belong in the "big time."
The 1950 squad battled to a record of 4-5 in its first season as a member of the CCAA. One bright spot in this challenging year was the emergence of Jack Bighead. The tight end had an incredible season, leading the league in receiving. The end of the season would bring about another coaching change for the Waves, the third head coaching change in five seasons.
Robert "Duck" Dowell, who was also the basketball coach, was named head coach prior to the start of the 1951 season. Like clockwork, he moved the T-formation offense back to the single-wing. The team once again struggled against league opponents in what was called a rebuilding year. The next season proved to be much of the same for Coach Dowell and the men of Pepperdine College.
The 1953 season brought with it yet another change in leadership. Duck Dowell was out and Gordon McEachron was in, and a new offense came with him. The Wave offense was moved back to the standard T-formation.
McEachron was the 34th student to enroll at the small school. He re-entered Pepperdine College in 1947 after serving his country in the U.S. Air Force and earned his degree in 1948. Upon graduation, he joined the Pepperdine athletic department staff as trainer. He was associated with the athletic and physical education departments for the duration, leading up to his being named head coach.
The 1953 season looked promising as 21 returning lettermen formed a solid nucleus. Head Coach McEachron predicted the best season since 1947 when the Waves went undefeated on their way to the National Championship.
Despite his early enthusiasm, the Waves managed just three wins. The first came on opening weekend. The team's win over La Verne College was the first victory over a college team in two years, dating all the way back to the 1951 season. The only wins since had been over service teams such as Pt. Mugu and Terminal Island.
Things Pick Up in 1954
But things were looking up for the Wave gridders heading into the 1954 season. Second-year head coach McEachron welcomed an infusion of talent from both the high school and junior college ranks.
An important decision was made in the summer to apply for withdrawal from the California Collegiate Athletic Association. However, the move would not take effect until the following season. The Waves dropped a number of league opponents from the 1954 schedule, playing only three on the newly revised schedule.
The squad was loaded on the defensive side of the ball. During the course of the season, the Pep gridders prevented three opponents from scoring a single point. They allowed an average of only 45 rushing yards per game. By season's end, Pepperdine College would rank fourth in overall defense amongst small colleges nationwide.
It was an impressive season for the Pep gridders as they earned six victories, losing only to UC Santa Barbara and San Diego State. Unfortunately, their decision to withdraw from the CCAA meant they could not compete for the conference championship.
Despite the success of the 1954 season, yet another change was made in leadership. McEachron stepped aside as John Scolinos was promoted from assistant to head coach. Scolinos, a Pepperdine graduate, was also the head coach of the baseball team.
It was an up-and-down couple of years for Coach Scolinos and his Pepperdine football team. The 1955 campaign ended with the team earning a .500 record, winning five, losing five. One memorable bright spot was the 21-0 victory over San Diego State, the first in eight years for the program.
Roelen Emerges at Quarterback
1956 was a season of great success on the gridiron for the men from Pepperdine College. A 6-3 record was highlighted by a 21-9 victory over UC Santa Barbara. The impressive victory was described by one member of the media as "one of the most satisfying and thrilling games ever played by a Pepperdine football team."
An intriguing story began to develop midway through the 1956 season. Reserve quarterback Jay Roelen was called on to take the reins, and he took advantage of the opportunity. The signal-caller led the Pep squad with his inspired play and leadership behind center. He did so despite his stature, as Roelen was so short he could not see over his offensive line. This meant he would have to roll out of the pocket every passing play just so he could see his receivers downfield. He did so with pinpoint precision.
While the 1957 season proved to be a tough one for the football team, it was one of extraordinary accomplishment for its quarterback. When all was said and done, Roelen had passed for 2,392 yards in his career, eclipsing the school's previous passing record set by former gridder Eddie Hyduke.
Program's Final Years End in Decline
The quarterback position became one of uncertainty during the 1958 season. With Roelen now graduated, the Waves auditioned three men behind center. They found their man in Steve Johnson as they prepared for the fifth game. While very impressive in igniting the passing game, Johnson was unable to prevent Pepperdine College from suffering a 1-8 season.
Doubt began to build around the football program upon the conclusion of the 1958 season. Student interest in the team was declining, as was the athletics budget. The 1959 season was believed to be a crucial one for the team. A "trial year" for the program, it was stated.
A season record of 2-5-1 would not help matters.
Scolinos made the decision to step aside as head coach after the season to allow for an entirely new coaching staff. Pence Dacus was chosen to lead the men in a new direction. Just 28 years old, his coaching resume included two seasons at Air Force in 1954-55. Dacus was named head coach of the Pepperdine track and field team as well.
Dacus was not given much to work with as the team geared up for the 1960 season. Only three seniors were on the roster, just eight starters returning. The Pep gridders suffered through a 1-9 season under the first-year coach.
The same results the next season proved to be too much. The Pepperdine Waves, now a team of mostly freshmen, won just a single game in 1961.
December 1961 -- Pepperdine Football Is Dropped
The Pepperdine College Board of Trustees conducted a detailed study on the feasibility of the football program moving forward. They found the heavy cost of continuing to field a competitive team was too great. As a result, the decision was made to discontinue all involvement in the sport.
The decision was not a reflection of the football team's performance or popularity, nor did it serve as any indication of a lack of interest in intercollegiate sports.
It was learned later that the Board of Trustees had tried to "re-emphasize" the sport in late fall of 1959 by attempting to increase its value to the institution through the expenditure of additional funds ... apparently to no avail.
-- Written by Dave Grenley. Many thanks to Jay and Jerry Roelen, who published a four-volume tome about the history of Pepperdine football that gathered newspaper clippings, old programs and photographs, all of which contributed to this story.