Not every football fan remembers the name Wilfred C. Bleamaster and yet, in a way, he made as significant a contribution to football as the inventors of the forward pass, the sucker shift and the single wing. But the football fans at little Alma College in mid-Michigan remember Bleamaster even today, for he was the coach who for two years running arranged to have his teams open the season against Notre Dame and play Michigan State on the following Saturday. He was the man, you might almost say, who invented suicide.
To be sure, neither the Spartans nor the Irish were the powers in 1914 and 1915 that they are today. But Bleamaster wasn't coaching at Yale either. Even today the enrollment at Alma just tops a thousand. In 1914 it was 144—64 of them males and fewer than 20 of them football players.
And it wasn't that Bleamaster didn't know any better. He had taken on Michigan State and the Irish at midseason in 1913 and was walloped 57-0 by State and 62-0 by the South Benders.
As the Alma College student newspaper put it back in September of' 14, "The team faces one of the hardest schedules ever arranged. Notre Dame and MAC [Michigan State was then Michigan Agricultural College], the two contenders for the western title last year, meet the Presbyterians on succeeding Saturdays." Then, spotting the silver lining, the writer added, "But with these two games out of the way, there will follow more desirable games."
A week later, still looking on the bright side after a grisly whipping from the Irish, the paper reported that "the score of last year was reduced by six points and the coach is satisfied that the men played a far better game than was played in 1913."
It helped somewhat, of course, that in 1914 Knute Rockne was on the sidelines rather than at right end pulling in the passes of Gus Dorais, as he had been the year before. Dorais had graduated, too, so both barrels of this new weapon that had shot down Army, confounding the football world in the 1913 game that saw the forward pass come of age, were out of the lineup.
But, even without Dorais and the Rock, Notre Dame was able to muster a certain talent. A writer for the Alma College paper noted that "the Notre Dame players indulged in tactics that the Marquess of Queensberry's rules frown on. However, they were most hospitable off the field of play, and showed the Alma men a good time."
Dr. Verne Richards, now a retired Birmingham, Mich. dentist, doesn't remember much about the good times. He's still a little burned up about the officiating in the 1914 game. He'd arrived on the Alma campus just two days before the Scots left for South Bend. He started at end for Alma, and on the second play of the game, though "surrounded by three big brutes from Notre Dame," he caught a pass and took off for what should have been a sure touchdown. But, Richards contends, one of the "Irish officials" blew his whistle to halt the play. During the rhubarb that ensued the official pointed out that he didn't think the 150-pound Alma end would have been able to survive if the three defenders had pounced on him. Final score 56-0.
A week later Bleamaster's Alma men journeyed to East Lansing, in time to give one State fullback a chance to score five touchdowns against them as they lost 60-0. There was no chance for the student newsman to boast about improvement in comparison with the 1913 result this time. The 1914 tally was three points worse than the year before.
The second year that the Alma gridders were involved in their early-autumn insanity wasn't quite as bad as the first. At least in 1915 the Scots posted their best record against Notre Dame, losing only 32-0; and a week later in the second game of the season they scored 12 points against State—but lost 76-12.
Chester Robinson, Alma left half in 1915, says that it didn't take Quarterback Malcolm Smith long to discover that the Scots' regular plays weren't moving the ball anyplace in the opener against Notre Dame. According to Robinson, Smith decided to scrap Bleamaster's plan of attack and run everything from punt formation. This fooled the Irish, Robinson claims, permitting Alma to pick up some good gains.
"Once," boasted the student paper in 1915, "Alma seriously threatened the Notre Dame goal," and "more than once Alma held the heavy Notre Dame aggregation for downs."
A week later the Scots ran up against the Spartans and Neno DePrato, 1915 All-America and national individual scoring leader. Early in the game DePrato punted for State. Ed Johnson pulled in the ball on the Alma 10-yard line and zipped to midfield, where he was hit hard by Brownie Springer. The ball flipped out of Johnson's hands right into the arms of surprised Norm Smith, who galloped to the goal.
Alma scored again on a pass from Malcolm Smith to Mark Spinney and trailed 19-12 at the end of the first quarter. DePrato contributed two touchdowns and a field goal that day to his 188-point six-game season total.
Two years of opening against Notre Dame and Michigan State were enough for Coach Bleamaster. He left to take a coaching position at the University of Idaho in 1916, and Harry Helmer became the Scots' coach. He, too, found himself up against both the Irish and State, but at least not on the first two Saturdays of the season.
Against the Spartans early in the 1916 campaign Alma lost 33-0, and at the end of the season the Scots faced Notre Dame for the last time, taking a 46-0 beating. But in 1917, with Notre Dame off the schedule, Helmer and his boys got a taste of victory that made up for all the bitter crow they had eaten before. In their best season since 1912 they piled up a record of six wins and only one loss, and one of the wins was over Michigan State 14-7.
According to John Lott, a Tecumseh, Mich. toolroom foreman who was Alma's right tackle in 1917, Helmer ordered steak for his team after this triumph, the first over State since 1902—the first and the last. Unfortunately, the Spartans won the next eight times, until the series ended in 1932, when the Scots took a 93-0 beating.
Alma College still tackles a gridiron giant occasionally, although none quite of the stature of Notre Dame or Michigan State.