Tacoma historian and alumnus Bill Baarsma ’64, P’93, Hon’23 shares the story of the University of Puget Sound's 1903 football team—and how they may have saved the university.

After Puget Sound University was dissolved for financial reasons in 1902, a new Tacoma institution, the University of Puget Sound, was reincorporated in 1903 on a campus at 6th and Sprague. Faced with competition from Whitworth College, then in the city's North End, and Pacific Lutheran Academy in Parkland, Puget Sound President Edwin M. Randall Jr. realized that the school of 300 students needed to establish its viability through a major public relations splash in the community. That splash was accomplished through coverage in the pages of The Tacoma Daily Ledger of the remarkable and historic success of its undefeated football team.

Big Doings in Tacoma

It can be surely said that 1903 was a big year for Tacoma. On May 22, President Theodore Roosevelt came to town during a tour of the Northwest to be welcomed by an estimated 30,000 people in Wright Park. On an elevated platform, he received a bouquet of flowers from excited school children, gave a typical, rousing TR speech, planted a tree (it still stands), and later helped lay the cornerstone of new Masonic Temple (which has been torn down). He then traveled by carriage to the grand Tacoma Hotel (which mysteriously burned down in 1935), where he viewed the world’s tallest replica totem pole, which had been hastily erected next to the hotel the day before his 21-gun salute arrival by train. Roosevelt removed his top hat, pointed to the pole, and smiled a toothy grin as he passed by (the pole has since been taken down). Next came a lavish hotel banquet attended by Tacoma’s most notable citizens.

The year also saw the continuation of a heated dispute between Seattle and Tacoma over the rightful name of the mountain. To Seattle, it would remain Rainier, named after the British Admiral Peter Rainier, who fought against the Americans in the Revolutionary War. To those living in Tacoma, the name rightfully belonged to the Native Americans who referred to the peak as Takhoma. Locals were delighted when Roosevelt called the mountain Tacoma and never “pussyfooted about it.”

In December, the E. W. Scripps-funded The Tacoma Times published its first edition. The Times, which lasted until 1949, was a tabloid-style daily featuring stories about crimes, scandals, and news oddities, and posted large front-page political cartoons. In the first edition, headlines included “Panic on Steamer When She Struck,” “Not Guilty Of Course,” “Alderman Sentenced,” “Undertakers Make Overtures,” and “Trouble.” But there was another big story that captured the fancy of the locals: The University of Puget Sound’s undefeated football team, which claimed to be the Northwest Collegiate Football Champion. The timing of the team’s success couldn’t have been more important to the newly reconstituted University of Puget Sound.