The enduring legacy of Bill Jeffrey

A native of Edinburgh who guided his team to victory over England and who’s influence is still felt on the college soccer fields of Pennsylvania.

By Ian Thomson

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

quotation mark
He was enthusiastically demonstrative in his coaching. Student athletes responded to his warm, patient promptings by playing to win every game for him.
quotation mark
The Scot was hailed as a hero in Brazil too as his team’s victory had virtually eliminated one of the host nation’s rivals.

Scotland manager Gordon Strachan will lead his side into battle against England this November with qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup at stake. Not since 1954 have the Auld Enemies clashed in such circumstances and the two nations have never met in the tournament finals. There is however one Scot, like Strachan a native of Edinburgh, who has lived the dream of every Scottish manager – leading his team to victory over England at the World Cup.

Bill Jeffrey, who was raised in the old fishing village of Newhaven north of the capital’s centre, had established the men’s soccer program at Pennsylvania State College as the finest in America, and when the United States Soccer Football Association found itself scrambling for a head coach two weeks before the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, they turned to the 57-year-old Scot. Jeffrey answered the federation’s call to lead a group of unheralded semi-professional players to what is perhaps the most remarkable upset in the tournament’s history.

At the time, the 1-0 triumph over Walter Winterbottom’s Three Lions in Belo Horizonte garnered barely a mention in American newspapers. The rising popularity of soccer in the U.S. has since seen the result pass into folklore for new generations of fans in much the same way that Scotland’s 3-2 win over England at Wembley Stadium in 1967 still fills Caledonian hearts with pride.

Jeffrey’s impact on the game in the United States is immense. Efforts to preserve and celebrate his achievements are strongest in the small town of State College, hidden among the forests and Appalachian Mountains of Central Pennsylvania, where this trailblazing Scottish coach won nine national championships for Penn State during his 27-year tenure.

Gridiron dominates sport in this part of the world. Penn State’s American football program has the kind of aura in its field that the Old Firm has in Scottish football. American universities engender a lifelong pride in their graduates that translates into passionate backing for their sports programs. Penn State can call upon more than 100,000 current and former students to fill their gigantic Beaver Stadium on game days.

A more modest football facility lies across the car park in the shadow of Beaver Stadium’s upper tiers. The 5,000-seat venue was renamed Jeffrey Field in honor of the storied Scottish coach in 1972 while Penn State’s men’s team presents its annual player of the year with the Bill Jeffrey Award.

“Old-timers like myself have great respect for what the people that came before us have done,” says Bob Warming, the team’s current head coach. “I’m a huge fan of the history of Penn State soccer and in particular Bill Jeffrey.”

Jeffrey came to the United States in 1912, partly drawn by employment prospects in Pennsylvania’s booming railroad business and partly pushed by his mother. Jeffrey’s uncle had previously migrated to Altoona, about 100 miles east of Pittsburgh, in search of work. The family connection helped to land Jeffrey a job as a railroad mechanic in the Altoona Shops, which at the time was one of the world’s largest facilities for the construction and repair of locomotives and railroad cars.

Football had been a major pastime of Jeffrey’s in Scotland. He took a few months to settle into his new surroundings before helping to organise a works team that he would represent over the next decade while also enjoying stints for various clubs in the Pittsburgh area. The game’s origins in the U.S. followed a similar path to its early growth in the United Kingdom with esteemed academic institutions initially codifying football before the labourers of heavy industry spread its popularity. Pennsylvania-based Bethlehem Steel became the first notable American club with a cadre of Scottish steelworkers helping them to four of the first seven National Challenge Cup titles in the 1910s. Textile workers in Fall River, Massachusetts and Paterson, New Jersey formed similar company-sponsored teams that also found early success.

Jeffrey became the player-manager of Altoona’s railroad factory team in 1923 and his dazzling outfield play caught the eye of Penn State’s then athletics director Hugo Bezdek during a friendly against the school two years later. Bezdek would soon be looking for a new coach for his unsettled team. He asked Jeffrey to become the program’s sixth manager in seven years with the added incentive of steady work as an assistant instructor in the college’s Industrial Engineering Department during the long offseason. Penn State was rewarded with a legacy that inspires its coaches and student athletes to this day.

College soccer has undergone significant development over the 90 years since Jeffrey took charge of the Nittany Lions, as Penn State’s athletics teams are nicknamed. More than 200 men’s programs stretching from east coast to west coast currently battle for the Division I national championship with hundreds of smaller universities and colleges represented in Division II, Division III and in lower, junior competitions. The women’s game boasts more than 300 Division I programs. Successful teams will play about 25 games between August and December in pursuit of regionalised conference titles and entry to a national knockout tournament that determines the country’s top team. Jeffrey’s nine national titles were largely selected by a committee of the former Intercollegiate Soccer Football Association (ISFA) that governed the sport, with its decisions being based on a much smaller body of work, typically six to eight games.

Jeffrey’s Penn State debut ended in a 3-1 loss to his former Altoona side as he prepared his players for the 1926 college season. They responded with five wins and a draw to earn Jeffrey his first ISFA championship, an honor that was jointly awarded to Harvard and Princeton. He won the school’s first undisputed title three years later with six wins and a draw to finish the season as the only undefeated team, and Jeffrey’s third national crown was awarded in 1933.

That third title was shared with the Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania, the first real powerhouse of the college game. Penn’s head coach Douglas Stewart was another Scot that had migrated to Canada before settling in Philadelphia as a patent lawyer. Stewart’s share of the 1933 championship was his third in succession and his tenth overall since Penn first became champions in 1916.

Jeffrey had suffered personal tragedy in November 1932 when his first wife, Doris, was killed in a road accident in New Jersey. He rarely spoke about the incident; instead he would philosophise about life’s shortness and the need to make the most of it. He was a resilient character who often used eccentric methods to educate his young players. Jeffrey would regale them with anecdotes from his years of playing football or he would recite the poetry of Robert Burns in his native dialect to lighten the mood and build team spirit. He was enthusiastically demonstrative in his coaching. Student athletes responded to his warm, patient promptings by playing to win every game for him.

Penn State’s burgeoning status on the football field was furthered in 1934 when the Nittany Lions became the first American college team to travel overseas. Jeffrey, naturally, chose Scotland as the destination for an eight-game autumn schedule to give his players experience in preparation for the defence of their national title. School officials provided equipment for the trip, leaving Jeffrey and his players to raise about $150 each to cover traveling expenses. Some of them fell short of the target and had no choice but to stay behind when the party of 16 set sail from New York City aboard the S.S. Cameronia liner.

Jeffrey bolstered his depleted side by inviting along a Syracuse University graduate named John McEwan whose younger brother, Bill, was on the Penn State team. The journey allowed the McEwans to visit the land of their parents for the first time. John made an immediate impact, scoring four goals in the Nittany Lions’ opening game – although they lost the match 6-4 to an amateur team from Leith). Gala Fairydean crushed the visitors 7-2 in their second game with the now 42-year-old Jeffrey forced to play up front. High scoring defeats piled up with Inverness Caley, Thurso Pentland and Falkirk Amateurs all putting double figures past the fatigued Americans. Kilmarnock Academical closed out Penn State’s tour with another heavy loss amid torrential rain.

However those eight straight defeats in Scotland served only to harden Jeffrey’s students. Back in the U.S. they destroyed most of their opponents during the following college season, putting together six convincing wins and a draw to compile a record that should have earned them another national title. The ISFA’s committee, heavily influenced by graduates from the rival University of Pennsylvania, had other ideas. They failed to recognise Penn State’s achievements, stating that Jeffrey had broken college sports principles by fielding non-student athletes in Scotland. The politicking against Jeffrey continued into the following year when the ISFA selected Yale as its champion. Penn State had won all seven of its games without conceding a single goal and Jeffrey later deemed this his best ever side. The ones that followed before the onset of World War Two weren’t bad either. Five consecutive unbeaten seasons from 1936 to 1940 saw the Nittany Lions awarded five consecutive national titles as the ISFA backed away from its petty punishment.

Those titles came in the midst of a phenomenal spell that saw Penn State put together a 65-game unbeaten run stretching over nine years. Only four of those games were drawn. The sequence began after John McEwan’s Syracuse had beaten Jeffrey’s side in the last game of the 1932 season and continued until a physical United States Military Academy team beat the Lions 1-0 in the fifth game of the 1941 season. Some 3,000 students and State College residents gathered in the town’s College Avenue that night to greet the team bus and to honour Jeffrey and his players for setting a record that has never been matched.

“There’s no surefire formula for teaching soccer,” Jeffrey told a reporter from the Pittsburgh Press newspaper in October 1945. “If I have been successful, it’s just because I like the game.”

The war years disrupted college soccer with no champion being crowned for five years, but Jeffrey’s passion had not dwindled for a game that he frequently joked he’d left Scotland to escape from. His standing as a coach and a leader of young men saw him being invited to Italy at the conclusion of World War Two to serve as a sports consultant training young American soldiers stationed at the U.S. Army’s central sports school in Rome.

It took a few years for Jeffrey to rebuild Penn State into national championship contenders. Eight straight wins in the 1949 season earned the Nittany Lions an invitation to play in the ISFA’s first “Soccer Bowl” as the governing body sought a fairer way to determine the country’s best team by pitting a traditional school from the east against opposition from the west coast where college and professional sports were beginning to blossom. Finding a champion was becoming a tougher job now that more than 100 schools were fielding teams as opposed to the 20 or so when Jeffrey began his coaching career.

Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, Missouri was the site of the inaugural Soccer Bowl on New Year’s Day of 1950. Close to 5,000 fans turned up to watch San Francisco take the lead before inside-right Harry Little levelled for Jeffreys’ side. The California Conference champions edged ahead again leaving Penn State to push for a late, late equaliser. The Nittany Lions were awarded a contentious penalty with 10 seconds remaining when the referee spotted a handball. Little converted the kick to ensure a share of the national championship. It was Jeffrey’s ninth title as head coach. It proved to be his last although his crowning achievement was to follow six months later.

Scotland should have been competing at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil while Bill Jeffrey should have been at home in Central Pennsylvania. The winner and runner-up in the 1949-50 British Home Championship were awarded berths for the tournament by FIFA as a concession to welcome the four home nations back into the fold after their self-imposed exile dating back to 1920. Yet Scottish Football Association secretary George Graham insisted that Scotland would only travel to South America as British champions.

England won the group ahead of the Scots when Chelsea striker Roy Bentley notched the only goal in the final, decisive game watched by more than 130,000 fans at Hampden Park on April 15, 1950. That result should have been inconsequential. But Graham stuck to his guns and England traveled to Brazil as the sole representatives from the British Isles.

Graham wasn’t alone in baulking at the prospect of a month-long trip to unknown, faraway lands. The United States’ head coach Erno Schwarz backed out of the job a few weeks before the tournament forcing his football association chiefs into a panicked search to find a suitable replacement. Jeffrey ticked all the boxes. He’d enjoyed huge success within the college game and he had experienced the hardships of foreign travel with his Penn State team back in 1934. He accepted the challenge.

The U.S. had finished third at the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay in 1930. Host and eventual winner Italy thumped the Yanks four years later, and the Americans joined the majority of Western Hemisphere nations in boycotting the 1938 tournament in France. America’s domestic game had regressed during the 1930s for various reasons including the evaporation of corporate backing for works teams during the Great Depression and the growing support for baseball and gridiron. Football was a minority sport played largely by amateur migrants by the time the 1950 World Cup arrived. Jeffrey still had some hard-working, talented players to call upon, but they should have been outmatched against the professionals from Europe’s top clubs.

Jeffrey’s men weren’t short of endeavour in their opening game against Spain in Curitiba. They harried and hassled their opponents in the early stages and scored an unlikely goal on a breakaway by Gino Pariani. Spain dominated thereafter. The retreating Yanks held out until Valencia’s Silvestre Igoa capitalised on a mistake and the Europeans’ superior fitness showed in the closing minutes as Barcelona star Estanislau Basora and Athletic Bilbao’s Telmo Zarra struck to seal a 3-1 win. Jeffrey and his players were left to claim a moral victory. They had four days to recover before facing the mighty England, comfortable winners over Chile in their opener to solidify their position as one of the tournament favorites.

Nothing raises the competitive spirit of a Scotsman like the chance to put one over the English. Jeffrey harnessed that inner drive by selecting Greenock-born Ed McIlvenny as his captain for the second game in Belo Horizonte. McIlvenny was a former Clyde shipyard worker who had migrated a year earlier to join his sister in Philadelphia. The legendary Wolves centre half Billy Wright lined up opposite McIlvenny as captain of a star-studded England side featuring Alf Ramsey in defence and a five-man forward line of Tom Finney, Wilf Mannion, Stan Mortensen, Jimmy Mullen and Roy Bentley, the striker whose goal had contributed to Scotland’s absence.

U.S. goalkeeper Frank Borghi made an early save from Mannion before pushing Finney’s header over his crossbar. England squandered a host of chances to take a first-half lead, and those misses drew increasingly loud heckles from the 10,151 fans inside the Independencia Stadium. The locals sensed that the English could be vulnerable to a counter attack. They were right. McIlvenny found his Philadelphia Nationals teammate Walter Bahr with a throw-in on 37 minutes and Haitian-born forward Joe Gaetjens deflected Bahr’s cross-cum-shot past England goalkeeper Bert Williams.

England’s territorial dominance continued after the interval with Jeffrey’s 10 outfielders blockading the route to Borghi’s goal. Walter Winterbottom’s men grew agitated as they failed to create clear openings; when half-chances came along they screwed their shots wide. Going into the last 10 minutes Borghi made another save, this time from Mullen’s header, ands then Ramsey had to clear the ball off his own goal line when Frank Wallace broke away with the fight draining out of the English. The full-time whistle brought the Brazilian crowd storming onto the field to carry the two heroes, Borghi and Gaetjens, on a lap of honor.

“Those Brazilians literally went wild when we licked the English,” Jeffrey told a reporter from the Pittsburgh Press after returning to State College. “They set off giant firecrackers when we scored, then broke through the police cordon to carry our boys off the field after the game. It was the noisiest demonstration I had ever experienced.”

The Scot was hailed as a hero in Brazil too as his team’s victory had virtually eliminated one of the host nation’s rivals and practically ensured that the trophy would be staying in Brazil or going to Uruguay. One American Embassy official in South America later told the press that Jeffrey’s team had done more to promote U.S.-Brazil relations than anything else in years.

A 5-2 defeat by Chile ended the Americans’ World Cup adventure at the group stage. As for England, they returned home to ridicule from journalists and football fans. Their exit caused members of parliament to introduce a ministry of sports to avoid a repeat performance. In America, Jeffrey predicted that his team’s result would elevate football’s standing in the country. It was not to be, however. Instead, he and many of his players would be dead before the U.S. sports media began to appreciate the magnitude of what had been accomplished.

Jeffrey’s career wound down after that victory over the Auld Enemy. Penn State won another Soccer Bowl in 1951 before Jeffrey took his players on a goodwill tour of Iran as representatives of the United States government. He retired from Penn State in 1952 to accept a coaching and teaching post at the University of Puerto Rico. His final record with the Nittany Lions stands at 153 wins, 29 draws and 24 defeats.

Penn State’s link to that famous World Cup win was extended when Walter Bahr followed in Jeffrey’s footsteps to coach the men’s program from 1974 to 1987. He led the school to one national championship semi-final and three quarter-finals.

Bob Warming became head coach of Penn State’s men’s team in 2010 with almost 35 years of college coaching experience behind him. His achievements mark him out as one of the top managers in the circuit with more than 60 of his players going on to play professionally and at least one of his graduates being drafted into Major League Soccer in every year but one since the league began in 1996.

Erica Dambach took over Penn State’s women’s program in 2007. She led the Nittany Lions to their first ever national championship game in 2012 and Penn State returned to the final last December to lift a first national title. Dambach has also served as an assistant coach for the gold medal winning United States women’s team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as well as the beaten 2011 Women’s World Cup finalists.

Warming and Dambach’s impressive coaching pedigrees don’t allow them to escape the legacy of their Scottish progenitor.

“I feel very fortunate to have had a little bit of personal contact with some of the real legends of this sport,” Warming says.

Warming chanced upon some of Jeffrey’s teachings when he moved into an office tucked away down a back corridor of Penn State’s Recreation Building. The old athletic facility displays framed pictures along its hallways that show Jeffrey’s ageing figure lined up alongside every one of his 27 teams for their annual photographs. Warming’s cabinets contained a 1963 book written by Jeffrey called “The Young Sportsman’s Guide to Soccer”. It has become a treasured possession for the current men’s coach and one that Warming refers to when, like Jeffrey, he occasionally wants to lighten the mood with some poetry. The work of Robert Burns is not included in this publication. Rather it features Jeffrey’s own work with tales of inept trialists failing to impress the manager after claiming that they could play.

Jeffrey’s influence is felt strongly by both Penn State’s coaches during every game at Jeffrey Field and every training session on the practice pitch adjoining the stadium.

“We try to make Bill Jeffrey very real for our players,” says Dambach. The legendary coach’s accomplishments are taught to her incoming students every year to inspire them when they pull on the school’s blue and white uniforms.

Dambach recalls one game early in her tenure at State College when the Nittany Lions were struggling for cohesion and trailed by a goal at half time. She and her assistant coach Ann Cook had drilled their players on the significance of Jeffrey and the pride that they should have to play on his field, one of the greatest college venues in the country.

“There was a feeling that wins were just going to come,” Dambach says. “And so we’re playing really poorly in this game and Ann lost her mind on the team at half time. Her whole speech was about how we have this great home field advantage and we’ve got a lot of respect for what Bill Jeffrey did, but he wasn’t going to win the game for us. We still had to show up.

“They all know that the Jeffrey in Jeffrey Field is an actual person, a very successful person, and that they’re defending something when they play here. It’s named after a historical figure that impacted this community in such a way that people fought to have a facility named after him.”

Jeffrey returned to the State College area in 1959 after his stint in Puerto Rico. He had suffered tragedy again two years earlier when his second wife, Virginia, disappeared without trace. Jeffrey believed she must have accidentally drowned while going for her regular swim in the ocean near their home in Mayaguez. Now in his late 60s, he devoted his time to developing high school and amateur football programs and leagues in Central Pennsylvania. 

He was attending a convention for college coaches in New York City on January 7, 1966, when he collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was 73 years old. Jeffrey’s third wife, Blanche, and his two children, Arthur and Margaret, survived him. This son of Edinburgh who had been responsible for England’s most embarrassing failure missed out on witnessing their greatest triumph when Alf Ramsey, a member of that 1950 team which was humbled in Brazil, led the country to World Cup glory at Wembley less than six months after Jeffrey’s death.

“A couple of years ago, I raised money to put some wind screens on the outside of our stadium so it would be announced in big letters that this was Jeffrey Field,” says Warming as he discuss his drive to promote Jeffrey’s achievements at Penn State. That desire was further fuelled by a surprise email he received last
summer from a retired University of Rhode Island teacher named Agnes Doody, the widow of  Jeffrey’s son.
Doody had written to inform Penn State’s incumbent head coach that Jeffrey’s six-year-old great granddaughter had played in her first football game. Warming has kept in contact with the family and is working with the Penn State athletics department’s marketing team to develop special events honoring Jeffrey’s life during the 2016 college season and beyond.

“I just want to keep that guy’s name to the fore somehow.” 

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

Issue 14
Pre-order

Subscribe here Buy a gift Back copies