Every couple of years the controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins team nickname boils to the surface for an extended debate then slowly slips back below the surface to hibernate for another season or two.
Those arguments have been presented from both sides of the issue on Football Nation (Washington Redskins or Washington Redtails: What's In A Name? and Washington Redskins: Hail To The Redtails?) plus numerous other news and sports outlets. This edition of Dropping Back takes its inspiration from the name debate, not to remix those arguments inside a new blender but to bring back into the spotlight the man who, according to legend, 80 years ago inspired team founder George Preston Marshall to name his NFL franchise the Redskins.
The Wayback Machine has been fueled and provisioned for a journey of many stops across the country to tell the tale of one of the most successful head coaches and colorful characters of his time, William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz.
Lone Star the Man
William "Lone Star" Dietz was born on August 17, 1884 and died of cancer on July 20, 1964 at the age of 79. In between he was a nationally known football coach, artist and celebrity who loved to work the sidelines wearing silk suits, a top hat, and carrying a walking stick. At personal appearances his wardrobe of choice was full Indian regalia. What has always been speculated is whether or not he was half Sioux as he claimed.
That speculation didn’t stem from his father, William Wallace Deitz. His ancestry was undoubtedly German (Lone Star later changed the spelling of the last name to Dietz). The true identity of his mother was the mystery. Dietz swore that when he was young his father told him his mother was Sioux. At his trial in 1919 on a draft evasion charge the woman who raised him as her son, Leanna Dietz, testified that she was pregnant in 1884 but the baby was stillborn.
She stated that her husband went out to bury the baby then returned a few days later with a boy, who he claimed was the result of a relationship with a Sioux woman. Was the story true? With the way birth records were at the time it’s impossible to be certain. What is certain is that Lone Star embraced and took lifelong pride in his Native American ancestry.
Later in his life, in 1907, he married one of the first nationally recognized Native American artists, Angel DeCora, and became well known in his own right for his illustrations and paintings. They taught together at the Carlisle Industrial School for Indians and also raised champion Russian Wolfhounds.
He played in the same backfield and blocked for Jim Thorpe at Carlisle under the legendary college head coach Glenn “Pop” Warner, and later spent time as Warner’s assistant. As a college football head coach he made stops at Washington State, Mare Island Marine base during World War I, Purdue, Wyoming, Haskell Indian Institute, Louisiana Tech and Albright College.
All that presents a quick snapshot of the full life that Dietz lived. Now it’s time for a closer look at three defining eras of his life.
The Glory Years and Fall of William “Lone Star” Dietz
Dietz spent one year as a student at the Carlisle School then was named an assistant instructor in the arts department in 1908. The following year he took advantage of the lax college football eligibility rules at the time and joined the football team from 1909 to 1911.
After his college playing career ended, Dietz stayed on at Carlisle as an assistant to Warner while teaching and continuing to gain recognition for his illustrations and painting.
By 1915, the Carlisle school and its football program hit hard times due to cuts in government funding. Warner left Carlisle for the University of Pittsburgh. At the same time, Washington State was also in the market for a new coach. They asked Warner for a recommendation and he replied, “Lone Star is the guy you want to hire.” Dietz headed for the northwest.
Washington State hadn’t had a winning season in five years and interest in the team was down when Dietz arrived in Pullman. He saw as his first responsibility upon arrival to work on promoting and reselling the football program. He hit the streets and talked to every businessman he could to push season ticket sales. Once the football season began Dietz immediately confirmed Warner’s faith in his football knowledge and coaching talent. Washington State blitzed through the 1915 season undefeated at 6-0.
That year, the Tournament of Roses was making plans to replace the chariot races that had been a part of their New Year’s Day festivities from 1904-1915. In the first New Year’s Day football match-up in Pasadena since 1902 Washington State was invited as the west coast representative to face All-American Fritz Pollard and Brown University out of the east. Brown finished their 1915 season with a 5-3-1 record but still went into the game as two-to-one favorite.
On a rainy afternoon on a muddy field Washington State’s defense held Fritz Pollard to 47-yards in 13 carries. After a scoreless first half the superior size of the Washington State players wore down Brown’s defense. Two ground pounding drives in the second half gave them a 14-0 victory. The only Rose Bowl win in school history.
While in Pasadena Dietz arranged for more exposure for his football team. He played a small part and had his Washington State players were cast as extras in the football movie “Tom Brown of Harvard”. For 14 days each man received $100.
The following two seasons were also a success under Dietz. Washington State put together a 4-2 record in 1916 and in 1917 went undefeated again at 6-0-1. Under normal circumstances the team would have followed up that success with another trip to Pasadena but that year the United States had finally entered World War I.
Since most major college football stars were competing on teams representing military bases across the country the Rose Bowl committee decided to go that route. That New Year’s Day the Mare Island Marines from California defeated the Camp Lewis Army Base out of Washington State 19-7.
Because of the war, Washington State discontinued its football program in 1918 but Dietz wasn’t out of work long. Many of his players were on the Mare Island team and Lone Star became their head coach for the 1918 season, with the understanding that he would be back once his commitment to coaching for the military was over.
The Marines stormed through their opposition undefeated for the second straight year to finish 10-0 and Dietz found himself leading another team into the Rose Bowl. Their opposition that season was a powerhouse Great Lakes Navy squad coached by George Halas with Paddy Driscoll running the offense. Lone Star’s Marines played hard but lost 17-0.
In 1919, Dietz was leading Mare Island to another winning season when his coaching career nearly came crashing to an end. Even though the war was over men over the age of 31 were required to register for the draft. Since Native Americans weren’t considered U.S. citizens at that time Dietz registered as a “non-citizen Indian.” He was brought up on charges of draft evasion by those who doubted his claim to Indian ancestry. The trial was held in a Spokane, Washington court.
The first trial ended in a hung jury. Most jurors voted in favor of Dietz. The government immediately refiled the charges but Lone Star couldn’t afford a defense for a second defense and pleaded “no contest” to the charges. The judge, likely in sympathy to Dietz’s situation, sentenced him to just 30 days in jail.
Even though he escaped relatively unscathed legally from the charges, the negative publicity damaged what had been to that point, a career of non-stop success as a coach. Afraid of negative publicity, Washington State turned their back on Dietz during his trial which left him looking for a new position when he was released after serving his sentence.
Lone Star and George Preston Marshall
In 1933, the Boston Braves had just played their first season as a National Football League franchise. They finished a respectable 4-4-1 in 1932 but showed a loss of $46,000 for the year (a lot in depression era money). Three members of the original ownership group pulled out leaving George Preston Marshall as sole owner of the franchise.
Marshall was a master at promotion. When his father died he took over the family laundry business, growing it into a 54 chain business by the time he sold his interest in 1945. Without partners to hinder him Marshall rapidly began to make changes to the team.
He began by moving their home stadium from Brave’s Field (at that time home of the National League Boston Braves) to Fenway Park. He released head coach Lud Wray from his contract to allow him to become head coach and take a part-ownership position of the Philadelphia Eagles.
On March 8, 1933 Lone Star was named the new head coach of the team. Dietz had spent the years since his draft evasion trial rebuilding his coaching reputation. He spent one season at Purdue, four at Wyoming and was coming off four successful seasons as head coach at the Haskell Indian Institute in Kansas.
The last major change that Marshall made was to the team’s name. On July 6, 1933 an article titled, “Braves Pro Gridmen to Be Called Redskins,” was published in the Boston Herald. In the article it said, “The explanation is that the change was made to avoid confusion with the Braves baseball team and that the team is to be coached by an Indian, Lone Star Dietz, with several Indian players.”
That statement itself doesn’t mean, as claimed by many, that the team’s name was changed to “honor” the coach and new Indian players that would be in place for the 1933 season. It does imply that their presence did influence Marshall’s thought process that ended with him deciding on Redskins as the new team nickname.
No matter the reason for the name Marshall was ready to take full advantage of the promotion possibilities. On the first day of practice Marshall had his new Native American coach and players pose for a photograph wearing headdresses and war paint. Dietz also wore feathers and war paint at home games during the season.
On the field, the Redskins were 5-5-2 in 1933, finishing a distant third in the Eastern Division. Lone Star was an expert in the single-wing offense, especially when it came to running the ball. Fullback Jim Musick and future Pro Football Hall of Fame tailback Cliff Battles finished first and second in the league in Rushing Yards and Average Yards per Carry.
The problem with the 1933 team was in the passing game, which was eighth out of 10 teams that year. At the league meetings following the 1932 season Marshall presented a series of rule proposals, one of which opened up new possibilities for NFL offenses when passing the football. Marshall may not have realized the full implications of that rule change when he hired Dietz, an expert at running the ball with the single-wing offense.
In 1934, the Redskins struggled to a 6-6-0 record, good enough for second place in the Eastern Division behind the New York Giants, but they were never able to generate any winning momentum after opening the season with a 7-0 win over Pittsburgh. They also found themselves in the bottom half of the league in passing offense for the second straight season.
Even though the team had been doing well in drawing fans during the two years with Dietz as head coach Marshall decided to dismiss him after the 1934 season.
After the Redskins
Lone Star returned to the college game for the remainder of his coaching career. He reunited with his coaching mentor, Pop Warner, to become his assistant and freshman team at Temple University in 1935. In 1937 he left to become Director of Athletics and head football coach at Albright College in Reading, PA.
In his first season at Albright he led the team to their first undefeated season in school history at 7-0-1. The school suspended its football program after the 1942 season because of World War II which ended Lone Star’s career. He was never able to land another coaching position.
Dietz moved to New York City for four years to work for an advertising agency. After that he returned to Pennsylvania and used all his money to open an art school, which eventually failed.
He lived the remainder of his life in poverty but kept his spirits up by continuing to paint and draw. In 1956, his former Washington State players kicked in money so he could travel to the school and take part in the 40th anniversary celebration of their 1916 Rose Bowl victory.
These days, when the arguments over the Washington Redskins team nickname flare up Dietz’s name gets a few mentions but for a man who was on a first name basis with celebrities of the time like Knute Rockne, George Halas, Walt Disney and Jim Thorpe among many, he’s practically disappeared from the history of football.
In 2012, he finally received mainstream recognition for his achievements as a head coach, lifetime record in college and pros was 170-71-11, and builder of successful football programs when he was elected as part of the Divisional Class to the College Football Hall of Fame.