George Halas

George Halas got involved in professional football 100 years ago this week.

On September 17, 1920, the Decatur Staleys — with Halas as their representative — joined the American Professional Football Association, which was renamed the National Football League two years later.  The franchise fee was $100 [about $1,125 today].  Halas moved the Staleys to Chicago, where they were renamed the “Bears” for the 1922 season.  A century later, the Chicago Bears are worth more than $2.85 billion.

Halas played football, baseball, and basketball at the University of Illinois.  In 1918, he led the Illini to a Big Ten football title, then joined the Navy.  Playing for the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Halas was named MVP of the 1919 Rose Bowl.  Afterward, he signed with the New York Yankees, where he played 12 games as an outfielder before a hip injury ended his career.  The following season, Babe Ruth took over in right field for the Yankees.

In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge was introduced to Red Grange, who was “with the Chicago Bears.”  Clearly no sports fan, Coolidge replied, “I’m glad to know you.  I always did like animal acts.”

George Halas was tackled by Jim Thorpe and struck out by Walter Johnson.  Associated with the Chicago Bears from their inception in 1920 until his death in 1983, he was one of the few men Vince Lombardi called Coach.  For 40 seasons, Papa Bear prowled the sidelines in his trademark fedora.  Coach Halas’ first pro football victory came in 1920, when his Decatur Staleys beat the Moline Tractors 20-0.  After moving the team to Chicago the following season, he won his first NFL title.

Halas served four ten-year stints as head coach of the Bears between 1920 and 1967.  He won six league championships [later matched by Bill Belichick for most all-time] and four division titles.  Named Coach of the Year in both 1963 and 1965, Halas amassed a .671 career winning percentage.  Papa Bear coached 40 NFL seasons, a record that will likely never be broken.  His 324 wins made him the winningest coach in history when he retired, a record that stood for 27 years until Don Shula surpassed it in 1993.

In 1925, Halas persuaded Red Grange – the biggest football star of his generation – to join the Bears.  It was a significant step in establishing the popularity of the NFL.  Halas created the T-formation offense that revolutionized football.  Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman ran it to perfection, leading the Bears to a 73-0 victory over the Washington Redskins in the 1940 NFL Championship Game – still the most lopsided margin of victory in NFL history.

One of the co-founders of the National Football League, Halas was the founder, owner and head coach of the Chicago Bears.  A two-way standout, he once stripped Jim Thorpe at the goal line and scampered 98 yards for a touchdown, a record that stood as the longest fumble return in league history until 1972.  Halas played ten seasons and was named to the NFL 1920s All-Decade Team.  He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s in its inaugural class, in 1963.

Mike Ditka said Halas “throws nickels around like manhole covers.”

George Halas served two stints in the Navy.  He served at Great Lakes during World War I, then entered again after the advent of World War II.  Captain Halas served from 1942 to 1946 — including 20 months in the South Pacific with the Seventh Fleet — and was awarded the Bronze Star.  Following his discharge, Halas established an annual charity football game, with the Bears as hosts, to benefit the relief agencies of the armed forces.  Between 1946 and 1957, proceeds from the game topped $2 million.  In 1956, Mr. Halas was awarded the Navy Distinguished Public Service Award, the Navy’s highest civilian honor.

George Stanley Halas was born to Hungarian immigrants in Chicago February 2, 1895.  He attended Crane Tech, an all-boys high school on the city’s Near West Side.  One of his first jobs was with Western Electric which, in June 1915, scheduled a steamship ride across Lake Michigan for a company picnic.  Halas overslept, and by the time he arrived, the ship – the Eastland – had capsized in the Chicago River, killing 844 passengers and crew.

The Bears-Packers rivalry is the NFL’s oldest and most intense.  The two organizations met for the first time in 1921 at Chicago.  “Coach Halas loved to beat the Packers,” said Mike Ditka, who played for Halas before coaching the Bears to the only Super Bowl title in franchise history.  Halas understood that not only was the ferocity of the rivalry good for both franchises, it was gold for the NFL.

Halas was instrumental in keeping the Packers in Green Bay.  For decades, the Packers played at decrepit City Stadium, which by the mid-1950s had become an unfit home for an NFL team.  League owners threatened to force the Packers to move to Milwaukee and sparkling new County Stadium if they did not get a new stadium built.  In March 1956, Halas spoke at an emotional rally at the Columbus Club in Green Bay, imploring voters to fund a new stadium.  The “yes” vote prevailed and Lambeau Field was unveiled for the 1957 season opener against the Bears.

When Scooter McLean was let go after going 1-10-1 in 1958, Packer president Dominic Olejniczak asked George Halas for advice during the ensuing head coaching search.  Halas endorsed New York Giants offensive coordinator, Vince Lombardi, telling Olejniczak, “Lombardi is your man.”

In 1950, Papa Bear became the first coach in pro football history to win 200 games.  Fifteen years later, he became the first to win 300 games.  In 40 years as a coach he endured only six losing seasons.  Halas also won two NFL titles as an owner, in 1932 and 1943.  ESPN named him one of the ten most influential people in sports in the 20th century, and the George Halas Trophy is awarded annually to the NFC champion.  To this day, the Chicago Bears wear the initials “GSH” on the upper left sleeve of their jerseys in commemoration of their founder.

A pioneer both on and off the field, Halas was the first coach to hold daily practices.  He was the first to place assistant coaches in the press box and to cover the field with a tarp when not in use.  A principled man of integrity, he believed a handshake was sufficient to seal a deal.  George Halas introduced public address systems, was the first to broadcast games on the radio and conceptualized the revenue sharing model that allowed the NFL to become the most profitable sports league in history.

Earlier this month, the Chicago Bears unveiled a statue of George S. Halas – the father of professional football – at Soldier Field.  Two days before the season opener against the Green Bay Packers that kicked off their 100th season, the Bears honored the franchise founder and longtime coach with a 12-foot, 3,000-pound bronze sculpture of Papa Bear, located outside Gate 0.  In addition, the Bears honored former running back Walter Payton, who was recently voted by the Chicago Tribune as the best player in franchise history, with a statue alongside that of Mr. Halas.