Seventy-years ago this month, the greatest and most accomplished athlete ever to graduate from Mansfield High School that wasn’t named McMillen was wrestling with the biggest decision of his professional career.
Over the course of the next 100 days, a man who had recently achieved the pinnacle of his profession decided that family and passion outweighed prestige and fame. He willingly walked away from a job that few could ever hope to possess in order to preserve the things he held dearest in his life. (
Photo Caption: Joe Bedenk points out his name on Mansfield's World War One Memorial
Eight months prior to December of 1949, Mansfield High School and Mansfield State Normal School graduate, Fredrick Joseph Bedenk, had been selected to succeed Bob Higgins as the 13th head football coach of the Penn State Nittany Lion gridiron program.
Handsome, athletic and well-liked by seemingly everyone, he went by F. Joe Bedenk for most of his life answering to the nickname “Dutch” during his outstanding career at Mansfield State Normal School.
Bedenk had more than earned the opportunity to step into the head job when Higgins retired, citing health concerns, in March of 1949.
Already a football legend in his own right – Bedenk was a Walter Camp All-American guard at Penn State in 1923 and led the Nittany Lions to their first-ever Rose Bowl appearance -- with an unequaled reputation as the nation’s best line coach when he took over the helm of the Nittany Lion football program.
After graduating from Penn State, Bedenk had served as an assistant football coach at Rice University under the legendary John Heisman and later at the University of Florida under College Football Hall of Famer Charlie Bachman. He left Florida returning to Penn State as the line coach in 1929.
As remarkable as his football career was, it wasn’t his first love or his only love.
His first love was for his wife Lota and their then 13-year-old daughter, Joanne. He met Lota while coaching at Florida. They married in 1930, shortly after his return to Penn State. His next love still wasn’t football, the sport from which he received such national acclaim, but baseball.
Ever since he was a little boy living next to the entrance of Smythe Park, Joe Bedenk’s heart belonged to baseball. He played all the time on the next-door field with its majestic grandstand, hoping to become as good a player as his older brother Frank. Signing his first professional baseball contract in 1916, Frank went on to become one of the most well-known figures in Elmira baseball history.
Joe was a star on the baseball team during his undergrad years at Penn State and served as the head baseball coach during his stints as an assistant football coach at Rice and Florida. He took over as the head baseball coach at Penn State in 1931 and turned the Nittany Lions into one of the premier collegiate baseball programs in the country.
After posting a winning season in football and leading the baseball team to the program’s first NCAA post-season appearance in 1949, Bedenk realized that serving as both the head football and head baseball coach required more time and commitment than he, or perhaps any man, could give.
It must have been an extraordinarily difficult decision to give up the prestige of what was even then one of the most coveted and recognized coaching jobs in the country. But that’s exactly what Bedenk did – he went where his heart was.