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How Glenn ‘Pop’ Warner Became Football’s Father Figure

His legend is more apocryphal than reality, but this much is true — over the last half century, millions of kids have been introduced to football because of him

Welcome to The Daddy Issue, our very fatherly tip of the cap to the father figures in our lives as well as all the fatherly stuff they can’t help but do — from pretending they’re not asleep on the couch, to the dad jokes that make even Tony Soprano smile. We’ll talk to famous dads and their equally famous progeny and also deconstruct fatherly influence in each and every one of its forms. In doing so, we hope to come out the other side with a better understanding of our own — and everyone else’s — daddy issues. Read all of the stories here.

The story of Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner presents a compelling case of a nickname becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, setting the recipient along a winding path upon which a jab evolved into an earned, honorific title, and culminated in an enduring surrogate fatherhood of youth around the world.

He first received public attention in 1892 when his hometown newspaper, The Springville Journal, reported that he’d enrolled at Cornell University. A year later, it reprinted an analysis of his football prowess from The Cornell Daily News: “Nature has spared nothing in his make-up, and he is an adornment to any football field. Warner has proved himself a strong runner with the ball and plows into the opposing rush like a locomotive leaving heaps of scattered players in his wake.”

Glenn “Pop” Warner at Cornell

In 1894, Warner was elected as captain of the Cornell football team, owing largely to the fact that he was the most senior player on a Big Red squad that was described in multiple publications as “green” due to the influx of so many youthful 18-year-old freshmen, which caused Warner to stand out all the more as a 23-year-old senior. It was at this point that several publications reprinted telegrams from Ithaca, New York in which Warner was presented with a fresh new moniker.

“The remarkable exodus of football players in 1893 and again last year leaves Warner the veteran of the team, and when the men were asked to select a captain yesterday, they picked ‘Pop’ Warner to lead them for the season,” stated The Springfield Journal.

The Father of Football

After his college football career as a player ended, a very young Pop Warner became the head football coach at the University of Georgia and Iowa State University simultaneously. After two seasons at Georgia — a time in which he elevated them from middling to the undefeated champions of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1896 — Warner bid adieu to the South and returned to Cornell to coach football at his alma mater, while still coaching Iowa State’s team, largely through correspondence. 

In 1899, Warner assumed the head coaching position at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the flagship Native American boarding school in the country. It was during this time that he was credited with truly “inventing football” — pioneering the use of the three-point stance for his backfield players, inventing both the single- and double-wingback formations, refining what we now know as blocking and introducing the first significant forward-passing schemes. 

Equally as important during this time was Warner’s coaching and mentoring of the legendary Jim Thorpe, who is still widely regarded as one of the greatest athletes who ever lived. Not only would Thorpe be declared a multi-time All-American in football at Carlisle, but he’d also win both the Decathlon and the Pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics, while wearing a pair of mismatched shoes no less. 

Unfortunately, though, Thorpe would be stripped of his gold medals after it was discovered that he’d played professional baseball prior to the Olympics, a violation of the Olympics’ amateurism rule. Warner promptly co-drafted a statement for Thorpe to sign that absolved Warner of any blame even though Warner had almost certainly known about Thorpe’s pro baseball experience. Many of the football players at Carlisle at the time openly declared that Warner had stabbed Thorpe in the back to salvage his own reputation — not exactly the actions of a consummate father figure, it should be noted.

The Fatherly Legend Takes Hold 

After departing from Carlisle shortly after the Thorpe scandal, Warner landed at the University of Pittsburgh where his teams promptly won shares of three national championships in 1915, 1916 and 1918. In 1924, he left for Stanford and added a fourth national title to his resume in 1926. All the while, he regularly conducted coaching seminars all over the country, advocating for the sport’s spread. 

Once Warner returned to Pennsylvania to coach at Temple in 1932, a nationally syndicated story from the Associated Press began to spread an erroneous account of how the now 61-year-old Warner had acquired his paternal nickname, ascribing it to his fatherly method of guiding his players, imbuing them with such fondness for him that they often returned to discuss all matters of life with him.

“They are the men who named Warner ‘Pop,’” the December 1932 AP article claimed. “He’s the hulking, kindly, soft-voiced patriarch of the pigskin who never spoke roughly to them in all his life. He’s never forgotten their names, their faces, though there are hundreds of them now. He knows whom they married, and when, and how big the family is now. And he never forgets to ask.”

The Birth of Pop Warner Youth Football

The actual creation of the brand that has sustained Pop Warner’s name well over half a century after his death was owed to a confluence of circumstances. Just prior to Warner’s return to Pennsylvania, stockbroker Joseph Tomlin had established the Junior Football Conference (JFC) in Philadelphia as a distraction to keep the idle youth of the area from vandalizing local businesses.

“Next year I hope to have about 50 member teams representing every section of the city under expert instruction,” Tomlin told The Philadelphia Inquirer in November 1933. “The boys will be schooled in football fundamentals and physical training at night lectures and in practice. In this way, I hope to see the boys play better football, and more important, play it without the danger of permanent injury or worse.”

That very same month, The Harrisburg Telegraph reported that Warner had delivered an address to more than 400 members of the Rotary Club, along with many leaders of athletic programs at Harrisburg’s Penn-Harris Hotel. He explained to the audience how desperately football was needed as a development tool for the young people of the U.S. “Today the young people do not have the hard chores and work to do like the boys and girls in my day,” Warner lamented. “They need football and other types of athletics to develop those priceless bodies that carry their life.” 

To close, he added, “Football develops courage, cooperation, self-initiative, self-sacrifice. It also is a great preparation in training a youth to carry on in spite of heavy stress and apparently overwhelming obstacles.”

It was at this meeting that Tomlin met Warner and invited him to lecture at an April rally held for JFC football players at a junior high school in Philadelphia’s Frankford neighborhood. Again, legend has it that Warner braved awful storm conditions and was the only one out of a dozen invited coaches to make it and answer the questions of the hundreds of boys in attendance. But in reality, at least six local coaches successfully spoke at the event, with Warner appearing as the featured attraction. After all of the presenters had concluded their remarks, Tomlin declared that Warner had been elected as president of the JFC, and that the organization would bear his name from that day forward.

“We are calling the circuit in honor of Pop Warner, and the conference will be divided into four divisions: 125, 140, 160 pound and senior teams,” Tomlin explained to The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I have planned to have the champion team of the various districts play practice games with college scrub teams on Saturdays.”

Since that time, Pop Warner Football has exploded into a truly international youth organization that includes more than 90 organized youth football leagues in multiple countries, and which provides football-playing opportunities to more than 400,000 children each year between the ages of five and 14 years old.

So he might have gotten the nickname from being the oldest player on his team during his senior year at Cornell and cynically embellished it to further his reputation as the type of coach whose influence extended far beyond the football field, but somehow it still proved pretty fitting anyway.