Phog's First Farewell
By the time Forrest "Phog" Allen arrived in Lawrence in 1905, he was a regional celebrity in his own right. And over the course of the 1905-06 season, his one and only as a player for the Jayhawker squad, he would live up to his billing as KU's first heralded basketball recruit.
There were many reasons why Allen’s reputation preceded his enrollment at KU. In 1903, Allen had emerged as the best basketball player on the Kansas City Athletic Club (KCAC) team. The following year, his teammates elected him captain. In February 1904, he led the KCAC to a 27-10 victory over KU. But the act that definitively marked Allen as a young man worth watching took place over a five-month period during late 1904 and early 1905.
In 1904, at the first truly national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Tournament, a team from Buffalo, New York known as the Germans had defeated all comers and had begun referring to themselves as the national champions. Allen was unwilling to concede this title to another team. The brazen 19-year-old sent a telegram to the Buffalo squad challenging it to a three game series in Kansas City, and offering to pay the players’ expenses if they accepted.
Surprisingly, the Germans agreed to Allen’s unexpected offer. This news startled the KCAC, since Allen had not consulted the organization prior to issuing the challenge. Worried over the costs and potential monetary losses, KCAC leaders requested that Allen cancel the games. He assuaged their fears by promising he would find investors who would promote the event and take on the financial risks, as long as the KCAC would allow the event’s backers to keep any profits the games might generate.
After getting permission to use the 5,000-seat Convention Hall in Kansas City for the games, Allen and his investors began to publicize the series. On March 21, 1905, an article appeared in the Kansas City Star promoting what was billed as the first event ever to take “place in Kansas City in which a world’s championship [was] at stake.” Three days later, the Star solicited the opinion of James Naismith, the inventor of basketball and coach at KU, regarding the upcoming games. Naismith gave the edge to the Germans, since they had “had opportunities to meet more varieties of teams,” but he did not discount Allen’s club. He made it clear that if “Kansas City’s teamwork [was] on par with its individual players,” then the “Buffalo men … will have their work cut out for them.”
The promotional articles apparently piqued the interest of the city’s residents. All told, almost 10,000 spectators showed up to watch the games of March 27, 28, and 29, 1905. The teams split the first two games, with the losing side on both occasions blaming the referees for the outcome. At the request of the Germans, Naismith agreed to referee the third and final game. In this contest, Allen, shooting all of the free throws for his team, sank 17 of them and led the KCAC as it administered a 45-14 spanking of the AAU champions.
The event made Allen a regional hero and also netted him what he later claimed was $5,000. Thus, when the entrepreneurial athlete decided to attend KU, the University Daily Kansan celebrated the arrival of “one of the world’s champions,” a player who was “said to be the best goal thrower in the world.” Allen and fellow freshman Tommy Johnson (who would become Kansas’s first All-American athlete) quickly played their way into the basketball team’s starting lineup. In his first game as a starter, Allen scorched Nebraska for 23 points in a 37-17 victory for KU. (This match-up was the first intercollegiate athletic event between KU and Nebraska since 1903, when a disagreement over the use of ineligible players caused the two schools to suspend their sports relationship.)
In the season’s final game on Saturday, March 3, 1906, Allen scored a KU record of 26 points and led the Jayhawks to a 60-13 win over Emporia State. (The achievement stood for nearly a decade.) KU and Baker had made plans to determine the “championship of Kansas” in a post-season game, but the schools cancelled this proposed match due to injuries suffered by Allen and another starter. Nonetheless, by the end of the season Allen had become the school’s biggest basketball star, and KU had enjoyed its most successful season under Naismith, amassing a record of 12-7. Indeed, many had come to expect great things from Allen. In describing a previous win over Washburn, the Kansan noted perfunctorily, “Allen was the star as usual.” At the season’s end, the team elected Allen its captain for the following season and he accepted the position, apparently fully expecting to return.
Financial considerations, however, led him to pursue other opportunities. When Baker offered Allen room and board as well as a small stipend to coach its basketball team for the following season, he withdrew from Kansas. The following year, the Allen-coached Baker team defeated KU 39-24. Allen would return to KU to coach the team for the 1907-1908 and 1908-1909 seasons before taking a hiatus from the University for an entire decade. His greatest KU years were still ahead of him.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas