William H. “Lone Star” Dietz, who was recently inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, passed away 48 years ago. His name is unfamiliar to most football fans today, but in the first four decades of the 20th century it commonly appeared in sports pages across the country. “He was a bigger-than-life person,” says Tom Benjey, who wrote Keep A-Goin’: The Life of Lone Star Dietz. “Dietz was the most colorful coach football has ever known, and just for one season alone he should be in the hall of fame.”
That was the 1915 season, his first year as head football coach at Washington State University (WSU), then called Washington State College. Washington hadn’t had a winning season for five years, but after Dietz arrived his squad ran off six straight wins and finished the season undefeated. The average score of their games was 34–2. The Pasadena Tournament of Roses was arranging its annual game on New Year’s Day (in addition to their parade of floats) and invited WSU to play against Brown University. Brown was considered the vastly superior team, but on January 1, 1916 the Cougars of Washington held Brown to only 96 total yards on offense and won 14–0. In his book, The Crimson and the Gray: 100 years with the WSU Cougars, Richard Fry writes, “The flamboyant Dietz was the toast of the West; whatever he did was headlined and he was idolized throughout the press. He was, as they say, ‘great copy!’?”
Soon after, many college sports were suspended for World War I. During the war, Dietz coached the Mare Island Marine Corps football team, which, ironically, played in the Rose Bowl game at the end of the 1918 season. (Since the rosters of college teams were severely depleted by the draft, two military teams were selected to play in Pasadena that season.)
In 1918 Dietz’s Indian heritage was challenged in court. Since Indians were not considered U.S. citizens at that time, they were not required to register for the draft. Dietz, who was about 34 at the time, had registered with the draft board as a “non-citizen Indian,” but his ancestry—and thus his exemption from the draft—was challenged and he had to go to trial in Spokane, Washington. This was a grim time for Dietz, but it also brought some humor. During the trial the prosecutor brought in an Indian agent from the Sioux Nation and asked him, “Have you ever seen an Indian who looked like Lone Star?” The agent said, “No.” Then Lone Star’s defense attorney asked him a similar question. “Have you ever seen a white man who looked like Lone Star?” Again the answer was “no.”
The trial ended in a hung jury, with the majority voting that Dietz was, as he claimed, an Indian. The government tried him again, but this time Dietz couldn’t afford a lawyer, so he pled “no contest” and received a 30-day jail sentence.
His ancestry remains unclear even today, mainly because his birth and childhood were a fog of confusion and half-truths. The parents who raised him were white—his father was German, but the identity of his birth mother is unknown. Dietz was probably born in 1884; his white “mother,” Leanna Ginder Dietz, once testified that she was pregnant in 1884 but the child was stillborn.
Benjey’s research indicates that Dietz’s father took the dead baby away and returned a few days later with a baby that had coal black hair. There was speculation that this was his son by an Indian woman. Years later, Ms. Dietz corroborated this incident on the witness stand during Lone Star’s first draft-status trial. The Spokesman-Review reported that Ms. Dietz testified: “The father took the dead child and buried it in the timber. He then said that he had a secret and told me of the existence of another child of his which he asked permission to bring home to replace the one that died.” This child was named William H. “Billy” Dietz.
Dietz was raised in Rice Lake, Wisconsin and was taunted by white children because he was an Indian. Benjey writes that when Dietz entered high school the boys on the baseball team refused to play with him for that same reason. (Whether Dietz actually was of Sioux ancestry is still not known, but Benjey argues persuasively that there was so much prejudice against Indians at that time claiming Native ancestry made Dietz’s life harder, not easier.)
In 1904, Dietz landed a job at the St. Louis World’s Fair, where he supervised the Native art display. It was here that he met his future bride, Angel DeCora, became close with his almost-namesake (a Sioux named One Star), embraced his (presumed) Sioux ancestry and became immersed in Native culture. One Star, who was also working at the fair, had an instant rapport with Dietz—he adopted him as his “nephew” and gave him the name Lone Star.
When the fair ended, Dietz enrolled at Fairmount College (now Wichita State University); he spent two years there before transferring to Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where DeCora, one of the best-known Native artists of that era, was head of the Native Arts program. She was also one of the first Native artists to be widely accepted into the mainstream art world of white society; her stories and illustrations appeared regularly in Harper’s Weekly.
Dietz was about 22 when he arrived at Carlisle in 1907, and DeCora was 35, but they eloped that Christmas. Lone Star spent only one year at Carlisle as a student, and in 1908 he was listed as an assistant instructor in the arts department. Despite being an instructor, Dietz started playing for Carlisle’s outstanding football team in 1909—the eligibility rules for college football rules were much more lax in those years—where he was in the huddle with Jim Thorpe, perhaps the greatest athlete in U.S. history, and played for the legendary coach Glenn “Pop” Warner. Dietz played through the 1911 season, then served as an assistant coach for three more years, until Warner was hired by the University of Pittsburgh. Twenty years after Dietz played his last game, Warner still considered him one of his greatest players. Dietz also contributed many drawings to The Carlisle Arrow during his years at Carlisle and received more praise for his art than for his athletic achievements.
In 1915, when Washington asked Warner for a recommendation for a new football coach, he told them, “Lone Star is the guy you want to hire.” And so they did.
A few months later, Dietz arrived in Pullman, Washington wearing a tailored three-piece suit and a pearl-gray homburg, accompanied by so much luggage that the drayage wagon had to make two trips to haul it all to his lodgings. “He was a bit of a dandy,” Benjey says. “He liked to dress.” And that passion included Indian regalia. The Rose Bowl game program that season had two photos of Washington’s coach—one in top hat and coat, the other in Native regalia.
Dietz walked the streets of Pullman encouraging businessmen to buy season tickets, and toured with the school’s glee club—he sang baritone. And he was a pretty good coach—when he left Washington after three years, his record was 17–2–1. Football was discontinued at the school due to World War I, so Dietz moved on.
In 1921, when he was about 36, he was hired to coach at Purdue University. The local paper wrote, “Coach Dietz, an Indian, declared that he would use Indian
psychology in coaching the team, giving attention to the individual rather than to the mass.” Unfortunately the season was the poorest of his career—he finished with a record of 1–6, and was fired.
He then was hired by Louisiana Polytechnic Institute, now Louisiana Tech University. His first year there, his team went 6–1 and scored 293 points while giving up only 26. Lone Star then jumped to the University of Wyoming, where he served as head football and baseball coach for a couple of years before going to what was then called Haskell Institute, now Haskell University. When that school de-emphasized sports following the 1926 season, Dietz hooked up again with his old coach, Warner, who was now coaching at Stanford. Warner had written a book on football, and Dietz did more than 40 pen-and-ink illustrations for it. He got back on the sidelines in 1927 as Stanford’s freshman coach.
A few years later, Dietz coached professional football for the Boston Braves, one of the early NFL teams. The owner, George Marshall renamed the franchise—in a twisted kind of homage to Dietz—the Redskins. (Marshall later moved the franchise to Washington, D.C. where they still play—and continue to appall Natives with their racist name.)
Lone Star coached in Boston for two years, then worked for Warner at Temple for a couple of years before getting the head-coaching job at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1936. In his six years there, he had a record of 31–23–2, but the school discontinued football in 1942 because of World War II, and that was the end of Lone Star’s coaching career.
Dietz was almost 60 now, but ready to start a new career. He moved to New York City, and worked for an advertising agency for four years. He then went back to Reading and earned his living as a painter. He died of cancer when he was almost 80.
In 1998, cousins Greg and John Witter started a website devoted to WSU football, which gave them plenty of opportunities to write about their favorite characters, including Lone Star Dietz. After talking with Benjey, the three of them started a campaign to get Dietz into the College Football Hall of Fame. “He truly had been forgotten to history,” Greg says.
They got his name on the ballot in 2005, but he never drew enough votes to get into the hall. His name was removed from the ballot in 2010, but the Witters didn’t give up. “There are actually two ballots you can be elected on,” Greg explains. “There’s the Division I ballot [for the big schools] and the divisional ballot which is Divisions II and III [for smaller schools].” Since Lone Star had coached at two Division II schools, he qualified for the divisional ballot. “That’s how he ultimately got in,” says Greg. He was elected to the hall in May of this year.
How did these two 50-year-old men become so fascinated with Lone Star? “Our grandfather grew up in Palouse country [near WSU]. On Saturdays we would ride our bikes to grandfather’s house and listen to Cougar games on radio with him,” says Greg. “Invariably at some point he would say, ‘Boys, did I ever tell you about Lone Star Dietz?’ He would tell us about the legend of Lone Star Dietz, this amazing coach. To us he was on a par with Knute Rockne.”