A former North Dakota football coach abandoned his career to help a former North Dakota rancher retake the White House.
In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt decided to return to national politics by seeking the Republican Party presidential nomination.
Eddie Cochems, a highly successful football coach, left coaching to help Roosevelt. This decision by Cochems likely prevented him from ever being inducted into the National College Football Hall of Fame.
Cochems’ years in college (1898-1902) were a very exciting time in politics at the University of Wisconsin, especially since he was a progressive Republican.
At that time, Bob LaFollette led the Progressive movement in Wisconsin. He was against bossism and fought for reforms like progressive taxation, minimum wage, direct elections of U.S. senators, open primaries, women’s suffrage and workers’ compensation.
On campus, Cochems became heavily involved in politics and in 1900 was elected president of the University Republican Club. When LaFollette ran for governor in 1900, Cochems worked vigorously for his election.
While at North Dakota Agricultural College in 1902 and 1903, Cochems witnessed the efforts of people like newspaper editor George Winship pushing for progressive reforms against the powerful McKenzie machine. Cochems identified with Winship’s efforts to help the common man, but his primary concern at the time was to coach winning teams. At that, he was extremely successful.
After a combined won-loss record of 12-3 at NDAC and Clemson University, Cochems was hired to coach St. Louis University. A big reason for Cochems’ acceptance in 1906 was the fact that Bradbury Robinson, a promising young halfback at the University of Wisconsin, had transferred to SLU.
Together, Cochems and Robinson perfected the forward pass and implemented it in an exhibition game prior to the 1906 season. It was the first time the forward pass was used legally in a college football game.
In his three years at SLU, Cochems’ teams compiled a win-loss record of 25-5. Another innovation of Cochems while at SLU was to have uniform numbers sewn onto the player’s football jerseys.
In 1910, Cochems moved to Milwaukee to assist his older brother, Henry Cochems, who had won the Republican nomination for U.S. Congress in his district. His brother was closely aligned with LaFollette and was also a die-hard progressive in Wisconsin politics. He was defeated in the general election later that year, but the work and enthusiasm for the Cochems brothers had only just begun.
Progressives had been very pleased with Roosevelt as president but were deeply disappointed with his successor, William Howard Taft. While Roosevelt was abroad in 1910 and early 1911, he was bombarded with letters from close friends urging him to seek the presidency.
On Oct. 2, newspaper articles across the country announced that Cochems was abandoning football for politics.
Cochems moved to New York to work on the Roosevelt campaign. On June 23, 1912, at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, the party was to pick its candidate. Because of maneuvering by the party regulars, Taft was given the nomination.
The Cochems brothers claimed the nomination was “stolen,” and they and other Roosevelt supporters stormed out of the convention and helped Roosevelt form the Progressive/Bull Moose Party for the 1912 election.
A hotbed of Progressive support was in Milwaukee, and Roosevelt decided to make a speech there on Oct. 14. Henry Cochems was traveling in an automobile with the ex-president when John Schrank pulled out a pistol and shot Roosevelt in the chest. Immediately, Henry Cochems jumped out of the car and seized the would-be assassin before he could get off another shot, likely saving the former president’s life.
Despite his wound, Roosevelt was determined to deliver his speech. Henry Cochems introduced Roosevelt to the crowd, telling them about the shooting. Roosevelt began his speech by praising the Cochems family.
In the general election, Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote, and Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, was elected president.
Eddie Cochems remained in New York, working for the Progressive Party as head of its education bureau. In 1914, he accepted the position of head coach at the University of Maine, guiding it to a 6-3 record. Meanwhile,
Germany invaded Belgium, plunging Europe into World War I. Cochems accepted the position to head up a relief commission to assist Belgium.
When the war was over, Cochems worked on the presidential campaign of Charles Evans Hughes, but Wilson was re-elected. In 1920, Prohibition went into effect, and the city most adversely affected financially was Milwaukee. The Cochems brothers formed what they called the Order of the Camels in a national attempt to repeal Prohibition.
In 1932, after serving nearly 20 years as publicity campaign manager of the Republican Party in New York, Cochems relocated to Madison, where he continued to work for the Republican Party.
Cochems died on April 9, 1953, and in 1960 and 1965, major efforts were made to get him inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Both efforts failed because his tenure as coach was too short.
(Reach Curt Eriksmoen at email@example.com.)