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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published May 25 2013

Eriksmoen: Former North Dakota coach worked to get Roosevelt re-elected

A former North Dakota football coach abandoned his career to try to help a former North Dakota rancher retake the White House.

In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt decided to return to national politics, announcing his intent to regain the presidency. Eddie Cochems, a highly successful football coach, announced that he was “going to leave the gridiron for good” to focus his attention on helping Roosevelt. This decision by Cochems likely prevented him from 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. On campus, Cochems became heavily involved in politics and, in 1900, was elected president of the university’s Republican Club.

While at North Dakota Agricultural College in 1902 and 1903, Cochems witnessed the efforts of people such as newspaper editor George Winship pushing for progressive reforms. 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 win-loss record of 12-3 at NDAC and Clemson University, William Banks Rogers, the athletic director at St. Louis University, recruited Cochems to become the coach at his Catholic college.

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. While at SLU, Cochems was the first college coach to have uniform numbers sewn onto the players’ football jerseys.

In 1910, Cochems moved to Milwaukee to assist his older brother, Henry, who had won the Republican nomination for U.S. Congress in his district. Henry was defeated in the general election, 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 urging him to seek the presidency. After returning to the U.S. later that year, he said that he was contemplating the idea. That was all the encouragement Eddie Cochems needed. On Oct. 2, newspaper articles across the country announced 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 their candidate. Cochems made an impassioned plea that the party needed to choose Roosevelt.

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 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 jumped out of the car and seized the would-be assassin before he could get off another shot, likely saving Roosevelt’s life. Despite his wound, Roosevelt was determined to deliver his speech.

Henry introduced Roosevelt to the crowd, telling them about the shooting. Roosevelt began his speech by praising the Cochems family and then said, “I am a little sore. Anybody has a right to be sore with a bullet in him.”

In the general election, Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote, and Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, was elected. 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 them to a 6-3 record. Meanwhile, Germany invaded Belgium, plunging Europe into World War I. Cochems accepted a position to head up a relief commission to assist Belgium. During the latter part of the war, he assisted the adjutant general at Long Island.

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 get Prohibition repealed. Eddie was the organization’s president.

In 1932, after serving nearly 20 years as publicity campaign manager of the Republican party in New York, Cochems relocated to Madison, Wis., where he continued to work for the Republican party.

Eddie Cochems died on April 9, 1953. In 1960 and 1965, major efforts were made to get him inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame because of his success as a coach and the important innovations he made to the game. Both efforts failed because his tenure as coach was too short.

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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.