According to my research, the youngest North American head coach/manager of a major professional sports team (football, baseball, basketball or hockey), to lead his team to a national title in the past 100 years, later became a prominent Fargo merchant.
At the age of 26 years, 4 months, and 9 days, Bob Fritz guided the Winnipeg Rugby Football Club/Blue Bombers to a victory in the 1935 Grey Cup, Canada’s equivalent of the Super Bowl.
Fritz was not only the head coach, but he was also the quarterback on the Winnipeg team that finished the season 11-0. It also marked the first time that a Western Conference team won the Grey Cup.
The following North American skippers were the youngest in each of the major professional sports : Art “Pappy” Lewis was 27 when he coached the Cleveland Rams of the National Football League in 1938; Lou Boudreau was 24 when he managed baseballs’ Cleveland Indians in 1942; Dave DeBusscher was 25 when he coached the Detroit Pistons of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1964; Gary Green was 26 when he coached the Washington Capitols of the National Hockey League in 1979; and Bud Grant was 29 when he coached the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League (CFL).
The CFL was formed from the merger of the Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU) and the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU), the two major football leagues in Canada prior to the creation of the CFL. Fritz coached and played in both the WIFU and the IRFU.
Robert Francis Fritz Jr. was born on July 29, 1909, in Winton, Minn., to Robert and Bridgette (McDonald) Fritz. His father managed a saw mill in International Falls, where Bob Jr. grew up. While in high school, International Falls became famous for its football teams, largely because of the outstanding feats of its star player, Bronko Nagurski, who was one year older than Fritz.
Overshadowed and not receiving a scholarship after graduation, Fritz worked for a couple of years at his father’s saw mill until he had saved enough money to attend college.
Fritz enrolled at Concordia in 1931 and played football for the Cobbers under head coach Frank Cleve. During his freshman year, Concordia won the conference championship with a record of 5 wins, 2 losses, and 1 tie, and Fritz was named to the all-conference team.
After two years with a .500 record, the Cobbers had another excellent team in 1935, with Fritz as its captain. Concordia won 7 games with one loss and one tie. Their only loss was a 0-6 defeat at the hands of the North Dakota Agricultural College, now NDSU.
Two of their victories were against the Winnipeg Rugby Football Club, later known as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Concordia defeated Winnipeg 33 to 27 in the first game and 26 to 16 in the second game.
In attendance at the games was Winnipeg’s general manager, Joe Ryan, who was highly impressed with the performance of Bob Fritz, not only as a player, but his on-the-field direction of other players.
At the end of the season, after Fritz was named honorable mention as halfback on the Associated Press All-American football team, Ryan convinced Fritz to sign a contract to play for Winnipeg and to serve as the team’s coach.
To have better control of the offensive plays, Fritz decided to become Winnipeg’s quarterback. There is no argument that Winnipeg was the best football team in Canada in 1935, winning all 11 games they played that season. They won the five exhibition games and were 3-0 in conference play, outscoring their opponents 97 to 4.
In the playoffs they defeated the Regina Roughriders and the Calgary Bronks, qualifying them to play the Hamilton Tigers in the Grey Cup. On December 7, Winnipeg defeated the Tigers 18 to 12, marking the first time that a team from the west won the Grey Cup.
During spring training of 1936, Vince Leah, a sports writer for the Winnipeg Tribune, began referring to the Winnipeg team as the Blue Bombers, and soon that became the name by which they were usually called.
That season Winnipeg once again finished in first place in division play with a 5-2-1 record, but lost in the semi-finals to the Roughriders. In 1937, after a 4-4 record, Fritz was released. MacLean’s Magazine named Fritz as the All-Star quarterback for the West in their picks for both 1936 and 1937. They wrote that he “is renowned for his defensive work, as well as for his plunging and passing and his good generalship.”
In 1938, the Edmonton Eskimos formed a football team to play in the WIFU that also included the Blue Bombers. The Eskimos owners were excited to discover that Fritz was available, and he signed a contract to be both the quarterback and coach for this new expansion team.
The Eskimos struggled and finished with a 0-8 conference record, but expectations were higher going into the 1939 season. MacLean’s reported: “With five former Minnesota Gopher’s stars now located at Edmonton, Bob Fritz can be counted upon to lead his Eskimos to greater heights this season.”
The Eskimos improved to 3-8 before the franchise ran out of money, and they were forced to drop out of the conference. Fritz remained in Edmonton after his team folded, and accepted the position of head coach and athletic director at the University of Alberta. In 1940, Fritz’s college football team went 5-0, and in 1941 they were 2-2.
By 1942, Canada was involved in World War II, and during the war, Fritz coached teams for the Royal Canadian Air Force. In 1946, Fritz returned to Moorhead and accepted the position of backfield coach for Concordia Coach Jake Christiansen.
In 1947, he and Louis Benson, a former assistant coach of the Cobbers football team, established the Fargo Athletic Supply Company.
In 1953, Fritz purchased a working share of the larger Emery-Johnson Sporting Goods store, and in 1954 he established Bob Fritz Sporting Goods on NP Avenue in Fargo.
In 1969, he retired and turned the store over to his nephew Lyall Engebretson. Fritz was inducted into the Concordia Athletic Hall of Fame in 1987 and died on Dec. 19, 2003.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.