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Harlow, Richard Cressonlocked

(19 October 1889–19 February 1962)
  • Tim Ashwell

Harlow, Richard Cresson (19 October 1889–19 February 1962), football coach and naturalist, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Louis Francis Harlow and Eugenia Pritchett. As a child he developed a lifelong fascination with birds and hoped to pursue a career in nature studies. After graduating from Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia in 1908, he enrolled at Pennsylvania State College intending to devote himself to scientific studies. When Harlow single-handedly thrashed several sophomores who had broken some birds’ eggs he had collected, his classmates convinced the strapping freshman to try out for the football team. Harlow subsequently earned honors as a tackle and played baseball and track; he also won the campus light heavyweight boxing championship. He earned his B.S. in 1912 and his M.S. in zoology in 1913. After graduation he remained at Penn State as assistant football coach, boxing coach, and zoology instructor. Harlow married Lila Naivette “Nippy” Gilpin in 1914, and they had one child.

Harlow became head football coach at Penn State in 1915, leading his teams to 20 wins and eight losses. He joined the U.S. Army in 1917, serving as an infantry lieutenant. He returned to Penn State as an assistant football coach in 1918. From 1922 to 1925 Harlow was head football coach and associate professor of ornithology at Colgate University. His Colgate squads, led by All-America halfback Eddie Tryon, won 26 games, lost nine, and tied three. Following the 1925 season Harlow moved to Western Maryland College as football coach, boxing coach, and athletic director. In nine seasons at the Westminster, Maryland, school, Harlow compiled a record of 60–13–7. He led the Green Terrors to victories over prominent rivals such as Georgetown, Boston College, Temple, and the University of Maryland; undefeated seasons in 1929, 1930, and 1934; and a 27-game unbeaten streak from 1928 to 1931.

On 6 January 1935 Harlow was named head football coach at Harvard University, the first nonalumnus to hold the position. His appointment was welcomed by alumni, who believed Harvard needed an established coach to revive its sagging football fortunes, but met with skepticism by the student newspaper, which noted Harlow’s gridiron victories had come at “colleges of somewhat shady character.” Harlow’s colorful personality, wide-ranging erudition, and manifest ability as a gridiron tactician and teacher soon won over his critics. He was honored by the American Football Coaches Association as college football’s coach of the year in 1936. In 1937 Harvard defeated rivals Yale and Princeton to win its first “Big Three” championship since 1915. With the exception of the 1943 and 1944 seasons, during which he served as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, he coached the Crimson until ill health and rumors of an incipient players’ revolt forced him to resign in January 1948. Harlow’s 11-year coaching record at Harvard was 45 wins, 39 losses, and seven ties; his overall coaching record was 151–69–17. He was elected to the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame in 1954 and the Helms Foundation Hall of Fame in 1956.

Throughout his coaching career Harlow remained active as a naturalist. His collection of rare birds’ eggs was considered among the nation’s finest, numbering 850 specimens and reportedly valued at more than $40,000. He published numerous articles in ornithology magazines and contributed data on eggs for the Smithsonian Institution’s Life Histories of North American Birds. In 1939 Harlow was appointed curator of oology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Harlow was an inventive football coach who built a creative offense based on the double-wing system pioneered by Pop Warner. His teams were noted for “mouse trap” blocking by pulling linemen and for intricate faking and ball-handling by his running backs. He is credited with developing the “shovel pass” play, which featured a quick underhand pass from the tailback to the fullback as he crashed into the line. On defense, Harlow’s Harvard teams were constantly in motion, using quickness to overcome a chronic lack of size. He perfected the defensive line play technique known as “stunting” or “looping,” which required his players to rush at angles rather than directly confronting their opponents. The prototypical Harlow player was Endicott “Chub” Peabody, a 185-pound guard who was the grandson and namesake of the founder of the Groton School and who later served as governor of Massachusetts. A consensus All-America pick in 1941, Peabody was nicknamed the “Babyface Assassin” because of his jarring tackles.

Harlow always maintained that tactics and strategy were secondary in building a winning football team. His Harvard players “didn’t need coaching; it was a matter of psychology,” he explained in the Saturday Evening Post (12 Oct. 1940). A successful coach, he said, “must become a man of many temperaments” who can relate to his players. He often invited players to his summer home in Pennsylvania, where they found themselves scrambling over mountain ridges in search of birds’ eggs or rare ferns.

When Harlow returned from service in World War II, suffering from hypertension and restricted to a diet of rice and fruit juice, he found the psychological tricks that had worked with his prewar teams were lost on the older, more mature players of his 1946 and 1947 teams, many of whom were combat veterans. After a disappointing 4–5 campaign in 1947, several starters told Harvard’s athletic director they would quit the team if Harlow returned as coach. He resigned in January 1948 and retired to his homes in Maryland and the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, where he devoted himself to his birds and his gardens of rare ferns, gentians, and rhododendrons. He died in Bethesda, Maryland.


For an example of Harlow’s scientific writing, see “Notes on the Breeding Birds of Pennsylvania and New Jersey,” Auk 35 (1918). His 1913 M.S. thesis, “The Breeding Birds of Pennsylvania,” is in the Pennsylvania State University library. Assessments of Harlow’s coaching career can be found in E. C. Huntington, ed., Fifty Years of Colgate Football (1940); Morris A. Bealle, The History of Football at Harvard (1948); Geoffrey H. Movius, ed., The Second H Book of Harvard Athletics (1964); and Joe Bertagna, Crimson in Triumph (1986). His Harvard career and teams were also covered in detail by the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald Traveler. For an account of his years at Western Maryland, see Walter Taylor, “A Rare Bird,” in the college’s alumni magazine, Western Maryland College, Nov. 1990. Harlow discussed his coaching philosophy in “They Didn’t Need Coaching: The Coach’s Story of Recent Harvard Football,” Saturday Evening Post, 12 Oct. 1940. An obituary is in the New York Times, 20 Feb. 1962.