Calling an athlete “a legend” these days is usually a cliche. LeBron James hits a big shot? He’s a legend. Sidney Crosby scores three goals in a win? He’s a legend. You can probably find someone who thinks Christian Hackenberg is a legend after Penn State’s win over Michigan. Because of this, the word “legend” has almost become irrelevant … unless you’re actually a legend, someone whose impact goes beyond the normal scope of athletics.
Walter Bahr is one of those people.
The name may be familiar to some Penn Staters. Bahr is among the most successful coaches in the history of the school’s men’s soccer team, compiling a record of 448-137-70 in 14 years at the helm of the Nittany Lions. During Bahr’s tenure, Penn State made 12 NCAA Tournaments and had the only winner of the Hermann Award — college soccer’s version of the Heisman Trophy — in school history. Bahr was also the 1979 NSCAA Coach of the Year.
However, this isn’t what makes Bahr a legend. Penn State has had tons of coaches who won games, made tournaments, and developed fantastic players. Great coaches in Happy Valley are a dime a dozen, so to be considered legendary among them, Bahr must have done something remarkable, right?
Bahr is a legend because he, unlike any other Penn State coach, played a major role in arguably the greatest upset in World Cup history.
Bahr was born on April 1, 1927 in Philadelphia. Growing up, he had no ties to Penn State, and compared to the other kids in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, Bahr was way behind when he started playing.
“I started at age ten, and that was late for players in my neighborhood,” Bahr said. “It was strictly baseball and other things. Soccer was just coming into its own, and if you didn’t start at six years old, you were four years behind everybody else.”
The neighborhood was a soccer hotbed. Kensington was a major producer of textiles, which attracted workers from Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This gave Kensington some of the premier soccer talent in all of Philadelphia, which Bahr would play against when he finally got into the sport.
In 1948, Bahr received his first call up to the US Men’s National Team in the Summer Olympics. The USMNT was eliminated in the first match after suffering a 9-0 defeat to Italy. Bahr continued to suit up for the Red, White, and Blue, and was selected to play in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.
The United States was put into a group with Chile, Spain, and — arguably the favorite to win the entire tournament — England. With such a challenging group ahead of them, the USMNT was given 500 to 1 odds of winning the tournament, according to Bahr’s teammate Harry Keough.
Before facing England, the United States needed to face another juggernaut: Spain. La Roja provided a major challenge for the subpar American side, and despite a valiant effort from the US — the Americans actually led 1-0 with nine minutes left to go the match – Spain was able to pull out a 3-1 victory.
“I thought that was the best game we played at the World Cup,” Bahr said. “We led them, 1-0, with eight minutes to play, and then we gave up a couple of goals. But I thought as a team, we played much better.”
Next up for the Americans was its showdown with England. While the task at hand was daunting, Bahr remained optimistic.
“We didn’t have bragging rights of any type, but everybody went out there saying, ‘Let’s do the best we can, you never know what’s gonna happen,’” Bahr said. “The longer you stay in the game, the harder it is for the favored team to win.”
The USMNT faced an initial wave of British attackers, who hit the post several times, but were unable to beat American keeper Frank Borghi. Then, in the 38th minute, the Americans finally broke through, thanks to an “assist” from Bahr.
“First of all, it wasn’t an assist,” Bahr said. “I’m given credit for something I didn’t do, but I’ll take the hand clap. When the game started, we were stuffed back in our goal, just trying to keep the ball out. Frank made some good saves, some of the defenders made some good tackles. As the half went on, we started to play with a little bit more confidence and ball possession, and we came down.
“Ed McIlvenny, my playing partner in midfield, had a throw in from about the 35 yard line, which I got and traveled a little bit toward midfield,” Bahr continued. “Maybe eight yards out from the 18 yard area, I took a shot that was going to the far post. Bert Williams, who was the English goalkeeper, he’s moving to his right, and somehow Joe Gaetjens got a piece of it. He purposely went after it with his head. He got it to deflect enough so that Williams is leaning one way as the ball goes in the other side of him.”
The Americans took the 1-0 lead into the half, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. The match, which is now considered by many to be the greatest upset in the history of soccer, is known as the “Miracle on Grass.”
“The good thing about games like that, and I don’t care what the sport is, it gives the underdog the possibility of winning,” Bahr said. “And I think that’s what keeps games going.”
The team failed to make the final round of the tournament. Bahr would continue to play for another seven years before getting into coaching, and in 1974, Bahr replaced Herb Schmidt as the head coach of the Nittany Lions.
“Penn State was one of the few college teams that always had fairly good competition,” Bahr said. “At the same time, it was rare that a college player came and played with a good club team. There weren’t many top college players. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of good college players, but not in the numbers that they have today. Most places in the country never heard of soccer.”
The team was remarkably successful during Bahr’s tenure. Despite rarely traveling to see recruits — Bahr rationalizes, “You go to see a kid that’s recommended and he has a bad day. I’m gonna judge him on one bad day? I’d rather judge him on his reputation.” — Bahr’s Nittany Lions routinely had players from urban areas like Philadelphia and New York, and international players, something that was unique for college soccer at the time.
Bahr’s teams featured some of the best soccer players in Penn State history. Several players were All-Americans during his tenure, including former US Internationals Dan Cantor and Andy Rymarczuk, and Jim Stamatis, the only winner of the Herman Award in Penn State history.
Bahr also coached two of his three sons — Chris was a three-time All-American under his father, while Matt was an All-American once. Both also moonlighted as place-kickers for the football team, with Chris being named an All-American and Matt winning two Super Bowls. His third son, Casey, played soccer and football at Navy, while his daughter, Davies Ann, was an All-American gymnast for the Nittany Lions.
Under Bahr’s leadership, Penn State went 448-137-70, and made the NCAA Tournament in 12 of his 14 seasons. In 1979, the team made it to the College Cup, college soccer’s version of the Final Four. It is the only time in Penn State men’s soccer history that the team advanced to the cup.
At the time of his retirement in 1988, the only manager in Penn State men’s soccer history with more wins than Bahr was Bill Jeffrey, who happened to manage the 1950 US Men’s World Cup soccer team. Bahr stayed in Happy Valley, and he currently lives with his wife in Boalsburg.
Bahr still closely follows Penn State’s men’s and women’s teams, and he attends every home game that he can. When he does go, Bahr sits as far away from the team as possible, and does everything in his power to make sure that his presence isn’t felt by the players or coaches.
“I stay away from them completely,” Bahr said. “I think the last thing any new coach needs is an old coach looking over his shoulder. Or with his team, talking to his team, he may be telling them one thing and kids will ask me something, and I would tell them something else. So that’s another negative. So I sit on the other side of the bench, I watch the game, and I make as few comments as possible. I don’t even know the kid’s names or what their names are without their number.”
The same goes for the US men’s national team. For ten years, Bahr was the head of the US Soccer Delegation, and traveled with the team as a representative. His relationship with the team is a cordial one. He doesn’t speak to the players, because “they don’t wanna see a has-been hanging around,” but he still watches every match that he can, and on rare occasions, he’ll travel to see the team.
Bahr watches and enjoys the game at all levels. He watches the National Team and thinks the squad still has room to grow before they participate in the 2014 World Cup next summer. Bahr likes to watch the different ways that soccer is played across the world, and is amazed by the skill the game’s top players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo possess.
But in the end, Bahr’s two clubs, the two that he will always be associated with, are the United States and Penn State. His Hall of Fame career, filled with success from his time as a ten-year-old boy playing in Philadelphia all the way up to his stint as one of the greatest managers in Penn State history, has been nothing short of legendary.