John Bender: father of the Cougars

John R. Bender lived a remarkable life that impacted players, fans, servicemen, and countless others from coast to coast. While he is known as a player and coach, his most lasting accomplishments are what he did off the field.

One of those things is giving the University of Houston and Kansas State University their nicknames: the Cougars and the Wildcats.

John Bender 1890s
Bender as a schoolboy in the 1890s

Bender grew up in the rural midwest in the late 1800s and was a star halfback for the University of Nebraska. He played on two undefeated teams (1902 and 1903) and set a school record for points scored.

In 1904, Bender refused to play at defending national champs Minnesota, insisting he should get paid for the game. It was common practice for colleges to pay football players, but Bender’s stand was unpopular.

A Vagabond Coaching Career

Known as “Chief,” he began coaching at South Dakota State Normal School in 1905 and became head coach at Washington State College in 1906. At Wazzu, he posted a 13-1 record in football while coaching the Cougar basketball and baseball teams, too.

In 1908, he left Wazzu for Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. Haskell was known as the “Powerhouse of the West” in college football. He continued playing minor league baseball which he began late in his career at Nebraska.

At Haskell, Bender went 10-7-1, beating Texas A&M in 1908 and Texas in 1909. Those wins came on barnstorming road trips through the south: in 1908, Haskell traveled to Texas A&M, New Orleans to play LSU, and Tuscaloosa to play Alabama, all in eight days. In 1909, Haskell played Texas at the Fair Grounds in Dallas, at Baylor, and at A&M, also in eight days. The win over the Longhorns was considered “Indian luck.”

Austin Daily Statesman – October 17, 1909

Bender and his Haskell team also beat his alma mater, Nebraska, in 1909. He left Haskell after two seasons to become head coach at Saint Louis University. At Saint Louis, Chief gave up playing baseball and enrolled in law school, graduating with an LLM.

Big-arm Billiken

Bender gave the SLU football team the nickname “Billikens” after a reporter had observed that the coach’s smile resembled one (a Billiken was a charm doll famous at the time). A cartoon of Bender appeared in a local newspaper and called his team “Bender’s Billikens.”

The coach liked the name and officially gave it to the SLU squad. Today, the Billikens are the best oddball nickname in college sports.

After two years at SLU, Bender returned to Wazzu and spent three years in the Palouse (1912-1914), the longest uninterrupted coaching stop of his career. From there, he went to Kansas State Agricultural College in Manhattan, Kansas, for one season.

Bender named his new football team the Wildcats. While the school gave up the nickname for four years after Bender left (in the interim, they were the Farmers), they returned to it in 1920.

Bender in 1915 // Royal Purple Yearbook
Bender named his team the Wildcats // Royal Purple Yearbook

Bender also instituted homecoming at Kansas State, a tradition that has lasted 107 years. Saturday, the University of Houston will be Kansas State’s homecoming opponent.

Saint Louis gave up football in 1949, and their final game was against Houston. The Cougars won 35-0. The schools were members of Conference USA together from 1996-2005.

From Manhattan, Bender left for the Tennessee job at the same time that the Tennessee coach, Zora G. Clevenger, headed to Kansas State. It was basically a trade. In Knoxville, Bender coached football, basketball, and baseball for one season before World War I interrupted his career.

His one season as the Vols football coach produced the best season of his career: an 8-0-1 record and the championship of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (a precursor to the SEC). The only blemish was a 0-0 tie with Kentucky to end the season.

After the end of the 16-17 basketball season, Chief became a captain in the 360th Infantry and attained the rank of major by the end of his service. Bender went back to coach three more years in Knoxville before retiring from coaching in 1920.

On To Texas

The details are sketchy, but shortly after leaving Knoxville, Bender moved to College Station to teach at Texas A&M. He soon realized coaching was still in his blood and attempted to get the Texas head football job via media manipulation. It did not work.

Chief and his wife, Pearl, came to Houston to work at the Houston Junior College. Bender intended to start and coach a volunteer football squad. In 1927, as he had done at SLU and KState, Bender gave the Houston squad a nickname. He called them the Cougars in tribute to his two memorable stints at Washington State.

After Bender’s mascot selection and with his prodding, HJC students named the new campus newspaper The Cougar. On April 4, 1928, The Cougar published edition Number One.

The Daily Cougar - Edition Number One
The Daily Cougar First Edition

The Cougar paid special tribute to Bender with a short article on the front page of that first edition. The blurb says that under Bender’s “experienced hands,” the junior college would take a leading part in athletics. Sadly, only half of that sentence would be true.

John R Bender
Click to expand

While preparing for the new academic year and the upcoming season for his Cougars, Bender died on July 24, 1928, at 46. The reported cause was complications following gallstone surgery.

Despite his passing, his legacy lived on: The John R. Bender Dramatic Club began in 1931 as a tribute to the former coach. Pearl remained at HJC and then UH for years, serving as registrar and Dean of Women. She also sponsored many clubs and organizations on campus. The year John passed away, she founded the Cougar Collegians, the first service club on campus.

Some might say it’s just a nickname, but the Cougars have played a significant role in the psyche of the University of Houston. Bender’s stops at Wazzu, SLU, and Kansas State paved the way for the nickname UH fans love today.

September 16, 1915 – The Manhattan Republic