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Bob Odell, 90; college football hall of famer starred at Penn

Bob Odell, an Iowa farm boy who won the Maxwell Award and very nearly the Heisman Trophy as a Penn football star and later coached the Quakers, Bucknell, and Williams, died Saturday, Dec. 15, of kidney disease at a King of Prussia nursing facility.

Bob Odell coached at Bucknell, Penn, and Williams.
Bob Odell coached at Bucknell, Penn, and Williams.Read more

Bob Odell, an Iowa farm boy who won the Maxwell Award and very nearly the Heisman Trophy as a Penn football star and later coached the Quakers, Bucknell, and Williams, died Saturday, Dec. 15, of kidney disease at a King of Prussia nursing facility.

Mr. Odell, who was 90, was best known as a World War II-era all-America halfback at Penn, which then had one of the nation's most successful football programs.

"Odell did it all," the university said in a statement on its website. "He ran, passed, punted, received, returned kickoffs and punts, and played defense."

A member of the College Football Hall of Fame, Mr. Odell compiled a record of 136-95-5 at Bucknell, Penn, and Williams between 1958 and 1986. As a player, he was a two-way star for George Munger's powerful Quakers.

The handsome back was at least partly responsible for the popularity of Quakers football in that era. From 1938 to 1942, Penn led the nation in attendance, attracting 1.78 million fans to Franklin Field - 300,000 more than second-place Southern California.

After graduation in 1944, Mr. Odell served as a Navy ensign in the final days of World War II. He then became an assistant at Yale, Temple, and Wisconsin, coaching Heisman Trophy winner Alan Ameche at the latter school. In 1958, Bucknell hired him as its head coach. He retired from Williams in 1986.

Riding the caboose

He grew up on a farm outside Corning, Iowa. An all-state running back as well as a track and basketball star at Sioux City East High, he spurned the University of Iowa for Penn, where his older brother, Howard, was on the coaching staff.

A scholarship paid for his Penn tuition, but Mr. Odell was responsible for board. To save money, his father arranged for him to travel to Philadelphia on a freight train that was hauling cattle to Chicago's stockyards. He remained on board, occupying the caboose, until Erie.

"I'd had about enough," Mr. Odell recalled in a 2004 interview. "I still had a few bucks, so I bought a Greyhound ticket and took the bus [to Philadelphia]."

Once at Penn, he was required to take an entrance exam before he could start classes.

"The test lasted from 8 in the morning until 5 in the evening," he said. "It was brutal. I never knew my score - and I don't want to know. I just know I was accepted."

As a sophomore in 1941, Mr. Odell led Penn to a 7-1 record, its only loss to powerful Navy. With Mr. Odell hampered by a knee injury the next season - he still was able to supplement his tailback duties as a return specialist and defender - the Quakers went 5-3. It was in 1943, specifically in the tie Penn managed against Glenn Davis' mighty Army team, that Mr. Odell forged a national reputation.

A senior captain, he excelled on both sides of the ball in that game, and the next day's newspaper accounts were filled with his heroics. Army coach Red Blaik called him "the best tackler I've ever seen - he never misses."

At the end of that 6-2-2 season, Mr. Odell was named an all-American and the local Maxwell Club gave him its award as the nation's top player. He lost out in the Heisman voting to Notre Dame's Angelo Bertelli.

Mr. Odell was a second-round pick of Pittsburgh in the 1944 draft, and when he returned from the service, the team offered him a contract.

"They offered me $8,000 for the 1946 season," he recalled. "I had had trouble with my knee, and the Steelers' doctor who examined me said, 'You can play, but if you were my son, I'd advise you against it.' That was good enough for me."

In 1958, Bucknell named him its head coach. While his first two teams had losing seasons, the next five went 32-13, capturing the Lambert Cup as the East's top small-college team in 1960 and 1964. The school later erected a monument in his honor outside its stadium.

"Coach Odell was a player's coach, but always a leader," said Ben Elliott, a Bucknell safety and speechwriter for Ronald Reagan. "He envisioned a form of the West Coast offense before it existed and perfected its quick-strike passes into a formidable attack."

He returned to Philadelphia to coach his alma mater in 1965 but found a far different football environment. Penn had since become a charter member of the Ivy League, and its rigid academic requirements forced the school to downsize its football ambitions.

He improved on predecessors' records but managed only a 24-29-1 mark in six Penn seasons. In 1971, he left for Division III Williams, where he found his greatest success and contentment.

There his teams beat archrival Amherst in nine of their first 10 meetings. Williams went 75-40-4 under Mr. Odell.

'Humble and gracious'

He was inducted into the College Hall of Fame in 1992 and was a charter member of Penn's Athletic Hall of Fame in 1996.

"He was a humble and gracious man who did not swear, would never cheat," said his son, Bob Jr., a physician in Las Vegas. "[He] believed in clean, hard, fair play, so that his players always ran off the field with their heads held high."

He spent most of his retirement years in Lewisburg before entering a retirement community in West Chester. He also had a home in Ocean City, N.J.

Surviving are his wife of 67 years, Jane Davis Odell; his son; two daughters, Nancy Odell McMullen and Cynthia Odell McEtchin; three grandchildren; a sister; and nieces and nephews.

An 11 a.m. memorial service will be Saturday, Jan. 12, at Alleva Funeral Home, 1724 E. Lancaster Ave., Paoli, with visitation starting at 10. A reception will follow at Landmark Americana Restaurant, 629 Lancaster Ave., Wayne.