The Ironton Tanks were a semi-professional football team organized in 1919 in Ironton, Ohio.
Their historical marker gives the story of the Tanks origin: "Semi-professional football began in Ironton in 1893 with a team known as the Irontonians. The Ironton Tanks, founded in 1919, was a combination of two Ironton cross-town rival football clubs known as the Irish Town Rags and the Lombards." Their name reflected both the town's deep roots in the iron industry and the desire of returning soldiers from World War I to run over their opponents.
Based on their outstanding record of 85 wins, 19 losses, 14 ties, an undefeated season in 1922, a state championship in 1926 and dual victories in 1930 over National Football League (NFL) powerhouses the Chicago Bears and New York Giants, the Tanks have a strong claim to being the best team to not play in the NFL. This motto is reinforced on the wall of Tank Stadium, where the story of the stadium opening proclaims "When the Tanks Were Tops" (2nd picture in photo gallery below). Their unmatched achievements in 1930 are recorded in a Professional Football Researchers Association's report on the 1930 season when talking about non-NFL teams: "None, however, matched the Ironton (Ohio) Tanks' 1930 achievements."
Perhaps more important to Ironton residents at the time were the local rivalries with other cities in the Ohio area, particularly Portsmouth, where the local sentiment was summed up by this quote “ancient and hereditary foes”. Despite being a small town, only about 1/3 the size of Portsmouth, the Tanks are referred to by Carl Becker refers as the dominant team of the era, "In the 1920s, the "famous" Ironton Tanks were the sovereigns of semi-professional football in the upper Ohio Valley, indeed even in the state of Ohio". Other rivals in Ohio were the Ashland Armcos, Dayton Koors, several teams from Cincinnati, Columbus and Akron, but none appeared to have stirred the fans' passion as did Portsmouth.
Earle "Greasy" Neale
The most colorful figure to be associated with the Ironton Tanks was their legendary coach Greasy Neale. He is the only person to have coached in the Rose Bowl (1922), won the World Series (Reds vs White Sox, 1919) and won an NFL title (Philadelphia Eagles back to back 1948-49). Greasy insisted his Reds won the scandal-plagued 1919 "Black Sox" Series due to better pitching.
The best player for the Tanks is also not controversial, Glenn Presnell. Besides leading the Tanks to victories over the Giants and Bears, guiding the Portsmouth Spartans to the NFL regular season championship in 1932, he helped the Detroit Lions to their first NFL championship in 1935. Not only did he play both sides of the ball, Glenn Presnell held the NFL longest field goal record for 19 years, with a 54 yarder that beat the Green Bay Packers 3-0. He led the NFL in scoring in 1933 with 64 points from TDs, field goals and points after TDs. He graduated from the University of Nebraska as an All-American in 1928 with a Bachelor's degree in Education and was honored with an Alumni award in 2003 at the age of 97. Glenn was inducted into the Nebraska High School Hall of Fame, citing his three Letters as a Cornhusker, leading the nation in total yards as a senior, All-Missouri Valley two times, and twice being NFL All-pro. He was inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 1973 and named 34th out of Nebraska's top 100 athletes. Interesting trivia is that his wife helped choose the famous powder blue uniforms for the Detroit Lions when the team moved from Portsmouth, Ohio. However, Glenn's memory is challenged by the Lions official site Outside this minor controversy, Glenn and the Lions seemed to have gotten along well. He posed with a football from "Your Friends at the Detroit Lions" crowning him the "LionKing". Many feel his NFL career itself deserved entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while others have said he was unfairly discriminated against because of his years with the Tanks. An online petition to support his entry to the Football Hall of Fame, in nearby Canton, Ohio, has also attracted attention,
The Tanks uniform was also noteworthy, a distinctive blend of khaki pants and red jerseys, reminiscent of the 49ers today. They were nicknamed Big Red and the Big Red Machine and appear to be the first team to sport this intimidating moniker.
The secrets of their success;
The answer to the most intriguing question about the Ironton Tanks, "How could they compete year after year with teams from the NFL and much larger cities?" is found primarily with the leader of the early years Charlton "Shorty" Davies (circled in the picture gallery's newspaper article below) and his teammate at Ohio State, Bill Brooks.. The early Tanks typically played without helmets and made fifty dollars a game but sometimes were not paid (F.C. "Dutch" McCarthy, private conversation). However, they were able to attract top players by providing coaching and teaching jobs in the surrounding areas. Shorty Davies coached at Ironton High School. Glenn Presnell taught science at Ironton High School and coached at Russel. Other Tanks taught or coached at Hanging Rock, Pedro, Blackfork, South Point, Chesapeake, Coal Grove, Proctorville, Rome and Raceland.
2) Innovative Offense Although the Tanks operated out of the standard formation of the day, the single wing, they were able to use the pass, in part due to Presnell's threat to run from the tailback position. He credited his superior speed more than quick cuts. The ball was more round than today, which made a passing game even more difficult. Still the Tanks were able to innovate with "looping and angle charges still being used today by teams of the National Football League".