Sunday, May 17, 2009

Lightnin' Lou

On November 16th 1940 two undefeated teams met at Fenway Park before a crowd of more than 20,000 expectant observers. Boston College and Georgetown both sat at 9-0 and were ranked 8th and 9th respectively in the AP poll. Grantland Rice and Amos Stagg were among the spectators and both commented on the innovative offenses showcased in the new T-formation. In addition to shifty and dynamic backfields the Jesuit rivals possessed possibly the two strongest lines in the country, including BC’s bruising 250lb All-America center Chet Gladchuck. Jack Haggerty’s Georgetown program was steadily improving and Boston College's head coach Frank Leahy had led the Eagles to their first bowl in his rookie year. Both schools hoped to challenge Notre Dame as the nation’s top Catholic football school.

A thrilling game finished in a 19-18 BC win after the Eagles took an intentional safety on an end-zone punt in the dying minutes, leaving Georgetown insufficient time to reach field goal range. An exciting game shifted in momentum several times. The Hoyas jumped out to a 10-0 first quarter lead before BC posted sixteen unanswered in reply. Huge runs and an unusually large number of downfield passing plays allowed a Boston College backfield that was gaining national recognition to shine.

Eagles greats quarterback “Chuckin’ Charlie O’Rourke, and fullback (later head coach) Mike Holovak led the lineup, but many felt the Eagles’ best player in Leahy’s squads
was a little 5’7” halfback named Lou Montgomery. With time expiring in the second quarter and BC on the Hoyas' twenty-two Leahy outmaneuvered Haggerty and seized momentum with a trick play. O’Rourke threw a backfield lateral to Montgomery, as BC often did to get their runner into open space, but the halfback rolled out to his right, drawing defenders up, and threw a touchdown pass to tight end Woronicz. Despite a fourth quarter Georgetown surge, that touchown effectively gave the Eagles control of the game's momentum.

BC’s official roster did not list “Lightnin’ Lou” as a starter, despite his significant playing time in three varsity seasons from 1938 to 1940. The 160lb slashing back was a famed open field runner and drew much attention from scouts of future opponents. He suffered no serious injury problems, always had the right attitude, and never faced a defense that bested him. Despite all that, Montgomery spent several crucial games watching from the sidelines and did not participate in the 1940 Cotton Bowl or 1941 Sugar Bowl. Montgomery lost so much playing time and was never allowed to fulfill his true potential as a college athlete because he was black.

Boston College football stood at a cross roads in the late 1930s. BC had played varsity football since 1893 but had never attained national significance. Before WWI the Ivy League dominated East Coast football and Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame stood without rival or peer above all Catholic colleges. But as the 1920s gave way to the 30s Ivy League schools began to deemphasize
football, fearing the sport was eclipsing academic priorities, and Notre Dame suffered declining fortunes during the post-Rockne era. After decades of struggling to earn respect as an Eastern Independent, athletic administrators at BC saw an opportunity to increase the prestige of their institution by succeeding in football.

College President Father William Murphy and graduate director of athletics John Curly hitched the program's fortunes to the young Frank Leahy in 1938. Leahy felt that BC needed to improve the caliber of their opponents if they were to command national attention. Murphy and Curly saw that step as vital to increasing lucrative ticket revenues. Games against St. Anselm, Providence, McDaniel College (MD), New Hampshire and the like carried little weight with wire service pollsters. For BC to gain the attention of bowl selection committees they needed to play inter-sectional games, and especially against teams from areas that hosted bowls. Since trips to the west coast were out of the question in 1940, this meant southern schools.

From 1938 to 1940 series with Florida, Auburn and Tulane put the Eagles on the southern football map and earned Cotton and Sugar Bowl bids. Ticket sales at Fenway Park rocketed, BC claimed a share of the 1940 national title, and Frank Leahy lost only one regular season game in two years. This record lifted him to the top of the candidate list for the head coaching job at his alma mater – Notre Dame.

The change in scheduling philosophy did not work so well for Lou Montgomery. In the 1940s southern schools still retained “Jim Crow” clauses with the NCAA that prohibited black athletes from taking part in any event involving their teams, regardless of venue. BC travelled to New Orleans to face Tulane in September 1939, but all four of the games against Auburn and Florida during his playing career took place in Boston. Lightnin’ Lou sat every minute of every one of those games out. He also suffered a loss of playing time in the preceeding weeks preceding as Leahy tested formations without him in the line up in preparation. The Eagles needed the work as Leahy’s offense clearly lost a step without Montgomery. The team’s only loss in 1939 came against an uninspiring Florida team that went on to finish 5-5-1. BC generated very few yards against the Gators and lost by the pitiful score of 7-0. Boston newspapers howled that Lightnin’ Lou would surely have proved the difference.

When the Eagles headed south for Dallas on December 26th 1939 Montgomery stood on the train car with the team and received personal applause from the large crowd. They knew he would not be going along. Before the train pulled off he stepped off the team car and watched as the Eagles went to face Clemson without him.

BC lost a narrow contest 6-3. Sportswriters noted the strong line play on both sides and the shortage of vertical running yards. O’Rourke’s passing attracted attention as he threw both downfield and laterally. But dropped passes and lack of speed hurt the Eagles. BC penetrated Clemson’s twenty yard line several times but even a first-and-goal with three minutes to play proved useless. The Tigers ground O'Rourke's drive to a halt.

When the team returned to Boston another large crowd met them at the station. Lou Montgomery rejoined his team and as he offered his encouragement and expressed pride in their effort someone shouted that BC would have won had he been allowed to play. He only shook his head with sadness and humility, saying:

“No. No, I don’t think so.”

But privately doubts were stronger. That same day at the train station Leahy commented quietly to his little halfback

“Louis, if they had let us bring you along we wouldn’t have lost.”

Montgomery accepted the praise, replying:

“I’m always going to believe that, coach.”

Leahy never treated Montgomery poorly or expressed any personal racism. He was happy to have black athletes on his team and probably did believe Montgomery would have made the difference in Dallas. He may also have had good reasons for feeling that he could not change the racial climate. But it is certain that the coach did not feel inclined to push the limits of inclusion and make personal, professional or financial sacrifices on behalf of his mistreated player.

A 2002 article in the BC student paper, The Heights, entitled “Ahead of their time,” recounts the history of the university's first black athletes. The article takes a positive tone [as student newspapers probably should] and praises Boston College for having never excluded black athletes. This pride is at least partially valid. Montgomery always said that his teammates treated him well and even initially opposed the idea of benching him for southern racism. But they soon gave way, especially when he urged them not to sacrifice the greater good of the team on his count. But it seems unlikely that he would not have gladly accepted their support had the team stood firm.

A 2005 Boston College M.A. thesis by Kevin Gregg is less optimistic than The Heights. Gregg concludes that the administration sacrificed fundamental Jesuit principles of brotherhood, equality and poverty for money and prestige.
Gregg also found that while Boston’s black newspapers launched scathing attacks on the administration’s cowardice and hypocrisy, the city’s white press only seemed to care when the Eagles lost a game because of Lou’s absence.

This sad disparity became quite clear in 1940 when “the team of destiny” put together an 11-0 season and claimed a share of BC football’s only ever national title. After a strong showing in 1939 Leahy was able to strengthen his team. The 1940 Eagles were bigger, stronger and faster. And they could win without Montgomery, thus removing any cause for protest from the Boston Globe.

Lightnin’ Lou missed the team’s coming out voyage to New Orleans in September, when Leahy’s men knocked off southern power Tulane at home. Students at the Auburn Polytechnic Institute greased the rail lines running through their town, forcing BC’s train to stop and receive their applause for beating a hated rival. In the excitement no one really noticed the absence of a 160 lb halfback.

Montgomery did accompany the team to New Orleans for the 1941 Sugar Bowl. While his teammates prepared for their toughest test in Robert Neyland’s Tennessee Volunteers, he played for cash in a black college all-star game. They stayed sixty-miles ou
tside of the city, away from distractions. Montgomery roomed in the heart of the city and took full advantage of the nightlife. But there is no doubt that he would rather have been with the Eagles, going against the Vols as a fully included representative of Boston College.

Lightnin’ Lou had been a Massachusetts all-academic prep star in 1936. He chose to represent his home state at Boston College, even though several other significant schools including UCLA offered him a scholarship. The greatest indicator of Lou’s true feelings during his BC years is that in his later life he openly stated in interviews that he would not make the same choice if given a second chance. This must be the one thing no college football fan ever wants to hear from an alumnus of his beloved program.

It is, of course, impossible to know whether BC could have broken the color line in the Cotton or Sugar Bowl in the early 1940s. What is certain is that Penn State and
Wallace Triplett succeeded in desegregating the Dallas game in 1948. The Pitt Panthers and Bobby Greer accomplished the same for New Orleans in 1956. These dates preceded the general integration of southern college football by many years. Neither of these landmarks occurred because people at SMU or Georgia Tech were happy to play against integrated opponents. Indeed, in December 1955 Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin attempted to stop the game from proceeding and pointed in desperation at civil unrest surrounding a month-old bus boycott in nearby Montgomery, Alabama.

SMU accepted Wally Triplett because they and the Cotton Bowl wanted the best available opponent and Penn State had already taken a public stand against the Jim Crow clause. They could either back down or find a lesser foe, sacrificing prestige and revenue. The 1955 Panthers likewise refused to accept a bowl invitation without the inclusion of Greer. Georgia Tech students marched on the state capitol and burned Griffin in effigy not because they wanted general desegregation and loved black people, but because they wanted to see their Yellow Jackets play the best team available.

Perhaps similar resolve from Boston College in 1940 would have achieved such success. Perhaps four bloody years of fighting European fascism were necessary before Americans in the south could stomach such changes, even at the cost of losing a good football game. We will never know. We can only say for certain that the story of Lou Montgomery is not a bright chapter in the history of either college football or Boston College.

(Sources: Kevin Gregg, Tackling Jim Crow – unpublished M.A. thesis, Boston College 2005; Boston Globe, Lou Montgomery; The Heights, Ahead of their time; Reid Oslin, Tales from the BC sideline; Mark Purcell, 1940 BC vs. Georgetown – CFHS newsletter; DMN, 1940 Cotton Bowl; Wiki, 1956 Sugar Bowl)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fifth down and goal

On November 16th 1940 the Cornell Big Red rolled into Hanover, NH as the homecoming day guest for hated rival Dartmouth. Cornell was undefeated at 6-0 and stood second in the AP poll. Until falling behind eventual national champions Minnesota in that week’s poll Cornell had been ranked first all year. The 1940 Big Red remains the only Ivy League team ever to top the AP standings.

Cornell is hardly a football power today but in 1940 they were a formidable outfit. The legendry Glenn “Pop” Warner had played and coached at Cornell, as had Gilmour “Gloomy Gil” Dobie – a giant of his generation who led the Washington Huskies to a 58-0-3 in his nine seasons as head coach from 1908 to 1916. This is still the NCAA’s longest ever undefeated run. Dobie’s Cornell teams claimed three consecutive national titles from 1921 to 1923. Although subsequent seasons had been less kind, the Big Red were enjoying a return to former glory under the rigorous tutelage of Carl “the Grey Fox” Snavely. An eighteen game unbeaten run stretched back to a narrow two-point road defeat at Syracuse in mid-October 1938. A winning streak of fourteen games beginning on opening day 1939 included a home and home series sweep of Francis Schmidt’s heavily favored Ohio State Buckeyes, the 1939 Big Ten champions. Although the fiscally cautious university administration turned down several bowl invitations in 1938 and 1939 Cornell did claim the Sagarin national title in the latter of those years and entered the 1940 season as a hot favorite in every wire service poll.

Waiting for the bookmaker’s fifteen-to-one favorite were the 3-4 Dartmouth Indians, led by their own rising coaching star, the young Earl “Red” Blaik. Then in his last season at Dartmouth before moving to West Point, Blaik had a win percentage above .700 and had never posted a losing season. [His entire career would total a quarter century with only a single losing year]. Although his team lacked the talent of the high scoring Red, on the day Blaik out foxed the Grey Fox. A bitterly cold contest unfolded on increasingly muddy sod. Snow began falling by the final quarter and neither team managed to move the ball. Snavely ran a progressive offensive system for the time, combining end-around runs with short passes underneath and to the flat [almost a hybrid of what would later become known as the option and west coast offenses]. Blaik quickly saw that the conditions would afford little mobility and dropped the interior of his defensive line back a few steps off the ball. By also bringing his linebackers up he created a crowd of defenders able to react quickly and contain the ball. Dartmouth gave the Big Red short gains on every down, but no more.

Dartmouth passed only once all day. That ball fell incomplete. Neither team gained a first down in the opening fifteen minutes. The teams punted a combined twenty-two times. Cornell had not entered the locker room without the lead in two seasons, but the game remained tied at zero heading into the final period. Finally, with less than five minutes to play, Dartmouth penetrated the Cornell twenty yard line and attempted a field goal on fourth down. Pre-war football being what it was, no player on the entire Dartmouth team had ever been involved in a field goal try. They were universally amazed and ecstatic to see left tackle Bob Kreiger send the ball through the uprights.

In response, a desperate Snavely signaled his men to open up the playbook. With an unbeaten season, possible AP title, and long winning streak at steak Cornell began to throw the ball in defiance of the inhibiting conditions. Starting from a kick return to their own forty-eight it took only two long connections to carry the Big Red to Dartmouth’s six yard line. Facing first and goal with under a minute remaining, a three yard halfback run off left tackle halved the distance. A run off right tackle on second down ate up two more yards. Then, with only seconds remaining, the game entered infamy in Ivy League lore. Fullback Mark Lansberg carried up the middle and fell backwards towards the goal line. Center Frank Finnerman maintains to this day that Lansberg came across the line and landed on top of him in the end zone. The carry would have given Cornell a victory. Instead, referee Red Friesell called the ball down and returned it to the one yard line. Someone in the confused and angry Cornell team attempted to call a timeout, forgetting that the Big Red had none remaining. This error drew a delay of game penalty and moved the ball back to the six. On fourth down, with time expiring and only one chance remaining, quarterback Walter Shaw bootlegged right and threw a jump-pass to the end zone. A Dartmouth defender batted the ball down, apparently sealing the 3-0 win. Inexplicably, Friesell placed the ball on the six yard line rather than the twenty (where the rules of the day dictated Dartmouth should have taken over after a turnover on downs inside the red zone). Friesell signaled fourth down and Cornell ran the same play with a different result. Halfback Bill Murphy brought the ball safely to his chest before the PAT gave Cornell a controversial 7-3 win.

Media uproar began immediately. Reporters wired news across the country of the inexplicable fifth down and Cornell’s eleventh hour victory. Some speculated that Friesell may have thought the five yard penalty cancelled a down. Whatever he thought, the umpire soon changed his mind. After reviewing tape of the game he admitted his error in apologetic telegrams to both schools only hours after the final gun. The following day Cornell President Ezra Day, a Dartmouth graduate, and coach Snavely agreed to concede the game. Informing the team of the decision Day assured the distressed players that Dartmouth honor and decency would surely lead their president to refuse the concession.

Day was wrong. The game became the first in college football history decided off the field. It entered the record books as a 3-0 Dartmouth victory and ended the Cornell winning streak. The following week a crushed Big Red team dropped a second game by two points at Penn. Cornell men still protest that had they retained a morale boosting victory in Hanover their team would surely have triumphed in Philadelphia to finish the season 8-0. Instead, Frank Leahy’s undefeated Boston College headed south as champion of the East to face Tulane in the 1941 Sugar Bowl. 6-2 Cornell ended the year 15th in the AP rankings. No Ivy League team has ever come so close to an AP crown.

Exactly half a century later in 1990, the 3-1-1 Colorado Buffalos headed to Columbia on October 6th for a Big Eight matchup against 2-2 Missouri. Head coach Bill McCartney was in his ninth year in Boulder, where he had put together some startlingly athletic teams. His dynamic option offenses even gave Tom Osbourne’s power running Cornhuskers some things to think about. McCartney had finally broken through the ten-win barrier and flirted with a national title in 1989, going 11-1. Through the first five games of a grueling 1990 schedule the Buffaloes had defeated #12 Washington (the eventual Pac-10 winner and Rothman national champion), #20 Texas (the eventual Southwest Conference champion), and unranked Stanford. They had lost by a single point in Champagne to Illinois (the eventual Big 10 champion), and had tied the #8 Tennessee Volunteers (the eventual SEC champion). Understandably, even with starting quarterback Darian Hagan out injured, Colorado entered Columbia heavy favorites over the unranked Tigers.

The Buffaloes were loaded with talent. McCartney had expanded CU’s recruiting base, taking stud athletes from urban areas of California. Several brought personal problems along with their physical ability. McCartney caught serious media heat for the frequent arrests surrounding his team, but annually increasing win totals largely alleviated domestic discontent. Nine players from the 1990 Buffaloes would be drafted into the NFL, including first round picks in receiver Mike Prichard and linebacker Alfred Williams, and a second round pick in standout running back Eric Bieniemy. Such a deep and dynamic team should have dispatched unfancied Mizzou with ease. But on a hot and dry October day conditions were poor for the Buff’s explosive option attack.

Backup quarterback Charles Johnson recently told that Missouri’s turf was designed to cope with a typically humid and muggy climate. That day the disastrously low-tech 1980s artificial turf was dry and dusty and afforded little purchase. Colorado players slipped on play after play as they attempted to turn up-field for potentially significant gains. Johnson claims the conditions disadvantaged the Buffaloes’ system far more than the vertical passing Tigers. Film of the game obviously shows the difficulty CU players experienced attempting to stay upright. On the play immediately preceding the fateful series of downs, Johnson threw a screen pass to tight end Jon Boman who broke for the end zone. With nothing but daylight between him and the game winning score Boman slipped out of bounds at the three yard line. But whatever the validity of their excuses, Colorado failed to put the game away. A back-and-forth offensive slugging match stood at 31-27 to Mizzou and came down to Colorado first and goal at the three with forty seconds and one timeout remaining.

Hoping to distract the Buffs and help their frantic Tigers save a memorable conference win, Missouri fans roared as Colorado approached the line of scrimmage. Times were not rich for Mizzou. Second year head coach Bob Stull had begun his MU career with a disappointing 2-9 campaign. In five seasons at Missouri Stull would fail to register a single winning record. The Tigers had not enjoyed a season above .500 since Warren Powers’ penultimate campaign in 1983. They would not taste another until 1997. MU students could be forgiven for moving hopefully toward the field in preparation to tear down the goal posts. The prospect of knocking off a ranked rival with an impressive record coming off an 11-1 year was a rare treat.

Desperate for time to select the best possible play, Johnson spiked the ball on first down. Eric Bieniemy plunged up the middle on second. A Mizzou linebacker drove him back just short of the goal line. Johnson called time out. Before entering the huddle he looked at the sideline official, who had forgotten to flip his down marker from 2nd to 3rd. The announcers calling the game noted the mistake but commented that it hardly mattered as the Buffs only had time for two plays at most. Regardless, Johnson and Coach McCartney mistakenly agreed three possible plays. The QB hurriedly passed them on to his team before breaking the huddle. All-American CU center Jay Leeuwenburg attempted to correct his quarterback but with time of the essence Johnson hurried to the ball unaware of the official’s mistake.

On third down Bieniemy ran up the middle again and was stopped under a pile of bodies for no gain. When Johnson finally got his team back at the line of scrimmage only two ticks remained. Believing it to be third down he hurriedly spiked the ball. Mizzou coaches and players on the sideline began moving forward for handshakes. Students cheered and prepared to rush the field. But before they could make their way onto the treacherous turf Johnson returned to the line and ran a fifth and final play. On a quarterback keeper he fell backwards towards the line and may or may not have broken the plane of the goal. Referees signaled touchdown. Time had expired and the Buffs headed for the locker room as a crowd of MU students with shocking mullets surrounded the officials in futile protest. The students tore down the goalposts anyway, perhaps thinking the fifth play had been a mistake and believing that their Tigers would be awarded the win.

Johnson and his teammates confidently told reporters they had only run four plays. Though they genuinely believed that at the time they learned their error soon after arriving back in Boulder and watching tape. Unlike their predecessors at Cornell fifty years before, the CU president and coach did not refuse the win. The Buffaloes did not lose again and finished the season 10-1-1, tied atop the AP ranking with 11-1 Georgia Tech. Colorado claimed its only national title. Neither the AP nor the NCAA listened to howling protests emanating from Columbia.

Twice in college football history fifth down and goal plays have resulted in controversial triumphs as the clock expired in games that directly impacted the national title. Exactly fifty years separates the two games. In that half century college football evolved dramatically. No doubt Ezra Day and Carl Snavely would hardly have recognized the big money circus of the late twentieth century. They certainly would not have sympathized with Colorado’s decision. Which begs the question why the second game turned out so differently? Has modern college football lost its soul? Do Coloradans just lack integrity and honor?

The only certain fact is that there are several unwritten rules governing football that cannot be broken. For example, no one at the Tournament of Roses will ever acknowledge the fact that the Rose Bowl is not actually the national championship game. Five all-American prep running backs will go to USC every year even though it is obvious even to small children that they won’t all get playing time. But the most cast-iron, incontrovertible rule in all of college sports is this:

If it is improbable, unpredictable, disastrous, and can happen to Missouri, it will.

(Sources: Cornell Sun, history of Red football parts I and II; Cornell Bid Red history; Wiki, Gil Dobie; CSTV, Fifth down game; SI, McCartney and CU Buffaloes; Rivals, 5th down an honest mistake; Wiki, Fifth down game; CFB data warehouse; AP poll archive)