Saturday, April 25, 2009

The 1956 Heisman Trophy

1956 provided probably the most interesting and controversial Heisman trophy race in college football history. That year more than half-a-dozen players had a legitimate claim and might have taken the prize any other season. This crowded field of worthy candidates virtually guaranteed that any result would leave a bitter taste for some. No single Heisman year more clearly defines the dominating shadow the award casts over college football, both for good and for ill.

In the modern era college football’s premier award has evolved into a media driven runaway-train. Every season begins with one or two clear favorites, decided on publicity power and the record of program he represents as much as individual talent. As of 2008, ten schools have claimed 14 of the last 16 Heisman trophies: Notre Dame, USC, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Ohio State, Michigan, Miami, Florida and Florida State. These are the schools with the most wins and/or greatest media draw over the last two decades. As
Chris Huston will tell you, the Heisman is as much about which school a player represents as it is about the player himself. Things weren’t so different in 1956.

Notre Dame had gone 8-2 in 1955 under second-year head coach Terry Brennan, who despite his youthful age of only 28 reached 17-3 in two seasons. The Domers’ only losses came at the hands of 9-1 Michigan State, then enjoying their golden age under Hugh Dougherty, and on the road at USC. The memorable performances of multi-threat halfback Paul Hornung only added to expectations. As a junior the "Golden Boy" had gone 46 of 103 passing for 743 yards and a 9-10 ratio, in addition to carrying 92 times for 472 (a 5.1 yard average) and 6 TDs. Hornung also kicked 5 PATs and 2 field goals. Heading into the fall of 1956 Hornung had name recognition, impressive stats, played for a winning team expected to improve, and possessed limitless personal appeal. He was boyishly handsome, devilishly cocky and irresistibly talented. But most of all, he played for Notre Dame. Sports writers in the mid-fifties loved the Irish with abandon. So in early September, the Heisman seemed to be Hornung’s to lose.

Hornung competed against probably the largest and most talented crowd of Heisman hopefuls ever. Down in Knoxville, standout Tennessee halfback Johnny Majors led the Vols to an unbeaten regular season on his way to a career total of 2,575 rushing yards. The Vols shocking upset loss to Baylor in the 1957 Sugar Bowl occurred after the voting, in which Majors polled second. Five places behind him, the nation’s leader in total offense, Stanford’s John Brodie, gained only gained enough votes to come in a lowly seventh!

At Oklahoma, the defending national champions and odds-on favorites to repeat, Bud Wilkinson’s amazing winning streak stretched back to September 1953. Halfback Tommy McDonald finished second nationally in touchdowns with 17. His own teammate, OU halfback Clendon Thomas, denied him the national scoring title by a single TD. McDonald finished third in the voting with 973, just ahead of Oklahoma’s All-American center and linebacker Jerry Tubbs. A few of Tubbs’ 724 total votes would easily have made McDonald coach Wilkinson’s second Heisman winner, but Tubbs and McDonald essentially cancelled one another out. No member of the Sooners' 1956 class claimed the Heisman despite having never lost a single collegiate game.

Finishing fifth on the ballot was a senior running back from Syracuse by the name of Jim Brown. The consensus All-American back had carried 128 times in 1955 for 666 yards and 7 TDs. Although these numbers were impressive they proved insufficient to capture the attention of national writers who doubted the credibility of East Coast, Independent football. ‘Cuse could not claim a single championship or bowl win. Their only post-season appearance, the 1953 Cotton Bowl, had resulted in a 61-6 thrashing at the hands of mighty Alabama. If the Irish had pedigree to spare, the Orangemen could hardly buy it. Since taking over as head coach in 1949 Floyd “Ben” Schwartzwalder had only reached a mediocre 35-27-1 in seven seasons -- all while facing opponents the writers viewed with suspicion. Syracuse football had never produced a single household name at any position. In September 1956 the national spotlight rested on the hopeful Irish, the unstoppable winning streak, and the indomitable Tennessee Vols. Few national fans and pundits spared a thought for lowly Syracuse.

Jim Brown forced his way onto the national stage and into Heisman contention in the same way he forced his way into opposition backfields: with a peerless combination of size, brute force, speed, and startling finesse. Brown racked up 986 yards on 158 carries for 13 TDs and a 6.3 yard average. He was also a crushing middle linebacker and, like Hornung, carried most of his team’s place kicking load. At around 230lb Brown was a monster in the age of mostly white-bred one-platoon football. He routinely stiff-armed hopeless tacklers into the turf, but his game cannot rightly be characterized as a mere matter of raw power. Teammates said Brown used only the energy required for the play at hand. He always conserved his strength for the moment of greatest need. Whenever the situation truly demanded a marathon effort, Brown seemed to have an extra gear and would leave tacklers standing.

Somehow the indefatigable Brown also possessed sufficient surplus energy to letter in track and field, basketball and lacrosse. Brown averaged 15 ppg in basketball his sophomore year and 11.5 ppg his junior year. He contributed in multiple track and field events, routinely making the difference between victory and defeat at meets. He lettered four years in lacrosse, topping the national scoring table his senior season and leading Syracuse to a 10-0 record: its first unbeaten campaign since 1922. The most famous incident of Brown’s illustrious collegiate career occured after his football eligibility expired. On a clear May day in 1957 he competed against Colgate in high jump, winning the event before the Orangemen’s final lacrosse fixture against Army. As Brown attempted a change into his pads some teammates, frantically fearing defeat against their arch-rival, found him in the locker room and begged him to contribute in two other events. Brown placed in javelin and discus before leading the lacrosse team to an 8-6 victory with two goals while still wearing his track shorts. The track and field team triumphed by 13, the exact number of points Brown's performances added.

Jim Brown suffered in the Heisman race because he did not play a football game truly in the national spotlight until his final appearance, in the 1957 Cotton Bowl. By that point the trophy had been awarded. Had the Downtown Athletic Club waited until after the bowls (as it still doesn’t but absolutely should), voters would have been impressed as Brown carried Syracuse almost single handedly against a TCU team that ranked as undoubtedly the best opponent the Orangemen faced during his collegiate career.

Led by their own All-American, halfback Jim Swink, the Frogs had dominated the Southwest Conference. TCU’s diversified passing attack proved a handful for the Orangemen. The Horned Frogs scored a touchdown in each quarter, three of them on drives of over 60 yards. Of TCU’s 335 total yards, 202 came on 13 complete team passes of 16. The entire Frog team combined for just 133 rushing yards. Brown made 132 alone in reply. He scored the first three Syracuse touchdowns and ground out much of the yardage on the drive late in the fourth quarter that set up a 27 yard TD pass from Chuck Zimmerman to Jim Ridlon.

On Syracuse's first scoring drive, in the second quarter, Brown kick-started a comeback with a searing run of 24 yards. He added 6, 5, and 18 before a 2 yard plunge across the plane – all coming after he set the drive up with a 30 yard kick return from the end zone. From goal line to goal line Brown accounted for 90 of the 100 yards. The run-focused Orangemen made only 3 of 7 passing for 63 on the day, but one of those completions came on a fullback toss from Brown to Ridlon for 20 yards. Brown also added a kickoff return of 46 yards and attempted all four PATs. His play alone would have earned a hard fought tie had Narcico Mendoza not burst through the line to block his third kick. The two-point conversion did not enter college football until 1958. Given the opportunity Brown would surely have been the odds on favorite to tie the game from three yards inside the final two minutes. As it was, his failed PAT attempt made the difference.

There simply has never been a college athlete like Jim Brown. There never will be again. Yet he finished only fifth in the Heisman voting his senior year. Fifth: for the premier award in the sport at which he excelled more than any other. Surely Brown deserved the Heisman?

In the end Paul Hornung claimed the award – the first player ever to do so without gaining the most first place votes. Hornung polled fewer first place votes than both Johnny Majors and Tommy McDonald. Majors also beat him on second place votes. Brown polled only half of Hornung’s 1,066 total votes, despite gaining only 79 fewer first place votes. Hornung became the only player to claim the Heisman after a losing season. This result still stands out to many as one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in college football history. Even Notre Dame writers acknowledge that the “Golden Boy” hardly deserved the crown.

Steve Delsohn wrote: “Hornung didn’t deserve it. Not with three touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. And not on a 2-8 team. The Heisman should have gone to Jim Brown. The magnificent Syracuse fullback averaged 6.2 yards a carry, gained 986 yards, and scored 14 touchdowns. But, in 1956, Jim Brown had the wrong color skin.”

In response to such assertions it must firstly be noted that Paul Hornung was an outstanding football player. Voters did not simply look for any old character to palm the trophy off onto because Brown was black. On any ordinary Notre Dame team Hornung would have claimed the Heisman in a cake walk. He starred in football, baseball and basketball at Flaget High School in Louisville, setting statewide records and attracting the persistent attention of Bear Bryant, then head coach at the University of Kentucky. Almost sixty years since he graduated, the Kentucky High School Athletics Association still bestows the annual “Paul Hornung Award” on the state’s outstanding football player.

The “Golden Boy” was an extremely versatile player. In addition to attempting the majority of Notre Dame's passes he was a stand-out defensive back and a considerable rusher, gaining 472 yards on 92 carries as a junior. He also featured as a place kicker and punter. He finished second in Heisman voting as a junior. Ohio State’s Howard “Hop-along” Cassidy claimed the prize with an impressive 964 yards rushing and 15 TDs. Cassidy was a great running back. But Hornung was so much more.

After entering the 1956 season as Heisman favorite Hornung amassed 1,337 yards total offense, second highest in the nation. He added 420 yards rushing and 3 TDs to his passing totals. Many feel that his dire passer ratio of 3 TDs to 13 INTs resulted from the graduation of Notre Dame’s entire 1955 receiving core. Hornung was the sole highlight on a woeful Irish team. In his final collegiate game, a gruelling road test at USC which he played with two sprained thumbs, Hornung accounted for 354 yards total offense, including a 95-yard kick off return for a touchdown. Notre Dame lost.

In the mid-fifties, under the leadership of controversial President Father Theodore Martin Hesburgh, the University of Notre Dame deemphasized football for the only time in its history. Hesburgh sought to reestablish the primacy of the school's academic reputation and did so by very publically reducing football scholarships. Those cut backs began to bite in 1956, leaving the Irish numerically thin and relatively talent starved. Irish fans still argue as to how far Hesburgh’s actions really cost their football team, but head coach Terry Brennan and several former Irish coaches were in no doubt. What is absolutely certain is that 1956 was the historical nadir for Irish football. And in that darkest hour only the star of Paul Hornung shone true to the Notre Dame tradition.

Hornung went on to become a hall-of-fame pro star with the Greenbay Packers. He led the NFL in scoring from 1959 to 1961 and was league MVP consecutively in 1960 and 1961. His 19 points in the 1961 NFL championship game remain the individual record. In 9 seasons as a pro he made 66 of 140 field goals (not a bad record for the era), averaged almost 7 yards per pass attempt, and scored 50 rushing TDS with a 4.2 yards per carry mark.

The legendry Vince Lombardi once gave Notre Dame’s “Golden Boy” the highest possible praise, saying:

“Paul Hornung could do more things than any man who ever played this game.”

No doubt several other players hold manifestly justifiable claims to the 1956 Heisman trophy. But whatever can be said about the controversial award, it is impossible to claim that Paul Hornung was catagorically undeserving.

Race did factor into the 1956 Heisman chase, but not in the sense that many commentators believe. It is hard to conclude that the college football establishment was not prepared for a black Heisman winner when only five years later the same voters granted the award to Ernie Davis, the next 'Cuse running back to wear Brown's jersey number. In fact, the racial barriers that most hurt Brown’s chance of earning college football’s top award lay within his own school.

Brown attended Syracuse at the urging of Kenneth Molloy, a prominent alumnus and personal supporter from his hometown of Manhasset, Long Island. Schwartzwalder did not want Brown on his team and only accepted him under pressure from Molloy. Brown did not even have an athletic scholarship his freshman year. Molloy and other local supporters in Manhasset raised money to pay his school fees - a fact Brown only learned later.

Syracuse had already experimented with one black football player. A talented quarterback named Avatus Stone had endured two seasons of dehumanizing treatment before seeking refuge in the Canadian Football League in 1952. Stone was not allowed to eat or room with white teammates. Coaches punished his mistakes disproportionately and forbade him from fraternizing with Caucasian coeds. When Stone protested and reacted with anger, several times striking out physically at coaches and players, he was labeled a troublemaker.

Initially Schwartzwalder told Molloy that he never wanted another black player on his team. They were “too much trouble.” But Brown toughed it out, used his righteous anger to fuel his performances, and played his way onto the team.

Brown faced the same abuse Stone suffered through. He was isolated, ostracized and struggled to rise up the depth chart despite his eminent talent. He saw little playing time as sophomore, entirely because of bigotted animosity from the coaching staff. On several occassion his mentor and ally Roy Simmons, the Syracuse lacrosse coach, talked Brown into staying in school after he resolved to quit.

Under-utilized on a mediocre team, playing as an Eastern Independent for a coach with an unimpressive track record, Brown’s position entering the 1956 season could hardly have contrasted more starkly with that enjoyed by Paul Hornung. Brown had never played in a bowl. He had not earned national attention as a junior, and he did not play for a fashionable team. The 1955 Orangemen had won only five games to Notre Dame's eight.

Then as now, media relations, program prestige and access to the national TV and radio spotlight decided the Heisman trophy race as much as talent. Ernie Davis won the trophy in 1961 not because the intervening years had wrought a massive racial sea-change in America. They hadn’t. Davis won because Brown’s talent and sheer resolve broke the Syracuse coaches. Schwartzwalder started Davis as a sophomore in 1959. The Orangemen rode his running to an 11-0 season, a Cotton Bowl victory over Texas, and the school’s only national title. By his senior year the eventual Heisman winner was a recognized star on a prominent team with an AP championship in the bank.

The reality of how the Heisman trophy winner is largely selected actually makes Hornung’s triumph an important and satisfying record. Once, if only once, a man on a losing team has earned college football’s highest award for recognition of individual talent. The trophy is supposed to acknowledge the single greatest player in the game. Instead, it has increasingly become an award for the designated leader on the nation’s most successful and fashionable team. It grows more unsatisfying every year.

Were I the sole arbitrator of the annual Heisman race, the 2008 trophy would have gone to
Todd Reesing, QB of the 7-5 Kansas Jayhawks. He plays at an unfashionable school but his numbers compare favorably to Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow. No player does more with less. Isn’t that what separates individual greats from the herd? And has any player in college football history ever done more with less than Paul Hornung, who in 1956 single-handedly defended the honor and glory of the Notre Dame tradition on the worst Irish team of all time?

When the Downtown Athletic Club of Manhatten first informed John Heisman, one of the great architects and evangelists of the game,
of their intent to name an award for the sport’s outstanding player after him, he protested. Heisman did not want to lend his name to anything that singled out one man in a team game. Compare this view of the sport to current media coverage that elevates Tebow so far above the Gators that his image now eclipses an entire university. Heisman no doubt turns in his grave every time an ESPN commentator recounts the tale of Tebow’s tear-jerking postgame press conference following the famous home loss to Ole’ Miss. Just as Heisman warned, the trophy that took his name fails to represent the root of college football's genius. Our sport's premier award has become a mockery and lies in dire need of reform.

Next year, I suggest bestowing it upon the noble and talented leader of a uninspiring sub .500 team.

(Sources: CFB data warehouse; Hornung stats: ESPN Classic on Hornung; Syracuse stats on Brown; Brown’s hoops stats; Mike Freeman, Jim Brown; Steve Delsohn, Talking Irish; SU box score of the Cotton Bowl;; Vols rush stats; John Devanny, Winners of the Heisman Trophy; Dan Jenkins, Greatest Moments)

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Bud Wilkinson legacy

On November 16th 1947, fifty years to the day since the admission of Oklahoma to the Union, Terry Brennan’s Fighting Irish rolled into Norman and stunned the Sooners 7-0. The game is legendry in college football history. Especially for Sooner fans, who always recall with superstitious chagrin the curse laid on their team by that week’s Sports Illustrated cover, which proclaimed:

“Why Oklahoma is unbeatable.”

Curse or no, the Sooners seemed unbeatable. Oklahoma had won 47 consecutive games stretching back to the third game of the 1953 season. Throughout the incredible streak, still an NCAA record, OU coach Charles “Bud” Wilkinson regularly told his players:

“No one will remember how many games you win. They will only remember the team that beats you.”

That warning turned out not to be true. College football fans remember both. The magic number stands out as an unrivaled accomplishment. With the modern game becoming increasingly competitive, especially in the post 85-scholarship limit age, I personally doubt it ever will be broken. The name of the team that broke the streak is memorable for the symmetry it provides the story. The OU-Notre Dame rivalry is full of the kind of unlikely tales and Titanic clashes that make this game so irresistibly fascinating.

Entering the fateful game in November 1957 Oklahoma’s most recent loss had occurred in South Bend on the opening day of the 1953 season. Frank Leahy’s 2-0 record against Wilkinson makes him one of only two coaches with a winning record against Bud over more than a single game. The other is the Bear. In his entire coaching tenure at Oklahoma, lasting 17 seasons and 145 games, Wilkinson went 1-5 against the Irish. All-time the University of Oklahoma’s record against Notre Dame stands at 1-8. The Sooners do not own loosing records against any other current division I teams except Northwestern (against whom they would be 2-1 if not for an infamous poisoning incident in Chicago 1959 likely connected to mob gambling) and Texas (against whom they are .500 since WWII). In Wilkinson’s first 13 seasons as OU head coach only Texas and Notre Dame beat his teams more than once. Oklahoma’s only win against ND had come the previous year, during a 2-8 campaign that still ranks the Domers’ worst ever. OU laid a 40-0 shutout smack-down on a woeful team memorable only for the backfield exploits of eventual Heisman winner Paul Hornung. The game began ominously for the Irish when, in the first play from scrimmage, consensus All-American Linebacker Jerry Tubbs laid a hit on the “Golden Boy” that Oklahomans are still talking about. Notre Dame smarted from that loss for over a year and counted the days until their chance at revenge. How could anyone but the Irish have broken the streak?

The way the streak ended was also perfect because great teams should only lose to great teams. Love them or hate them, the Fighting Irish tower above all college football history with pageantry, tradition of greatness, and undeniable mystique that are simply peerless. Wilkinson’s Oklahoma teams are only a step behind. Bud’s attitude and approach created a juggernaut in Norman that has rolled on ever since (despite a few temporary hiccups). His professionalism, technical genius, and dedication to precision continue to define OU football. Bud used to tell his players in practice:

“Base your play on the standards most likely to defeat the champions. The good ones don’t take the fake. You’ve got to block ‘em.”

Wilkinson’s record in his first 13 seasons, from 1947 to 1959, was a staggering 121-10-1. In addition to his 47 game winning streak in the mid fifties, Bud compiled a 31 game run in the late forties. No other coach has since matched this string of wonder seasons, and none will.

How did Bud manage such astounding success? The answers to that question address the deep foundations of OU's footballing greatness. Bud was the first Oklahoma coach to establish an unstoppable recruiting network in Texas. Time and again Wilkinson and his indefatigable assistant Gomer Jones attracted Texan athletes and brought the best out of them before unleashing them on the disgruntled Longhorns. George Brewer, Jerry Tubbs, Jake Sandefer, Bob Harrison are only a few notable Texans to play for OU in the Wilkinson era. That recruiting legacy continues to this day. Any given year around two thirds of Bob Stoops’ roster will be comprised of Texas High School products. Jealous Longhorn fans occasionally refer to OU as "UT-Norman," but the simple fact is that Texas boys head north for the same reason today that they started going in the late 1940s. They want to win.

Regardless of idle taunts from bitter UT backers, the OU football machine wasn’t built exclusively, or even predominantly, by ‘stealing’ Texan talent. Dozens of Oklahoma raised boys went on to All-American honors. Buddy Burris, Darrel Royal, Eddie Crowder, Billy Vessels, J. D. Roberts, Tommy McDonald, Clendon Thomas, Bill Krisher . . . whoever Bud wanted in the state Oklahoma, Bud got. Wilkinson went 15-2 against in-state rival Oklahoma A&M. The Aggies (now OSU Cowboys) had always struggled to attract top players to Stillwater and had never fared well against the state’s flagship university, but Bud took domination to a new level. His merciless ownership of A&M borders on sadistic bullying. OU has dominated in-state recruiting at almost that level ever since.

In or out of state, great High School players flocked to Oklahoma for the tradition of victory. Why else would young studs move to a quiet college town like Norman? To me, this is one of the greatest things about college football. In the most popular and vibrant athletic show in this massive, sports-obsessed nation the centers of the game are towns like South Bend, Lincoln, Tuscaloosa, Norman, Ann Arbor. Politics, finance, film, music, pro-sports and any number of other institutions that define American life may live in big cities like Chicago, New York, L.A., or Washington, but college pigskin lives in tiny towns where people go to be with coaches who win. That was Bud Wilkinson. States like Oklahoma, Nebraska, Alabama or Tennessee may not have a great deal else going on but they will run over you in football.

Many have attributed Oklahoma’s tremendous winning streaks to an inferior class of opponent. Indeed, the Big Seven (later Big Eight) was not a powerhouse conference at the time. Wilkinson won 14 Big Six/Seven/Eight Conference titles, including 13 outright and 12 consecutively from 1948 to 1959. Between 1948 and 1958 the Sooners never lost a conference game. The relative weakness of Oklahoma’s conference slate explains why undefeated Sooner teams were not voted AP national champions in 1949 and 1954. In the first of those years OU finished 4th in the final poll, which in those days was still published before the bowls. But Wilkinson went on to defeat the top-ranked national champion Maryland Terrapins, coached by his former boss Jim Tatum, in the 1950 Orange Bowl.

Whenever the Sooners played out of conference against top opponents they rarely struggled, posting a 7-2 bowl record under Wilkinson. A short-lived Big Seven prohibition on repeat post-season appearances robbed the great 1956 team of an opportunity to play for a bowl and improve Bud’s record. Wilkinson’s only bowl losses both came against the great Paul “Bear” Bryant, in the 1950 Sugar Bowl, vs. Kentucky, and the 1963 Orange Bowl, vs. Alabama.

Ultimately, weakness of conference schedule does not detract from Wilkinson’s legacy. College football’s great dynasties would simply be impossible without the many conference also-rans on whom the bigger fish perennially feed. While the limited field of teams in pro-sports pitch the heavy-weights against one another on a more regular basis, the clashes of college football’s giants are more dramatic, intense, passionate and memorable precisely because they occur less frequently. The Michigans, Ohio States, USCs and Alabamas would possess nowhere near their 10-win season tallies without their obliging Northwesterns, Oregon States and Vanderbilts. What stands out about Wilkinson’s Sooners is not that they played poor teams but that they never lost to them. The Bear lost occasional games to the likes of Mississippi State; Woody Hayes slipped against underwhelming Big Ten outfits. Wilkinson teams never lost when heavily favored.

To me, this is the greatest aspect of the Wilkinson legacy. In an age dominated by brutalizing and vicious coaching tactics, Bud was known for his short but finely tuned practices. He did not make his players hit unnecessary to “toughen them up". He did not run them to death in the summer sun because he could. He did not subject them to two-a-days without water or virtually kill them. His teams were fast and fit, but they worked on those aspects in the training room. Wilkinson was ahead of his time in so many ways. His program looked more like the “strength and conditioning” focus of college football today. He was famous for personally putting in four hours of detailed preparation for every hour of practice. His drills were timed to the second with every moment acutely choreographed in detailed notes. No time was wasted. He always, always told his players that Saturday’s game began on the first meeting the preceding Sunday evening. His players watched more film and were smarter than all their rivals.

What else could be expected from a man with football smarts so impressive that even the great Minnesota coach Bernie Bierman trusted him to call plays for the national champion Golden Gopher teams of 1934-36, even though he played Guard? The Sooners played hard and demonstrated commitment every game, every down - from the first whistle to the final gun. In an era when players had to play both sides of the ball and could not return to the game until the following quarter if pulled, few teams developed the depth that OU consistently demonstrated. Wilkinson essentially beat a rule designed to restore one-platoon football by developing his “alternate team” (as second strings were then known). When other teams put their alternates in for the final few minutes of a quarter, resting their stars, a drop off in production generally resulted. Wilkinson’s preparation and his commitment to rotation was such that his alternates invariably emerged as one of the few teams in the nation capable of hanging with the OU starters.

One story encapsulates the Oklahoma mentality perfectly. In the 1952 game against Nebraska, fullback Buck McPhail gave a crushing block for ball carrier Billy Vessels. Running into a crowd of defenders Vessels quickly cut back the other way. McPhail got up and charged into a second block on a defensive back. Then, as Vessels burst into the open field, McPhail found the energy to charge down the last pursuing Cornhusker with a third block, leaving the eventual Heisman trophy winner to waltz untouched into the end zone. Wilkinson-coached players always looked for ways to contribute and never stopped thinking. They looked down field and kept a mental step ahead of their opponents.

Today OU teams still charge out of the gates, routinely hanging three or more touchdowns on weaker opponents in the opening 15 minutes. This pattern is somewhat annoying when non-Sooner fans visit Owen Field on the rare days when OU has the gall to disappoint demanding locals by not leading 50-0 at halftime. Listening to 80,000 spoiled Sooners grumble because their team is not winning by enough isn’t much fun. Believe me, I’ve done it. But what can you expect? Bud Wilkinson created a mentality of professionalism, focus, dominance and determination in Norman that has lasted sixty years and counting.

(Sources: ESPN Classic; CFB data warehouse; OU All-Americans, Wiki; Jim Dent, The Undefeated; Jack Clary, Great College Football Coaches; Sporting News, College Football’s 25 Greatest Teams)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Wally Triplett and the 1948 Cotton Bowl

Many of the athletes in American sports history that blazed brave trails through seemingly impregnable race barriers demonstrated almost super human singleness of mind and tenacity. Think of indomitable Jackie Robinson or resolute Jim Brown. But the first black player to break the college football color line in a former confederate state did not fit that mold. Wallace “Wally” Triplett lettered at Penn State from 1946 to 1948. He was one of three black members of the 1947 Nittany Lions that played in the Cotton Bowl, and went on to become the first black NFL draftee. Triplett refused to accept discrimination, resisting bigoted treatment directed his way whenever he could. But much the history Triplett made seems almost to have happened around him, often because of the ease with which he made friends.

The fifth of six football playing sons in a family from La Mott, Pennsylvania, Triplett’s talents produced numbers in his High School career that attracted attention. In those days of limited and expensive travel many programs scouted distant players from printed reports. When Wally received a letter from the University of Miami offering a football scholarship for the fall of 1945 he wondered if the coaches even knew he was black. La Mott was not an all-black community and such a factual oversight was plausible. Not wanting to court controversy Triplett wrote to Miami informing the football office of his racial status. Miami responded by immediately rescinding the scholarship offer. Triplett headed instead to University Park on an academic scholarship with a letter of introduction from his High School coach to Penn State coach Bob Higgins. Triplett earned a place on the team and fortuitously became a sophomore starter in 1946 when Halfback Joe Tepsic signed a baseball contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He did not explicitly set out to carve new pathways for integration and technically was not even Penn State’s first black player.

Dave Alston, the son of a black minister and valedictorian of his High School class, had removed any reluctance coach Higgins felt regarding his race with a standout season at Tailback on the 1941 freshman team. Alston’s athleticism matched his disarming charm – he reputedly ran the 100 yard dash in 10 seconds. Higgins excitedly compared him to Jim Thorpe and eagerly awaited the 1942 season. Coming off a 7-2 record in 1941, Higgins’ best in his eleven-year tenure, the Nittany Lions looked poised to finally shrug the mediocrity that defined their teams during the 1930s. But fate intervened on August 15th 1942 when Alston died from complications arising from a routine appendectomy. The tragedy over shadowed a 6-1-1 season and left Penn State still awaiting its first black varsity letterman.

Another black athlete, lineman Dennis Hoggard, joined Triplett on the 1946 Nittany Lion varsity team. But before the season even began race issues appeared threateningly on the horizon. Penn State scheduled a season finale at the University of Miami - the very school that had denied Triplett a scholarship on the grounds of his race. Like all southern schools at that time, Miami would not allow northern teams to travel with their black members. Higgins wanted to leave his black players at home and retain the fixture but the school newspaper began agitating feeling on campus against accepting southern bigotry. Higgins decided to put the matter to a team vote. Triplett and Hoggard were surprised and thrilled when their teammates voted to forego the trip, even at the cost of a potential banner victory. Triplett had become very popular and Penn State did not suffer the de facto segregation within its football team witnessed at other northern schools of the era. Triplett's 1947 roomemate, a white lineman named Sam Tamburo, became his closest friend on the team. The Nittany Lions competed ferociously and verbally berated one another on the practice field, but off it a smooth and easy team dynamic evolved in which race rarely factored.

Penn State reaped the reward of their sacrifice a year later when their unity of spirit led the Lions to a 9-0 1947 regular season, including some crushing shut-out wins. Penn State topped Syracuse 40-0 at homecoming in October, holding the Orangemen to a ridiculous NCAA record minus 47 total yards offense! The team clearly deserved a bowl invitation, but race again threatened to intervene. With the Rose Bowl selecting undefeated Big Ten champion Michigan, the best location seemed to be the Dallas-based Cotton Bowl. The Southwest Conference remained segregated and conference rules stated that black athletes could not participate in any game without the consent of both schools involved. An invite would therefore require the blessing of the host team, SMU.

The Nittany Lions had already publically demonstrated their solidarity, making known the fact that they would not travel without their black players. The team waited while the Cotton Bowl and SMU considered the merits of inviting the best available opponent against the possibility of volatile racial controversy. From somewhere the players caught wind of rumors that SMU officials wanted to meet with Penn State counterparts to discuss the matter, but the Nittany Lions felt there was nothing to discuss. Triplett remembers senior guard and captain Steve Suhey exclaiming to teammates:

“We are Penn State. There will be no meetings.”

According to Triplett, this statement evolved into the now famous “We are Penn State” cheer – one of the great spectacles of the college football landscape.

Eventually the Cotton Bowl invited Penn State, black players and all. Because no Dallas hotel would accommodate the racially integrated team the Nittany Lions stayed at a nearby Navy base. But the team was able to enjoy some of the flavor of Texas life. Heading back to the base on the team bus one night several players spotted a busy nightclub and shouted their desire to go inside. Team manager David “Red” Baron spoke with the owner, who realized his establishment could only benefit from the prestigious visitors. Triplett later recalled the man grabbing his elbow as he entered and saying:

“We aint never had no niggers in here, but you come on.”

It proved an enjoyable night, but a cautious Triplett nervously avoided talking with the white girls that flocked around the team.

When the game finally arrived it provided a spectacle more than justifying the risk of inviting an integrated northern guest. SMU’s all-American and future Heisman Trophy quarterback Doak Walker led his Mustangs on an early surge, jumping out to a 13-0 lead mid-way through the second quarter, but Penn State soon clawed their way back. Underrated quarterback Elwood Petchel led a drive culminating in a 38-yard TD strike just before halftime, but time enough remained to require a touchdown-saving tackle from Triplett on the kick return. The second half was all Penn State as SMU gained only 24 yards rushing and 15 passing.

Petchel tied the game in the third quarter when Triplett, convinced he could get open on a corner route, pleaded for a fade to the end zone. His confidence proved well founded. Triplett brought the ball safely into his chest, becoming the first black player to score a major college touchdown in a former Confederate state.

Although a missed extra point left the game an unsatisfying 13-13 tie, even a win would not have delivered Penn State a national title. Notre Dame and Michigan (who trounced USC 49-0 in the Rose Bowl) both had more favored teams. Regardless, the Nittany Lions were a great team in their own right. More importantly, they demonstrated the solidarity, bravery and principle that define football at its very best.

Wally Triplett has always spoken highly of his time at Penn State, but those years were by no means easy. Even in State College, far from the codified “Jim Crow” laws that defined southern society, blacks on campus were not fully integrated and felt the sting of isolation. Unable to room in the regular dormitories in his first years at the school, Triplett lived downtown in “Lincoln Hall” - a black boarding house named after the great emancipator. Triplett refused to calmly accept racist treatment. On one occasion he trapped a professor who consistently gave him failing grades by submitting a paper written for him by a local doctor. The assignment promptly received an F. Backed by hard evidence, an official protest led the administration to later release the professor. But Triplett did not harbor bitterness. Later in life he recalled the era as a different time. Many people faced discrimination, and many took stands against it. He only viewed himself with humility as one amongst the many, a man who accomplished firsts more by the chance of timing than his own personal greatness.

No doubt if Triplett had not made the Penn State team and earned the trust, respect and loyalty of his team mates, some other black player would eventually have broken the Cotton Bowl color line. But that is irrelevant. Wallace Triplett did accomplish those firsts. He was a great athlete and a brave and upstanding man. The Nittany Lions deserve the plaudits of history for the stand the team took years before such actions became fashionable at even the most progressive non-southern institutions.

(Sources:; Scripps News on Dave Alston; Lauren Boyer, Centre Daily Times; Jordan Hyman, Game of My Life; Access Granted, video; WPSU In Motion)