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The Historical: Badgers Triumphant, Heisman's Divorce and Prayin' Colonels

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[Note from Bill: when I originally conceived of this site, the idea was to go into great detail about both stats and history, two areas of college football where we have less-than-complete understanding. Stats have clearly dominated a good portion of my time, but on the masthead at the bottom of the page, you'll notice kleph is now listed as an author. He is Mr. History, and I'm really looking forward to his contributions.]

Each week The Historical will look ahead to upcoming contests in order to look back at the history of college football. This week we relive Wisconsin's dramatic upset of Nebraska in 1974, tell how John Heisman's marital strife led him to coaching at the University of Pennsylvania in 1920 and recount the unlikely tale of how Centre College in Kentucky became a football powerhouse in the 1920's.

Nebraska vs Wisconsin, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wisconsin

While the re-aligned Big Ten conference will make the Wisconsin and Nebraska matchup an annual a regular event, the two teams have faced each other only rarely in the past. In fact, they’ve played a mere five times with the first game in 1901 and the most recent - a memorable 1974 pairing.

On Sept. 21, 1974, the Cornhuskers came into Madison, Wisconsin, with a No. 4 ranking, favored by more than two touchdowns. While Tom Osborne’s and Nebraska's reputations still had plenty of cachet, their record had faltered a bit from the standard of the undefeated National Championship squads from 1970 and 1971. Still, between 1965 and 1974 Nebraska finished in the Top Ten no less than seven times.

Wisconsin, on the other hand, had seen their last winning season more than a decade prior. Coach John Jardine, a former Purdue offensive lineman, had never held a head coaching position before taking over in Madison, and while his five years at the helm had improved the program from its nadir, the progress was clearly incremental in nature up to that point.

Still, the Badgers had been bested by Nebraska, 20-16, the year prior in Lincoln, and their ability to hold on against the powerful Cornhusker squad gave them confidence they could pull off the upset. Even Nebraska's 61-0 destruction of Oregon to open the season didn't dent the Badgers' confidence.

More than 73,000 were on hand at Camp Randall Stadium - the most ever for a season opener - and the contest was televised across the region on ABC. It turned out to be a classic. The teams traded touchdowns in the first and second quarters, but Nebraska took the lead with a John O’Leary run with 20 seconds left in the half.

While Wisconsin had succeeded in keeping the score reasonably close in the first half, Jardine recognized he was going to have to change his game plan to win the game. The Huskers' defensive line, particularly middle guard John Lee, had brought the Wisconsin ground attack to a standstill. To win, the Badgers would have to stymie the Husker's powerful defensive front to give his quarterback enough time to go to the air.

When the third quarter began, Jardine had guards Rick Koeck and Terry Stieve double-teaming the powerful Lee and offered up a host of short, quick, high-percentage passes for Bohlig.

"The fullback catching the ball became our big consistent play in the second half," Jardine said after the game.

Nebraska kicked a field goal in the third quarter, making the score 17-7 as the final period began. Forty-four seconds later, Wisconsin’s Bill Marek plunged into the end zone to pull the Badgers within a field goal. The Wisconsin defense then stymied the Nebraska offense on their 2-yard-line, forcing the Cornhuskers to settle for a field goal.

On the Badgers' next drive, quarterback Gregg Bohlig was facing second-and-16 on his own 23-yard-line when he rolled right and hit flanker Jeff Mack, who then ran untouched 77-yards to put Wisconsin ahead for the first time in the game.

"It was a simple out and up, something we do every day," Wisconsin Coach John Jardine said. "If the cornerback plays Jeff too close, he goes upfield. He played too close and Gregg got the ball over him."

The only concern Jardine had with the play was the possiblity that Mack might go out of bounds. He didn't.

Nebraska's hopes to regain the lead were incinerated on the Cornhuskers' first play from scrimmage when safety Steve Wagner intercepted backup quarterback Earl Everett's pass. A few desultory running plays later, the jubilant Wisconsin fans stormed the field. Final score: Wisconsin 21, Nebraska 20.

The difference in the game for Nebraska may have been the loss of star quarterback Dave Humm in the first quarter with a hip pointer. The Cornhuskers were able to outrush the Badgers, 258 to 77, but their passing attack was hobbled severely from that point on. Wisconsin was able to outgain the Huskers, 242 to 47, in the air. Backup Everett attempted seven passes and only completed three of them for a total of 27 yards.

Wisconsin’s win earned the Badgers a spot in the AP poll that subsequently slipped away when they lost to Colorado in Boulder the following week. Still, Wisconsin finished the year with seven wins for the first time since 1962. They wouldn't record another winning season until 1981.

Nebraska suffered losses against Missouri and Oklahoma and finished the year with a 9-3 record after besting Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

Penn vs Dartmouth, Memorial Field, Hanover, N.H.

John Heisman and his coaching staff at Penn in 1920.
Photo via The University of Pennsylvania Digital Collections

Current Ivy League rivals University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth College first met in 1913 and continued to do so annually for the next eight seasons. It was during this span that Penn, a power program of the era who had seen their fortunes take a bit of a step back, scored an unlikely coup when John Heisman returned to his alma mater to take over as head coach.

Up until that point, Heisman had been wildly successful at Georgia Tech. Between 1904 to 1919 he led the Yellow Jackets to a 102-29-7 record and a national championship. At the end of the 1919 season, Heisman’s place in Atlanta seemed completely secure; what happened next came as something of a shock.

Heisman asked several members of Georgia Tech athletic board, including member Lawrence "Chip" Robert, to a meeting at his home. When they arrived they found Heisman and his wife sitting at the breakfast table and the coach gave a brief explanation for the gathering.

"Now, as you may have guessed, a most unfortunate thing has happened. Mrs. Heisman and I have decided to get a divorce," Heisman said according to Robert’s account. "There are no hard feelings, however, and I have agreed that wherever Mrs. Heisman wishes to live, I will live in another place. This will prevent any social embarrassment. If she decides to stay in Atlanta, I leave."

Roberts clutched his chair for support as Mrs. Heisman made the decision to stay in Atlanta. Heisman immediately resigned. Shortly afterward he was named the head coach at the University of Pennsylvania.

Heisman spent three seasons in Philadelphia, the first of which included a four-game losing streak that culminated in a 44-7 Quaker defeat at the hands of Dartmouth in New Hampshire.

At the time Dartmouth was led by Clarence "Doc" Spears and a squad best described as "roughhouse." One player had a habit of tearing radiators from the floor of hotels the team stayed at. While they dropped games against Penn State and Syracuse, at the end of the season they had outscored opponents 199-68 on the way to racking up seven wins.

With a disappointing 6-4-0 record for his inaugural season as the Quakers' coach, Heisman, who was never gregarious to begin with, began to see his relationship with is players sour severely.

"I have taught you everything I know – and you still know nothing!" he once told the squad in his frustration.

Heisman left Penn for Washington & Jefferson in 1923 after amassing a 16-10-2 record in Philadelphia. After his final practice, Penn players destroyed his trademark megaphone and buried it.

"At the time it seemed funny," recalled Penn guard John Humes years later. "But many times since I've thought of the symbolism."

Centre vs DePauw, Blackstock Stadium, Greencastle, Indiana

Centre College kicks off during a home game in the early 1920s.
Photo via Centre College Special Collections

In the annals of college football there are few stories more improbable – and successful – than the tale of the Prayin’ Colonels of Centre College. Between 1917 and 1924 Centre racked up a 57-8 record and bested some of the sport’s powers, including a 1921 win over Harvard that is widely considered one of the greatest upsets in history.

Yet the miracle of Centre College’s football golden era wasn’t improbable or by accident. It was the brainchild of one man, Robert L. "Chief" Meyers, and he began working on it in 1910 as a schoolteacher at Fort Worth's North Side High, and football coach on a volunteer basis.

It didn’t take long before Meyer recognized he had a unique group of players on his hands. His promising charges included Red Weaver, Matty Bell, Sully Montgomery, Bill James, Bill Boswell and Bob Mathias. The standout was Alvin Nugent McMillin, known to one and all simply as "Bo" who quarterbacked the North Side team for two years while still in grammar school.

Meyers started the recruiting process by regaling them for hours about his native Kentucky and the advantages of attending Centre College would bring. He also promised them football, lots of it and success to a degree they couldn't imagine.

The dream began becoming reality in 1916 when Centre's coach Bo Littick resigned and Meyers took the job and wired his old Fort Worth gang to "get on your mules." Six of them came east and enrolled at Centre with several others who weren't eligible yet attending nearby Somerset High.

Meyers realized that he had a team to do great things, but he wasn't the coach to lead them to greatness. So he found one that was: "Uncle Charley" Moran, the father of one of his players who had been a National League umpire and former football coach of the Texas Aggies.

In Moran, Meyers found a coach who appreciated the potential of the team and a taskmaster who could keep them on point.

Despite its aspirations, Centre was not a school with tremendous resources. With an enrollment of just 264, the money to spend on athletics was limited. Meyers and Moran served as coaches but they also were the squad's trainers, equipment managers and groundskeepers.

New uniforms, for example, were out of the question, old ones were repaired as the season went along. It was not uncommon for visitors to find the coach repairing the player's cleats after games.

In 1917, Centre took to the gridiron with no one outside of Danville, Kentucky suspecting what they were about to accomplish. In their first game they obliterated Kentucky Military Institute by a score of 104-0. Then they took on DePauw in Greencastle, Indiana, and suffered a 6-0 defeat.

The Colonels would not lose again that season, ripping off an eight-game win streak that included rival Kentucky. The season prior, the Wildcats had pasted the Colonels 66-0 so Meyer thought it might be best to ask for a little help before the 1917 contest. After providing the usual pep talk he asked the team to pray together before taking the field.

"Let me lead that damned prayer," shouted Hunk Mathais in a burst of enthusiasm. And so he did and the propensity to implore assistance from a higher power became the trademark of the "Prayin' Colonels."

After an unsatisfying and war-shortened 1918 season, the pieces began to fall in place in 1919. Centre finished with an undefeated 9-0 record including a 14-6 victory over a highly-regarded West Virginia squad. Two players, McMillin and Weaver, were selected to Pop Warner's first-string All-America team. That brought the tiny school some big city recognition.

When a Boston paper declared Centre the "Mystery Team of 1919" and played up the small-town sensibility of the unit, it piqued the public's interest. Harvard invited the team to play at Cambridge the following season.

But the Colonels were far more than they seemed. The coaches and players regularly played to the perception of them as backwoods yokels by dressing inappropriately and pretending to be less worldly than they actually were. Harvard won the first meeting, 31-14, but invited the team back for a rematch the following season.

The Colonels spent the entire year preparing for the rematch with the mighty Crimson and Meyers wasn't in a praying mood when he appealed to his team to beat the team from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"Listen to me, old Animal Life!" he said. "I would smoke a cigar under a gasoline shower to see you beat Harvard, and I would climb barelegged up a honey-locust tree, with a wildcat under each arm, to have you hand the same kind of dose to the rest of them."

Centre won, and the rest is history.