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The Reading Room: A Memorable Season In College Football (A Look Back At 1959)

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I'll say this right out front: you don't want to read A Memorable Season In College Football: A Look Back At 1959 for the quality of the prose. It reads like a bit of an academic piece, a bit dry, a bit book report-y. But it doesn't matter. You want to read this book because 1959 was just so incredibly fascinating. Consider...

LSU 7, Ole Miss 3

In one of just two games between all-time, Top 30 teams, an incredible punt return by Billy Cannon -- one of my favorite plays in college football history -- made the difference. Ole Miss advanced to LSU's goal line multiple times but could never punch the ball in. One day, I will find this game on DVD, and I will pay exorbitantly for it.

As Reid points out, the punt return itself is not without a what-if.

One of Paul Dietzel's rules was for LSU players not to field a punt inside their own fifteen yard line. In the fourth quarter, ahead 3-0, Mississippi's Jake Gibbs punted on third down from Ole Miss territory. The punt traveled 47 yards and bounced once before landing square in the arms of Billy Cannon at the LSU eleven yard line. Cannon returns the punt 89 yards for the winning TD. What if Billy Cannon had not fielded that punt inside the LSU 15? Or, alternately, if even one of the seven Ole Miss players who had a shot at Cannon had tackled him.

Another what-if: as Ole Miss captain Charlie Flowers told me a couple of years ago, that the punt was supposed to angle out of bounds, but it took a funky bounce. Ole Miss did not allow a touchdown drive of more than 10 yards all season (opponents only scored 21 points) -- there is simply no way LSU wins that game if the punt doesn't check up. One of the greatest plays in college football history almost didn't happen; without it, Ole Miss wins the national title (and deserving recognition as one of history's greatest teams), and the story of Syracuse and Ernie Davis is missing a national title ring.

(In a strange twist, 52 years before Alabama did the same, Ole Miss got revenge for this single-digit to single-digit defeat with a 21-0 win in New Orleans during bowl season. Granted, it didn't win them the national title; but considering how good this Ole Miss team was -- best ever, according to my numbers -- it would have probably fair if it did.)

Ernie Davis

A good portion of The Express took place during the 1959 season as well. Davis wouldn't win the Heisman Trophy until 1961, but he was a dominant force on a dominant Syracuse squad that eventually won the national title. Davis was one of three 'Cuse backs to rush for 500 yards -- he had 686 yards (on just 98 carries), Ger Schwedes had 592, and Art Baker had 533, and the Orangemen were barely challenged after a tight, week one win over Kansas. They beat Maryland, Navy, Holy Cross, West Virginia and Pittsburgh by a combined margin of 182-12, they crept by No. 7 Penn State, 20-18, in Happy Valley, and they drubbed No. 17 UCLA on the road, 36-8, to wrap up the national title. Many disputed the title for any number of reasons (from weak schedule to integrated roster), and Reid does a good job of walking through the resistance they encountered. But they backed up their resume with...

The 1960 Cotton Bowl

...a relatively easy 23-14 win over No. 4 Texas in the Cotton Bowl.

The game itself was marred by a fight, but most valuable player Davis helped Syracuse prove that it was indeed strong and athletic enough to fairly claim the title.

The Airline Conference

This is potentially my favorite part of the entire book, which I read about two years ago as the first major round of EXPANSIONAPALOOZA™ was kicking up. One day I will write an entire book on the effect the Airline Conference may have had on the world of college football.

What was the Airline Conference? Behold.

There was one major conference change following the 1958 season. The PCC splintered in the off-season with California, Southern California, Stanford, UCLA, and Washington forming the Athletic Alliance of Western Universities (AAWU) while Idaho, Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State became independents. The PCC remained to the extent that any of its former members could host the Rose Bowl.

There was speculation (and interest) in forming a 'national' conference involving the AAWU teams along with Air Force, Army, Navy, Notre Dame, Penn State, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse, which were all independent. However, that alliance never materialized.

Two paragraphs on page 13 nearly made my head explode. I stopped reading the book and hit the internet to pursue information about this, but it is minimal. (In fact, if you google "Airline Conference," most of the hits are from my mentions of it on Rock M Nation.) Later in the book, it is referred to with that title, but never mind that: think of how much this would have changed college football. Eliminating any semblance of geographic unity in conferences, and over 50 years ago to boot? I'm sure the southern schools would have stuck together (it's kind of what they do), but the mind reels thinking about the impact this may have had every where else.

For that passage alone, this book was worth reading for me; it made my imagination explode. But the season as a whole was just so interesting that, again, it overcomes a rather dry delivery that probably needed a better editor. Sometimes the subject matter is so good that you don't care much about the story-telling. This book is a very good example of that.