New Boston College History States BC’s 1940 National Championship in Football “Untrue”: Correcting This Mistake
David P. Twomey
Carroll School of Management
In 2014 Boston College published The Heights, An Illustrated History of Boston College, 1863-2013, Birnbaum and Meehan (The Illustrated History) as part of its sesquicentennial celebration of the founding of Boston College in 1863. The book is a truly remarkable work in nearly every respect. However, regarding the pinnacle athletic achievement in the 150 history of Boston College – the national championship in football in 1940 – the authors misread the AP data and erroneously concluded that BC was ranked fifth in the country after its win in the Sugar Bowl on January 1, 1941. It was this erroneous assertion of fact that served as the sole reason presented in the Illustrated History for the authors to conclude that the long established history of a national championship for Boston College in football in 1940 was “untrue” and “The championship never happened.” The authors of this history of Boston College commissioned by the Board of Trustees would overrule Dr. Nathaniel Hasenfus’ hallmark history entitled Athletics at Boston College, published in 1943 (see Appendix 1), which has provided guidance on football and hockey questions for over seven decades; the work of University Historian Rev. Charles Donovan S.J. , a contemporary to the events of 1940; Reid Oslin’s 2008 history “Boston College Football Vault The History of the Eagles”; the 2011 work of University Historian Tom O’Connor, Boston College A-Z, The Spirit of the Heights; the Sub Turri yearbooks of Boston College students from the classes of 1941, 1942 and 1943; the Boston newspapers of that time period, including The Boston Globe, The Boston Traveler, The Boston Post and the Sunday Advertiser; as well as the assessments of sportswriters from throughout the country: – all of whom are on record that Boston College won the mythical national championship in football in 1940 when it beat Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day 1941 (see Appendix 2).
Since the authors were notified in December of 2014 of the mistake the book continues to be promoted and sold to alumni and incoming students and their parents without any form of acknowledgement and correction.* Like Dr. Hasenfus’ history, the Illustrated History will be around for multiple decades. Uncorrected, with the flaw introduced to BC’s history for the first time some 74 years after the actual event, it will not take a long period of time before the flaw actually becomes our history, with no one with a memory of the event alive to raise an objection.
How can a university legitimately claim a national championship when the AP poll ranks it only 5th (fifth) in the country after it won its bowl game? Such a claim would be nearly absurd. Well that is what the authors assert about BC in their history text! The erroneous content of the Illustrated History backhandedly belittles the then BC administrators, athletes, fans and the sportswriters of the 1940s with the nearly absurd fact pattern the authors attribute to the BC community.
The text of the Illustrated History states in part on page 113:
… At the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, on New Year’s Day 1941, the Eagles beat Tennessee, 19-13, earning themselves a post-season fifth-place ranking by the Associated Press. (It’s sometimes said that they were the national champions, but that’s untrue.)…
The AP ranking the authors use to alter BC’s history was not a post-bowl game ranking. In 1940 the “final” AP poll was published on December 2, 1940, almost a month before the major bowl games were played. It is an uncontroverted fact that the Associated Press conducted no post-bowl game polling in any year before 1965. The authors made a material misstatement of fact that BC is claiming a national championship in the context of the AP poll ranking them fifth in the country after their win in the Sugar Bowl. And it is this erroneous fact that was the sole reason presented in the Illustrated History for BCs championship being “untrue”!!!!
While not common, publishers have a “rip & tip” process to correct major mistakes discovered after a book is printed. Corrected, the Illustrated History would be a wonderful resource for families and friends of Boston College to purchase and enjoy throughout their lives.
Soon after January 1941, America was drawn into wars in the Pacific and Europe. Over five thousand sons of Boston College served America during World War II. Many of the 500 BC students who made the road trip to New Orleans were among those who served America during the war. The War Memorial Wall on the Burns Library lawn lists the names of one hundred and fifty six men who gave their lives in their service of our country in World War II – a stunning sacrifice for such a small college. The 1940 championship was theirs – every single one of them celebrated the national championship, as did the thousands of BC men who returned from the war carrying a lifetime of pride in the 1940 championship team. While uncontemplated, an uncorrected Illustrated History absconds with “their” championship and disrespects BC’s heritage.
* Surely no unit of the University should knowingly promote and sell a book commissioned by the University containing known, material, history-changing errors in fact.
- The 1940 Season
- A CONTEXT FOR THE REGULAR SEASON
Preeminent sports writer Grantland Rice in his December 14, 1940 article in Collier’s Magazine (circulation 2.5 million) entitled “Selecting the All-American Football Team” presents a context to judge the football teams of 1940 as follows:
Beyond all this the campaign of 1940 surpassed the march of the calendar, dating back to 1869, for the number of fine teams and high-grade stars. I doubt that any past season has shown as many exceptionally good teams as Minnesota, Texas A&M, Stanford, Boston College, Georgetown, Tennessee, Michigan, Cornell, Nebraska, Fordham, Northwestern, Washington, Mississippi State, Mississippi, Pennsylvania – not to overlook Penn State, S.M.U. Lafayette and Texas Tech. ***
The season of 1940 also presented the best football game of many years in the meeting of Boston College and Georgetown. This was a classic at least two years ahead of its time in the matter of fundamentals and open play combined. It was by all odds the best college game I ever saw.
I have seen games just as exciting – notably Notre Dame and Ohio State some years ago. T.C.U. and S.M.U. when Sammy Baugh was on the job. Yale and Princeton when Frank and Kelley reigned – but these teams were not in the same class with Boston College and Georgetown that day in the matter of material and breath-taking razzle-dazzle. These two teams proved you could still combine the smashing line play of Minnesota with all the wild and wide-open game of the Southwest.
But this season the main power in football moved back again to the Midwest and the East. The Midwest took the jump with Minnesota, Michigan and Northwestern trailed by Notre Dame, Iowa and other helpers. The East came charging back, not through the ivied towers of Harvard, Yale and Princeton, but from Boston College, Georgetown, Fordham and Cornell.
The South called on Tennessee. The Southwest banked its claim upon Texas A&M. The Far West had Stanford, which played no intersectional game. But the Midwest and the East had at least seven magnificent football teams to overmatch any other terrains this fall.
- TENNESSEE AND ITS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
Since the mid-1920’s various organizations and individuals have ranked the top teams in college football using polls and mathematical formulas. The AP started in 1936 and its final poll was taken at the end of the regular season play. In 1940 it ranked Minnesota (8-0) #1; Stanford (9-0) #2, Michigan (7-1) #3, Tennessee (10-0) #4, and BC (10-0) #5. At the end of the regular season in 1940 three teams were identified as national champions, Minnesota (8-0) by the AP poll and various selectors, Tennessee (10-0) by the Dunkel “power index system” and the Williamson System, and Stanford by the HF and B&P systems. Tennessee outscored their opponents 319 to 19 in the regular season beating teams like Duke (13-0), Alabama (27-12), Florida (14-0), LSU (28-0), Kentucky (33-0) and Virginia (41-14). As seen above in Grantland Rice’s article Tennessee alone stood out in the South.
- BOSTON COLLEGE
In 1940 BC played Tulane University at Tulane Stadium in the second game of the season, a team that had an 8-1-1 record the previous year, and lost a national championship at the Sugar Bowl by one point to Texas A&M. BC gave Tulane its worst loss of the season by a score of 27-7. BC hammered Auburn (6-4-1) by a score of 33-7. As referenced above Grantland Rice declared BC’s 19-18 win over undefeated (7-0) Georgetown in 1940 “by all odds the best college game I ever saw.” On December 12, 1940 the undefeated untied BC team which led the nation in scoring with 320 points was awarded by unanimous vote of Eastern sports writers the Lambert Trophy, an annual award to the best team in the East. BC President Father Murphy, Mayor Tobin and Frank Leahy attended the awards ceremony in New York.
- THE GAME
Minnesota and Michigan did not play in a bowl game. With Stanford playing once beaten and lower ranked Nebraska (#7) in the Rose Bowl the game on New Year’s Day for the National Championship was at the Sugar Bowl between the two unbeatens, Tennessee and BC, with SEC and regular season national champion Tennessee highly favored over the small Catholic men’s college from Boston.
The 1943 Sub Turri presented a summary of the student body road trip:
“New Orleans or bust” was the slogan of the student body after the 1940-41 football team accepted invitation to play in the Sugar Bowl. Upon receiving their pay checks from the federal government… some five hundred sons of alma mater headed for the “Sunny South”.
In everything from a ’28 Buick to a ’41 Packard the rabid rooters journeyed over the highways and byways to the city renowned for its Mardi Gras. Canal Street began the Boston College campus; every hotel her dorms; and every nite-spot, her meeting place…
The January 1, 1941 edition of the New York Herald Tribune reported on the arrival, accommodations and popularity of the trainloads of Eagle rooters:
The Boston delegation led by Mayor Maurice Tobin appears to be nearly as big as that from Tennessee despite the greater distance it had to travel. Three trainloads of Bostonians are living aboard Pullmans in the railroad yards and mooching shower-baths from the Boston press delegation which is quartered in the hotel St. Charles. Undergraduates of both institutions who have been unable to find living accommodations are sleeping on lobby furniture, in the parks and in the square opposite St. Louis Cathedral. …
The general opinion is that Tennessee is going to win, a sentiment that is reflected in the odds, but you can get an argument either way. Boston College is very popular here as the result of its one-sided victory over Tulane on the first Saturday of the season.
In an article in BC Magazine Winter 1991, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Sugar Bowl victory and national championship, Sean Smith wrote in part:
On January 1, 1941, the front page of The Boston Globe carried the headline “Hitler Pledges German Victory in 1941,” and an Ernie Pyle column on how Londoners were holding up under Nazi bombings, while all over Boston, radios were turned to NBC’s Sugar Bowl broadcast. (The next day’s Globe sports section included the story of a staffer who was impelled by his wife to abandon the radio and visit a nearby convent, only to find a group of nuns listening intently to the game.) p. 55.
Boston College sports historian Reid Oslin wrote about the Eagles victory in his Boston College Football Vault, the History of the Eagles (2008), p. 51 as follows:
On New Year’s day, before a record crowd of 73,181 and a national radio audience, the talented teams battled back and forth in championship combat, the score knotted 13-13 with three minutes remaining. O’Rourke had thrown two earlier interceptions, lost a first-period fumble and felt ill at halftime, yet still completed three consecutive passes to bring the ball to Tennessee’s 24 with 2:14 left. Leahy then called for his secret play.
“Chuckin’ Charlie” took the ball, ran to his left, cocked his right arm as if to throw it again, and then cut back toward the left tackle slot. There, he received stunning blocks from end Henry Woronicz and tackle Joe Manzo, who cut down Tennessee All-American guard Bob Suffridge. With room to run, O’Rourke neatly evaded two other Vols defenders and dashed into the end zone with the game’s winning touchdown.
Tennessee had one more chance to score, but O’Rourke intercepted an errant pass near the game’s end and collapsed to his knees in victory. His teammates carried him off the field on their shoulders.
A crowd of 100,000 welcomed the undefeated Eagles back to Boston two days later. Boston College’s team, widely acclaimed as the nation’s champion, had set a standard that someday may be equaled but never can be exceeded.
- BC NATIONAL CHAMPION
- Stanley Woodward, Sports Editor of the New York Herald Tribune wrote after the Sugar Bowl victory:
The game, played at a tempo of rock and sock, which came barely within the limits of respectability, was one of the greatest of football history. … The consensus is that it surpassed the fireworks produced here a year ago by Tulane and Texas A&M and that it entitled Boston College to the undefeated championship of the United States of America.
- Fred Digby, New Orleans Item Sporting Editor considered the Father of the Sugar Bowl wrote:
The Eagles not only earned the national championship but they proved the greatest team ever to play in the Sugar Bowl. Boston College won because it was able to do what almost everyone thought was the impossible – outlast Tennessee.
- Will Wedge, New York Sun
The Boston College Eagles the visiting outfit at the Sugar Bowl and therefore the underdogs deserve all the more credit for their victory, which may well be considered to give them the national title….
- Frank O’Gara, Philadelphia Inquirer
Boston College’s superb band of fighters parlayed courage, class and perseverance into thrilling victory over favored Tennessee for one of the most sensational triumphs of all time.
- Arthur Daley, New York Times
This was a gorgeous football game that was played to the hilt by two superbly coached elevens. Make no mistake about this Sugar Bowl game. They don’t come any better.
- Bill Keefe, sports editor, New Orleans Times – Picayune
I think Boston College could have beaten any Bowl team of New Year’s Day. It was a game of games, one that will live forever in the memory of those who saw it.
A compilation of articles from Boston newspaper sources reporting on and celebrating BC as national champions is set forth in Appendix 2. In the very first article after BC accepted the bid to play Tennessee, Globe columnist Gerry Moore wrote on December 1, 1940 that it “may very well settle the 1940 national pigskin championship.” The University of Tennessee was awarded the national championship by two rating systems in 1940, with the final polls taken at the end of the regular season. BC beat Tennessee on the playing field. It is unchallenged that BC was the best football team in the East and South. Minnesota through its regular season performance can certainly claim supremacy in the Mid-West for both the regular and post season. Stanford with its victory over Nebraska (8-2) can claim supremacy in the West. In the 1940 era there was no official NCAA title; no national championship trophy. At that time the overall national championship including the regular and post-season was called a “mythical” one, with championship teams independently declared based on “the merits” of the case made by proponents. The case for BC is most compelling as earned throughout the regular season, and its Lambert Trophy as the best in the East, and its great victory in the Sugar Bowl over the SEC and regular season national champion Tennessee.
- BC’S NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP: THE PLAYERS AND THE COACH
We are now in the 75th Anniversary year of the 1940 National Football Championship Team. Five players from this team and their coach Frank Leahy were inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Through 1940 only Notre Dame’s 1924 team had more. And through to this date only one additional Boston College football player has been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, Doug Flutie. Attached is a photo of one of the plaques honoring these individuals exhibited in the B.C. Football Museum at the Yawkey Center. Gene Goodreault’s plaque reads as follows:
Tennessee aside, the three teams with viable claims to a national championship in 1940, in alphabetical order are BC (11-0), Minnesota (8-0) and Stanford (10-0). BC had five players from the 1940 team inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, Gladchuck, Goodreault, Holovak, Kerr and O’Rourke and it had a Hall of Fame coach in Frank Leahy. Minnesota had three players inducted in the Hall of Fame and Stanford had three Hall of Fame players. Isn’t it highly likely that informed football people in 2015 looking at all of the data of the three schools would be compelled to conclude that the 1940 BC football team would be the better match against either of the two other schools? No reasonable person in 2015 would seek the expungement of the national championship references on the College Hall of Fame plaques of the five players and their coach exhibited in the BC Football Museum because the “national championship did not happen!”
James Vautravers the dean of college football historians who has been researching college football history since 1986 points out in part for 1940 that:
…Minnesota beat Michigan at home by an extra point made/missed, while BC beat Tennessee by a touchdown on a neutral field. Therefore, despite where the AP poll rated the teams, BC’s win over Tennessee was more impressive – the best win by any team this season.
Because of that win, I do think that BC should share the MNC [Mythical National Championship] this season. And it wasn’t their only impressive win – they also beat #13 Georgetown (8-2), and they stomped on a pair of mid-level SEC teams…
While Mr. Vautravers lists 5 viable options for rating BC, Minnesota and Stanford in 1940 he concludes:
Regardless of where you rank them, BC should be considered a co-MNC. And when you look at their coach and players, you have to think that BC would have had at least as much chance as Minnesota or Stanford to win a playoff in 1940. (http://www.tiptop25.com/champ1940.html)
The 1940 national championship team was welcomed home by an estimated crowd of 100,000 people. On February 9, 1941 twenty one hundred people crammed the main ballroom of the Statler Hotel to celebrate the team. Jerry Nason wrote:
At this, perhaps the greatest sports dinner ever staged in this city, and the last of a series which have tested the mythical national champion’s endurance for the past five weeks, the square-jawed blocking back exhorted, in behalf of the seniors, those undergraduates who must carry on.
Twenty five years later on January 6, 1966 1,700 individuals filled the Sheraton Boston Hotel to honor the “legendary 1940 team, national champions, victory over mighty Tennessee on January 1, 1941 in the Sugar Bowl….” (Alumni News, Winter, 1966, p. 18, 19.) The dinner was sponsored by the Boston Globe and the BC Varsity Club on the 25th anniversary of the Sugar Bowl victory, with nearly every living member of the 1940 team present along with Frank Leahy. John Ahern, writing for the Globe stated in part:
It was a night of recollection as Dr. Molinski, a guard on the Tennessee team that BC beat, 19 to 13, 25 years ago, related how his team, the tops in the nation, was beaten that day.
(Boston Globe, Jan. 7, 1966, p. 37)
On the fiftieth anniversary of the national championship team, BC Magazine writer, Sean Smith wrote a wonderful article on the 1940 team. (BC Magazine Winter, 1991 pp. 51-56).
Celebrating the 75th anniversary of a perfect championship season, Reid Oslin wrote a short powerful piece on: “The 1940 Team of Destiny” (Boston College Homecoming Football Program, September 26, 2015 p. 64, 66.) (http://bceagles.com/news/2015/11/10/FB_1110153607.aspx)
III. The Attempt to Minimize an Egregious Error Utilizing BC Magazine
While “magnificent” describes the authors’ treatment of most of the content of the Illustrated History, the words “erroneous” and “shabby” best describe their treatment of the 1940 football team. Rather than pursue the several options available to correct their mistake, through the authority of one of the authors as Editor of the BC Magazine, the authors sought to cover up their mistake in the Illustrated History by creating a letter to the Editor in the Winter 2015 issue of the BC Magazine. They bestow the national championship in 1940 on the University of Minnesota, while happily informing the entire BC community who might read the Letters to the Editor section, “that all of the evidence points to our championship having been self-applied.…” Wedged in between assertions the authors state:
…The Eagles’ season was glorious and captivated the city of Boston for many reasons noted in a story in this magazine on the 50th anniversary of the Sugar bowl game and in our recent illustrated University history. … (emphasis added.)
It is true that Sean Smith did a wonderful piece on the 1940 team in the BC Magazine on the 50th anniversary of the Sugar Bowl game with the large type lead-in stating “In January 1941 the BC football team topped an undefeated record with a Sugar Bowl victory and a national championship…” However, please read what the authors actually wrote about the Eagles 1940 season in the Illustrated History and see if the authors actually noted any reasons that “the Eagles’ season was glorious and captivated the city of Boston.”
An author states on page X of the Introduction:
So, do Seth Meehan and I make a claim that here at last is the true history of Boston College – illustrated or not? Certainly we don’t (“an” illustrated history and not “the illustrated history is deliberate), though we do have the modest hope that one consequence of this book will be that some alumni – you know who you are – will stop recalling a national championship in football in 1941 and halcyon years as a national gridiron threat in the 1920s or 1930s or something like that. (The championship never happened, and Boston College’s most successful era in football – 1996 to 2006 – was managed by the underappreciated Tom O’Brien. As they say in sports, you could look it up.) …
[Comment: The author’s tone seems so very inappropriate for this history. Perhaps it’s because the fundamental assertion that “the championship never happened” turns out to be an empty assertion based on an error, with no historical base.]
On Page 113 of the text the authors state:
… the Eagles fell to the Tigers 6-3, but in the following year improved their record to 11-0, including a 19-18 win over Georgetown that the hyperbole inclined Grantland Rice, purple-prosing the players as “behemoths and mastodons,” declared the “greatest game of football ever played.” At the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, on New Year’s Day 1941, the Eagles beat Tennessee, 19-13, earning themselves a post-season fifth-place ranking by the Associated Press. (It’s sometimes said that they were the national champions, but that’s untrue.) When the team returned to South Station on January 4, an estimated 100,000 supporters awaited. …
[Comment: The first sentence discredits the famous sportswriter as hyperbole-inclined, adversely impacting Grantland Rice’s declaration. The second sentence contains the history-changing error. The third sentence is false because BC has always openly, notoriously and continuously asserted the national championship (not “sometimes said”); and the “that’s untrue” assertion is based on the error in the second sentence. It is true that 100,000 supporters awaited, but this concludes the total of the 3 ½ sentences of text the authors devoted to the 1940 team.]
See page 125 of the text with the caption:
[Comment: The Introduction, page X. The text page 113 and the above caption from page 125 show a fully integrated distain for the 1940 team, with the clear intent to radically diminish the team’s remarkable accomplishments in Boston College history.]
The authors’ glowing assertion to the readers of BC Magazine that the Illustrated History depicted the Eagles season as glorious and captivated the city of Boston is bewilderingly untrue and the treatment of the 1940 team in the authors’ text is downright shabby.
The authors in their BC Magazine response to the letter to the editor they created now bestow the national championship on Minnesota based on the December 2, 1940 AP poll and its many selectors, over Stanford and Tennessee with both having two selectors supporting their claim to a national championship. The determinations were made at the end of the regular season in late November and in early December. While logic perhaps led the authors to wrongfully believe that the “final” AP poll must have been taken after the post season bowl games had been played which led to the mistake in the Illustrated History, it now appears that they are taking the position that the mythical national championship is determined solely on regular season performance, as determined at the end of the regular season.
No one in the East or South thought that the BC – Tennessee game was for anything less than the mythical national championship. No Boston newspaper or Tennessee newspaper contemplated anything but a battle of these two intersectional schools — the best in the East versus the best in the South – both undefeated and untied for the national championship. If the mythical national championship had been previously determined at the end of the regular season, and the game was a mere exhibition game, the record would have shown it. Rather, the absolute excitement of the game – “one of the greatest of football history” by the Editor of the New York Herald Tribune which “established Boston College as the undefeated champion of the United States of America.” And, the Father of the Sugar Bowl Fred Digby the Sports Editor of the New Orleans Item who stated that, “The Eagles not only earned the national championship but they proved to be the greatest team ever to play in the Sugar Bowl.” Many other sports writers national and local, along with thousands of people in the Boston area were well aware that the championship was won on the field on New Year’s Day and not by some team whose season ended on November 23, 1940.
The authors’ assertion that all the evidence points to B.C.’s championship having been “self-applied” is absurd.
- While taking no known steps to acknowledge and correct their mistakes, the authors now recognize that their assertion in the Illustrated History that BC was ranked 5th in the country after its Sugar Bowl victory on January 1, 1941 was in error. The truth of this assertion served as the sole basis for their conclusion in the text that the national championship was “untrue”.
- The AP final poll and selector decisions on various choices for national champions for the 1940 football season were made at the conclusion of the regular football season in early December. Their work was completed at that time.
- For post-season play in the 1940s era there was no official NCAA title and no national championship trophy. The national championship, called a “mythical” one, had national championship team(s) independently declared based on the merits of the case made by their proponents. The BC proponents after the Sugar Bowl were spontaneous and exuberant. Surely the sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune, and the sports editor/Father of the Sugar Bowl and so many other national and regional proponents understood the theory they were relying on. Their assertions of a national championship was the “mythical” national championship. There was no other theory.
- BC was undefeated and untied, the highest scoring team in the country and the Lambert Trophy winner, which was awarded to the best football team in the East. The victory in the Sugar Bowl was a triumph over the SEC champion and regular season national champion, Tennessee. Were there a playoff system in effect in 1940, looking at BC with five College Football Hall of Fame players, and a superior coach, BC would likely have fared quite well against Minnesota, with its three Hall of Fame players, and Stanford with its three Hall of Fame players.
- It is well understood that both the University of Minnesota and Stanford University can also make viable claims for the mythical national championship. Their positions are genuinely respected. (See Reid Oslin, “The 1940 Team of Destiny.” http://bceagles.com/news/2015/11/10/FB_1110153607.aspx)
The Illustrated History is a remarkable work that is going to have meaning and impact for 100 years! It is uncontroverted now that this publication of the University has a major research flaw. It should be withdrawn from the market until corrected. See Appendix 3 for the pages in question from the text of the Illustrated History.