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1921 College Football National Championship

1922 Rose Bowl, Washington and Jefferson vs. California

Defending national champion California's 18 game winning streak came to an end on the rain-swamped field of the Rose Bowl, as they were shocked and outplayed by Washington & Jefferson (with the ball in the picture above) in a 0-0 tie. That outcome leaves the 1921 mythical national championship (MNC) rather murky.


Here is how the "major selectors" listed in the NCAA Records Book, all selecting long after the fact, see the 1921 college football national championship (omitting math/computer ratings, which neither I nor anyone else recognize as constituting titles):

8-0 Cornell:
Helms, National Championship FoundationParke Davis (3-way tie)
7-0 Iowa: Parke Davis (3-way tie)
9-0 Lafayette:
Parke Davis (3-way tie)
9-0-1 California: CFB Researchers

That's 4 contenders, and 10-0-1 Washington & Jefferson, who tied Cal in the Rose Bowl, gives us a 5th. In fact, it need hardly be said that the College Football Researchers Association failed abysmally when they retroactively named Cal the 1921 MNC without sharing the "title" with Washington & Jefferson, who dominated Cal in the Rose Bowl tie.

A Hypothetical AP Poll for 1921

College football historian Bob Kirlin thinks 9-0 Centre would have been voted #1 in a final regular season AP poll. He may be right, because Centre had been the darling of the press for 3 years, and this season they pulled off a nationally celebrated 6-0 upset at Harvard, who had not been beaten in 3 years. That win was considered the biggest upset in college football history for decades afterward. Centre outscored opponents 282-6 in the regular season, also beating 7-3 Virginia Tech, 5-3 Auburn, and 6-3 Washington & Lee.

However, while I think it is indeed possible that Centre would have been #1 at the end of the regular season, I think it is a bit more likely that California would have held them off for the top spot. Cal was the defending national champion, and went 9-0, outscoring their opponents 312-33. The New York Times called them the "wonder team of the ages," and they were the only team in the country to field 2 consensus All Americans (a third player came close).

Of course, I am more interested in a hypothetical post-bowl AP poll, and though it is difficult to definitively say whether Centre or Cal would have been #1 in December, one thing we can be certain of is that neither would have been #1 in January, since both teams were upset on January 2nd. Centre lost 22-14 to 6-1-2 Texas A&M in the Dixie Classic in Dallas, a far bigger upset than their win over Harvard (who finished 7-2-1), and Cal took their aforementioned tie to Washington & Jefferson in the Rose Bowl.

That would have left 8-0 Cornell and 7-0 Iowa vying for #1 in a final AP poll, and it is impossible to say which would have won out. Cornell was the country's most impressive team performance-wise, outscoring opponents 392-21, but they did not play any powerful teams. Iowa only outscored their opposition 185-36, and their schedule was unimpressive overall, but they notched the win of the season 10-7 over 10-1 Notre Dame, and that one win was worth far more than all of Cornell's combined. Another factor working in Iowa's favor was a series of victories by the Midwest over the East this season, causing even Eastern writers to proclaim that the East was no longer the king region of college football.

Notre Dame slaughtered Army and Rutgers, Nebraska beat Pittsburgh worse than MNC contenders Lafayette and Washington & Jefferson did, and Chicago blanked Princeton 9-0-- all on the road. Amongst minor teams, Detroit even went 4-1 against Eastern teams, the lone loss to 10-0-1 Washington & Jefferson.

Iowa may thus seem the likely choice for #1, but sportswriters have always been heavily swayed by huge scores, and Cornell's were the hugest. That's what makes this hypothetical AP poll #1 a toss-up and impossible to call. As for 9-0 Lafayette, they were relatively ignored by the press this season, and my guess is that they would have finished ranked about #13.

The 1921 MNC

This is a very difficult year for which to select a mythical national champion. Cornell is the consensus choice amongst retroactive selectors for national champion of 1921, probably because of their huge margins of victory, but their schedule was rather weak. Lafayette did not run up scores as highly as Cornell, but they performed nearly as well, and they played a bit more impressive schedule. Unlike both, Iowa defeated a top 5 team, but they did not perform as well as either. Washington & Jefferson played the toughest schedule, but their performance was least impressive. California performed as well as Cornell and Lafayette, but their schedule was weakest, and they were dominated in their Rose Bowl tie with Washington & Jefferson. No one of these teams clearly stands out above the others.

You could select all 5 contenders to share the title, but the more teams you have sharing a "national championship," the more meaningless the term becomes. I would therefore prefer to select no more than 3 teams for any given season, and ideally just 1 or 2. Doing that for this season, however, requires more splitting of hairs than usual.

Iowa 1921

Iowa football coach Howard JonesThis was Iowa's first perfect season, and their first Big 10 title in 21 years, but they didn't come out of nowhere-- they had been building their way up to this moment for years, going 6-2-1 in 1918 and 5-2 in both 1919 and 1920. They followed this year's 7-0 with another 7-0 in 1922, the only perfect seasons in Iowa history, as well as their only consecutive Big 10 titles.

The head coach responsible for all this success was Hall of Famer Howard Jones (pictured at left). A Yale grad, he had played for MNC teams in 1905, 1906, and 1907, and then he coached Yale to another MNC in 1909. He coached at Iowa 1916-1923, going 42-17-1. His greatest fame, though, would be won at Southern Cal 1925-1940, during which time he went 121-36-13, 5-0 in Rose Bowls, and won 7 Pacific Coast titles and 4 school-claimed MNCs (though only 2 of them are legitimate). Overall he was 194-64-21 for his career, and won as many as 6 MNCs-- 4 of them legitimate.

Iowa won a school-record 20-straight games 1920-1923, but it wasn't all Howard Jones' doing. Iowa 1921 featured the most talented group of players the school ever collected on one team: 7 of the 11 starters were named All Big 10 this season, 6 made first team All American lists during their careers here, and 3 are in the Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Famers

Aubrey DevineIowa's one consensus All American this season was quarterback and captain Aubrey Devine (pictured at left). A Hall of Famer, he also handled the team's punting, placekicking, and returns, and he led the team in rushing, passing, and scoring all 3 years he played for Iowa. He kicked a field goal to beat Minnesota 9-6 in 1919, and scored all of his team's points in wins over Northwestern and Iowa State the same season. He ran for one touchdown and threw for the other in a 14-7 win over Indiana in 1920, and led the Big 10 in scoring that season.

This season he accounted for all of Iowa's points in a critical 13-6 win over Purdue, and his game-winning punt return touchdown was later listed in an article by Hall of Fame coach Clark Shaughnessy as one of the 12 greatest individual plays in college football history. Against Minnesota he accounted for 484 yards and 6 touchdowns, rushing for 162 yards and 4 touchdowns, passing for 122 and 2 touchdowns, returning kicks for 200 yards, and adding 5 extra points. Minnesota's Hall of Fame coach Henry Williams called him "the greatest player who ever stepped on our field" and "the greatest backfield player the country has ever known."

In his next game against Indiana, Devine rushed for 183 yards and 4 touchdowns, and passed for 102, though he left the game in the 3rd quarter. Devine rushed for 895 yards this season, still an Iowa record for a quarterback, and he once again led the Big 10 in scoring. According to Tex Noel's collection of statistics from the ancient days, Devine produced a national record 2211 yards of total offense this season. He was a tremendous passer, and was allegedly never intercepted in his 3 years. Devine went on to get a law degree, one of 5 starters on this team who became lawyers.

Fullback Gordon Locke is Iowa's 2nd Hall of Famer. A nonconsensus AA this season, he would be consensus AA in 1922, replacing Devine as captain and leading Iowa to another 7-0 finish despite the loss of 3 of their best players from the 1921 team. This season, Locke provided the inside power running to counterpoint Devine's outside running. He scored the touchdown, and Devine added the field goal, to beat 10-1 Notre Dame 10-7 in Iowa's biggest win of the season, and Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne later said, "We had heard so much about Devine, but the guy who hurt us the most that day was Locke."

Duke SlaterIn his next game, Locke carried the ball 37 times for 202 yards, scoring both touchdowns to beat Illinois 14-2, but he was hospitalized after the game with stomach problems that hampered him the rest of the season. He still finished with over 700 yards and was 3rd in the conference in scoring. In 1922, when he carried the team offensively, he scored a touchdown in an 8-7 win over Illinois, 3 touchdowns in one half against Minnesota, 2 touchdowns in a 12-9 win over Ohio State, and 4 touchdowns in his collegiate finale against Northwestern. His 72 points in Big 10 play that season were the most by a conference back until 1943. He totaled 32 touchdowns in his career, 4 times scoring 4 in a single game. Like Devine, he became a lawyer after graduation.

Iowa's 3rd Hall of Famer, and likely the best of the 3, was 210 pound tackle Fred "Duke" Slater (pictured at left), who never wore a helmet. In high school, his team, Clinton High, met West Des Moines, led by Aubrey Devine, for the state title, and the game ended in a 13-13 tie. He was a nonconsensus AA this season, making first team on 3 lists, and he was unanimous All Big 10 all 3 years that he played. Newspaper game summaries of the time repeatedly described him as unblockable on defense, and as mowing down 2-3 players by himself as a blocker. The Midwest's foremost writer of the time, Walter Eckersall: "Slater is so powerful that one man cannot handle him and opposing elevens have found it necessary to send 2 men against him every time a play was sent off his side of the line." Fritz Crisler, an All American player for Chicago and later a Hall of Fame coach for Michigan, had this to say: "Duke Slater was the best tackle I ever played against. I tried to block him throughout my college career but never once did I impede his progress to the ball carrier."

If you're wondering how such a dominant player never made consensus AA, while 3 other players on this team did, perhaps another glance at his picture will give you a clue as to the possible reason for that. Duke Slater went on to play pro football for 10 years, finding time to get a law degree in 1928. He became an assistant district attorney, then was elected a municipal court judge in Illinois.

The Rest of the Team

End Lester Belding had been a consensus AA in 1919, Iowa's first, and he was all conference all 3 years he played. He was 4th in the conference in scoring this season, his teammates of course being 1st and 3rd. He snagged 3 interceptions in Iowa's big win over Notre Dame this season. Belding went on to become a long-time track and field coach, primarily at North Central College in Illinois, and he is in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame.

Guard Paul Minnick and center John Heldt were both nonconsensus AA in 1922, and both played pro ball for 4 years.

Iowa's Season

Iowa never trailed this season, but their schedule was highly unimpressive except for one huge home game against Notre Dame. It was Iowa's second game, following a 52-14 warm-up win over Knox. Locke scored 4 touchdowns in that romp, and Devine added a touchdown, field goal, and 5 extra points. Knox did not register a first down in the game, but they did throw a pair of touchdowns against Iowa's 3rd string players. Notre Dame, however, would be another matter entirely. They had won 20 straight games, the longest such streak of Knute Rockne's career, and they were a big favorite to beat Iowa.

Notre Dame

Because the 2 teams' colors were so similar, Notre Dame used green jerseys for the first time in this game. They wouldn't use green jerseys again until the 1977 Southern Cal game. Dame's star and captain, Eddie Anderson, would eventually coach Iowa 1939-1949. All of Iowa's scoring came in the opening quarter. The initial score came on 4th down: Notre Dame's Hall of Fame guard Hunk Anderson was able to get by Duke Slater's block and hit ball carrier Gordon Locke at the 2 yard line, but Locke powered right over Anderson for the crucial touchdown. Devine added the extra point, then kicked a 33 yard field goal late in the quarter for the eventual deciding points. Notre Dame scored on a 30 yard touchdown pass in the 2nd quarter, and it was 10-7 at half.

Both teams drove to their opponent's 5 yard line in the 3rd quarter, but came up empty. Notre Dame missed a 40 yard field goal attempt in the 4th quarter, then drove to the Iowa 7 yard line, but Iowa held on for the 10-7 win. Notre Dame ended up gaining twice as much yardage as Iowa, largely because Iowa went into a conservative defense and field position mode after the 1st quarter, while Notre Dame was throwing the ball all over the place trying to come back. Iowa end Lester Belding intercepted 3 of those passes.

This was Notre Dame's first loss since 1918, and their next wouldn't come until their finale in 1922. Notre Dame finished this season 10-1, outscoring their opponents 375-34 in their 10 wins. This included a 28-0 win at Army and a 7-0 win over a powerful 7-1 Nebraska team. Nebraska outscored their opponents 283-10 in their 7 wins, including a 10-0 win at Pittsburgh.

Big 10 Games

Iowa's next game was homecoming against Illinois, and  the New York Times declared it the "game of the week" beforehand, as Illinois had been a conference power for years, and Iowa was fresh off their big win over Notre Dame. Locke rushed 37 times for 202 yards, including a pair of touchdowns from 40 and 3 yards out, and Iowa won 14-2, their first victory over Illinois since 1907. Illinois had no scoring threats other than a safety, and their vaunted passing game was only 4 of 14. This ended up being a down year for Illinois, and they finished 3-4, losing also to 5-1-1 Wisconsin, 5-1-1 Michigan, and 6-1 Chicago, but they were much better than their 3-4 record, and did knock off 5-2 Ohio State in their finale.

Gordon Locke came out of the Illinois game with a stomach injury that hampered him the rest of the season, and Iowa followed their 2 biggest wins of the year with their weakest effort, a 13-6 win at Purdue, who finished 1-6 (Notre Dame beat Purdue 33-0). It was Iowa's first road game, and the field was submerged under a couple inches of water. Accounting for all his team's points, Aubrey Devine threw a touchdown pass to Lester Belding, then returned a punt 38 yards for a touchdown and kicked the extra point. Purdue scored a touchdown in the 4th quarter to get on the scoreboard.

Next up was a road trip to Minnesota, once Iowa's greatest nemesis. But Iowa broke through for their first win over Minnesota in 1918, became the first team to ever beat Minnesota 3 straight years in 1920, and this year they scored the most points ever given up by Minnesota in a 41-7 win. Their winning streak over the Gophers would extend to 5 straight games in 1922. This year's game is the one in which Aubrey Devine accounted for 484 yards and 6 touchdowns. Like Illinois, Minnesota finished 3-4 this season.


After a similar 41-0 beating of Indiana, Iowa finished their season in the rain and mud at Northwestern, winning 14-0 on a pair of first-half touchdowns. Aubrey Devine threw a 35 yard touchdown pass to his brother, halfback Glenn Devine, and Locke scored the other touchdown. Devine kicked both extra points. Duke Slater, as usual, was singled out in newspaper accounts for his blocking and defense. Northwestern finished just 1-6, and this was their 6th straight scoreless loss. On this same day, Illinois upset Ohio State, so Iowa did not have to share the 1921 Big 10 title with anyone.

Iowa was invited to the Rose Bowl to play Cal, but the Big 10 would not relent on their recent rule against post-season play, so the Hawkeyes could not accept.

Cornell 1921

Cornell halfback Eddie KawCornell previously won one MNC, in 1915. Their 1921 head coach, Hall of Famer Gil Dobie, came up in that article as well as in several others because his Washington teams did not lose a single game 1908-1916, going 58-0-3. In fact, Dobie was 65-0-3 in his first 11 seasons of coaching. He then went 18-3 at Navy 1917-1919, losing 1 game each year, before arriving at Cornell in 1920. Cornell went 6-2 that year, but Dobie followed it up with 3 straight 8-0 seasons 1921-1923, a 26 game winning streak that ended in 1924. After the 1923 season, Dobie's career mark stood at a stupefying 112-5-3 over 18 years and 4 schools.

Things devolved for him after that, but he still went 82-36-7 at Cornell 1920-1935. Overall he was 180-45-15 (see addendum after this article), good for #16 on the all-time FBS coaching win percentage chart. But the highlight of his career, as well as Cornell's football history, was 1921-1923, when his teams went 24-0 and outscored their opponents by a total of 1051-81. Cornell claims national championships for all 3 seasons.

Cornell's lineup paled compared to Iowa's overall, but like the Hawkeyes their backfield featured a pair of Hall of Famers. The first was halfback Eddie Kaw (pictured at left), a consensus All American in 1921 and 1922. He was a good runner and defensive back, handled what little passing his team did, and was also the punter. His reputation rested largely on an extraordinary game he had in the rain and mud at Penn in Cornell's finale this year, scoring 5 touchdowns in a 41-0 rout. He scored 15 touchdowns on the season, leading the nation.

The other Hall of Famer was quarterback George Pfann, a nonconsensus AA in 1922 and consensus AA in 1923, when he was the team captain and scored 15 touchdowns himself. Cornell was 24-0 his 3 years. He was a Rhodes scholar, and later became a lawyer.

The only other notable player on the team was guard and placekicker Leonard "Swede" Hanson, a nonconsensus AA in 1921 and 1922.

Cornell's Season

Cornell's opponents were so weak, and Big Red stomped them so mercilessly, that there isn't much to say beyond that.

They scored 110 points on patsy Western Reserve, raising eyebrows throughout the East. It wasn't that scoring 100 was all that unusual-- many teams accomplished the feat every year. But it was unusual in the East, where a sense of sportsmanship and decorum made the practice nonexistent amongst the old guard teams. Gil Dobie had also scored 127 and 121 points on patsies while coaching at Navy in 1918 and 1919, and this habit of running up scores did not endear him to his coaching peers. But he had never been a well-liked coach, going back to his days at Washington, where at one point all the other major teams in the Northwest refused to play him because he would not play anyone on their home field.

Cornell's first real game was a home bout with Dartmouth in game 5, a school record 20,000 fans in attendance. Dartmouth came in 5-0, and gamblers had the game at even money, and the game was close for a while-- 7-7 in the second quarter, Cornell up 14-7 at the half. But the 2nd half was all Cornell, and their foot got stuck on the gas pedal, storming to a 59-7 final tally. Eddie Kaw and George Pfann were running for 30 yards a pop, and Cornell totaled 28 first downs to Dartmouth's 7. Swede Hanson kicked 6 extra points.

Unlike Georgia Tech's high-scoring teams of the previous decade, Cornell did not have a complex or new offense-- quite the opposite. Gil Dobie was a "straight football" man, with few tricks and laterals, and just enough passing to keep defenses honest. His playbooks had always been smaller than opposing coaches', often just 5-6 plays that he drilled his teams endlessly on, until they ran those plays to utter perfection. So Cornell's 59 points on Dartmouth came from a simple offense, run perfectly.

Dartmouth turned out to be less than stellar, tying 4-3-2 Penn (who was not top 25 caliber this season) and losing to 7-2 Syracuse (whom 5-3-1 Pitt beat 35-0). Still, Dartmouth ruled over the South, beating 6-2-1 Tennessee 14-3 and 7-2-1 Georgia 7-0 on the road, and 6-2-1 Dartmouth would have finished around #21 in a 1921 AP poll. That makes them the toughest team Cornell played.

Cornell's one unimpressive game was a 14-0 win over Springfield in a blinding snowstorm and driving wind, the field reduced to slush and mud. Both teams fumbled often, and 2 fumbles at Springfield's goal line cost Cornell a couple more touchdowns. Eddie Kaw was held out of the game due to the field conditions, and to ensure his health for the finale at Penn, and Cornell just plunged into the line all game, with an occasional big gain on an end run. Springfield didn't have much of a team, but they did have a big line that held up well to the plunging. Cornell's second touchdown was scored on 4th down in the 4th quarter.


That brought Cornell to their annual Thanksgiving Day game at Penn, where they had not won since their national championship season in 1915, and against whom they were just 4-22-1 all-time. 25,000 showed up at Franklin field despite a steady rain. Mud and standing water hampered everyone but Eddie Kaw, who ran wild all day, including touchdowns of 45, 39, 16, 8, and 6 yards, leading Cornell to a 41-0 win. As stated, Penn finished 4-3-2, and would not have made a top 25. They were tied by Swarthmore, barely got by Gettysburg, and were stomped by Pitt 28-0 and Lafayette 38-6. Their one bright spot was a tie with 6-2-1 Dartmouth, but all that did was diminish the value of Cornell's one decent opponent.

After Iowa declined a Rose Bowl invite, Cornell was invited, but they too declined.

Lafayette 1921

Lafayette football coach Jock SutherlandLafayette had once been a fairly powerful football school, the highlight being 1896, when they went 11-0-1 and tied 10-0-1 Princeton, the 2 teams sharing a mythical national championship that season. If there had been an AP poll in the early 20th century, they would have been ranked in the final top 25 ten times from 1901-1911, though rarely in the top 10. But the wheels came off in 1912, and 1912-1918 they went 29-31-5, and would not have been ranked once. Thusly might they have remained forever had they not hired Hall of Fame coach Jock Sutherland in 1919.

Sutherland (pictured at left) had been an All American guard for Pop Warner's Pitt teams, who went unbeaten all 3 of his years 1915-1917. He went 33-8-2 at Lafayette 1919-1923, and they would have been ranked in a final AP top 25 the last 3 years. This was their first ever perfect season. In 1924 Sutherland replaced Warner at Pitt and went 111-20-12 there through 1938. Pitt claims 5 national championships during his years, and Lafayette claims one for this season, giving him up to 6 for his career, though most of those are questionable claims. In all, he was 144-28-14, putting him at #11 on the list for all-time top FBS coaching win percentage. He also posted a 28-16-1 record as an NFL coach
.

Lafayette's roster was as impressive as Cornell's, and like Big Red, they featured a pair of Hall of Famers. Guard Frank "Dutch" Schwab was their one consensus AA, and he repeated in 1922. He had graduated high school in 1912, then went to work in the coal mines. He later went to war, where he played for a service team. Sutherland saw him there, and recruited him to Lafayette after the war. Dutch didn't just play like a man among boys-- he actually was a man among boys.

Chief boy for Lafayette was freshman end Charlie Berry, who went on to become nonconsensus AA in 1922 and 1924, and is Lafayette 1921's 2nd Hall of Famer. He led the NFL in scoring in 1925 (74 points) and played pro baseball 1925-1938. He became an NFL ref for 24 years, working 12 championship games, and a baseball umpire for 21, working 5 World Series.

Halfback Leonard "Bots" Brunner had been a star for Penn in 1919, before transferring to Lafayette. He would be named a nonconsensus AA in 1922. Halfback Mike Gazella was never AA-honored, but was an elusive runner and sure receiver, and played baseball with the Yankees for 4 years, during which time they won 3 championships.

Lafayette's Season

Lafayette's season was similar to Cornell's, except that they did not strive to run their scores up quite so high. But like Cornell, they played 1 top 25 caliber opponent, stomped on 4-3-2 Penn, and routed a bunch of nobodies.

Lafayette's one big game was a rare home date with Pitt, a gift from Sutherland's mentor Pop Warner in return for 3 trips to Pitt. Sutherland repaid the gesture by beating his mentor 6-0, Pitt's first loss in 2 years. A capacity crowd of 11,000 were on hand. Late in the first quarter, Lafayette recovered a fumble at the Pitt 24, and from there they drove to the game's only touchdown, Bots Brunner scoring on a triple pass play. Pitt's star and captain, Tom Davies, had not started, but he was sent into the game in the 4th quarter to try and save it. He could not get loose, and though Pitt did mount a drive to the Lafayette 5 yard line late in the game, Lafayette held on for the 6-0 win. Contributing to Lafayette's win was the fact that the quarters were only 12 minutes long, as was often the case in early games that were supposed to be "warm-ups" for a major team against a "mid-major" or minor team.

Pitt finished 5-3-1, and would have ranked about #18 in a final AP poll, but they were actually a stronger team than that. Their 3 losses came to 9-0 Lafayette, 10-0-1 Washington & Jefferson, and 7-1 Nebraska, all top 10 caliber teams, and they tied 8-0-2 Penn State, another top 10 team, and generally considered the most talented team of the East at the time. Pitt also beat 7-2 Syracuse 35-0, and Syracuse would have ranked about #20. So in terms of power level, Pitt may well have been a #10-type team
.

Lafayette was supposed to be challenged by a game at Penn later in the season, but as described in the Cornell summary above, Penn was down this year (finishing 4-3-2), and Lafayette routed them 38-6. Like Cornell, it was Lafayette's first win over Penn since 1915, and moreover it was the first time they had scored on Penn since then. Mike Gazella had 3 touchdowns, and Bots Brunner had but 1, but it was Brunner who starred in this game. In addition to his 34 yard touchdown run, he set up 2 more with long runs and passed for another 2, both to Gazella. It was over in the first quarter, when Lafayette went up 14-0. Penn scored their one touchdown late, against Lafayette's subs. Lafayette totaled 527 yards to Penn's 115, and 17 first downs to Penn's 4 (none in the first half).

Poor as Penn was, this game confirmed that Lafayette was for real. Unfortunately, however, writers held curiously little regard for Lafayette this season, and I doubt that they would have finished in the top 10 of an AP poll, though they deserved to.

Washington and Jefferson 1921

1921 Washington and Jefferson football team

Like Lafayette, Washington & Jefferson was a small Pennsylvania school with a history of some success as a 2nd tier Eastern team. They emerged much later than Lafayette, in 1906, finishing 9-2 that year and losing only to 8-1-1 Lafayette and co-MNC Princeton. Their best year had been 1914, when they went 10-1, losing only to 7-0-2 Harvard and beating 7-2 Yale and 8-1 Pittsburgh
. Had there been an AP poll, they would have been ranked in a top 25 ten times 1906-1920.

Like all 5 of 1921's contenders, W&J was coached by a Hall of Famer, Greasy Neale. He was only here 2 seasons, going 16-3-2 1921-'22, but it was long enough to lead the Presidents to their greatest season. Neale had gone to school at West Virginia Wesleyan, where he caught 14 passes against West Virginia in 1912 to lead his school to their first ever victory over WV. He played baseball for the Reds 1916-1924, coaching college football in the Fall. Overall he was 82-54-11 as a college coach, then 66-44-5 as a pro coach, winning a pair of titles with the Eagles in 1948 and 1949. He is in both the college and pro football halls of fame.

Unlike the other 1921 contenders, W&J had no Hall of Famers or consensus All Americans on their roster, but they ran deeper in talent than Cornell and Lafayette, and most of their starters went on to play pro football. Tackle Russ Stein, whose brother Herb was a consensus AA at Pitt, was a nonconsensus AA and MVP of the Rose Bowl. He was the captain, and called the signals from the line. He and Herb were the first brothers to be named to a first team AA list for the same season.

Halfback Hal Erickson, "The Minnesota Flash," had played for the Great Lakes Navy team in the 1919 Rose Bowl, and after graduation he played pro football for 8 years, winning a title with the Chicago Cardinals in 1925. Tackle Chet Widerquist played in the NFL for 6 years. End Herb Kopf passed up the pros for law school, but he ended up going into coaching, spending many years at the college and pro levels.

Backup back Charlie "Pruner" West also passed up the pros, but for medical school, and he spent the rest of his life as a practicing doctor. He took over as starter at quarterback late in the season, and became the first African American quarterback to start in the Rose Bowl. He faced much racism when his team was playing West Virginia and Washington & Lee (a Virginia school), and was honored by both Washington & Jefferson and West Virginia just this last Fall.

Washington and Jefferson's Season

Washington & Jefferson was not at all the scoring machine that Cornell, Lafayette, and California were, and so their performance does not look as impressive, but they showed how much that matters when they dominated Cal in the Rose Bowl.

They opened with a 14-0 win at Bethany (West Virginia), quarterback Ray McLaughlin scoring on a 16 yard run in the first quarter, and Pruner West scoring in the 3rd on a 70 yard run as a substitute fullback. Russ Stein kicked both extra points. A month later they traveled to Lehigh, where Lafayette would later win 28-6, and won just 14-7. Lehigh scored their touchdown on a 78 yard touchdown pass late in the game, but they had advanced a couple of scoring threats earlier that were stifled by penalties. Both teams fumbled a lot.

A week later they traveled to Syracuse, their first strong opponent, and they were fortunate to escape with a 17-10 win in a great game. Russ Stein kicked a field goal in the 2nd quarter for a 3-0 halftime lead, and Syracuse tied it with a 42 yard effort in the 3rd. Super-sub Pruner West then took the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. Undaunted, Syracuse marched to a 60 yard touchdown drive in the 4th quarter to tie the game up again at 10-10. Finally, with about a minute to play, Syracuse threw a desperation pass from their own 20, and Russ Stein batted it down from the line-- down into the waiting arms of Chet Widerquist, who rumbled into the end zone for the 17-10 miracle win. Syracuse finished 7-2, and would have ranked about #20, but Pitt beat them 35-0, and that was W&J's next major opponent.

W&J and Pitt had a pretty good rivalry going 1906-1914, but Pitt then won the next 6 straight under Pop Warner. Their games were always played at Pittsburgh. This year it was a face-off of All American brothers, Pitt's Herb Stein vs. W&J's Russ. W&J's 7-0 win here was considered a big upset, and it wasn't until after this game that the Presidents were taken seriously. 25,000 were in attendance. The game was played in deep mud that hampered play, so most of it was a constant exchange of punts. Pitt had some early scoring chances, but they were unable to cash them in. W&J hit a 10 yard touchdown pass early in the 4th quarter for the win. W&J played the entire game without substitutions. The school canceled classes on Monday to celebrate. Pitt finished 5-3-1, but they were much stronger than their record would indicate, as described in the Lafayette summary above.

On Thanksgiving Day, W&J went to West Virginia (5-4-1) for a game in the rain. Halfback Hal Erickson got off a 37 yard run to the WV 3 yard line in the first quarter, but the opportunity was wasted by a fumble on the next play. Erickson remedied that with a 58 yard run all the way into the end zone later in the quarter. The rest of the game was a defensive punting exhibition until the 4th quarter, when a poor punt gave W&J the ball at the WV 29. From there the Presidents marched to a clinching touchdown and 13-0 win.

Washington & Jefferson then played the first of 2 postseason games, traveling to Detroit on December 3rd. Detroit was a minor team on the rise; they were 8-0 and had outscored their minor opponents 243-10. End Herb Kopf blocked a punt, and Russ Stein recovered at the Detroit 1 yard line to set up the first touchdown, and halfback Hal Erickson added a 64 yarder for the second, giving the Presidents a 14-2 win. This was Pruner West's first game starting at quarterback.

9-0 Lafayette challenged 10-0 Washington & Jefferson to a game, to be played the next season in New York City. W&J would win that grudge match 14-13, but Pittsburgh, Detroit, and West Virginia would all get their revenge on W&J in their last 3 games. But W&J had one challenge yet this season, as a Rose Bowl invitation was extended after Iowa, Cornell, Penn State, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and Centre all declined (9-0 Centre had already made other postseason plans, and lost to Texas A&M in the Dixie Classic the same day as the Rose Bowl).

The Tournament of Roses Game

Washington & Jefferson was expected to have no chance at all against California's "Wonder Team," the defending national champion. Cal's roster was filled to the brim with All Americans and future Hall of Famers, and they had not only won 18 straight games over the last 2 years, but they had won all of those games by more than a touchdown, outscoring their 18 opponents by a total of 822-47. Cal was thus a 14 to 21 point favorite, but 24 hours of rain before the game turned the field into a swamp (as seen in the picture at the top of this article), miring both offenses and enabling W&J to shock the football world with a 0-0 tie. Ball carriers had trouble staying on their feet on the slippery field, and both teams fumbled a lot. But all writers who covered this game agreed that W&J thoroughly dominated Cal in this game, so perhaps it was Cal whom the field conditions saved.

40,000 fans showed up to watch. The play of the game came in the 1st quarter, a 35 yard touchdown run by Washington & Jefferson halfback Hal Brenkert
out of a punt formation. But the play was negated by an offside penalty, and neither team was able to get inside the other's 10 yard line the rest of the game. Cal had 2 scoring chances thanks to a turnover and a bad punt. The first chance saw them reach the W&J 11 late in the first half, but they passed up a field goal try for a pass attempt on 4th down, and came up empty. Their next chance came at the W&J 22 following a bad punt late in the game, but they threw an interception on the next play.

Washington & Jefferson drove deep enough into California territory to attempt a couple of long field goals in the 4th quarter, but one was missed and the other blocked. W&J rushed for 130 yards in the game, while Cal's offense managed a total of just 49 yards, and W&J had 7 first downs to Cal's 2. Russ Stein was the game's MVP, and halfback Hal Erickson was considered to be the game's offensive star. Washington & Jefferson had no substitutions in this game.

You may have noticed that all 7 W&J games I summarized above were road games-- they played 8, including their last 7 games. And over their last 4 games, their defense allowed no points (though Detroit scored a safety) against 4 winning opponents.

California 1921

California returned most of the players from their 1920 national championship team, and I covered them and their Hall of Fame coach, Andy Smith, in that article. The 2 notable departures were guard Cort Majors and halfback Pesky Sprott, whose positions were ably filled by Webster "Fat" Clark and Don Nichols. Clark would be named a nonconsensus AA in 1922, Nichols in 1922 and 1923. Nichols, another of the many San Diego High School grads on this team, was the backfield star this season, scoring 11 touchdowns.

Cal routed their 9 opponents by a total of 312-33 heading into their Rose Bowl match with Washington & Jefferson (that game summarized above). They gave 5-1-3 Oregon their only loss 39-0. Much like 1920, their least impressive game was a trip to the Northwest, a 14-0 win over 4-2-1 Washington State in Portland. They beat 10-1 Southern Cal 38-7, but USC was just emerging, and was not yet generally viewed as a major team. As such, Southern Cal probably would not have made a national top 25 had there been an AP poll in 1921, though it's possible that they could have made the #25 slot. 8-1 Detroit or 8-1 Georgetown probably would have grabbed it over them, however, leaving Cal with no rated opponents prior to the Rose Bowl.

Cal's regular season finale was played before a massive 60,000 fans in the inaugural game at 4-2-2 Stanford's new stadium. Cal won 42-7.

Harvard invited Cal to come play them in 1922, but Cal declined, as it would have meant 2 weeks out of classes for their athletes-- the same reason Harvard had no interest in coming out West for a game.

Selecting the 1921 Mythical National Champion

Here are our 5 contenders-- click on the names to see their full schedules at the College Football Data Warehouse. The rankings are my approximation of where their opponents would have finished ranked had there been an AP poll in 1921.

Iowa 7-0

#5 Notre Dame (10-1)  10-7
[#20 power] Illinois (3-4)   14-2
at Purdue (1-6)   13-6
Cornell 8-0

#21 Dartmouth (6-2-1)  59-7
at Penn (4-3-2)   41-0
Lafayette 9-0

#18 [#10 power] Pitt (5-3-1)  6-0
at Penn (4-3-2)   38-6
Washington & Jefferson 10-0-1

at Lehigh (4-4)   14-7
at #20 Syracuse (7-2)  17-10
at #18 [#10 power] Pitt (5-3-1)  7-0
at #25 Detroit (8-1)   14-2

Rose Bowl
#4 Cal (9-0-1)   0-0
California 9-0-1

#25 USC (10-1)  38-7

Rose Bowl
#3 Wash & Jeff (10-0-1)  0-0

Iowa defeated their weaker opponents (all but Notre Dame and Illinois) by an average score of 32-5, Cornell defeated theirs (all but Dartmouth) 47-2, Lafayette (all but Pitt) 34-3, Washington & Jefferson (all but Syracuse, Pitt, Detroit, and Cal) 26-3, and Cal (all but USC and W&J) 34-2.

As I said at the outset, you could legitimately select all 5 teams to share the 1921 national championship, but I think that is just too many, even for a mythical title. So it's time to start splitting hairs.

The first and easiest hair to look at here is Iowa's win over 10-1 Notre Dame. Notre Dame routed the rest of their opponents except 7-1 Nebraska, whom they beat 7-0 (average score otherwise 40-3). Nebraska, in turn, routed all of their opponents except Pitt, whom they beat on the road 10-0 (average score otherwise 46-2). That's better than Lafayette and Washington & Jefferson did against Pitt, and so Iowa definitely sits atop the mightiest totem pole of power this season. No other contender defeated a team near the quality of Notre Dame.

Iowa as the lone 1921 MNC would be an open and shut case if it weren't for the fact that the rest of their schedule was incredibly weak. 3-4 Illinois was better than their record shows, a #20 team power-wise, but the rest of Iowa's schedule was awful, and no opponent they played except Notre Dame had a winning record. And even all that would be forgivable if Iowa had beaten those teams like they should have, but their struggle to get past 1-6 Purdue 13-6 is tough to get past. Sure, the game was played in bad weather, but so was the Cornell-Penn game, which Cornell won 41-0, and it is very hard to believe that Cornell would not have beaten Purdue by a similar score regardless of week or weather. Of course, Notre Dame beat Purdue 33-0 the week before Iowa played them.

However, as impressively as Cornell stomped on their opponents, it is hard to take them seriously as an MNC candidate when they did not play any top 20 teams (assuming Dartmouth to be #21). Iowa's 1 game with Notre Dame alone makes their schedule vastly more impressive than Cornell's, whose schedule was also very weak. The question is, which is more important, the fact that Iowa performed poorly in a win over Purdue, or the fact that they beat Notre Dame? And the answer is the latter, easily, which is why Iowa has the better case for an MNC over Cornell.

The same can be said for Lafayette, whose season was pretty similar to Cornell's. Their 1 good opponent, Pitt, was much stronger than Cornell's, but they only beat them 6-0 at home, while Cornell smashed Dartmouth 59-7. You could call that a wash. Lafayette routed Penn much like Cornell did (and Penn tied Dartmouth). Lafayette's win over Pitt is closer in quality to Iowa's over Notre Dame, but again, Notre Dame beat Nebraska, who beat Pitt 10-0 on the road, so the Notre Dame win clearly holds more value, and I still think that value outweighs Iowa's poor performance against Purdue.

Cal's regular season schedule was the weakest of all the contenders, and they were dominated by their one top opponent, Washington & Jefferson, in the Rose Bowl tie, so they are the easiest team to eliminate from contention.

Washington & Jefferson, on the other hand, has the best case for sharing an MNC with Iowa. They played a much stronger schedule overall, and remember that they played 8 of their 11 games on the road. They may have been tied by Cal in the Rose Bowl, but they dominated that game, and Iowa's win over Notre Dame was at home, so you could see those results as equitable. W&J had a weak result at Lehigh (whom Lafayette beat 28-6) to match Iowa's at Purdue. But that wasn't W&J's only weak performance. They also barely beat #20 Syracuse 17-10, and only because Syracuse was taking risks in the final minute to break a tie, giving W&J a chance to return an interception for a touchdown and win. And they weren't impressive even in the games they won by more than a touchdown, beating Bethany 14-0, Carnegie 14-0, and West Virginia 13-0.

And while Washington & Jefferson may have outplayed Cal, the fact is that they did not win that game, and Iowa's win over Notre Dame is worth more than W&J's over Pitt, Syracuse, and Detroit combined. Remember, Notre Dame beat Nebraska, who beat Pitt by more than W&J did. What Washington & Jefferson really needed to share the title with Iowa was a win in the Rose Bowl (and one can say the same thing about Cal). Without that, they are close, but they look no closer to Iowa than they do to Cornell and Lafayette. Better schedule than the latter two, but much worse performance, without the one big win Iowa had.

So Iowa it is, all alone on the imaginary throne.

Awards Ceremony

1921 #1: 7-0 Iowa
National Co-champion: None
Contenders: 8-0 Cornell, 9-0 Lafayette, 10-0-1 Washington & Jefferson, 9-0-1 California

These are the awards I have been handing out for each season, except seasons when there are no contenders. For this purpose, what I mean by a contender is a team that I think is very close to being worthy of sharing the national championship. A team that you could make an argument for, even if that argument is weak. But the contenders are teams that I myself do not see as national champions.

And a tip o' the hat to 6-0 Santa Clara and 8-0 Miami-Ohio. Miami beat every opponent by more than a touchdown, outscoring their opponents 238-13. Another little Ohio team, Oberlin, went 7-0-1 and upset 5-2 Ohio State 7-6. But a perfect season evaded them when 6-2-2 Case, another little Ohio team, tied them 7-7.

Grading the Selectors

I have been grading the NCAA Records Book's selectors for each season, and keeping a grade point average, so we can see who is relatively good at selecting national champions and who is not. And although I do not consider computer ratings to be legitimate national championship selectors, I have been including them in this section as well, just for comparison's sake. I am grading on a scale of 0-5 (5 being the best).

The College Football Researchers Association, Billingsley's computer, and both of Sagarin's systems selected California alone
. Grade: 0.5

Boand's math formula came up with a 3-way tie: Lafayette, California, Washington & Jefferson. Grade: 2.6

Parke Davis also saw 3 champions: Cornell, Lafayette, Iowa. Grade: 4.8

Everybody else selected Cornell alone. Grade: 2.9

The worst of these selections is easily Cal alone, as it makes no sense to give it to them and not at least share it with Washington & Jefferson, and given W&J's schedule and their performance in the Rose Bowl, if one of them is to be selected alone, it should be the Presidents.

Boand's threesome isn't bad, but I see no reason for discluding Iowa in favor of the 3 teams his system came up with.

Selecting Cornell alone makes a bit more sense, as they were the only one of these contenders to win every game by more than a touchdown, even if they were also the only one not to play a team that was top 10 power-wise. They were the top performing team.

But Parke Davis' threesome is definitely the best of all of the above, even if Lafayette was a homer pick (Davis coached at Lafayette, then lived in Easton, Pennsylvania, where the school is located, the rest of his life). He's the only one to select the best choice, Iowa, and it makes some sense to disclude the 2 teams that tied each other in their bowl game, even if such a move is ultimately illogical. Washington & Jefferson did perform the worst of any of the contenders, and they did tie Cal in the Rose Bowl. Still, I think W&J is actually the 2nd most deserving of the contenders (tough schedule), so I can't give Davis a perfect score.

Grade point averages 1919-1921:

1) Sagarin-ELO (math system) 3.5
2) Boand (math) 2.9
3) Helms
    Houlgate (math)
2.87
5) College Football Researchers Association 2.77
6) National Championship Foundation2.70
7) Sagarin (math) 2.5
8) Parke Davis 2.2
9) Billingsley (math) 0.6

How the systems that selected champions for 1901-1918 did:

1) Houlgate (math system) 4.5
2) Helms 4.3
3) Parke Davis 4.2
4) National Championship Foundation 3.7
5) Billingsley (math) 3.6

Addendum

The College Football Data Warehouse and James Howell's all-time scores list give Cornell coach Gil Dobie 2 more career wins than I do, which would put him at 182-45-15, and wikipedia goes with this number as well. The NCAA has him at 180-45-15, and for now, that is the number I am going with. There are 2 games in contention here. The first is an alleged 69-0 win by North Dakota State over Mayville State in 1906 while Dobie was at NDSU. However, North Dakota State does not list this game in their media guide/record book, so until I am able to verify that an official game between these 2 schools actually took place (rather than an unplanned, informal scrimmage, for example), I am going to follow the NCAA's lead and not count it. And I may never get to North Dakota to properly research this one myself.

The second game up for debate is an alleged 15-0 win by Navy over the USS Utah while Dobie was at Navy in 1919. This game is not listed in Navy's media guide/record book, and I have done some research on it and have been unable to find it. The College Football Data Warehouse lists this game as having taken place one week after the Army game, and that right there makes it highly unlikely that this game, if it in fact took place, could possibly have been in any way "official." And the New York Times ran many articles about Navy after their win against Army in 1919, but no game against the USS Utah was mentioned in the entire month of December (or in November, or in January 1920).

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