W&L and Wyoming in the Gator Bowl; photo courtesy mmbolding.com

When Football Wasn’t King: Scandal at a Small School

W&L rushing vs. Wyoming in the Gator Bowl; photo courtesy mmbolding.com

I’m revisiting an earlier post on the continuing unrest in ACC leadership, which means I’m plowing through updates on scandals of every sort, and with them all the subtle (and not so subtle) ways schools try to minimize resulting punishments.  College football has turned into such a high-stakes money game that teams respond (almost invariably) to scandal by hiring lawyers, holding secret meetings, and generally closing their ranks.  It’s not just the ACC, of course.  Penn State’s name will be stained for decades, and Ohio State, Southern Cal, and other schools have been tarnished, and yet each posted vigorous defenses, or mounted promises both direct and allusive to return to the status quo.

It wasn’t always this way.  Imagine a football team at its peak, having just reached its first ever bowl game—the Gator Bowl, no less, in a time when there were only eight major bowls—deciding to throttle its football program not by submitting to NCAA demands, but by voluntarily abandoning its aspirations for the sport.

Washington and Lee University, a tiny private school in western Virginia, did just that in 1954 when it stopped awarding scholarships in sports, and a few years later moved all its teams(save for lacrosse) down to the “College Division,” now known as Division III.  It was a decision long in the making, and finally brought to a boil by a cheating scandal.

Like many older schools, the W&L Generals had a great deal of football success in the 19th century and the earliest decades of the 20th, though unlike many of its peers, it produced competitive teams at the University Division, which would be today’s FCS schools.  The school always embraced these wins, though it did so with a slight measure of distance.  The distance was owed to trustees and administrators who fought vigorously to preserve the university’s character of a small institution with an overriding focus on academics; diluting that focus with football was out of the question.  Perhaps the best example of this commitment can be seen in the frustrations of Dr. George Denny, president of W&L between 1901 and 1911, who was hampered in his efforts to raise the profile of football.  He subsequently took his talents to Tuscaloosa, and now shares a stadium name with Bear Bryant.

Despite this unease, W&L fielded high-level teams on into the 50’s, culminating in their ’51 Gator Bowl appearance versus Wyoming.  The team’s Split-T attack was one of the best offenses in the nation, and had knocked off larger schools like West Virginia, Richmond, and Virginia Tech, while holding its own against national power Tennessee before losing by a touchdown (and this despite out-gaining the Vols by a 120 yards.)  Significant internal hurdles—their QB’s father had died just days before the game, and future NFL All-Pro Walt Michaels missed the game with appendicitis—helped prevent them from stopping the Cowboys’ potent single-wing game, though to outsiders the future of the team seemed bright.

What wasn’t so apparent was that during a rough stretch in the 40’s, W&L came to realize that a school with a few hundred students, a selective admissions pool, and a reputation for serving only the well-heeled, couldn’t compete with big universities.  It would eventually have to choose between stepping down from major college athletics, or take up a full-hearted measure in the spirit of Denny’s ambitions to expand in a football-first direction.

I doubt the latter option was ever realistic, as both President Francis Gaines and prominent professor/coach Edwin “Cy” Twombly (a former MLB standout and father of the same-named painter) were aware of the changing college landscape and respectful of the schools traditions.  The decision was essentially made for them in 1954 when a cheating scandal was discovered among the football team.  Details on the scandal are scarce, though it was anathema to a school grounded in a strong honor code.  During the year, university trustees decided to stop granting athletic scholarships; current ones would be honored, though no new ones were to be given.  Sport would again become a pastime.

While public schools swelled with GI Bill enrollees and desegregation changed the talent composition of the sport, the Generals were eroding players and struggling to escape the shadow of the Old South.  W&L struggled against these programs, with thirty- and forty-point losses becoming common.  In 1958, the school dropped to College Division and exited major competition almost entirely, with lacrosse holding out until 1987.  Vocal alumni and students fought the process to a degree, but never with the vigor necessary to slow the decision, much less avert it.

I can’t imagine a Penn State, Miami, or Chapel Hill committing such an act, and these are schools more distant from dominance than W&L was at the time it gutted itself.  There are simply too many reasons (both good and ill) to keep FBS football.  For most schools hovering between levels of play, the decision is to move up in the ranks, and damn the consequences: see UConn, Charlotte, Georgia State, and other recent and pending arrivals.  The few schools that do step back have generally already stumbled into financial ruin, and slashing athletics is less an act of free will and more like turning the house over to creditors.  This may all change if the football bubble (if it’s real) ever bursts, but I doubt before then.

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