By Sam Blackman
The 1939 season was truly special because so much of the history and heritage of Clemson football documents 1939 as a cornerstone season. Not only was it Clemson’s first bowl team, it was Clemson’s first team to be ranked in the final top 20 (12th in the final AP poll).
Also, the fruition and realization of IPTAY was starting to be evident five years after it was formed in 1934, as the Tigers were enjoying success in many sports in the late 1930’s.
The 1939 Football Season
Perhaps one of the most significant seasons in Clemson’s football history is the 1939 season. This squad played and defeated Boston College 6-3 in the 1940 Cotton Bowl in Dallas, TX.
Clemson opened the year with a victory over Presbyterian, then suffered its only loss, a 7-6 squeaker, to Tulane in New Orleans. The Tigers would win their next seven (only nine regular season games were played back then), and would accept their first bowl bid.
Oddly enough, that only loss to the Green Wave saw Banks McFadden first rise to national prominence. Many observers say that is where McFadden made the All-America team on his punting exhibition, especially on his quick-kicks from the single-wing tailback position. He averaged over 43 yards a kick in 12 punts that afternoon and had six punts of at least 50 yards, still a single game record today.
Starting out with a 1-1 record after two games, few would even hazard a guess that Clemson would play in its first bowl game at the end of the season. Few also figured that Coach Jess Neely would move on to Rice at the end of the season, the school he would remain head football coach for the next 27 years.
Even this ‘39 team only played two games at home, opening the season with an 18-0 win over Presbyterian, and then in the seventh game, downing Wake Forest 20-7.
With the exception of the Tulane loss, the Tigers were only behind twice during the entire season, and there was one tie, although it didn’t last long. Players went both ways, and only gave up 45 points in the 10 games, counting the Cotton Bowl.
There were many stars on this team. McFadden and Joe Blalock were both All-Americans and joined George Fritts and Shad Bryant on the All-Southern Conference team. That quartet, along with Walter Cox and Bob “Red” Sharpe were members of the all-state squad. Payne, Tom Moorer and Carl Black were the only three to start all 10 games.
The Tigers suddenly found themselves—a group of players from small town environments, playing big time football. Neely rewarded the team for its efforts by taking all 51 players to Dallas for the game. The anticipated and long awaited trip was made by train.
While in Dallas for the bowl game, talk was rampant that Neely would leave Clemson for the head coaching job at Rice. Bill Sullivan was the publicity man for Frank Leahy and Boston College, and he said that he was in the hotel room in Dallas when Neely told a small group that he would definitely take the Rice offer.
Frank Howard, who was Neely’s line coach, spoke up and said: “Well, I’m not going with you.” And according to Sullivan, Neely said: “I hadn’t planned to ask you.”
When Howard was confronted with this later, he said that J.C. Littlejohn, Clemson business manager, had promised him the Clemson head coaching job if Neely left. Sullivan, incidentally, is the same Sullivan who used to own the New England Patriots and Sullivan Stadium at Foxboro, MA.
1940 Cotton Bowl
“That McFadden put a lot of these gray hairs on my head,” Neely told Boston Post reporter Gerry Hern in an article prior to the Cotton Bowl. “I don’t discourage him any. He’s a smart tailback; and if he feels he has worked the team into a bad spot, he will make up for it. I like to see him get reckless.
“We’ve scored a few touchdowns on plays I’ve never seen before.”
Neely never had an issue allowing McFadden to improvise, if a player came back to the huddle and told McFadden that a certain play might work, the All-American would instruct his teammate to see if the defensive player made the same mistake twice. If he did, McFadden would expose him on the next play call.
“Every now and then they would make a play up on the field,” Neely said. “If I don’t recognize a play, I’m sure Boston coach Frank Leahy won’t.”
Jess Neely’s last Clemson team won eight games in the regular season with just one loss to Tulane. The 8-1 Tigers were rewarded with an invitation to play Boston College in the fourth Cotton Bowl, but Clemson first had to get permission from the Southern Conference, which they immediately granted. The 1939 season not only resulted in Clemson’s first bowl appearance, but also the Tigers’ first first-team All-American, Banks McFadden.
On the last play of the first quarter, Bru Trexler punted to BC’s Charlie O’Rourke, who fielded the punt on the Clemson 40 and returned it to the 13. Two running plays lost 10 yards, but on third down Frank Davis gained six. Alex Lukachik then kicked a 34-yard field goal to put the Eagles up, 3-0.
Clemson’s scoring drive began when McFadden returned an Eagle punt to the 33. Charlie Timmons rushed for 15 yards in two plays, and two plays after that, McFadden hit Wister Jackson with a 16-yard pass to the Eagle 20. Timmons ran the final 20 yards in three carries, but Shad Bryant missed the extra point.
Later in the period, a 51-yard punt by McFadden started Boston College at its 20. The Eagles fumbled on first down and Clemson’s George Fritts recovered at the 24. The Tigers could do nothing with the gift, however, as Joe Blalock fumbled after a short pass.
The game turned into a defensive struggle in the second half, although Boston College did penetrate deep into Clemson territory on two occasions. The Eagles took the opening kickoff to the Clemson 19, but a holding penalty and an incomplete pass ended the threat and BC was forced to punt.
Late in the game, the Eagles drove to the Clemson 11, but Bryant and McFadden each broke up two passes and Clemson took over on downs.
McFadden effectively bottled up the Eagles other than those drives with his punting. His 44-yard average on nine kicks, including two boots for 51 and 55 yards in the second half, prevented Boston College from getting good field position, and the Clemson defense made the 6-3 score stand.
Timmons led Clemson with 115 yards on 27 carries. Defensively, McFadden, who averaged 43 yards per punt on the day as well, reportedly went sideline-to-sideline knocking down Charlie O’Rourke’s passes.
The Eagles finished the afternoon completing only four of 23 passes, with one interception. As a whole, Boston College netted only 102 yards of total offense.
“Clemson is every bit as good as they were cracked up to be,” Leahy told reporters after the game. “We lost to a great team, one of the best I have ever seen. I have the satisfaction of knowing that while we were beaten, the game wasn’t lost on a fluke.”
Clemson’s Boxer Warren Wilson-The Tigers’ 12th Man at the Cotton Bowl
Earlier in the year, Clemson star boxer Warren Wilson was boxing in the Sugar Bowl Tournament in New Orleans in late December of 1939. Wilson received word to go from there to Dallas, TX where the Tigers were going to play in the Cotton Bowl on January 1, 1940. Although not on the varsity football roster and having played some football earlier, he took a train to Dallas, TX, and was ready to play in the Cotton Bowl if Clemson needed him. It is thought that he played in this game and his efforts helped the Tigers in their successful afternoon. This is very similar to the 12th man story at Texas A&M. (Warren Wilson is pictured below)
Wilson had a brilliant boxing career at Clemson as he had a record of 14-4-1, three wins by knockout and one by a technical knockout in three years of work. He is second on the Clemson career list for most wins with 14. He was such a revered boxer that some opponents would forfeit the match against him.
The 1939 team and its success will always be remembered as a significant season in Clemson history. The accomplishments of this team helped propel the Tigers to success later in the late 1940s and early 1950s and put Clemson on the national collegiate football map.
March 25, 2023
March 24, 2023