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75 Years Ago, A Special Season

75 Years Ago, A Special Season

By Sam Blackman


The calendar year of 1939 was a special one for Clemson Athletics.It will soon be 75 years ago since Banks McFadden and the Clemson Tigers played in the 1940 Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas on January 1st.On March 4th of that year, Clemson won the Southern Conference basketball championship and the Southern Conference swimming title on the same day.       This momentum of success carried over to the gridiron that fall as the Tigers had a cornerstone season that would bring Clemson national prominence by playing Boston College in the Cotton Bowl.   The 1939 football season was not only Clemson’s first bowl team, but it was also Clemson’s first team to be ranked and the first to end a season in the national top 20 (12th in the final AP poll).Clemson opened the season with a victory over Presbyterian, then suffered its only loss, a 7-6 classic, 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 to 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, where he would remain for the next 27 years.It might seem ironic that Neely’s first winning season, 1934, was the year that IPTAY was founded. Neely had asked for $10,000 from IPTAY to boost the program.But Neely fought adversity with slow and well thought-out solutions.  How many coaches today could win 36 games in six seasons with only 14 out of 56 games played at home?  Only once did Clemson play as many as four games at home during Neely’s stay, and only twice were there three home games in a year.  A total of 13 of the 56 games were played at neutral sites.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, including the Cotton Bowl.In the third game, the Tigers defeated N.C. State, 25-6, in Charlotte, N.C. with the Pack’s lone score coming in the final period.  The Tigers defeated South Carolina at the annual state fair game in Columbia, S.C., 27-0 on October 19th.   Clemson played Navy at Annapolis, Md. then went back to the nation’s capitol the next Saturday and downed George Washington, 13-6.  Clemson finished the season by defeating Rhodes 21-6 in Memphis, Tenn., and Furman in Greenville, S.C., 14-3.    There were many stars on this team.  Running back McFadden and end Joe Blalock were both All-America players and joined tackle George Fritts and wing back Shad Bryant on the All-Southern Conference team.  That quartet, along with guard Walter Cox and center Bob “Red” Sharpe, were members of the all-state squad.  Payne, guard Tom Moorer, and end Carl Black were the only three to start all 10 games.At season’s end, Clemson was extended an invitation to its first bowl game—the Cotton Bowl, and of course accepted. The Tigers were scheduled to play the Eagles of Boston College on January 1, 1940 in Dallas, TX. It was dubbed the “farmer boys” against “the city slickers.”The Tigers suddenly found themselves—a group of players from small-town environments, playing big-time football. Of the 11 starters, 10 were from the state of South Carolina. Neely rewarded the team for its efforts by taking all 51 players to Dallas for the game.  The trip was made by a long train ride.  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.Sullivan, incidentally, is the same Sullivan who used to own the New England Patriots and Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro, MA.Most Boston College fans and alumni had never heard of the Clemson Tigers prior to the game, which led to Eagles’ head coach Frank Leahy stating he knew “very little about Clemson.” What he learned however, was the Tigers were led by perhaps the best all-around player in the country in All-American Banks McFadden, who the year before earned All-American status on the basketball court too, making him the first athlete in the country to earn All-American status in multiple sports.“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, 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.”Leahy’s team did a good job controlling Clemson’s high-powered offense and McFadden on that cold afternoon in Dallas. But after an exchange of punts in the second quarter, the Tigers mounted a 57-yard scoring drive which proved to be the difference in the defensive battle.McFadden had a 12-yard run and a 16-yard pass to move Clemson deep into Eagles’ territory, where Charlie Timmons went over from the two-yard line to give the Tigers a 6-3 lead. It turned out to be last score of the afternoon.Timmons led Clemson with 115 yards on 27 carries. And though Boston College, for the most part, contained McFadden on the offensive side of the ball, they had no answer for him on defense. 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.”