Biography | Letter From the McFadden Family
All-American in both football and basketball in the same calendar year (1939), only Clemson athlete to do that…named the nation’s most versatile athlete for 1939-40…Clemson’s first wire-service AP All-American…record setter on the field as a runner, passer, and punter…led Tigers to state championship in track twice in his three years on the team…elected to National Football Hall of Fame in 1959…received Distinguished Alumni Award from Clemson in 1966…charter member of the Clemson Athletic Hall of Fame and South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame…only Clemson player to have his jersey retired in two sports…the number-four pick of the Brooklyn Dodgers (football) after the 1939 season, that is still the highest draft pick ever by a Clemson player…played one year in the NFL and led the league in yards per rush…coached the defensive backs at Clemson for 26 years, he was also the head basketball coach from 1947-56…Clemson’s McFadden Building, dedicated in 1995, is in his honor…named to Clemson’s Centennial team in April, 1996…ranked as Clemson’s #1 football player of all-time by a panel of Clemson historians in 1999… member of the Clemson Ring of Honor.
Program Article: September 24, 2005
By Brent Breedin
Nicknames were big at Clemson in its military years. A couple of my favorites were “Goat” for one-time, passing-record-holder Covington McMillan of Saluda, and “Mule” for tackle Jesse Yarborough of Chester. They were Tiger teammates on the 1929 team. I met them for the first time in the late 1940s. “Goat” was backfield coach at Clemson during the single-wing bowl years of 1939, 1948, 1950, and 1951; “Mule” built Miami High’s football team into possibly the nation’s finest in the 1930s and 1940s. I never learned exactly why they carried the names “Goat” and “Mule” with them to their graves.
Then there was Banks McFadden, who was tabbed “Great” by the likes of Tiger legend Frank Howard. That moniker was not universally used, but it could have been – and perhaps should have been. Of course, nicknaming someone “Great” smacks of that person’s being “not-so-great,” and I guess that is why McFadden did not take that name with him to his grave behind Clemson’s Memorial Stadium this past spring. He rests near Coach Howard, who watched greatness develop in the string-bean-like teenage McFadden of the late 1930s. To me, a transplanted South Carolinian living in Pennsylvania in the late fall of 1939, McFadden was not only great, but also a godsend – a real honest-to-goodness football hero from back home with write-ups of his exploits on the gridiron in all the newspapers and magazines.
Even the movie newsreels depicted him alongside fellow All-America greats “Jarring John” Kimbrough of National Champion and Sugar Bowl-bound Texas A&M, future #1 NFL Draft pick George Cafego of Rose Bowl-bound Tennessee, and quarterback Paul Christman of Orange Bowl-bound Missouri. McFadden, unlikeliest member of the consensus all-star backfield, would lead Clemson to the “other” postseason bowl, the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, TX, then in its fourth year.
All serious Tiger fans of my vintage know the rest of the story. Clemson defeated the nation’s #11-ranked Boston College team by a score of 6-3 on New Year’s Day of 1940 behind the final-quarter defensive heroics of McFadden, the game’s MVP, who had four pass breakups in the fourth quarter when the Eagles were desperate to score a winning touchdown. It was one of only two games lost by Boston College under Hall-of-Fame Coach Frank Leahy from 1939-40. Leahy is still second to Knute Rockne in winning percentage in college football history.
I struggled to keep up with my hero after the Cotton Bowl, but this was not all that easy in a small Pennsylvania town. I knew McFadden played basketball and was on Clemson’s track team in 1940, because a story on his versatility toward the end of his college career brought national acclaim, and he was named the nation’s “Most Versatile Athlete” for the 1939 calendar year.
Then there was the College All-Star Game in Chicago, IL in August of 1940 that matched the 1939 All-Americans, who had finished their football eligibility against the 1939 NFL champions, in this case the Green Bay Packers. McFadden was one of the game’s standouts. A week later, he joined Brooklyn’s NFL Dodgers, whose games were going to be broadcast for the first time on a New York radio station (WOR) that could be picked up loud and clear in Pottstown, PA, my hometown.
Most Sundays in the fall of 1940, I listened to the Brooklyn games. New NFL Coach Jock Sutherland, the University of Pittsburgh single-wing guru, had led his Panthers to three AP top-10 finishes from 1936-39, including the national title in 1937. Dodger millionaire-owner Dan Topping, whose first six years in the NFL failed to produce a winner, personally signed McFadden, Brooklyn’s first draft pick (fourth overall in the NFL), traded for NFL first-draft-pick George Cafego, and allowed Sutherland to bring along his All-American tailback Dick Cassiano. All had played the key tailback position in college and would join veteran All-Pro Ace Parker, whose Duke teams of 1934-36 had all trounced Clemson. McFadden proved to be best of the newcomers, a fact I enjoyed relaying to my friends at school each Monday.
Brooklyn defeated a favored New York Giant team in the final game of the NFL season to finish tied with the Chicago Bears for a second-best record of 7-3 behind the Washington Redskins. Two of the Dodgers’ losses had been early in the season to the Giants and Redskins, both of which had been avenged in the latter half of the year.
McFadden had led the league in rushing most of the season, but was beaten out by Detroit’s Whizzer White (later U.S. Supreme Court Justice) and New York’s Tuffy Leemans, each of whom had more than twice his number of carries. Parker, who held on to his role as starting Brooklyn tailback, with McFadden moving to wingback, as he did at Clemson in 1937, was named NFL MVP. McFadden’s 6.3 yards per carry was far-and-away best in the league. But, the defensive play of Parker and McFadden (players went both ways in those days) was perhaps the most impressive factor in the Dodgers’ success.
In the summer of 1941, before McFadden had decided whether to play a second season in Brooklyn, he dozed behind the wheel of his car while returning from an evening in Manning, SC at the home of his fiancé (and future bride) Aggie Rigby, and rammed into a bridge outside Great Falls, SC. His doctor warned him that a hard blow in football might paralyze him for life. That, along with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 and his ensuing four years in the Army, ended his playing career and launched for good his service to Clemson as head basketball coach and assistant football coach – and in 1970, Clemson director of intramural sports.
So move ahead to February 1947. I have served a year in the Navy and am now a senior at Washington & Lee as student sports information director. My idol (McFadden) is bringing his first Tiger basketball team to Lexington, VA to play Washington & Lee, and I am covering it for the Associated Press.
We meet, and I am impressed with his modesty. I had read in the W&L Yearbook of 1937 how he had scored two field goals in the final minute of play to eliminate the defending Southern Conference Champion Generals in the semifinals of that year’s conference tournament.
It would be hard for me to pull against his Clemson team, I thought; however, another friend from Spartanburg (senior co-captain Clancy Ballenger) made it easy by leading the way in a 101-56 Washington & Lee victory. Ballenger had something to prove. Upon discharge from the military in 1946, he planned to finish his senior year at nearby Clemson. New Tiger Coach McFadden did not have any scholarship money available, so he returned to W&L.
Now one might ask, “Who cares about what happened in Clemson athletics in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s? That’s ancient history.”
My response was, “Only partly true. A long time ago, yes! But these were the days a small-town boy came from nowhere to resurrect a college football program that had lain almost dormant for more than a quarter-century.
“In addition to Clemson men who played with and for McFadden from 1936-70, and fans of the Tigers during this period, there are perhaps an equal number of former students who benefited from his assuming responsibility for a moribund Clemson intramural program in the 1970s and 1980s. And surely, there must be a few thousand fans of today wondering why the name and image of McFadden appears seemingly everywhere!”
For the record, college football was not in its infancy in 1939. Take away television (nonexistent at the time) and over half of today’s 290,000,000 population (down to 1940’s 132,000,000), and college football was even bigger 66 years ago than it is today. Except for Major League Baseball, no spectator sport had more fans. So how could this little South Carolina college compete against the nation’s best, finish #12 in the final Associated Press poll, and receive one of only eight invitations to play in major bowl games on January 1, 1940? And how could a scrawny basketball player from tiny Great Falls, SC provide the spark to make it happen?
I idolized McFadden as a far-away fan in 1939-40, met and wrote about him as a sports editor-columnist from 1948-52, and was a colleague as Clemson sports publicist from 1952-55. More recently, as a sports historian of sorts, I have pondered the above questions and concluded that it all began with his upbringing in a loving, religious environment tempered by discipline administered at school by a much older half-brother Tom Wallace, Jr. Tom taught, coached, and served as high school principal in Great Falls. Kid brother Banks (the baby of the family) was the team waterboy before he grew up to lead Great Falls High to state championships in football and basketball from 1934-36.
On a historic note, high school football in South Carolina during the 1930s left much to be desired. The talent pool was limited, and coaching at the smaller schools left much to be desired. In the seven seasons from 1920-26, Clemson went 20-38-4; Josh Cody took over the coaching reins in 1927 and compiled a 29-11-1 in four seasons, but 19 of his wins were against in-state teams. When Jess Neely arrived in 1931 from Alabama, where he had helped Wallace Wade win mythical national championships in 1925, 1926, and 1930, his early aspirations of national glory were seemingly shattered, as the Tigers went 7-17-3 from 1931-33.
Enter IPTAY, money for scholarships, and recruitment of some key talent from out-of-state. Winning seasons in 1934 and 1935 bode well for the future, but the big recruiting prize in 1936 was tailback Shad Bryant out of the state of Florida. McFadden, known more for his basketball skills than football, was also a 1936 recruit. He played end on the Tiger Cub team that fall and excelled in Cub track and basketball.
Neely’s 1-4-1 record against Furman persuaded him to hire that school’s backfield coach, Clemson alumnus and former quarterback star McMillan. He would play a key role in developing single-wing backfields at Clemson, and he was quick to return McFadden to the backfield in 1937, where he saw limited action at the wingback position and as a punter. It was another .500 season, but the schedule included Army, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Tulane, and Florida – and there were no “blowouts.”
Clemson’s 1938 team really turned the corner, finishing in the top 25 and claiming an early-season win over a strong Tulane 11 that was #19 at season’s end. The Tigers’ only loss was to undefeated and #2 Tennessee. McFadden contributed greatly as a junior tailback, but trailed teammates Don Willis in rushing, Bob Bailey in passing, and Bryant in kickoff and punt returns. He and Bryant did tie for touchdowns scored (5). He won no postseason honors. So what happened in 1939-40? McFadden joined the basketball team immediately after football, and led Clemson to its first and still only conference tournament championship, beating four teams that outranked them in the conference seeding.
Charlotte/Atlanta sports editor-columnist Furman Bisher recalled in a column on McFadden in the early 1960s how his North Carolina roommate at the time, a New Jersey boy, just could not understand how a small-town South Carolina boy could take such liberties with the Tar Heels’ big city all-American George Glamack in eliminating UNC. “Bish”, who got to know McFadden over the years, concluded his column with the ultimate compliment, “If I had a son, I’d want him to be coached by Banks.”
It was March of 1939. McFadden was all-tournament for the second time and also tournament MVP. Clemson had unofficial invitations as one of eight invitees to either the first-ever NCAA Tournament or the second-ever NIT event in Madison Square Garden. But, as noted earlier, football was king, and Clemson Coach and Athletic Director Neely was in his final two weeks of spring football practice. He wanted McFadden and two or three other members of the championship basketball team to participate – at least as observers in shorts. Ten days after McFadden reported for practice in shorts, he was bus-bound for Durham, NC to observe and possibly go in for a few plays against the remnants of Wade’s 1938 undefeated, untied, and unscored upon Duke team in a spring game, which was then allowed by the NCAA.
McFadden played the entire game at tailback, running and passing for touchdowns, punting magnificently, intercepting passes, and appearing as comfortable as though he were on the basketball court. Wade was quoted as saying that he was probably the finest back in the South based on that performance. The Clemson publicist sent that message everywhere, and he figured he had to live up to those words. And he did.
Fortunately, Clemson had done a great job of recruiting in 1937, so that McFadden and the other Tiger veterans off the good 1938 team had the likes of Joe Blalock at end, George Fritts at tackle, and Charlie Timmons at fullback to complete the fine 1939 starting 11.
On a personal note in closing, I have often observed over the years that Banks McFadden never fell off the pedestal I had placed him on in 1939. He, to me, was not only an All-American in three sports and a superb coach, he was also an All-American dancer with his diminutive wife Aggie, an All-American husband and father to daughters Patsy, Lil, Marcia, and Jan, and an All-American human being. He never wanted to disappoint.
Brent Breedin served as Clemson Sports Information Director from 1952-55, and is now retired and living in Columbia, SC.
April 22, 2019