Outright Wrong

August 6, 2007

Ah, 1941.

Last summer we looked at the long sad drought between University of Arizona football championships. Since 2006 didn’t change that, this summer we took a closer look at the fabulous ’41 squad that won the UA’s last outright conference championship.

Or did they?

Peering into the archives it feels like we’re looking at another world. All throughout the fall the UA football game stories began on the front page of the Arizona Daily Star, right next to the latest on the Nazis. Tucson phone numbers had three digits. The newspaper cost five cents, and you could take in a game at Arizona’s Varsity Stadium for $1.25.

The game of college football was quite different as well. The left and right halfbacks were just as likely to throw the ball as the quarterback. Forward passes had to be from five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Holding was a 15-yard penalty. 1941 was the first season with unlimited substitutions. But football was enthusiastically played and fanatically followed across the country, and it was a great source of pride at the University of Arizona.

UA head coach Miles Webster Casteel took his 1941 team to open the season at Notre Dame. On the way the team had to practice in the Wichita railroad yards because of delays caused by flooding. The Arizona starting backfield featured “Banjo” Banjavic, Bernie “Seabiscuit” Singer and “Rambling” Robert Ruman. The Wildcats lost in South Bend by 29 points but only trailed 12-7 at halftime to an Irish team that finished 8-0-1 and #3 in the country. The team returned with experience, confidence, and a good start to a year of frequent-railrider miles.

After a tune-up 47-0 victory over the New Mexico State Aggies, the Cats beat Nevada 26-7 in front of 9,000 fans on “Mothers and Dads” night. Two Tucson families tied for the award for most children currently enrolled at the UA with four each.

A week later Arizona got its first road win of the season by wearing “blue and gold” to beat New Mexico, 31-6. Rambling Ruman was out with an injury so “Wild Bill” Smetana took his place and passed for 117 yards and two touchdowns. The Cats were on their way to finishing second in the nation in passing yards with Hank Stanton setting an NCAA record with 50 receptions. You hear that, Sonny Dykes?

The annual contest with our in-state rivals to the north was played earlier in the season, and it wasn’t yet an annual contest. On October 25, the Star previewed the game thusly:

An ancient football feud, smoldering with subterranean volcanic fury for the last four years, erupts tonight when University of Arizona unleashes its devastating aerial might against Arizona State Bulldogs of Tempe, defending Border conference champions.

The mighty Bulldogs had won the league in 1939 and 1940 but had done so without playing Arizona, and the Tempeans weren’t too happy about it. The Wildcats had “listened to insinuations and insults from the valley for four years about Arizona being afraid of Tempe and about giving Tempe the run-around, and they’re determined to a man to show no mercy.” Fans took the three-hour train ride from Tucson to Tempe as well as traveling “by highway, afoot and by horse” to pack the stadium 12,000 strong.

The UA beat the Arizona State Teachers College at Tempe by a score of 20-7 and the next day’s headline read: “Wildcat Rooters Rush on Field After Game, Tear Down Goal Posts”. Tempe fans rushed after the field-rushers until: “The lights went out on a wild, milling melee.” OK, some things weren’t so different.

After a 33-14 home thrashing of Texas Mines, the Cats were one win away from the Border Conference championship. A single victory over the school that was eventually known as NAU was all that separated the University of Arizona from six-and-a-half decades’ worth of outright football title glory. During the week leading up to the final league contest the headline declared:

Arizona, Hardin-Simmons on Road to a Co-Championship

Beg your pardon?

I checked the record book again. Hardin-Simmons lost to Border Conference member Texas Tech on November 21, 1941. How are they going to share a title with an undefeated Arizona team?

The problem is the conference affiliations back then were a lot more casual. You scheduled all your own games and if you wanted to play in-conference foes you did, and if you didn’t really care to, you didn’t. The only rule was you had to play at least three league games to qualify for the conference championship. Texas Tech at the time decided it would rather beat up on teams like Abilene Christian, Centenary, and St. Louis than try and win the Border Conference, so it only played two league games. Since Tech wasn’t eligible for the title, none of their games counted in the league standings.

Therefore when the UA beat Arizona State Teachers College of Flagstaff on November 9, and Hardin-Simmons beat Arizona State Teachers College of Tempe on December 7, both schools officially finished undefeated in league play. It doesn’t matter that Arizona won five Border Conference games while HSU only won three. In the eyes of the league, they shared the crown.

And, sure enough, if you take a close look at the current display of trophies at the Jim Click Hall of Champions you’ll see a football-shaped award that clearly states: “1941 Border Conference Co-Champions”.

Egads. Our football frustrations are so great now we’re losing championships 66 years after we thought we won them. That means you have to go all the way back to 1936 for the UA’s last 100% official outright conference championship on the gridiron. We have now played a full 70 seasons without another one. Seventy!

The 1941 Wildcats may have had to share their trophy but at least they got the league’s bowl bid. Back then the Border Conference sent its champion to play in the Sun Bowl on New Year’s Day. The nine league schools voted, and Arizona was chosen to represent the conference in El Paso.

There was only one problem. Arizona didn’t want to go.

The Wildcat players voted 41-2 to decline the Sun Bowl bid. Why? The Daily Star reported it was due to “a long-standing policy against post-season games.” So that’s what our current problem is. We really gotta change that policy.

So on top of the seven decades without an undisputed conference championship, we have never won the Sun Bowl. Do you still think Arizona Football isn’t cursed?

Ah, 1936.

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