Imagine today, October 29, but in 1921. A ragtag football team, from a college of fewer than 200 students, has traveled by train hundreds of miles from the foamy green hills of Kentucky to don moth-eaten uniforms and stumble onto the field before a roaring crowd of 45,000 at Harvard Stadium.
The mighty Crimson are the de facto national champions for three years running.
Led by coach “Uncle Charley” Moran–who also served as equipment manager, mentor, masseur and trainer–and a swaggering quarterback, Bo McMillan–who never met a dice game or a bourbon he didn’t like–the Centre College “Prayin’ Colonels” pause for their usual prayer before the game (then a novelty, thus their nickname).
They go on to defeat Harvard 6-0. McMillan rushes for the lone touchdown that makes Centre the first school from outside the East ever to beat one of the Ivy League’s “Big Three” of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. The win is later voted by the Associated Press as “the greatest sports upset of the first half of the 20th century.” Of course as a Centre alum myself, I elevate it a little higher.
The lore of the game is endless, if a little dubious–that Bostonians so loved the Centre team, they cheered when the train rolled in, and took the boys out on the town.
That the fellas purposely wore distressed-looking clothing to play up their poverty-stricken backgrounds and hustle the sharks to bet against Centre so the team would win money.
That the Colonels’ African-American water man, Roscoe, dressed in a silk hat and vest to perform the “cakewalk” for Harvard fans, and brought down the house.
And that the same Roscoe wasn’t the stereotype he appeared–in the days when coaches couldn’t send in plays from the sidelines, Roscoe would sit on and rotate a water bucket lettered with C-E-N-T-R-E, each letter corresponding to a play. Whichever letter faced the field was the secret play to run.
Whether these stories are fully accurate or not we’ll never know. But two things are true: 1) the term “David vs. Goliath” is overused, and yet, 2) no other phrase defines this game better.
(By the way, if you want to see Kentucky at its finest, check out the annual Breeder’s Cup at Lexington’s remarkable Keeneland racetrack Saturday at 5:30 ET on NBC.)