November 8, 2007

Part I: Return to Glory Under Snavely

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Before 1935, an undergraduate student body controlled Cornell’s athletic program. Picture the Student Assembly running a mid-level Division I team in this day and age, and you get the idea.
By 1935, though, the school had run up large sports deficits due to the depression. From here the story unfolds like you were walking around campus, looking at the buildings. The school decided to hire James Lynah 1905 as athletic director to put the program back on its feet. Lynah was an experienced businessman and took the reigns, working closely with President Edmund Ezra Day who was inaugurated in 1937.
The back-to-back-back national championship days under Gil Dobie were behind and he was pushed out the door after a winless season in 1935 and replaced by Carl Snavely. Snavely — dubbed “the Grey Fox” by sportswriters ,— brought his no-nonsense approach to from his days coaching at North Carolina.
“Snavely was all business, there was no fun in him in terms of joking around,” said Lou Conti ’41 a guard under Snavely. “Basically we prepared for every game the same way in that this was somebody that could beat you and here is why. He was pretty thorough in his preparation. The scouting reports were pretty good.”
Snavely, who Conti referred to as “the old man” was known to persistently downplay his team’s chances, predicting dire outcomes to the media. Before the 1940 season began, he told reporters he thought his team would win at least two games that year. Many media members picked the Red to take the National championship.
Snavely’s playbook was as colorful as his demeanor was dour, though.
“He was very serious,” Finneran said. “He didn’t laugh a lot. He demanded perfection. He was not a slave driver, I would say, but he insisted on good practices — repeat, repeat until you have it right. He was a very smart coach. He was a little ahead of his time, to tell you the truth, on offense.”
Unlike the traditional football powerhouses, Cornell didn’t have the strength to rely on a bulldozer running game. Instead, Snavely reached into his bag of tricks constantly (“He had a basket full of them that we used,” Finneran said), and the Red became known for its precise execution of end-around runs and reverses that set up a dink-and-dunk passing game of lobs. By 1938, Cornell had the best passing attack in the nation.
“[We played] a very, very mixed game,” Finneran said. “Running, passing, straight plays, we mixed it up. We weren’t a super passing team or a super running team. We did everything well. It was a balanced offense.”
In a few short years, the team had gone from 0-6-1 to 5-1-1 and received a bid to the Rose Bowl, which the team turned down.
“No, no, no,” Conti explained. “We were invited to a couple of bowl games in ’38, ’39 and ’40 and we turned them down because the university said no.”
Regardless, after 1939, it didn’t seem like Cornell would be invited back to any more bowl games in the near future, though.
“The team in ’38 lost one game and almost all them were gone, they were seniors,” said Frank “Bud” Finneran ’41. “So the rest of us were sort of scrubs, or second placers, the year before — we were sophomores or juniors.”
It would especially be an uphill battle due to Snavely’s desire to play better schools. Upon arriving, he had scheduled a home-and-home series with Ohio State — the perennial Big Ten champion — set to begin in 1939. They were two games Cornell was meant to lose. But then the Red rolled through its first three games of the 1939 season. Two of those wins came against Syracuse and Penn State, who were expected to finish in the top-10 in the country.
“I guess it just clicked.” Finneran said. “We had some good athletes, obviously, and a lot of esprit and we had a lot of fun — we enjoyed the game.”
Cornell traveled to Ohio State undefeated.
“Of course we weren’t supposed to win that game,” Finneran said. “The Big Ten was supposed to be better than the Ivy League in those days. They weren’t, but they were supposed to be. It started out where we were getting killed, but suddenly we broke loose on several plays and we got going. You know, you get the spirit and you get going.”
The Red won, 23-14, on the back of Walter “Pop” Scholl ’41, who broke off a 79-yard touchdown run, and lobbed it downfield for a 63-yard passing score later in the game.
“Pop was a kind of a flamboyant guy,” Conti said. “He was a little guy. I think all little guys are really aggressive in the sense that he had a lot of talent, but he was not above advertising himself. Most of the other guys on the team were not that way.”
When the team arrived back in Ithaca, a crowd of 2,500 met them at 11p.m. A bizarre procession broke out where masses of people, all dressed in their pajamas, streamed out of buildings as the band and honking cars announced the rally’s presence.
The group of misfits kept rolling through the schedule. As was the case in the day, many of the players were not groomed football players.
“I came from a small high school in Harrison, N.Y., and it wasn’t a class AAA school, it was a secondary one,” Finneran said. “I wasn’t even sure I’d make the team at Cornell.”
As the team plowed over more teams, the university was steadfast in its support of its team, win or lose.
“You couldn’t ask for more support than they gave,” Conti said. “Even the professors would start a Monday morning class after a game and everyone would have a little comment about the game. It was just a great, great feeling. It was almost like a family.”
The 1939 team finished the season undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the polls. With an easier schedule in 1940, and the maturation of all the juniors, many thought Cornell could make another run at a National championship. Walter Matuszak ’41 was chosen as the captain.
“[He was a] very fine fellow,” Finneran said. “We all loved Walter. We admired his skills. He was our captain and we would listen to him and he was just a natural leader, you know? Strong fellow, big strong Polish kid and a tough kid.”
Matuszak split time with Scholl at the hybrid blocking back/quarterback position. Hal McCullah ’41 and Mort Landsburg ’41 were the two main running threats.
“Mort was a tough, tough guy; he was a boxer,” Conti said. “We had a boxing team then and Mort was a left hander, a south paw, and he was one really tough guy.”
The main thread uniting the players, however, was that they played football simply for the love of the game. The players prioritized class and studying. Some players who had Saturday labs had trouble convincing teachers to let them out of class early so they could make it to the games. Stories in The Sun listed the players who missed practice because of a late class in the same breath as those who missed due to injury.
“I think the majority of people in my generation did that,” Conti said. “[Football] was a fun thing that you did with a bunch of people that you enjoyed being with.”