November 8, 2007

Part II: The Fifth Down Game

Print More

Just a few days short of 66 years after the fact, the pain still comes through subtly in the players’ voices. When they tell the story, the impending doom permeates the slow, controlled, rehearsed approach to the tale.
“Every Sunday we had what was called Sunday school,” said Frank “Bud” Finneran ’41, who played both at center and on the defensive line for Cornell’s 1940 football team. “We had a little arena there. The cameras were set up and on the blackboards the coaches would have the outlines and the plays we were going to use against the next team — the signatures of their team, you know? We’d see pictures and movies — get ready for the next game, you know?”
Everything was going well for the 1940 football team. It was riding a 19-game winning streak after a 7-3 win over Dartmouth. It was ranked No. 1 in the nation. Only a win over Penn the next week stood between the team and a national championship. But this Sunday wasn’t like other Sundays. Finneran recounts it as if he has told this story a hundred times before — which he probably has.
“We go into the room there and here are guys in suits and ties who were sitting there,” he said. “The cameras weren’t set up and I knew something was up.”
When all was said and done, the Dartmouth game would be the downfall of the 1940 squad, the win streak, the national title hopes — all of it. But for several days the hope was still alive.
The year before, the Red had beaten the Indians (Dartmouth’s nickname before the days of political correctness) 35-6 and Dartmouth looked like it would fair no better this time around, entering as 15-1 underdogs with a pedestrian 3-4 record.
Dartmouth coach Earl Blaik felt as if his players had been too anxious and overworked the previous year preparing for the Cornell game. He told them to relax going into the matchup. He played jazz records in the locker room and schemed quietly in his office.
So, on a Friday morning, head coach Carl Snavely’s undefeated band of players made their way down past the Commons, down State Street through the early morning frost to the Lehigh Valley Station. They boarded the train amidst the early morning mist that clung to the leaves.
As the train rumbled along toward the ocean, the chills turned to a biting cold and a new atmosphere shrouded the Cornell squad. A hurricane had laid waste to the Northeast cost two years previously, leaving vast tracks of open fields to turn to frozen mud.
“I remember looking out the window and seeing this devastation, just unbelievable. All the trees were down,” said Lou Conti ’41, who was the center on the squad. “ … It was usually cold and snowy there. The field was a real mess in that it was kind of frozen. It had been covered with straw and they didn’t do too good a job cleaning it off. So it was a pretty messy field. I remember the field condition had a lot to do with the tempo of the game. It got to be a sloppy, kind of smash mouth game.”
Only 8,000 fans braved the weather to see the two teams slide around for several hours.
“It was cold and it was an awful, awful day,” Finneran said. “It probably hurt our passing game. They got enthused and they got going. They were the underdogs and they just sure outplayed us.”
The pattern was simple — run, run, run, punt, repeat. It was all that was possible. Each team would eventually punt the ball away 11 times in the match. Blaik, the Dartmouth coach, foresaw this and came out with an unconventional defensive formation.
“We played our ends normally on the line but posted our tackles and guards a yard and a half off the ball,” he said much later. “The linebackers, playing shallow, approximated the same depth as the tackles and guards. The plan was for these six men to sit there, forgo early commitment, angle off in the direction of the ball, and by quick reaction give up the short gain and no more.”
And it worked. Cornell didn’t get a first down in the first quarter. But neither did Dartmouth. The Indians did run a punt back to the Cornell 28, but missed a long field goal. When the second quarter started the Red broke through with a first down, but couldn’t advance the ball beyond its own 35-yard line at any point before the half.
Dartmouth — exclusively running the ball (it only threw one pass the whole game, an incompletion) — threatened twice more. A fumble on the Red 27 and a turnover on downs inside the 10 squandered both scoring chances, however. The Red escaped to the locker room at halftime tied at 0-0.
“We kind of felt like, ‘What are we doing here?’” Finneran said. “We had never gone into a half behind or tied or anything. We were always pretty much ahead. It was kind of a different thing. The weather had a lot to do with it, an awful lot.”
Despite snow beginning to sprinkle the ground, Snavely threw caution to the blistering wind and go to the air. The Red got the ball and marched down to the 13, but was stymied on a fourth-down pass into the end zone. Then there was nothing. Nothing for either team. A slip in the backfield, a clogged line, another punt. It was becoming muddy monotony.
Then Dartmouth broke the stalemate. The Indians ran another punt back into Cornell territory and ran a few plays to get within field goal territory.
“I didn’t figure they were going to make it,” Finneran said with a chuckle. “But I remember seeing that ball go right over my head as true as it could be, and I knew it was going through. There wasn’t much time left. That was a sinking feeling, you know? To be defeated the first time in your history, that was it.”
It wasn’t, though. Two Cornell drives ended in interceptions — one of which was in the red zone, but the Red got the ball back with enough time for one last drive, starting at its own 42. Cornell’s captain, Walter Matuszak ’41, who played the hybrid position of blocking back and quarterback, huddled his team together.
“I remember him saying ‘Common guys lets get going. We got to do this thing now, let’s go.’ It kind of pepped us up a little,” Finneran said.
The Red drove — dumping it off, running up the middle, on the end-around, every way possible. A Indians’ penalty gave the Red the ball at the 19 and a pass to Bill Murphy ’41 gave it the ball at the six. Blaik watched stoically from the sideline and Dartmouth captain Lou Young stood with his mouth agape and hands resting apprehensively on his head.
Two runs later the Red were down to the one-yard line. The third down handoff went to Mort Landsberg ’41, who went straight up the gut into a mass of people. Conti jumps at the mention of this play.
“I have always maintained to this day that … Mort ran straight ahead and I was lying in the end zone and he was lying on top of me,” Conti said. “I thought he had scored. They just didn’t see it, which happens. The way they marked the down is one of those things. It didn’t happen.”
“I was right next to him,” Finneran insisted.
In the confusion, Matuszak called a timeout Cornell didn’t have. Referee Red Friesell paced off a five-yard penalty, giving the Red the ball at the six. The Red put its hopes in the hands of “Pop” Scholl ’41 who rolled out on a naked bootleg and tried to lob it into the endzone to Murphy. The ball was batted down.
In those days, the rules dictated that Dartmouth got the ball on Cornell’s 20-yard line due to the turnover on downs in the end zone. Frieselle started the fateful walk, but reconsidered, placing the ball on the six again and signaling fourth down, perhaps deciding there had been a loss of down on the penalty.
“I can honestly say that I don’t I remember anybody saying anything at that time,” Conti said.
“Frankly, I did not [know],” Finneran said, his voice insistent. “I know there was a big argument going on about it between our captains and the referees. But you’re told to stay out of it. If you weren’t the captains, you didn’t go over and get into anything. The officials wouldn’t allow that anyway. I was not aware, to tell you the truth, that we had five downs at that time.”
The Red ran the same naked bootleg, but this time successfully, and streamed off the field with a season-saving victory. The East Hill campus huddled around radios exploded many miles away and the chimes in the clock tower rang out “Cornell Victorious.”
Cornell only had its time in the locker room and a train ride home before the game would become rife with controversy. The rumor began swirling on the train and hit full force when the team stepped off the train in Ithaca: Dartmouth had accused Cornell of winning on an illegal fifth down play.
“We were young kids and we thought we won — we won it on the field. The official made a mistake, you know, so what?”
But a day later, the game tape was developed. Friesell himself apologized profusely in a telegram.
“I want to be the first to admit my very grave error,” it read. “The extra down is proved by the motion pictures of both colleges. I assume full responsibility”
By this point, it was Sunday afternoon, and the Cornell football team was meeting for Sunday school — but there were no cameras to be seen. Carl Snavely got up and told the team that President Edmund Ezra Day was there and wanted to address them. Day strode to the front of the room.
“‘Fellas,’” Finneran recalled him saying. “‘We have reviewed the game and it’s absolutely sure that we had five downs. I have to tell you that I sent a telegram to the president of Dartmouth that said we deny the win and award it to you.’”
And for all the vague memories that are hard to piece together nearly a century later, Finneran’s voice hones in on one detail.
“And I’ll never forget this as long as I live,” Finneran said. “He said, ‘Fellas, I’m a Dartmouth graduate,’ and he was. He said, ‘I know Dartmouth and it won’t be long before we get a return telegraph saying, ‘no Cornell you won it on the field, and that’s the way it should be.’”
Then he chuckled at a joke he’s probably made 1,000 times, but still rings true to this day.
“And I always used to say, ‘We’re still waiting for that telegram,’” he said.