In the 21st century, most Cornell-Dartmouth football games don’t make national headlines. But 80 years ago, in Hanover, New Hampshire, on Nov. 16, 1940, in what commentators called a stunning display of sportsmanship, Cornell — then the top team in the country, riding a 19-game winning streak — gave away an apparent 7-3 win after realizing its last-second touchdown was scored on fifth down.
The Red entered the game against its longtime rival — then called the Indians — riding an 18-game winning streak dating back two seasons. Dartmouth broke a scoreless tie with a fourth-quarter field goal, taking a 3-0 lead.
The Wikipedia page for the game reports that Cornell got the ball on the Dartmouth six-yard line with less than a minute to play. After short gains on first and second down, Cornell had the ball on the one-yard line. A run for no gain on third down followed by a delay of game penalty gave Cornell fourth down from around the five-yard line.
With nine seconds left, Walter “Pop” Scholl ’41 threw an incomplete pass into the end zone. And that should’ve been it. But the referee signalled fourth down, and Scholl found receiver William Murphy for a touchdown on the bonus down. Cornell won the game 7-3.
Or so they thought. After reviewing film of the game on Sunday, coach Carl Snavely and Cornell officials realized the touchdown shouldn’t have happened. So they sent a telegram to Hanover offering to forfeit the game. Dartmouth accepted, cementing the contest as a 3-0 win for the home team.
Edmund Ezra Day, then the president of Cornell, was a Dartmouth graduate. Lou Conti ’41, a guard on the 1940 team, told The Los Angeles Times in 2010 that Day said, “You can offer them the game, but they won’t accept it.”
“We didn’t believe that. I didn’t believe that. Nobody believed that they would not accept the game,” Conti said.
Frank “Bud” Finneran ’41 said he’ll “never forget this as long as I live.”
“[Day] said, ‘Fellas, I’m a Dartmouth graduate,’ and he was,” Finneran said. “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.’
“And I always used to say, ‘We’re still waiting for that telegram.’”
“Our coach and athletic director told us, ‘As the years go by, this will resonate as a fine example of sportsmanship’ — and they were 100 percent right,” Conti, then 91 years old, said in 2010. “But if I had been a grown person with some authority, I never would have offered to give the game away.”
At the time, an angry team and football-obsessed campus felt like the game had been unjustly stolen, even as praise for the act of sportsmanship came from around the country: A New York Herald Tribune editorial said “there seems again to be hope in the world.”
Some players on the 1940 team insisted that Mort Landsberg ’41 got into the end zone on his third-down run that was marked just shy of the goal line. And while decades later they looked back fondly on the forfeit, at the time they couldn’t believe their university would give the win away.
“The pride is now. It wasn’t then,” said Frank Finneran ’41, a guard and defensive lineman on the 1940 team. “I can just remember my father telling me. He said, ‘Son, they will never remember that you guys were undefeated and that you had the greatest team in the nation. But they’ll never, never forget that your college awarded that game back to Dartmouth.’”
Eighty years later, the Fifth-Down Game still stands alone in college football history: No other game has been decided off the field after its conclusion. A 1940 editorial in The Sun said “our honor and good name remain unstained.”