Quarterback Richie Kenney at the game against Colgate on October 19th, 2019. (Boris Tsang/Sun Photography Editor)

March 11, 2021

Cornell Football Celebrates the Centennial of the 1921 National Championship Team

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As Cornell continues into 2021 without varsity athletics, this year still marks a momentous commemoration — the 100 year anniversary of the football team’s second national championship title.

The team’s second title came six years after the Red claimed its first in 1915, under the leadership of head coach Gil Dobie, who was later inducted into the College Hall of Fame. The team had a perfect 8-0 record in 1921 and would go on an impressive 26 game-winning streak. Cornell football earned three consecutive national championships from 1921 to1923 before losing to Williams College in 1924. Over eight games in 1921, the Red outscored their opponents 392-21.

The Red’s first game on their path to a championship came on their home turf of Schoellkopf Field against St. Bonaventure (2-5-3). Cornell blew through their season opener with ease, stomping the Bonnies, 41-0. A pair of college football hall of famers led the field: quarterback and team captain George Pfann, and jack-of-all-trades player Eddie Kaw. 

Pfann scored 15 touchdowns on the season and would go on to be named a consensus All-American in 1923. Kaw lined up at running back, defensive back and punter. He was named a consensus All-American in 1921 after leading all running backs in the nation with 15 touchdowns.

The Red followed up its pummeling of St. Bonaventure with a similar game at home against Rochester (5-4). Cornell cruised through the matchup by a score of 55-0. However, their largest margin of victory came in their third game against Case Western Reserve University (2-7-1), when they scored an unprecedented 110 points while shutting out the Spartans. This win garnered Cornell national attention, and other East Coast schools took notice of the team’s victories. The Red then had a 31-7 victory at home against Colgate (4-4-2), surrendering its first points on defense of the season. 

In its first match against a ranked opponent, Cornell hosted a solid Dartmouth (6-2-1) squad, which also boasted an undefeated record at the time. Having two of the most dominant squads face up against each other, 20,000 fans were in attendance at Schoellkopf Field to witness the rivalry unfold. Dartmouth proved to be a challenging opponent, with Cornell leading only 14-7 at the half. Despite an initially close game, the Red broke the game wide open. Kaw led the way, rushing for 30 yards per carry in the second half, leading Cornell to a 59-7 victory while improving their record to 5-0 on the season. 

The first road game of the season came against Columbia (2-6), as the Red traveled to the Polo Grounds with a chance to stay undefeated. They would do just that, requiring no home field advantage to run up a 41-7 victory against their longtime rival. They followed this road win with their lowest margin of victory on the season against Springfield (4-5-2). The game was played on a snowy November afternoon, with mud and wind serving to make conditions difficult for the players. The Red came out with a 14-0 victory, putting up the fewest points of any game all season.

In the final game of the season, Cornell went on the road to Philadelphia to face Penn (4-3-2) in their annual Thanksgiving matchup, which would prove to be its biggest test, as Cornell had not defeated Penn since its first national championship season in 1915. The Red had posted a record of 4-22-1 in previous years against the Quakers. In front of 25,000 opposing fans, Cornell flipped the script and shutout the home team, 41-0. Kaw had a career day, rushing for team high five touchdowns, and the Red finished the season with an unblemished 8-0 record. 

Cornell was named the 1921 national champion by the Helms Athletic Foundation and the National Championship Foundation, and co-national champion by Parke Davis. Cornell went on to win three more championships in 1922, 1923 and 1939, but no team would ever be quite as dominant as the 1921 Cornell football squad.