How TCU and Carnegie Tech Met in the 1939 Sugar Bowl
It didn’t take long for the Sugar Bowl to even up with the Southeastern Conference over their snit. Many choice teams were available during the 1938 season, enough for everyone. The University of Tennessee won the SEC championship with a 10-0-0 record and was the favorite to fill the host berth in New Orleans. Possible opponents from the North were Carnegie Tech, Villanova, and Fordham. Texas Christian and Duke (undefeated, untied, and unscored upon) were more than acceptable, but the Mid-Winter Sports Association seemed to be interested in a North-South game.
Pasadena vacillated between Duke and TCU. The Cotton Bowl panted over the possibility of the No. 2 Horned Frogs, with Heisman, Maxwell, and Camp trophies winner Davey O’Brien, the 5-foot-7 glamour player of the year, as quarterback. All-American center Ki Aldrich and All-American tackle I.B. Hale added more tinsel to the TCU trappings. “If the Sugar Bowl can get Carnegie Tech,” wrote Flem Hall of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “the boys might prefer such an opponent to a beaten California or a twice-beaten Southern Cal team.”
The conjecture was startling because it precluded an SEC team, which everyone assumed the Sugar preferred. The Rose Bowl was certainly a strong consideration for the TCU staff and squad. The Cotton Bowl wasn’t. “The boys and fans would rather go to New Orleans than Dallas,” wrote Dick Freeman of the Houston Chronicle. “Get TCU in here with Carnegie Tech and the state of Texas will move to New Orleans.”
Carnegie Tech’s appeal stemmed from its winning the No. 6 ranking and the Lambert Trophy, symbolic of Eastern supremacy.
Tech was playing a midseason game with Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. In the fourth quarter of a scoreless game, with the ball placed near the 50, quarterback Ray Carnelly lost track of the downs. He asked referee John Getchell, who said it was third down. Carnelly ran a play that was stopped short of first down yardage. Getchell – realizing then he had made a mistake and that it was a fourth down play that had just been run – turned the ball over to the Irish. Notre Dame was able to use its field position in the fading minutes to push across the game’s only points. Acidly, Carnegie Tech Coach Bill Kern assessed, “It was the biggest bonehead I ever saw pulled by any official. I don’t know if he will quit or not, but I know what I’d do in his place.” To Tech’s credit, it went on to win its next four games. Carnegie Tech finished 7-1-0 and was acclaimed the best in the East. Notre Dame rose to the No. 1 spot nationally after defeating Carnegie Tech.
After TCU defeated Southern Methodist in its final game, the Cotton Bowl extended its invitation, though the Frog staff said nothing official.
On November 29 the Sugar announced its pairing, TCU and Carnegie Tech. Duke accepted the Rose Bowl challenge against Southern Cal.
With an excellent Tennessee team expecting bids from the Sugar or the Rose, the SEC appeared shaken by the New Orleans selections. Georgia Tech Coach Bill Alexander told the Associated Press he was “amazed.” Joel Hunt, the University of Georgia coach, was quoted by the AP to the effect that the selection “might be a little act of independence.” Fred Digby wrote piously that the Sugar Bowl felt free to invite anyone, indicating that getting the best game possible was most important to the Mid-Winter Sports Association. He also subtly chided those who snubbed New Orleans the year before.
The match turned into what Grantland Rice called “The Game of the Year.” Southern Cal defeated Notre Dame the week following the selections, which lifted TCU to No. 1 Tech retained its No. 6 spot.
New Year’s was bringing to New Orleans the nation’s No. 1 team (TCU), the nation’s No. 1 player (O’Brien), the nation’s No. 1 coach (Bill Kern), the nation’s No. 2 coach (Dutch Meyer), and the nation’s No. 1 official, Johnny Getchell.
That’s right. Getchell was one of the officials submitted to be considered by Carnegie Tech. Shortly after the Notre Dame game, Coach Kern sent a telegram to Getchell which read, “Forget it. It’s all in the game. Best regards.”
Several questions arose about the game. What in the world was a Skibo (a Tech nickname – the other was Tartans)? Would Ki Aldrich be able to play? The anchor of the imposing TCU line had been hospitalized with an ulcer on the cornea of his eye.
The Skibos, a team of 42 engineering students and 1 musician, were named for Andrew Carnegie’s manor, Skibo Castle, in Dunfermline, Scotland. Carnegie, it was said, delighted in being referred to as “The Land of Skibo Castle.” Tech students picked up the nickname.
Aldrich had recurring eye problem after being involved in some freshman-sophomore class horseplay his first year at TCU. He led a group of freshman up a flight of stairs in a night “raid,” but a “guard” at the top of the landing turned a fire extinguisher on the invaders. The spray caught Aldrich in the eye. His screams broke up the prank. For some strange reason, Ki yelled for salt water. When some was obtained, he bathed his eye in it and then was brought to the infirmary. It healed slowly, and from time to time eye difficulties would flare up on the youngster. Between the end of the regular season of his senior year and Sugar Bowl, he again had to be hospitalized.
However, TCU got an emotional lift on the day the team was to leave for New Orleans. Aldrich’s injured eye opened, with his vision restored. Ki jumped into his clothes, ran out, and raced across campus he spotted Dutch Meyer. “Coach, coach,” Ki yelled joyfully, “I can play! I’m gonna play in the Sugar Bowl!”
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.