Seventh Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 1941
#5 Boston College 19 (Final: 11-0-0)
#4 Tennessee 13 (Final: 10-1-0)
In the first Sugar Bowl featuring two undefeated, untied opponents, the crucial element to Boston College inflicting a defeat on mighty Tennessee, as it turned out, came straight out of the Tennessee playbook.
How Boston College and Tennessee Met in the 1941 Sugar Bowl
Frank Leahy Sugar Bowl Feature
“Two days prior to the game,” said BC Coach Frank Leahy, “we had a live scrimmage, mainly to give our first team a last look at Tennessee’s single-wing offense. Our team succeeded in stopping everything except one of General Neyland’s bread-and-butter plays . . . it was a fake pass run inside the end. During our final scrimmage it averaged seven yards per try against our first line. It was used approximately seven or eight times. We became impressed to the point where we decided after practice to incorporate the maneuver into our repertoire of plays.”
On New Year’s Eve, Leahy had the Eagle first stringers work on what they called “shift right, Tennessee Special.”
Wearing sneakers and sweat clothes they ran through it at the Bay St. Louis School gym. The doors were locked, in fact, the session was so secret that Boston College’s trainer didn’t even know about it.
The Tennessee Special was put away for use at just the right time.
In the first 30 minutes of the Sugar Bowl, the Eagles were hard-pressed to overcome miscues by tailback Charlie O’Rourke, who lost an early fumble and, later, interfered on a Vols’ pass play which led to a touchdown.
The score was 7-0 at halftime, and the Eagles were hanging with Tennessee – but it seemed as if they were hanging by a thread.
But very early in the third quarter something took place that was downright rare in southern football: for the first time in seven seasons, Tennessee had a kick blocked.
End Henry Woronicz rushed in as Bobby Foxx attempted to punt from the Tennessee 19. The ball bounced off Woronicz’s chest and Joe Zabilski recovered. Mickey Connolly, in for O’Rourke, pulled BC even with a 12-yard sprint.
Center-linebacker Ray Graves, later the head coach and athletic director at the University of Florida, said, “We felt we had ’em beat at halftime. We were ahead 7-0 and pretty much in control. I can still see the guy coming in from the left side. They blocked Bobby Foxx’s kick, got the ball, and went in to make it 7-7. After that they were a different ball club and we were sort of in a trance.”
If the Vols were in a stupor, it didn’t show right away. Tennessee went back ahead on Buist Warren’s short run, though the conversion was botched.
Again Boston College came back to tie the score on a 1-yard run by Mike Holovak, who also tried to run for the PAT but was stopped.
All that set the stage for the final minutes. With BC starting from its 20, O’Rourke moved the Eagles to the Vols’ 24. Neyland called timeout and changed his defense to send three men deep.
For BC, it was time for the Tennessee Special.
O’Rourke faded, raising his skinny arm as if to throw. Instead he cut sharply between Tennessee’s tackle and end. Like a shadow he glided through a maze of flailing Volunteers and into the end zone (O’Rourke on winning play, pictured to right). There were two minutes remaining.
“I had a clear shot at him and missed,” Graves said. “He kept going parallel to the line of scrimmage, but kept coming back toward the sidelines. I had another shot at him – and missed. When he got to the sidelines he turned downfield and scored just inside the boundary line. It really killed the General. We not only had a punt blocked, but the play O’Rourke scored on was a Tennessee play.”
Boston College missed the extra point but the game soon ended with an O’Rourke interception. The loss secured a strange Tennessee football fact: In three seasons the Vols had outscored their regular season opposition 807 to 42 in forging a 31-0 record. And following those three seasons bowl opponents outscored the Vols 33-30 as Tennessee went 1-2 in the postseason.
The victory made a national name of Frank Leahy and within a month his alma mater, Notre Dame, sought out the coaching wunderkind to lead the Fighting Irish. He would never again coach in a bowl game, due to Notre Dame’s prohibition of postseason football. Leahy would, however, coach four national championship teams and six undefeated teams, and forge an 87-11-9 record.
The Sugar Bowl was the fuse to a spectacular career.
“Can you imagine,” Graves drawled thoughtfully decades later, “I missed O’Rourke twice, and Frank Leahy has never thanked me for helping him get to South Bend.”
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.