How Boston College and Tennessee Met in the 1941 Sugar Bowl
In October of 1940 Fred Digby covered a University of Tennessee football game. Immediately after filing his story, he sent a telegram to the Sugar Bowl urging consideration of the Vols. He informed the Mid-Winter Sports Association that no one on its schedule was capable of defeating Major Bob Neyland’s squad.
Then, as the year before, there were many good football teams from which the bowls could choose: Boston College, Texas A&M, Nebraska, Mississippi State, or Fordham. All were outstanding.
Tennessee was the key. The Cotton Bowl again considered a Texas A&M-Volunteer match, while in Pasadena there was strong sentiment to invite Tennessee back a second consecutive year.
Neyland’s team again finished as undefeated and untied Southeastern Conference champions. Only a loss to Southern California in the 1940 Rose Bowl spotted Tennessee’s record over the course of 35 games.
The Tournament of Roses requested that Neyland hold off making a decision until it could decide. The coach saw no reason why he should gamble and take a chance of being shut out. On the evening of November 30, it was announced that Tennessee would play Boston College in the Sugar Bowl.
Boston College, under a 32-year-old firebrand coach, Frank Leahy, had run roughshod over the East and wiped out a 24-game Georgetown winning streak to wind up with a 10-0-0 record, identical to Tennessee’s. An early-season 27-7 victory over Tulane in New Orleans first alerted Sugar Bowlers to Boston College’s potential. Neyland was famous for putting his faith in a strong kicking game and defense, but the Vols’ offense was extremely potent, having scored 319 points in 1940. Only one team in the country scored more. That was Boston College with 320. Two weeks after the announcement, the Sugar Bowl was declared a complete sellout. Despite the statistics and close rankings, Tennessee opened a touchdown favorite and stayed there.
New Orleans, for the third consecutive year, had come up with the best game possible. The Vols and Boston College were ranked fourth and fifth in the final Associated Press poll. But Minnesota and Michigan were first and third, and their conference, the Big Ten, did not allow bowl participation. Stanford, committed to the Rose Bowl, was second.
Billy Sullivan, then the Boston College publicist, remembers John Drummey, an athletic department treasurer, making the trip. Drummey was not a football fan, as Leahy found out in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where Boston College set up its pregame camp at St. Stanislaus High School. Drummey pulled up in the middle of an unusually tough scrimmage while the intense Leahy bombasted the players. Drummey left his car, cheerfully walked to Leahy and said, “Don’t worry about it, coach. It doesn’t make any difference. I have the biggest check we’ve ever received for a football game.”
Leahy turned a cold glare on the accountant and softly said, “John, it’s just too bad you don’t realize that this may be the greatest mismatch in history. This (Tennessee) is one of the greatest teams in history, the undefeated heavyweight champion. And all you’re worried about is a check.”
One observer at St. Stanislaus was Louis Montgomery, who knew full well what it would take to beat Tennessee: the best from every man on the Eagle roster. Montgomery’s name was on the roster, but he would not be in uniform. He was a reserve running back, and he was black. In the South of the early 1940s, there was never any thought that Montgomery would suit up with his teammates.
“It’s embarrassing to talk about it now,” said the Rev. Maurice Dullea, S.J., then the facility-moderator at Boston College. “But the (Sugar Bowl) committee made it quite clear that a Negro would not be allowed to play. It was kind of touchy…But that’s the way things were then…One of our graduate managers was afraid someone would shoot at Louis from the stands if we even let him on the sidelines with us. …Certain things didn’t go with certain people in certain parts of the country. It was simply reality. Even the United States Army was segregated.”
Jerry Nason, who covered the Eagles for the Boston Globe, said, “I’m almost ashamed to say it, and I was a guy who didn’t mind stirring things up over an injustice, but it was just taken for granted when a team went South to play. I think the attitude was, ‘We’re gonna play in the South. They are our hosts, and we are their guests. We will play by their rules.’ “
Montgomery was at least able to see his teammates in the Sugar Bowl. A black family in Bay St. Louis, people with ties to Boston College, wired Father Dullea offering a place to stay for the running back. When the Eagles played in the Cotton Bowl the year before, Montgomery wasn’t even able to make the trip. For the Sugar Bowl he was given a job spotting for reporters in the press box. Nason and some of Montgomery’s teammates were able to see him display his athletic talents a few days later in a black All-Star game played on the Xavier University campus.
Neyland seemed skittish about his opponent, even holding secret practices. His armada of football talent didn’t appear as impressed. Bob Suffridge was considered the premier guard in the country, and he overshadowed Ed Molinski only slightly. Bobby Foxx was the backfield scourge of the SEC. These were the sort of specimens that had come to be associated with the image of great football.
George Kerr, a brilliant Greek and Latin student studying for the priesthood, was a standout in the Boston College line. Charlie O’Rourke, weighing about 147 pounds by the time of the Sugar Bowl game, was the Eagles’ offensive trigger. End Gene Goodreault made most All-American teams, but even here the gladiator image didn’t fit; he had been struck with a form of paralysis as a child. Several relapses nearly killed him. He had heart problems by the age of 11.
Goodreault overcame it all to become an All-American. However, a knee injury threatened to, but did not, keep him out of the Sugar Bowl.
This was not the look of a team to be sent against Neyland’s three-deep legions. “We’ll be satisfied with anything better than a tie,” said Suffridge, who won the Knute Rockne Memorial Trophy as the outstanding lineman of the year, “but I believe we’ll win by at least a touchdown.”
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.