Men of honor
When 1940 Cornell football team gave back fifth-down victory, players went from winners ... to losers ... to bigger winners
By Bob Duffy, Globe Staff, 12/29/01
Walter Matuszak awakened on the morning of Nov. 16, 1940, anticipating another routine win that would register in the college football polls the next week. He never envisioned an act of unprecedented sportsmanship that would resonate in college football annals into the next millennium.
Cornell's senior captain and single-wing quarterback had just slept off the seat sores of a six-hour train trip from Ithaca, N.Y., the day before. When he drew back the shades in his hotel room on the outskirts of Hanover, N.H., he was greeted by sparkling sunshine. What a glorious day, he thought. The perfect backdrop for the Big Red's next display of strength.
Sure, Matuszak could see the frost on the ground and cars and trees, so he knew it was raw outside, but that was no bother. What else would be expected except cold from the weather on a mid-November Saturday? And what else would be expected except victory from Cornell on a mid-November Saturday?
The Big Red were defending national champions, having gone 8-0 in 1939. They were ranked No. 1 again this season, boasting a 6-0 record with only two obstacles -- lowly Dartmouth (3-4) this day and Penn the following week -- on their inexorable road to repeat supremacy. Dartmouth would surely be their 18th consecutive conquest. "We were two- or three-touchdown favorites," recalls Matuszak.
For good reason.
``We realized they were clearly the superior team,'' says John Kelley, a right end for Dartmouth in an era when players were on the field for 60 minutes, utilized on offense and defense.
It figured to be no contest. And technically, it wasn't - until the outcome was settled two days later by the ultimate beau geste, not any play on the field.
That field, jammed with 10,000 witnesses to the inevitable at Memorial Stadium, had turned misty by the time the Big Red bus arrived from team quarters. But that wasn't the only rude awakening Matuszak received hours after opening his eyes. Once the game began, it became apparent that the Big Green would be no pushovers, despite their humble record. ``We'd been getting ready for this game for much of the season,'' recalls Joe Crowley, a Dartmouth substitute end. ``Blaik had worked a long time on the defenses for it.''
Big Green coach Earl ``Red'' Blaik had special incentive to do so. Granville Winship, a Dartmouth tackle, remembers that in Cornell's 35-6 rout at Ithaca in 1939, Big Red players had run along the sideline pointing to their numbers indicating what plays to call. Matuszak and another survivor from that Cornell team, All-America tackle Nick Drahos, have no such recollection. But Winship insists Blaik was incensed by this perceived breach of etiquette and told his players afterward, ``Gentlemen, next year there is only one game on the schedule. Cornell.''
True to his vow, Blaik plotted retribution throughout the 1940 season. ``We'd practice for a game each Saturday,'' says Winship. ``Then we'd practice for Cornell.''
It showed. Blaik, on a stopover to immortality he would achieve at West Point, flummoxed Cornell with his multiple schemes. ``We had several defensive lineups,'' says Kelley. ``The best was a two-man line. The two ends angled in to rush the quarterback, and the rest of the line stayed back.''
And held back the Big Red. The game was scoreless at halftime. Still, there was no panic in the Cornell locker room. Coach Carl Snavely delivered his usual speech, no impassioned exhortations. And while Matuszak acknowledges, ``We weren't playing our best, that's for sure; it was one of those off days,'' the prevailing mood was that this would end up like the 17 previous football Saturdays for Cornell. ``Everyone thought we had a real fine chance of winning,'' says Matuszak.
That chance dimmed along with the sky early in the fourth quarter when Dartmouth's Bob Krieger kicked a 27-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead. The margin held until the Big Red got the ball on their 48 with 1:30 remaining. By now, the conditions were ominous; snow was falling, making Cornell's necessity to pass all the more treacherous.
But left halfback Walt Scholl began firing anyway. A pair of completions to right halfback Bill Murphy pushed the Big Red into Dartmouth territory, and a pass interference call set them up at the 17. Fullback Mort Landsberg bulled his way to the 6, but now only a minute remained and the situation was urgent.
Three smashes into the line - two by Landsberg, one by Scholl - brought the ball within a foot of the end zone. But Cornell committed a potentially devastating gaffe, sending in a substitute and being penalized 5 yards for taking an extra timeout.
It turned out the Big Red soon would get another extra, and get away with it. With five seconds left, Scholl passed to Murphy in the end zone, and Don Norton swatted it away. ``I would have intercepted it,'' says Norton, ``but I knew it was fourth down.''
Norton wasn't alone. Dartmouth captain Lou Young grabbed the ball, believing it belonged to the home team, and was shocked when Red Friesell - one of the premier referees of the era - restored possession to Cornell. Head linesman Joe McKenney advised him otherwise, but Friesell was adamant. He pointed to the scoreboard, which indicated three downs had been used; there were no sideline down markers back then.
On the field, the other Big Green players didn't comprehend the implications. ``We didn't know they were getting an extra down,'' says Crowley, who had been inserted for Kelley at the start of the final drive because Blaik wanted a pair of fresh ends to rush the passer. ``I don't even think Blaik, sitting where he was, realized it, things were so hectic.''
Kelley took a different perspective from his different perspective. ``On the sideline, we were certain it was fourth down,'' he says. ``We were rather amazed.''
Soon they were rather decimated as Cornell proceeded in blissful ignorance. ``We didn't sense any confusion,'' says Matuszak. ``Everything seemed on the up-and-up to us.''
So with two seconds left, the Big Red had time for one more play, gift or not. In the huddle, Matuszak asked his teammates whether they wanted to settle for a field goal and a tie or try for the winning touchdown. To a man, they said, ``Let's go for it.'' And with spectators ringing the end zone, Scholl hit Murphy with the decisive pass, Drahos added the extra point, Cornell retreated to its locker room with relief and a 7-3 victory - and the uproar began. ``We were rather upset,'' says Kelley, ``and screaming about the general situation.''
Meanwhile, the Big Red remained oblivious. They were just stepping out of the showers when one of their entourage entered the room and informed them, ``I think we had a fifth down.''
Cornell went into denial. ``We didn't think so,'' says Matuszak.
Dartmouth certainly did. Long after the Big Red had departed for Ithaca without a blemish, the Hanover campus was a cauldron of protest, flecked with demonstrators carrying signs that read, ``No fifth down,'' and ``Dartmouth 3, Cornell 0.'' Meanwhile, the Big Green players felt helpless. And deprived. ``We thought the game was lost,'' says Kelley. ``We sulked all night and sulked some more the next day.''
But Kelley and his teammates didn't know what was going on in the opposition camp.
At 8 p.m. on Cornell's overnight train trip home, Snavely interrupted Drahos's game of checkers and asked if the Big Red had benefited from a fifth down. Drahos thought the play the coach was referring to was a double offside - and hence, no play. But that triggered a philosophical discussion among the players. ``We figured if they won it, they won it, and that's the way it should be,'' says Drahos. ``If it was provable, they should have the game back.''
It wasn't proven to the Big Red until Sunday afternoon. Matuszak realized something was up when Snavely convened the team in the locker room and entered in the company of Cornell president Edmund Ezra Day - a Dartmouth grad, no less.
Snavely had reviewed the films, and sure enough, he concluded that Cornell had scored the winner on fifth down. He showed the evidence to his players. ``We must have looked at that film 100 times,'' says Matuszak. ``There was no question about it.''
Now the issue was what to do about it. The result already was in the books as a 7-3 Cornell win, and no authority had the power to overturn it. Except the players. Snavely and Day left the choice to them, although they departed with a strong recommendation.
``Let's be good sports and give it back,'' said Snavely, ``and hope they'll be better sports and won't take it.''
Day echoed that sentiment but said, ``It's up to you boys.''
So these young men in their late teens and early 20s dealt with an ethical dilemma that never before had confronted a team, and it was no longer theoretical. In the end, just as they had done on the train, they decided there was no dilemma. They resoundingly elected to award Dartmouth a 3-0 victory. ``I think the vote was near unanimous,'' says Matuszak.
The following day, a chain of telegrams altered history. At noon, Friesell notified Young of his miscount. Soon after, Snavely and Cornell athletic director James Lynah conceded the victory with congratulatory missives to their Dartmouth counterparts, Blaik and AD William McCarter.
And there was no refund, despite Snavely's wishes. ``It took them about five seconds to accept,'' says Matuszak with a laugh.
Not quite. But at 3 p.m., McCarter made it official with this Western Union transmission to Lynah: ``Thank you for your wire. Dartmouth accepts the victory and your congratulations and salutes the Cornell team, the honored and honorable opponent of her longest unbroken football rivalry.''
So the deed was done - or undone - and Crowley doesn't think it should have been any other way. ``Why should it?'' he says. ``It was a mistake by the officials. There was no team meeting about not accepting it. We were just satisfied to know we'd gotten what we deserved.''
Kelley agrees, though he wasn't expecting such a gesture. ``We thought the movies might prove something,'' he says. ``But the thought they might give it back never crossed our minds. It was very gracious of Cornell.''
Very costly, too. Gone were the winning streak, the top ranking, the opportunity for prolonged preeminence. ``But that never entered our minds when we voted,'' says Drahos. ``I don't even think it was mentioned.''
Still, the Big Red fell flat in their finale against Penn, 22-20, so any pretense of perfection was dashed by two losses.
But no regrets. ``We were proud of what we did,'' says Matuszak, ``prouder of that than the unbeaten season. It was a matter of conscience. It was the right thing to do all around.''
And it was hailed all around. The strangest thing happened, Matuszak discovered. The consolation dwarfed the grand prize. In losing, the Big Red were saluted as national champions of honor. ``As the years went on,'' says Matuszak, ``nobody remembered the undefeated season. They refer to the fifth down.''
Would Dartmouth have handled it the same way had the circumstances been reversed? ``I think Blaik would've,'' says Crowley. ``He was a real Army man. There was only one way to do things: the right way. Blaik and Snavely were great coaches. Winning was everything, but they wanted it to be legal.''
That's coaching nobility. What of the Big Green players? ``Some would want to do it,'' says Crowley. ``Some wouldn't.''
But Cornell did do it, minus any moral guidelines. ``It came as something of a surprise,'' says Kelley. ``It was the first time in history anything like that had been done.''
It remains the only time in history it has been done. The question is whether it ever would be duplicated in today's big-time college marketplace of bloated egos and expectations. ``It's a little different now,'' says Crowley. ``There's a lot more money involved. You've got to win to keep your job.''
But at all costs, at the expense of your principles? Only the 1940 Big Red - 0-3 winners against Dartmouth - have provided the perfect answer.