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January 2, 1939
Robert Neyland was back for his second stint as the Tennessee head coach. He had first come to Knoxville for the 1926 season, and the way that the legendary Knute Rockne had built up Notre Dame, Neyland did the same with the Volunteers, forming a football power, but also one that seemed to always be in the shadows. During the nine successful seasons from '26-'34, Neyland guided Tennessee to a stellar record of 76-7-5, five times his teams were undefeated but tied once, and they enjoyed unbeaten streaks of 33 and 28 games. In fact, during the seven-year span starting in '27, the Volunteers compiled a record of 56-1-5, and of those 62 opponents, 42 were held scoreless. However, Neyland only claimed one conference co-championship ('27), and unfortunately, no national titles. The Army took him away in '35 for duty.
After a one-year hiatus, Neyland returned to Knoxville for the '36 season. His first two teams managed six wins in each campaign, but the Volunteers could not beat either Alabama or Auburn, who had passed Tennessee as the top teams in the league. In Neyland's third year back at the helm in '38, the young Volunteers were back. They went 10-0 in the regular season against a tough schedule by giving Clemson and Alabama their only losses of the season, and they beat an Ole Miss team that only lost one other game on the year, en route to capturing Tennessee's first Southeastern Conference title.
With quarterback George Cafego making their single-wing attack fire on all cylinders, and with halfbacks Bob Foxx and Babe Wood as terrific compliments, Tennessee racked up 276 points. All-American end Bowden Wyatt, who also handled the kicking chores, anchored a rock-solid line that also included tackle Abe Shires and guards Bob Suffridge and Ed Molinski. Meanwhile, the defense had posted seven shutouts and permitted only 16 points, allowing only six over their final eight games. Completing their schedule undefeated, Tennessee stretched their winning streak to 12 games and they were ranked #2 in the country in the Associated Press' final poll behind national champion Texas Christian (10-0), who were led by Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Davey O'Brien, as once again the Volunteers had fallen just a bit shy of the elusive title.
The coaching name most associated with the Oklahoma football program was Bennie Owen, who beginning in 1905 had coached for 22 seasons. He had compiled a 122-54-16 record over that span, and four of his teams went undefeated, '11, '15, '18 and '20, while two claimed conference championship, winning the Southwest Conference in '15 and then the Missouri Valley in '20. It was at the end of the latter season that Owen announced that he intended to raise $340,000 to build a 30,000-seat stadium, with the possibility for eventual expansion, and eight years later, his vision resulted in Memorial Stadium.
For the Sooners, 22 years of coaching stability had given way to a decade of instability, which had seen four different coaches direct the Oklahoma program. To succeed Owen, first came Adrian "Ad" Lindsey, who produced just two winning seasons in five and was probably best remembered as the coach who resigned quietly after failing to produce an overall winning team, leaving behind a 19-19-6 record in '31, and he moved on to coach Kansas. Next came Lewie Hardage, and he failed to produce a winner in three seasons, so after an 11-12-4 record, he was fired in '34, and he moved on become the backfield coach at the University of Florida.
It opened the door for Lawrence "Biff" Jones, who had never had a losing season in four years at Army ('26-'29) and three years at Louisiana State ('32-'34). His impact was immediate, as he rebuilt the athletic training department, organizing it to save thousands of dollars, and on the field he installed the Warner system of single and double wingbacks to strengthen the faulty Sooners running game. It produced a 6-3 record in '35, but after a 3-3-3 mark in '36, his 19-month tenure in Norman came to an end. He left Oklahoma originally because the Army decided to transfer him to Fort Leavenworth, KS, but an offer to head the Nebraska football program prompted Jones to resign from the Army and move up to Lincoln.
Meanwhile, during all the Sooners' coaching changes, the stock market crash in October of '29 had sent America deep into the Depression, but things were even worse than usual in Oklahoma. Combined with years of drought that turned the state into a wasteland of heat, dust and despair in the '30's, nearly half a million people had left and migrated west in search of work and better conditions. Amid the declining population though, the University of Oklahoma football team emerged to give people some hope.
The Sooners were now under the direction of second-year coach Tom Stidham, the tenth in their history. He came to Oklahoma to coach the line in '35 under Jones, and when the latter left, Stidham became the head coach for '37, posting a respectable 5-2-2 record in his rookie campaign. It set the stage for the '38 season.
The Sooners scored 185 points en route to running their winning streak to 14 games by posting a 10-0 record, undefeated and untied for the first time in 20 years, winners of their first-ever Big Six conference title to end Nebraska's three-year hold, and Oklahoma's first conference title since '20. Included was a 19-0 victory over former Sooners coach and seventh-year Kansas coach Lindsey back in October, and then Stidwell's 14-0 victory over former boss Jones and second-year Nebraska coach the following week. The Sooners' specialty was a defense led by end Frank Ivy, tackle Gilford Duggan, and All-American end Waddy Young, having yielded only 43.3 yards per game in '38 while recording eight shutouts and permitting only 12 points all season. For the Sooners, they were ranked #4 in the nation behind #3 Duke and a trip to their first-ever bowl game would be next.
Competition among the major bowls had been fierce to grab Oklahoma. Up against the Cotton, Sugar and Rose bowls, who reputedly were offering more guaranteed money to attract the Sooners, it took some marketing and public relations moves by the Orange Bowl committee's Earnie Seiler to bring the Sooners to Miami. He went to Norman and covered the campus with posters of palm trees and beaches, showed players photos of water and pretty girls, and left chalk messages to promote the game that read "On to Miami" and "See you at the 1939 Orange Bowl". It was a successful marketing approach, and after a stirring pep talk to the Oklahoma squad, they overwhelmingly voted to accept the bowl's offer over the other ones. Seiler then asked Stidham to call his friend Neyland to set up the match against Tennessee, and when the latter accepted, the fifth annual Orange had the game of the year between two undefeated national powers.
Including the other four bowl games on New Years Day, six of the nation's top seven teams would be in action. In the fifth annual Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, LA, #1 TCU would play #6 Carnegie Tech (7-1), under National Coach of the Year Bill Kern, and in the oldest one of them all, the 25th Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA that dated back to 1902 and had been played annually since '16, #3 Duke (9-0), undefeated and unscored upon all season, would square off against #7 Southern California (8-2). Out of the mix as usual was #5 Notre Dame (8-1), whose only loss came in their regular season finale at USC, 13-0, but the Fighting Irish had a tradition and policy of not participating in post-season games. And rounding out the slate were pair of games in Texas, where the third annual Cotton Bowl in Dallas had #11 Texas Tech (10-0) playing unranked St. Mary's (5-2), and the fourth annual Sun Bowl in El Paso paired New Mexico (8-2) opposite Utah (6-1-2).
The two-year old Orange Bowl Stadium had been built specifically for the New Years Day game, was dedicated on December 10, 1937, and was ready for the '38 Auburn-Michigan State game. But the match up that Seiler delivered for '39 led to such media and public interest that, for the first time, the demand for tickets was more than the bowl could accommodate. More than 10,000 requests were denied and despite a listed capacity of 22,050, over 32,000 fans jammed into the stadium.
In the game, Tennessee lived up to its billing as an opportunistic team and it's powerful ground attack was too much for the Sooners early on. In a rough contest, Oklahoma suffered a 15-yard penalty and Hugh McCullough punted to Cafego, who returned it 16 yards to the Sooner 27. Fullback Leonard Coffman made a dozen yards in three tries, and then Cafego crashed through tackle for 12 more, moving the ball to the three. A penalty moved it back before Foxx scored from eight yards out in the first quarter, and Wyatt's conversion made it a 7-0 lead. Later in the opening period, Coffman and Cafego led a 34-yard advance that stalled in Oklahoma territory.
But the Volunteers thwarted the Sooners' every move, waiting for another break. It came midway through the second quarter when Oklahoma's Bob Seymour was tackled hard and he coughed up the ball, and Tennessee's Bob Andridge recovered at the Sooner 27. Wood completed only one of four passes, as substitute Bob Ciphers grabbed a reception at the four, and then Wood lost five yards in two tries. Wyatt came back on to attempt a field goal, and with Sam Bartholomew holding the ball at the 22-yard line, Wyatt kicked it high over the crossbar, and the Volunteers capitalized on the miscue to increase their lead to 10-0,which is how the half ended.
After intermission, Cafego flipped passes to Wyatt and Foxx to move Tennessee to the Oklahoma 30, but could not convert. A scoreless third quarter gave Sooners players and followers some hope, but they were dashed in the final period.
Later in the game, Wood returned McCullough's punt 12 yards and then dashed 21 yards a moment later while eluding a cluster of Sooners, ran 14 yards around end, and rifled a 23-yard pass to Jim Coleman, moving the ball to the Oklahoma 19. From there, Wood counted on a touchdown run to cap the 73-yard drive, and Wyatt's extra point made it 17-0 in the final period.
For a while it appeared as if the game might end in open hostilities. Duggan was ejected from the contest for taking a swipe at Tennessee guard Ed Molinski. Meanwhile, for his part, Molinski was also banished for slugging away.
Only in the final minutes did the Sooners finally get under way and mount their only threat of the game. Bowled over by crushing blocks, they put their passing attack in high gear and moved the ball near the Volunteers' goal, but it there that the aerial attack failed, as Tennessee preserved the shutout, 17-0, crowning its unbeaten season.
Tennessee had dominated the game, racking up 197 yards on the ground, with Cafego gaining 114, and 260 in total offense, while Oklahoma could only manage 25 yards on the ground and 94 total. But it was a rough contest and a bruising victory to say the least, highlighted by fumbles and penalties, as the two teams combined for 25 penalties totaling 220 yards, with the two players being ejected. Out-weighed Tennessee proved that they could withstand that kind of a game. Nonetheless, the spectators had received their money's worth, and it was a game that propelled the Orange into a "major" bowl.
Source: Jeff Linkowski