West Virginia University’s football game against little Centre College of Kentucky on Saturday afternoon, Nov. 8, 1919, had the nice distinction of being the first WVU game played at recently completed Laidley Field. Back then, a Mountaineer game in Charleston was almost an annual thing, beginning in 1895 and continuing through 1949.
And by the way, the 1919 game helped elevate Centre College, a school in Danville with 203 students, to jaw-dropping national prominence. In addition, it allowed Charleston fans to see the Mountaineers’ Ira “Rat’’ Rodgers, a freakish athlete who would easily lead the nation in scoring that year and earn plaudits as college football’s greatest player.
Thanks to Laidley’s ample accommodations, the WVU-Centre game set a city record with a capacity crowd of 5,000, “the largest attendance at any sporting event in the history of the city,’’ the Gazette proclaimed. The Daily Mail said “5,000 of the most rabid football fans that ever perched in local stands looked on in wonderment.’’
It was a festive Mountaineer weekend. On Friday afternoon, the 57-piece WVU band paraded through downtown Charleston, playing “The Old Gray Mare’’ and “Hail, West Virginia,’’ and stopped for dinner at the Kanawha Hotel at Dickinson and Kanawha streets (now Boulevard). After dinner, the band members returned to the streets for more parading, making music as they went.
At halftime, fans poured onto the field and performed the snake dance, a fashionable and fun undertaking a century ago. Fans lined up single file, grabbed the waist of the person in front of them and, as the leader moved back and forth, went zigzagging across the field. All the while, the WVU band played “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here.’’
But the folks in attendance that day had no inkling of things to come. Centre College was slowly building an impressive resume and would successfully fend off charges of chicanery to secure a piece of the unofficial 1919 national football championship. And not the small-college stuff.
By season’s end, the Colonels, helped immeasurably by their 14-6 victory over the Mountaineers at Laidley, would rank up there with Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish and others.
Many decades later, sports statistician Jeff Sagarin of USA Today analyzed the scores, compared schedules of college football’s early years and concluded that Centre was the nation’s best team in 1919. The NCAA guide does not name a national champion for that season but lists the top five, alphabetically, as Centre, Harvard, Illinois, Notre Dame and Texas A&M.
And West Virginia, a school with 1,600 students, was nationally relevant, too. In a retro poll, the Mountaineers finished No. 12 in the nation with an 8-2 record. Highlighting their season was a stunning victory at Princeton, considered one of Eastern football’s “Big Three,’’ which included Harvard and Yale.
The Mountaineers outscored the opposition 319-52.
On the morning of the West Virginia-Centre game, the New York Tribune’s Grantland Rice, the most famous sports columnist of the 20th century’s first half and perhaps the most famous ever, wrote that Rodgers was clearly the nation’s best.
“There may be a greater all-around football player than Rodgers of West Virginia,’’ Rice wrote, “but no one has uncovered his name as November slides briskly along the autumnal trail. And it is likely no one ever will.’’
At a muscular 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, Rodgers was generally the biggest, fastest and most athletic player on the field, capable of running over and around people. And he frequently threw passes, defying the era’s emphasis on the ground game. He also kicked extra points and played defense at a time when the starting 11 players rarely left the field.
A nationally syndicated sportswriter called him “the greatest thrower of the forward pass that the game has developed.’’ Another writer described him as “a 200-pounder with the speed and agility of a track man.’’ Writing about his play in the Princeton game, the Louisville Times said, “He tore up the Tiger line.’’
A Bethany native and Walter Camp All-American, Rodgers captained the WVU football, baseball and basketball teams and graduated with honors with a degree in chemistry. He led the nation in scoring with 146 points — 19 touchdowns and 32 PAT kicks. The runner-up had 92 points. He also threw 11 touchdown passes.
In addition to praising Rodgers, Rice predicted a 16-0 Mountaineer victory over Centre, and the gamblers agreed, favoring WVU by 14, based largely on its Princeton victory a week earlier.
West Virginia’s 27 players had arrived by train in Charleston on Friday morning and were scheduled to work out at Laidley Field immediately after the Charleston High-Morris Harvey College game later that day. But after reaching the field and seeing dozens of fans wandering about, they suspected that spies might be roaming the premises and changed plans. They instead practiced at Kanawha Park at 35th Street and MacCorkle Avenue in Kanawha City, hidden behind the park’s high walls.
The Mountaineers were 5-1, having beaten Marietta 61-0, Westminster 55-0, Maryland 27-0, Bethany 60-0 and Princeton 25-0 but having lost to Pitt 26-0.
The Centre Colonels entered the game at 5-0, having beaten Hanover 95-0, Indiana 12-3, Xavier 57-0, Transylvania 69-0 and Virginia 49-7.
Centre averaged 171 pounds per man, and one of its running backs was listed at 128. The Mountaineers averaged a more robust 178. Nine of WVU’s starters were state natives, including Charleston’s “Bullet’’ Joe Silverstein.
With six minutes left in the first quarter of the Centre game, Rodgers scored on a 3-yard run to give the Mountaineers a 6-0 lead. On the previous play, Rodgers passed to Andrew “Rip’’ King of Franklin, Tennessee, to set up the touchdown.
The Mountaineers, helped by Rodgers’ play and his verbal inspiration, blanked the Colonels for the remainder of the half. He shouted “words of savage encouragement to his teammates,’’ reported the Daily Mail.
But the Colonels scored in the third and fourth quarters for their 14-6 upset victory, giving Kentucky newspapers reason to gloat. The Louisville Herald wrote: “This victory places Centre on a par with the country’s greatest football aggregations. For the first time, Kentucky is on the football map.’’
Added the Louisville Times: “[The victory] places Centre up at the top, along with the best in the country. Beating a team that swamped Princeton is enough to turn the trick and leave all the Eastern dopesters [gamblers] gasping for breath.’’
The New York Herald agreed: “Centre’s supremacy over the entire South is absolutely unimpeachable,’’ it said.
On that same day, Washington and Lee of Lexington, Virginia, pulled off a 3-0 upset of Georgia Tech, giving Centre the unofficial championship of the South. Charleston city officials then proposed that Centre and Washington & Lee play a postseason game at Laidley to determine the South supremacy. Officials pointed out that Centre and W&L had previously played in Charleston — on Nov. 29, 1900, on a field east of Bradford Street between Virginia and Lee streets. But the proposed postseason game never materialized.
Meanwhile, rumors began circulating that several Centre players were professionals and that at least one was playing under an assumed name. Four Centre starters, in fact, were freshmen from Fort Worth, Texas, adding to the intrigue.
Fairmont Times editor Earl Smith, a WVU grad, printed the charges from another newspaper. But after an investigation, everyone seemed satisfied that Centre had followed all eligibility rules. The Fairmont paper then printed a retraction, and Smith sent a letter of apology to Centre president William Ganfield.
WVU athletic director Harry Stansbury likewise defended the Colonels. “We harbor no suspicions,’’ he said, “about the eligibility of the Centre men.’’
After the victory over WVU, the Colonels continued to win, routing Kentucky 56-0, DePauw 56-0 and Georgetown, Kentucky, 77-7, for a 9-0 record and finished with 485 points to lead the nation.
Emboldened by their 1919 success, the Colonels played two of the nation’s powers in 1920 but did not fare well, losing at Harvard 31-14 and at Georgia Tech 24-0. The Colonels nevertheless finished with an 8-2 record, including a victory over Texas Christian in the Fort Worth Classic on Jan. 1, 1921.
Incidentally, they opened the 1920 season by defeating Morris Harvey College of Barboursville 66-0 in Danville. Fifteen years later, Morris Harvey moved to Charleston and in 1978 became the University of Charleston.
Centre’s enrollment now stands at 1,200, and the Colonels compete in the Division III Southern Athletic Association.
Mountaineer coach Mont McIntire, a New Martinsville native, WVU graduate and former West Virginia Wesleyan coach, did not attend the Centre game in Charleston. He believed his players would have no trouble against the Colonels, especially in light of their recent success at Princeton.
Instead, he traveled to Pittsburgh that day and scouted a future opponent, Washington & Jefferson, in its game against the Panthers. He left his two assistants, Kemper Shelton and Myron Fuller, in charge.
Later in the day, he learned of the 14-6 loss by telegram. Years later, he admitted he should have gone to Charleston.