College Football in a Pandemic: A Look Back to 1918

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by Bobby Pepper
photos courtesy of Associated Press, University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University Archives

Every college football season begins with a lineup full of questions that teams answer during the course of their schedule. Yet, as we approach the 2020 season, one daunting question stands out: Will there be a season?

 COVID-19 has created chaos over the college football landscape. Fearing the virus will spread between players, spectators and others surrounding the sport, teams and conferences have either canceled their seasons or postponed them to the spring.

 The Southeastern Conference, however, may be an exception. With a delayed start and a focus on a conference-only schedule, the SEC appears determined to play – giving fans in Oxford and Starkville something to cheer for under difficult circumstances.

 University of Mississippi and Mississippi State have had a season wiped out before – 1943, when the state College Board abolished football due to World War II. But in the fall of 1918, when the world was ravaged by a flu pandemic and World War I was coming to a close, the players in Oxford and Starkville still suited up for abbreviated seasons that didn’t begin until November.

 Mississippi State (known as Mississippi A&M in 1918) and Ole Miss were founding members of the SEC in 1932. Before then, they competed in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, along with the likes of Auburn, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, The Citadel, Wofford and Sewanee.

 Mississippi A&M saw a lot of SIAA teams opt out of the ’18 season, but the Aggies still managed to play five games with M.E. Kelly, a center, as team captain. A&M coach Stanley (Sid) Robinson spent most of the year in naval aviation service; he was able to return to the sidelines in time for the fourth game.

 “Never before have conditions been so unfavorable for football at A&M as during the season of 1918,” read the 1919 edition of the university yearbook, The Reveille. The yearbook noted that “widespread epidemic of influenza which continued throughout the month of October and not only prevented the playing of any games but made it extremely difficult to keep up even a semblance of practice.”

 Ole Miss got in only four games in ’18 under coach Dudy Noble. Yes, the same Dudy Noble who became a coaching legend at Mississippi State and whose name is affixed to the MSU baseball field. Halfback Edward H. Ray was team captain for Ole Miss, which didn’t go by the “Rebels” nickname until 1936.

 “With only five M men around which to build a team coach Noble, as is his wont, developed a combination which showed up extremely well against its more experienced rivals,” the Ole Miss yearbook read.

 With many of America’s young men serving their country, U.S. military bases and organizations began fielding football teams to take on collegiate programs. One such team was formed at Payne Field, a military airfield near West Point, and it served as the first opponent for both Ole Miss and A&M in 1918.

 A&M’s Aggies opened the season Nov. 2 at Payne Field and lost 7-6. The next week, Nov. 9, A&M shutout Camp Shelby 12-0 while Ole Miss traveled to Payne Field for its season opener and lost 6-0.

 On Nov. 16, five days after the end of “the Great War,” Ole Miss routed Union University 39-0 at home, and A&M suffered a 6-0 loss to Park Field out of Memphis.

 A&M and Ole Miss then wrapped up the season by doing something they’d never done before or since in their storied rivalry: play each other twice in the same year. There was no trophy to compete for, since the Battle for the Golden Egg series didn’t start until 1927.

 The first game was on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, in Starkville, and the second was Dec. 7 in Oxford. The Aggies shutout Ole Miss in both games, 34-0 in Starkville and 13-0 in Oxford.

 A&M reveled in beating its arch-rival.

“The ‘Lambs’ from ‘Ole Miss’ were led to slaughter under the watchful eyes of ‘Duddy’ Noble on Thanksgiving Day,” the Dec. 7, 1918, edition of A&M’s school paper, the College Reflector, reported. “Eleven ‘Cowboys,’ as the A and M team has been called by the ambitious youth who writes the athletic dope at The Mississippian, acted as the butchers, leading some to believe they were missing their vocation in the study of agriculture, engineering, etc.”

 The Aggies finished the season 3-2, Ole Miss 1-3.

 “Only one game out of the four resulted in a victory for Ole Miss yet the season can by no means be called a failure,” according to the 1919 Ole Miss yearbook.

 One of Ole Miss and A&M’s fellow SIAA schools, Georgia Tech, was the Alabama, Clemson and LSU of that era. Georgia Tech, led by legendary coach and trophy namesake John Heisman,  went 6-1 in 1918 – outscoring the opposition 466-32.

 During Georgia Tech’s 118-0 win over Furman that season, a photographer went into the stands at Atlanta’s Grant Field to snap a photo of fans wearing masks to protect themselves from the flu pandemic. The devastating outbreak would kill between 17 and 50 million people worldwide. In the U.S., about 28% of the population became infected. The U.S. death toll is estimated between 500,000 and 850,000. The photo has made a comeback this year to represent how sports might look when fans can return to the stadiums, ballparks and arenas during the coronavirus season.

 Here are more questions to ponder about college football in 2020: Will fans be allowed into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium or Davis Wade Stadium? Will there be social distancing in the Junction and the Grove? Will State fans use hand sanitizers after ringing their cowbells? Will Rebel fans color coordinate their masks to match their game-day outfits?

 It all goes back to one overall question: Will there be a season? It’s a big question that soon will be answered.

 The SEC wants to kick off the season Sept. 26. If the SEC is playing in the midst of an outbreak, the Rebels and the Bulldogs will be there. They’ve done it once before.


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