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In 1943, Missouri’s Don Faurot nearly won a national title ... by beating Missouri

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Iowa archives

It is the hallmark of great Missouri football coaches: coming up just short of a national title. Dan Devine came within a single win of the 1960 national championship, while Gary Pinkel twice came within about a quarter and a half of the title game.

Don Faurot, meanwhile, also came up just shy of a ring. He just did it with a different team, and in the middle of his Missouri tenure, no less.

From Bob Broeg’s Ol’ Mizzou: A Story of Missouri Football, recalling the seconds after one of Missouri’s biggest wins, a 7-0 defeat of the Iowa Pre-Flight all-star team to close the 1942 season:

Seconds after the final gun, Missouri players hoisted Coach Faurot onto their shoulders and then unceremoniously dumped him into the deepest snowbank. For the Old Master of Ol’ Mizzou, then a young man of 40, this was the end of an era. Turning around Missouri’s miserable football fortunes, he had fielded three championship teams and two bowl squads the last four years, during which the Tigers had gone 30-10-1, and he might have rolled on and on.

But, now, his brother Bob, punter and blocking back on that championship team of 1939, was missing in action as a pilot in the South Pacific. Faurot, who despite his age and the handicap of his stub fingers had set a record on military-style obstacle course on the campus, wanted to get into service. [...]

So Faurot went off to service, making a striking figure, tall, trim, and bronzed in naval officer’s blues. Assigned to coach football, he served at Iowa Pre-Flight and Jacksonville (Florida). Everywhere he went he taught and coached the Split-T, especially to a couple of bushytailed young assistants, Jim Tatum and Bud Wilkinson.

Meanwhile, back at Missouri, Faurot’s first assistant, Chauncey Simpson, aided by old Tiger hero Herb Bunker, carried on gallantly. At a time when some 350 colleges gave up football for the duration, Ol’ Mizzou and the Big Six decided to play.

Faurot instructs a cadet
Don Faurot instructs a cadet
Iowa archives

The rest of this post is an extended excerpt the 1943 Iowa Pre-Flight chapter of my second book, The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time. I didn’t figure there was any point in rewriting what I’ve already written.

Deception was long a part of football offenses, but options weren’t. The premise of the Split T was to begin with your run-of-the-mill T formation and spread out the line further, giving them wider splits. Once the defense was spread out, you could find more gaps to exploit with speedy ball-carriers. But Faurot, once a basketball letterman at Mizzou, also saw a way to basically create miniature, 2-on-1 fast breaks. The QB could run the ball to the edge of the defense, and if a defender committed to tackling him, he could pitch the ball to a trailing halfback.

Faurot may have been the first college football coach to commit to option football. With film study still at a minimum, Missouri was able to constantly fluster unprepared opponents with it. He unveiled the offense in the second half of the 1941 opener against Ohio State, and while it was too late to help the Tigers against the Buckeyes in a 12-7 loss, the Tigers would proceed to go 16-4-1 over the next two seasons, 9-0-1 in Big 6 play. They reached the Sugar Bowl in 1941 and went 8-3-1 in 1942; their only losses were to a great Wisconsin team, Great Lakes Navy, and the Fordham team that had seen them the year before in the Sugar Bowl. They finished the 1942 season with one of the most impressive wins of the Faurot era: a 7-0 win over the Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks in a Kansas City snowstorm.

With war efforts well underway, college-age males — including football players — were enlisting in the armed services.

Hostilities in Europe and Asia merged into one single World War in 1941, and after longstanding attempts to avoid combat, the United States officially joined the fray in December following Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor. Millions of Americans enlisted in 1942, and to say the least, the effects were noticeable when it came to football rosters of able-bodied, athletic 18- to 22-year olds.

Football already had a grip on the country’s consciousness, and many believed that it could be a useful tool within the armed forces – it helped to toughen men up, taught teamwork and discipline, etc. Beginning in 1942, teams from various Army camps and Navy bases began to play full schedules against not only each other, but also against local college teams, many of which consisted of freshmen (who were previously ineligible to play) and/or players who were denied entry into the service for one reason or another.

These military teams frequently consisted of recent college football players and sometimes even included a smattering of pros. Quite a few of these teams existed, and a few played schedules against mostly top-division schools. Here are the primary military teams from the years of 1942-44:

1942: Georgia Pre-Flight (7-1-1), North Carolina Pre-Flight (8-2-1), Jacksonville Naval Air Station (9-3), Great Lakes Navy (8-3-1), Iowa Pre-Flight (7-3), St. Mary’s Pre-Flight (6-3-1)

1943: Iowa Pre-Flight (9-1), March Field (9-1), Great Lakes Navy (10-2), Del Monte Pre-Flight (7-1), Georgia Pre-Flight (5-1), Fort Riley (6-2-1), Coast Guard (6-3), Alameda Coast Guard (4-2-1), St. Mary’s Pre-Flight (3-4-1), N.C. Pre-Flight (2-4-1), Camp Grant (2-6-2)

1944: Randolph Field (12-0), Norman Naval Air Station (6-0), Iowa Pre-Flight (10-1), Great Lakes Navy (9-2-1), March Field (7-2-2), Second Air Force (10-4-1), Alameda Coast Guard (4-2-2), Amarillo Field (5-3), Lubbock Field (5-4), Fort Warren (5-4-1), St. Mary’s Pre-Flight (4-4)

The effect on college football was like scabs playing during an NFL strike.

College football typically employs heavy oligarchical tendencies – the sport’s ruling class consists of teams that remain strong from generation to generation, and it is incredibly difficult to break into that ruling class.

The oligarchy is real, but as enlistment continued to grow and more of these military service teams began to field teams, up became down and left became right when it came to who ruled the sport. In 1943, for instance, teams like Nebraska, Pittsburgh, TCU, Yale, Wisconsin, and Georgia were all varying degrees of awful, while Iowa Pre-Flight, Great Lakes Navy, Del Monte Pre-Flight, March Field, and even Bainbridge Naval Training Station (which only played one top-division team: Maryland) finished ranked in the AP poll at the end of the season. Meanwhile, non-powers Tulsa, Dartmouth, Colorado College, and Amos Alonzo Stagg’s Pacific also finished ranked.

It was the same story in 1944: Nebraska, Florida, and California were bad. Iowa, sharing its Iowa City facilities with the Iowa Pre-Flight squad (which, for obvious reasons, probably got some preferential treatment) was awful. But Randolph Field finished third, Bainbridge NTS finished fifth, and Iowa Pre-Flight finished sixth. El Toro Marines finished 16th, Second Air Force 20th. It might seem strange that an all-star team with some pros could be eligible for the national title, but special circumstances were special circumstances. [...]

After beating Iowa Pre-Flight in 1942, Don Faurot took over Iowa Pre-Flight.

These service teams were coached by real, well-known college football coaches. Minnesota’s Bernie Bierman, for instance, led the Iowa Pre-Flight team in 1942. When he was assigned elsewhere, another new enlistee took the reins in Iowa City: the 41-year old Faurot. Mizzou’s head man spent a year with Iowa Pre-Flight, then took over Jacksonville N.A.S. in 1944. [...]

Iowa Pre-Flight damn near won the national title in 1943.

The Split T may have been originally designed with underdog tactics in mind, but Faurot’s Seahawks had talent superior to most of their Midwestern foes in the fall of 1943. With another point or two in South Bend, there might be another, different colored national title banner hanging somewhere in or around Kinnick Stadium.

Pre-Flight’s season began with a 32-18 cruise at Illinois in front of 8,500 fans. As was their custom, the Seahawks built an easy halftime lead (26-6 in this instance), then eased up. Dick Todd, a former Texas A&M Aggie and Washington Redskin, scored on a 51-yard run and threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Clemson’s Bob Timmons. Boston College grad and 1942 Chicago Bear rookie Frank Maznicki also scored.

The next exhibition was in Columbus. In front of 29,496 in the Horseshoe, Iowa took on an Ohio State team that a) won a share of the mythical national title in 1942 and b) returned virtually nothing from that team. A bunch of freshmen in the scarlet and gray had little to offer against the mighty Seahawks. Todd threw two more touchdowns to Timmons and rushed for a 37-yard score; it was 21-0 at halftime, 28-13 after 60 minutes. It was technically Ohio State’s first season-opening loss since 1894 – and it was the only time Faurot would beat Ohio State during his decade of trips to Columbus – but that only sort of counted.

On October 2 in Ames against Iowa State, 10,000 fans watched the Seahawks ease out to only a 19-7 halftime lead. But Iowa scored to start the third quarter and cruised, 33-13. Maznicki scored another four touchdowns. Staying in state the next week, they took on Iowa in the teams’ shared home stadium. Michigan State’s Richard Kieppe scored twice, and Maznicki threw another touchdown pass. The Seahawks rolled to a 19-0 halftime lead and won, 25-0.

Next came the most awkward game on the schedule. A crowd of 12,000 in Kansas City watched Missouri give its head man a serious fight. Only a missed PAT separated the two teams — Iowa Pre-Flight 7, Mizzou 6 — heading into the fourth quarter, but eventually the Seahawks’ depth was too much. Two late scores gave them a comfortable 21-6 win.

As the calendar began to flip from October to November, former Marquette star Art Guepe, scorer of the Hilltoppers’ lone touchdown in a 1937 Cotton Bowl loss to Sammy Baugh and TCU, began to take over. He scored early in a 19-2 rout of Fort Riley, and against his alma mater on a muddy Sunday in Milwaukee, he rushed 14 times for 145 yards. He set up Iowa’s first touchdown, raced 67 yards for the second, and burst around right end for a 19-yard score as well. It was 20-0 in the first quarter, and the only thing that kept it as close as 34-19 at halftime was a pair of kick return scores from Marquette’s Paul Coupolus. Still, the outcome was obvious. Iowa scored a couple of times in the fourth quarter and rolled, 46-19. Total yardage: Seahawks 470, Hilltoppers 46.

Against Camp Grant on November 13, Illinois star Jimmy Smith scored on a lateral from Maznicki, then Todd threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Timmons. An interception by linebacker and Chicago Cardinal Vince Banonis set up the third touchdown and gave the Seahawks a 21-0 halftime lead. However, on this one occasion, letting the foot off the gas almost backfired. Camp Grant scored twice in the second half, cutting the score to 21-13 midway through the fourth quarter. In the end, a 28-yard Guepe score put the game away, 28-13.

Iowa Pre-Flight’s 1943 schedule featured plenty of schools that tended to field strong football teams – Ohio State, Iowa, Missouri, etc. Still, because of roster depletion, the Seahawks’ schedule had not, to date, been nearly as strong as the 1942 slate that featured 7-3 Michigan, 7-2-2 Notre Dame, 9-1 Ohio State, and 8-3-1 Missouri.

It had a spectacular Notre Dame squad in the second-to-last game, though. The fortified Irish were 8-0 and boasted both the 1943 Heisman winner (Angelo Bertelli) and the eventual 1947 Heisman winner (Johnny Lujack, who would have his career interrupted by two years of Navy service). They had torn through an eight-win Georgia Tech team by 42, whipped Army by 26 in the Bronx, and handed Michigan and Navy their lone respective losses by a combined score of 68-18. This was a wrecking machine, and in front of 45,000 in South Bend, Faurot’s Seahawks fought Notre Dame to a virtual draw.

A Guepe touchdown produced the only points of the first half; the second quarter ended with Notre Dame at the Seahawks’ 4, unable to get off one last snap. The angry Irish opened the second half with a quick, easy, 64-yard drive, finishing it with a three-yard plunge by Bob Kelly. With the game tied at 7-7, Lujack lost a fumble late in the quarter, however, and Todd opened the fourth quarter by finding Dick Burk for a touchdown.

Unfortunately, the extra point drifted and pinged off the right upright. A 13-7 lead didn’t feel nearly as safe as 14-7. Sure enough, Notre Dame quickly drove 55 yards for a score – Todd was knocked out of the game with a broken jaw on the drive – and a true PAT gave the Irish a one-point lead, 14-13.

Iowa wasn’t quite done. Guepe connected with California’s Perry Schwartz to advance to the Irish 11, but an eventual field goal attempt fell short. (Place-kicking was so much more of a crap shoot, and so much more of a potential advantage or disadvantage, decades ago.) Schwartz recovered a fumble in the final minutes, but a series of desperation passes couldn’t find their mark. Notre Dame survived. The Irish would go on to win the national title, despite a loss the following week to 10-2 Great Lakes Navy.

The season ended with what seemed like it should be a heavyweight battle: Iowa Pre-Flight at Minnesota. But without Bierman and much of the roster, the Gophers were distinctly average. They went 5-4 in both 1942 and 1943 and went 5-3-1 in 1944. They were no match for what was now an angry Faurot squad. In front of 18,000, Minnesota put together a decent early drive but lost a fumble via bad snap deep in Iowa territory. The Seahawks drove straight down the field and scored on a five-yard Smith run. The score was only 6-0 at halftime, but Guepe ripped off a 53-yard touchdown run on the second play of the third quarter, then scored on a 66-yarder two minutes later. Iowa was forced to keep playing beyond halftime, unlike many of the games that season, but the result was eventually the same: The Seahawks’ season ended with a 32-0 win.

By the end of 1943, the Axis powers were in retreat. The tide of World War II had slowly turned. But young men were continuing to train for combat into 1944, and service teams would hit the gridiron again in 1944. While Randolph Field would finish third in the polls that fall, that squad was beating mostly other service teams and depleted Rice, Texas, and SMU teams.

Iowa Pre-Flight, though, got a shot at Notre Dame in 1943 and nearly felled the champ. When the war was over and Faurot, Wilkinson, and Tatum returned to spread the gospel of the devastating Split T, Iowa Pre-Flight got yet another opportunity to make a lasting impact on the sport.

It’s impossible to know what might have happened at Mizzou if the war hadn’t intervened. (It’s also impossible to care too much because football is about the 114,736th most pressing topic during war.) Regardless, Faurot proved his acumen even further in Iowa City and basically came up a kicker short of a ring. After beating Missouri.