Gridiron greats of long ago
An in-depth look into AU's 17-year history of football from 1926 to 1943
The roar of the crowd, the cheers from the sideline, the ball goes up ... and into the hands of the receiver. Touchdown! For just under 20 years, this was a common sound on campus, but football is now reserved to the television screen.
Ever wonder about AU's long lost Football team? It seems like it never happened, but not long ago football players once wore an Eagles uniform. Emerson College organized AU's first intercollegiate football team in 1926. Only 11 players joined the squad that year, with captain William James Birthright as its leader.
Under the guidance of Head Coach George Baillie Springston, the team finished with a record of 4-3-1. In the four wins AU shut out Emerson, Devitt, Shenandoah and Bridgewater.
The 1928 schedule proved to be tougher, with AU's record strarting at 1-5-1. The Eagles defeated Bridgewater on Nov. 3, 1928, recording the single win. Tight end Don Bittinger led the team as captain and was described as giving a "credible performance in every game of the season," according to the AUCOLA, which was AU's yearbook at the time.
In 1929 the squad grew in size with 21 players and competed in five games. The team finished with a record of 2-3, defeating Shenandoah and George Washington University, which was AU's biggest rival.
Captain Crist rallied his team when they hosted GW on Oct. 12, 1929, challenging his teammates, "Do you want a winning football team? All right, you show the winning spirit ..."
The Eagles defeated GW, 8-0. The highest score of the season occurred on Oct. 5 when AU shut out Shenandoah at home, 51-0.
Head Coach Walter Young was the first full-time coach, while fulfilling the role as Athletic Director, a common trait among coaches of the time. That season "football took on new meaning," Young said of the 1930 squad.
The 1930 football campaign (2-4-1) ended on a sour note similar to the year before with a losing season. The team defeated Shenandoah and Shepherd University, but the losses were by a considerable margin. AU remained scoreless against Catholic University and Atlantic University, tallied six points against St. John's and Gallaudet and tied High Point University, 6-6. A large loss unfortunately came at the hands of Catholic, 30-0.
In 1930 the squad attempted to build on the losing seasons. It recruited three more players, bringing the number to 24 players, and two managers, who were Yule Fisher and Harry Moffett. However, the season still ended on a losing note, 2-4-1.
The two wins were at home over Shenandoah, 14-12, on Sept. 27 and Shepherd, 6-0, on Oct. 4.
In 1931 the Eagles dealt with rough patches right from the beginning under Young's coaching ability.
"There wasn't a victory in the lot - not even a moral one - but the men who comprised the team gained the one thing they most sadly lacked - experience," Young said, according to AUCOLA.
Not only did the team have its toughest schedule since 1926, they lost valuable players. Star tight end Forrest Diehl was unable to return to college after a previous injury, and Edward Parke was called upon to take his place. Parke filled Diehl's shoes with no problem and "in the first few games proved to be the main stay of the backfield," according to AUCOLA. Unfortunately, he was forced out of the rest of the season with two bruised ribs, never to return.
The 1934 squad was the largest since 1930 with 19 players, and all but three of the men were new students to AU. Fortunately, most of the freshmen played on the first string at their high schools.
Head Coach Young hired assistant George Menke and led the team to third place in the Chesapeake Conference. With a 2-4 record, the Eagles beat Bridgewater, 25-16, and Gallaudet, 31-7.
Menke presented the Silver Cup to Stafford Cassell as outstanding player of the year. This award was presented each year with the winner's name engraved on it.
Gus Welch was hired as the new Athletic Director and football coach in 1937. The lone win of the season (1-6-1) was against Bridgewater, 13-0, in their first game on Oct. 2, 1937.
Welch nicknamed his team "AU's birdmen" in 1938 in hopes to lift the players' spirits, yet the season still ended on a losing note, 1-4. St. John's lost to AU, 21-0, providing AU its only victory.
However, the football team hit rock bottom in 1939, when the team lost every game. George Menke was named head coach with nine returning players on an 11-man squad.
Menke blamed the "lack of material" for their record of 0-4.
Then, in 1941 former player Stafford Cassell was hired to coach the team and as Athletic Director. He led the team to its first victory since 1938 over Junita College in Pennsylvania, 20-12.
Football ended at AU in 1943. According AUCOLA, there were "only a handful of men left on campus - only enough for basketball."
The football dream was still alive on campus in 1946 when "We Want Football!" appeared on the basketball page of AUCOLA. However, from 1947 on, there was no mention of the sport.
Some current AU students believe a football team should be reinstated on campus.
"I think a football team would be great because it would attract a different type of student," senior Kim Babbitt said. "But I can't imagine where AU would start with recruitment or field space."
On the other hand, some students are more apprehensive.
"I wish [AU had a football team] because of my personal interest," said Student Confederation President Nick Terzulli. "But I don't think it will fit with the student body."
Eagle Staff Writer Keith F. Shovlin contributed to this report.