By Michael Kruse
They spent the night before the game in the infirmary, and the snipes around town were that probably they’d have to stay there the night after the game, too.
On November 5, 1960, Davidson’s football team was in Blacksburg, Va., to play Virginia Polytechnic Institute, or VPI, now known as Virginia Tech. VPI was at the top of the Southern Conference standings, and Davidson was at the bottom. The Wildcats were considered such underdogs there wasn’t even a gambling line. A mismatch. The Observer down in Charlotte granted them no more than a “thread of hope”; The Davidsonian agreed that the team’s chances were “mighty slim”; and even Davidson coach Bill Dole told reporters it was “something
like 100 to 1.”
But before Lefty Driesell and the basketball victories of the ’60s, and before Rob Ukrop ’92 led the soccer team to the Final Four in his senior year, and before a phenomenal sophomore led the basketball team to the Elite Eight in ’08, there was this:
Davidson 9, VPI 7.
Now, 50 years later, the men who were on that team don’t all remember the same things the same ways, but they do remember one thing. They remember the showers. They shared a shower area with the guys from VPI, which was unusual, and they remember that after the game, those guys seemed more amazed than upset, some of them even almost laughing, looking over their smaller, slower, shorter counterparts from Davidson in stunned befuddlement.
How’d y’all do that?
It’s a good question. That day in Blacksburg was exactly 62 years after Davidson played its first intercollegiate football game, November 5, 1898, against the University of North Carolina in Latta Park in Charlotte. Davidson College Magazine reported that the students’ “enthusiasm knew no bounds” because their team lost by only 11. That feels right in retrospect.
In its first six-plus decades, Davidson football had to settle for moral victories most of the time. After World War II especially, when other schools started to spend more and more on their athletic programs, and football in particular, Davidson struggled to keep up. A debate simmered on campus. Usually the students and alumni wanted Davidson to do and spend whatever was necessary to have “big time” football, and the faculty and administration did not.
President John Cunningham dismissed the sport as “a nonessential” and an “agitation” and said only a vocal minority of “eager beaver” alumni and trustees were “obsessed with the idea of bigger and better football.” There were, he believed, “much more important and urgent matters in the life of the college.”
“We must be frank and factual about the problem as it confronts us,” he said in 1954 in a speech to a student group. “It is not fair to a student body or to the morale of an institution to place it in a position where it must almost constantly be on the losing side of the ledger.”
The football players heard this talk. Their coach discussed it with them. “Coach Dole,” Kent Tucker ’63 says now, looking back, “was very much aware that football was not real high on the list of things the college was big on.”
“He’d tell us, ‘If we don’t get this program going, they’re going to drop football,’” Grant McRorie ’62 says. “There was a real feeling that the school didn’t want football. That was in the air all the time.” “We fought that the whole time I was there,” Bob McAllister ’62 says. “It was expensive to field a football team. We were out-scholarshipped. We were outmanned.”
The Wildcats actually managed to string together some satisfactory seasons in the mid-’50s, but by ’59 they had slumped back to one win in nine games and an 0–5 record in the league. Dole was hopeful, though, heading into the ’60 season. He had a few small but fast runners. His linemen were a little light but plenty tough. He thought his defense could be pretty good. In August, before classes started, he gathered his team for practices in hot, quiet Davidson.
Men, he told them, we can beat every opponent on our schedule this year, except one.
The season did not start well. Going into Blacksburg, Davidson had won only one game and lost four, and that one win had come against Catawba. VPI, meanwhile, had won five games and lost only two, and those two losses had come against Clemson and North Carolina State. Davidson had lost to Richmond 20–0. VPI had beaten Richmond 35–6. Davidson had no players who would get drafted by the pros. VPI had three. VPI, Dole told his team, was the biggest, strongest, best team they’d play, five, maybe six touchdowns better than they were.
But the coach had a plan.
Dole, who had a master’s degree from New York University, wasn’t much of a rah-rah locker room yeller and screamer. He believed in preparation over pep talks. His players didn’t always agree with him, they didn’t even always like him, but they respected him. So they listened.
The plan, he told them that week in practice, was to simplify and shorten, to scrap his relatively complex offense and to use just a handful of running plays and even fewer passing plays, and to take as much time as they could running them. They worked that week in practice not only on their plays but on killing time in the huddle.
“We practiced holding the ball,” Michie Slaughter ’63 remembers.
“The longer we had the ball, the less time they could have the ball,” says Grant McRorie, “and we could keep the score down.”
“That,” Bob Cordle ’63 says, “was our best chance to win the game.”
Today, the men admit it’s a bit of a stretch to say they thought about winning. The strategy, they thought, really was a way to keep the score down to lose by a more respectable margin. “We just didn’t want to embarrass ourselves,” Scott Lacy ’61 says.
“I believe Coach Dole had no hope of winning that game, at all,” says Lynwood Mallard ’62. “I think the idea was to go up there and maybe not get run off the field, maybe lose 28–7, something like that.” They boarded the bus on Friday and started up Highway 21 and crossed the state line and wound through the hills of southwestern Virginia on the back roads toward Blacksburg. Some slept. Some studied. Some sang a popular song called Mister Custer.
Please, Mr. Custer, I don’t wanna go
Hey, Mr. Custer, please don’t make me go
I had a dream last night about the comin’ fight …
Please, Mr. Custer, I don’t wanna go!
Says Sonny Fraley ’62: “It seemed to fit the situation.”
On that bus, though, were a good number of guys who missed practices on Monday afternoons because they were pre-med and Monday afternoons were for Chemistry labs. On that bus were guys who would not have been able to afford to go to Davidson except for their football scholarships and who were helping their parents by getting their educations paid for and who felt like men because of it. On that bus were guys who would go to law school and business school and seminary and the jungles of Vietnam, and guys who would be deacons of churches and volunteers for Habitat for Humanity and surgeons for children near death.
The day of the game was rainy, windy, and gray, say those who were there. The temperature was 50 degrees. The VPI band played the Mickey Mouse song when Davidson’s team ran out onto the field.
Before kickoff, Dole all but apologized to his team, saying he didn’t expect them to win but he did expect them to go out there and do their best. That, many of the men remember, made them less anxious, and created an unexpected resolve. “It was a quiet kind of thing,” Jennings Snider ’61 says. “The thought was, ‘They may win, but they aren’t going to get any yards at my end,’ and it seemed like everyone else made that same internal decision.”
On VPI’s f irst drive, Davidson’s defense held, three plays and that was it. VPI had to punt.
The ball carried in the wind over Bob Cordle’s head and he ran back and picked up the ball and got hit by one tackler high and another tackler low. VPI guys hit hard.
Game on, he thought.
Bill Salzer ’62 took an elbow over one of his eyes and it bled. His classmate Bruce Usher took a hit to the head so hard his helmet split. What the men from Davidson remember thinking 50 years later, though, is that early on, and for much of the first half, the VPI team was big on confidence and short on effort.
“I remember offensive linemen coming back to the huddle and saying, ‘These guys aren’t ready to play football,’” Duncan Morton ’62 says. It was Homecoming that weekend. “Who knows,” Lynwood Mallard says, “what they did the night before?” For the Davidson players, though, it was hard not to notice. “Guys would come back to the sidelines and you didn’t believe what they were saying. They were saying, ‘We can beat these guys.’”
They were blocking them. Tackling them. Running on them, sweeps, draws, handoffs to the fullback. Simple. Tick tick tick. “It was better than we expected,” says Bob McAllister, “and we thought, ‘Let’s pick it up here. Maybe we can.’”
Davidson scored first.
Thomas “Tee” Redding ’61, in for the Wildcats at quarterback, was skinny and didn’t have a great arm but was smart. Danny House ’61, the Wildcats’ best receiver, wasn’t that fast but had a deceptive stride and could catch about anything thrown his way. On the 12th play of a 76-yard scoring drive, the Wildcats faked a run, and then Redding lofted the ball to the left of the end zone where House was open between two defenders. It was the only pass Redding threw that afternoon and the first touchdown pass VPI had given up all season long.
It was the second quarter, and the score was Davidson 7, VPI 0.
After halftime, VPI’s players were much more alert, the men from Davidson remember, but they also were growing visibly frustrated. “You could hear them fussin’ at each other,” Bob Morrison ’63 says. “You could see them over there fretting about it, and they were catcalling us,” Michie Slaughter says. “These guys were saying things like, ‘Come on, play like a man.’ They were accusing us of playing chicken by not playing the game at their pace. But the more frustrated they became, the more we saw the strategy working, and the more fun it became.”
Davidson scored again.
It started with a punt. Jerry Sheffield ’62 got ready to boot it from around midfield. “It was into a wind so I kicked it end over end,” he says. “I figured a spiral might float. It was about like a quick kick.” Mike Owen ’63 sprinted down the right side of the field, Danny House sprinted down the left, and John Crute ’61 sprinted straight down the center. The VPI return man picked up the ball near the goal line and first went left and then tried to cut back but was tackled in his own end zone by Owen, House, and Crute for a safety.
It was the third quarter, and the score was Davidson 9, VPI 0.
Here, though, in the fourth quarter, was where the undermanned Wildcats typically got tired and worn down. They often faltered in the end. Not this time. VPI scored one touchdown. VPI scored a second, in fact, but it was called back because of a penalty call. Grant McRorie on defense knocked away a VPI pass in the end zone that would have been the game-winner. VPI dropped some passes, too, “but there was some kind of karma in the air,” Duncan Morton remembers. And finally Jerry Sheffield intercepted a pass during one last VPI drive. Davidson finished with 14 first downs and VPI had 10. Davidson finished with 254 total yards and VPI had 191. The “100 to 1” won the stats, and the game.
Dole called his wife from a pay phone at the stadium. In the showers, Bob Cordle and Alex Gibbs ’63 climbed onto a scale and didn’t crack 300 pounds combined, and a husky VPI lineman walked by and shook his head. Back in the infirmary, Bill Salzer got stitches above his eye with no Novocaine. He made no noise, even though it hurt, and Jennings Snider stood beside him and held his hand.
The bus pulled into campus near where the library is now around 10 that night. “There were actually students jumping up and down and cheering when we got back,” Grant McRorie says. “The whole campus was up,” Michie Slaughter says, “banging on the side of the bus, hooting and hollering.” “We were just swamped by students,” Russ Cotton ’61 says, “crawling all over everybody.” Bruce Usher lived in town in a room in a house owned by a woman in her 70s. He saw her in the crowd. People gathered over in the union, and Dole and President Grier Martin addressed almost half the student body and said this was the biggest win in the history of Davidson football.
The Charlotte Observer would write that “the legs and the arms and the body are capable of some surprising things, if the heart so commands.” The Roanoke Times would write that Davidson “rose up from the mud to gridiron greatness.” The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce would honor the Wildcats, and Jerry Sheffield would be named the Southern Conference Player of the Week.
That night, though, he and a bunch of his teammates drove out of dry Davidson and went up to Hattie’s in Mooresville and drank some quarter-a-bottle Buds.
How’d y’all do that?
It’s still a good question. They say today that they were prepared. They had a plan. They say they did the best they could and on that day that was enough. Fine answers. But better answers, maybe, show in the lives of the men over these last 50 years.
Some of them who were on that team are dead by now. Cecil Holcomb. Tom Simpson. Wiley Dees. Tee Redding. Dave Lovette. The obits are of Army vets and Sunday school teachers and fathers of children who’ve gone to Davidson, too.
Some of the rest of them are retired. Some of them are still working. Mike Owen was the president of the Florida Association of Realtors. Michie Slaughter was the president of the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. Jerry Sheffield was the president of a bank in Florida. Russ Cotton was a principal and a school superintendent. Ed Crutchfield ’63 was the CEO of First Union. Bob Morrison was an Episcopal priest. Kent Tucker ’63 is a dentist. Joe Ansley ’63 is a doctor. Duncan Morton is a surgeon. Bob Cordle and Bob McAllister and Lynwood Mallard are attorneys. Dick Voorhees ’63 is a federal judge in Charlotte. Sonny Fraley works for a multinational grocery company. Bruce Usher is the director of the cardiology training program at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Alex Gibbs is a coach for the Seattle Seahawks of the National Football League. His peers consider him one of the best offensive line coaches in the history of the sport. He seldom talks to reporters, fueling his reputation as this mysterious, taciturn football guru, but the league makes people talk before Super Bowls, and before one of the two he won with the Denver Broncos he revealed some of his philosophy: Don’t give me high draft picks. Don’t give me the extravagantly paid. Don’t give me superstars. Give me the smart and the curious, he said, even if they’re small. Give me guys who can communicate and learn. Give me, he said, “guys who’ve been cut somewhere else.”
“Excellence,” Michie Slaughter says now, “is not a function of size and numbers. It’s not always about brute strength.”
“You don’t win the game just by throwing your jock out onto the field,” says Bob Cordle.
“You’ve got to stand up,” Mike Owen says.
Jennings Snider was a financial planner. He has run two miles a day every day for the last 45 years. He’s run at the foot of the pyramids in Egypt. He’s run through cities in Europe. Sometimes, he says, you’re going to run in the rain. Sometimes you’re going to run when you’re sick. “Sometimes,” he says, “it hurts to run.”
But you run.
Michael Kruse ’00 is an award-winning staff writer for St. Petersburg Times, contributor to Charlotte Magazine, and the author of Taking the Shot: The Davidson Basketball Moment.