The final Bowl Championship Series has shaken itself out with Florida State and Auburn the top two to fall into next month’s national championship game.
While FSU and AU represent the excesses of major-university athletics, tiny Cumberland University in Lebanon can claim victories over both schools, in its own way.
If you read Wednesday’s Democrat, you may have seen the obituary of Joe Black Hayes, who is best known for his decades of service as coach at Middle Tennessee State, where he started the Blue Raider wrestling and track & field programs while serving as the right-hand man to legendary football coach Bubber Murphy.
He also played guard and served as team captain for legendary coach Robert Neyland’s Tennessee Vols in the 1930s.
In between those two stops, Mr. Hayes spent three years in Lebanon at Cumberland, where he revived the football program from World War II only to watch school administrators shut it down again for what became a four-decade hiatus.
But his Bulldogs had some good moments during those three years.
I take you to 1947 when a band of football players from a school in Tallahassee, Fla., made its way to ancient Kirk Field, located at about the same spot as the modern-day Lindsey Donnell Stadium on the CU campus. That school had only recently gone co-ed after having been an all-women’s school for many years.
Cumberland defeated the team from Florida State 6-0. While any victory is nice, there probably wasn’t all the whooping and hollering over the game as there would have been later.
This FSU team was literally in its infancy. This was only its second game. According to a website I came across dedicated to the school’s football history, the team didn’t even get its nickname, Seminoles, until its third game, against Tennessee Tech.
The Seminoles went 0-5 in ’47, but turned around and went 7-1 the next year, starting with a 30-0 win over Cumberland in Tallahassee at Centennial Field. Their eventual longtime home, Doak Campbell Stadium, didn’t open until 1950. They won the first of three straight Dixie Conference championships in ’48 as they began their long climb toward college football’s summit.
Cumberland hoped to duplicate that feat some 15 years ago when a fledgling South Florida team came to Lindsey Donnell Stadium. But the Bulls, though in their first full varsity season, were already ranked in the NCAA I-AA [now FCS] poll and far better than Bulldog coach Herschel Moore had anticipated when he scheduled the game. USF whipped the Bulldogs 44-0 that day before an estimated 1,000 fans [less than 25 percent the size of the second smallest crowd to watch the Bulls that year and well below the 25,000-49,000 who watched them play in Tampa.
It was worse for Cumberland the following season in Tampa where the Bulls treated over 31,000 spectators to a 69-3 drubbing.
South Florida eventually joined the Big East Conference and eventually made its way to a national No. 2 ranking.
As for Auburn, the Tigers have never faced Cumberland – in football. But the Bulldogs have faced one AU’s best ever gridders in baseball.
Bo Jackson won the Heisman Trophy in 1985 [the trophy named for an early Auburn football coach who later put Cumberland in his own crosshairs while coaching Georgia Tech]. He was also a star baseball player coveted by Major League Baseball.
Shortly before becoming the top pick of the 1986 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jackson was in Auburn’s baseball lineup when Woody Hunt brought his Cumberland baseball team to the Friendliest Village on the Plains for a game against the Tigers.
Left-hander Sean Egan pitched the Bulldogs to a 3-1 win, holding Jackson 0-for-3 with a walk.
Jackson went on to become an all-star in both the NFL and MLB and even hit 29 home runs following hip replacement surgery to repair an injury which ended his football career.
The Bulldogs, in their first season of eligibility for NAIA postseason tournaments after returning to four-year status, won their conference that season and gradually became a small-college baseball power.
But all powers start small and Cumberland has seen the early stages of several of today’s giants.