’38 Duke team stole my heart

Thursday, September 17, 2009

When I was 10 years old in KCK, my parents ordered me to be a Kansas University fan. Neither had gone to college, but Dad drove Greyhound buses in Kansas and Missouri and, a la Don Fambrough, he liked the Kansans a lot better. The vaccination took; I wound up carrying a Jayhawk good-luck charm into war.

I read (newspapers) and listened (radio) to every smidgen I could get on KU and its sports. Basketball under Phog Allen produced numerous successes to relish. From 1935 to ’40, however, KU football under Ad Lindsey and Gwinn Henry had only a 15-33-4 record. I hardly noticed; I religiously followed the likes of Dick Sklar, Ed Phelps, Butch Hayes, John Peterson, Clarence Douglass, Lewis Ward, Ferrell Anderson, Don Pierce, Dave Shirk, Dick Amerine and Milt Sullivant.

But this Saturday’s visit by the Duke football team reminds me that in 1938 I cheated on my first love, KU, and also got hooked on a glamorous Blue Devil team that in its first nine games was undefeated, untied and unscored-upon. They had a superstar halfback, Eric Tipton, who ran, threw and kicked (punts and field goals). I couldn’t get enough data on coach Wallace Wade’s Wonders.

Heartbreak! My darlings went to the Rose Bowl (Jan. 1, 1939) and had Southern Cal beaten, at 3-0. A third-string USC back named Doyle Nave uncorked a miracle pass to star end Al Kreuger, and my invincibles fell, 7-3.

Kids often get so wrapped up in a team that it’s like losing a pet puppy when they fall. I sat by the radio and, at age 13, cried like hell. KU had gone 3-6 in ’38, and it had been easy to shift my allegiance to the Dukesters at least through the Rose Bowl. The agony of defeat lasted awhile.

Things have not gone too well for Duke in more recent times, including 0-11 records in 1996, 2000 and 2001 and 0-12 in 2006. But time was when the Blue Devils had national prominence. The coaching collisions of Wallace Wade and Tennessee’s Bob Neyland spawned legends. The Dukies had some brilliant seasons before they turned to sausage and Spam with that 0-11 in 2000.

I’m not sure I’ll ever have a non-KU football darling equivalent to that 9-1 club of ’38. You cannot overstate the all-around brilliance of tailback Eric Tipton, later a pro baseballer who eventually assisted in football and head-coached baseball at Army. One of the 1938 victories was 7-0 over Pitt when Pitt was also boffo. During that battle, Tipton had seven punts that stayed within Pitt’s own 10-yard line, while another seven kicks settled inside the 20. While he was there, Duke had a 25-4 record; he was the main reason … along with coach Wade, who had surprised people by moving to Duke from Alabama after he captured three national titles at ’Bama (1925, 1926 and 1930), each time after winning in the Rose Bowl.

Wade’s Alabama record was 51-13-3; his Duke tenure produced a 110-36-7. He said he went from ’Bama to Duke because he favored working with the bright youngsters at a private school.

Another oddity: Duke and Oregon State staged the 1942 Rose Bowl in Durham, N.C. The game was transplanted from Pasadena for security reasons after Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack. Duke lost, 20-16.

The ’09 Kansas footballers (564-543-58) are taking us back to glory days and hope to use Duke as another stepping stone to a 6-0 start. Duke comes here, at 449-459-31, with an illustrious history of its own.