Could college football start without every team? It has before

The coronavirus conversations aren’t that different from the ones that happened during World War II.
The Florida Gators went 3-7 in 1942 before pausing the football program the next year because of World War II.
The Florida Gators went 3-7 in 1942 before pausing the football program the next year because of World War II. [ University of Florida (1942) ]
Published May 13, 2020|Updated May 13, 2020

Although college football’s power brokers want every team and every conference to open the season together, they’re starting to acknowledge that ambitious goal might be impossible.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, NCAA president Mark Emmert and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick have suggested local coronavirus outbreaks or administrative disagreements could prevent uniform decisions on when, and even whether, to play in the fall.

A disjointed season would be complicated. It would test long-term relationships and legal agreements.

But it would echo the way the sport handled its last global existential threat: World War II.

As the United States’ involvement in the war entered its second full year, every school and state had to decide for itself whether it could, or should, field a football team for 1943.

Related: Florida Tech eliminates football because of coronavirus pandemic

The confusion raged for months in the SEC. Florida was out. LSU was in. Vanderbilt said it was out but ended up sort of in. And the push to play was led by SEC president Rufus C. Harris, who declared at a special executive meeting that big-time football “was dead as a dodo.”

That SEC offseason of uncertainty is comparable to what fans, players and decision-makers are going through today, summed up in the first line of an Associated Press story that ran in The Tampa Daily Times 77 years ago this month:

“If you’ve been wondering what about the football season next Fall, what do you suppose the colleges have been doing?”

• • •

Georgia Tech finished 3-0 in the SEC in 1943 and won the Sugar Bowl.
Georgia Tech finished 3-0 in the SEC in 1943 and won the Sugar Bowl. [ Associated Press (1943) ]

Questions about college football’s place during World War II began not long after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. In 1942, Mississippi’s State College Board considered but rejected a proposal to suspend the sport at Ole Miss and Mississippi State. But by early 1943, momentum was shifting the other way.

Rosters dwindled as more able-bodied would-be football players entered the military. If the nation’s focus was on winning the war, did it make sense for schools to spend limited resources training football players instead of the student body as a whole? Was it right to use gasoline and tires on football travel instead of supporting the war effort? And how should those factors be balanced with the much-needed morale boost sports could provide?

The conflicting ideas spilled into a pair of proclamations in March 1943. Though acknowledging the uncertainty around the sport, Harris, who also was the president of Tulane, said his expectation was “that we will have football, such as it is” and his team would field a program as long as it could find 11 people who wanted to play.

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“And I mean that literally,” he told the Nashville Banner.

That same day, Florida president John J. Tigert said he could return 11 players from a 3-7 team as he announced he was disbanding the program for the duration of the war.

Florida suspended its football program in 1943 because of World War II.
Florida suspended its football program in 1943 because of World War II. [ The Palm Beach Post ]

“I realize that the public morale must be kept up in war times, but the liabilities appeared to me to outweigh the assets in a crucial struggle such as the one we find ourselves engaged in,” Tigert said. “Nobody knows how long this war is going to last, and the quicker we concentrate upon winning it, the better it will be for us.”

Florida was the first SEC program to bail, but it wasn’t the last. Mississippi reversed its decision from the year before and spiked football in June. Vanderbilt was out, too.

“Confusion Reigns in Deep South as to ’43 Football,” read a summer headline in The Knoxville News-Sentinel.

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The confusion culminated with a late June special meeting in Atlanta about how wartime football could work in the SEC, if at all.

“Football as we have known it in the past — big-time football, subsidized football — is as dead as a dodo,” Harris told The Associated Press.

But the SEC, Harris said, had “worked too hard to build up a strong athletic conference to let it perish now.” Four SEC teams had just finished in the Top 10, including the champions of the Rose Bowl (Georgia), Orange Bowl (Alabama) and Sugar Bowl (Tennessee).

The league’s proposed solution: Freeze the 12-team membership through the war. Urge schools to play if they could but allow them to cancel or change their schedule as needed without penalty.

“Pre-war football just doesn’t exist today,” Harris told the International News Service, “but the Southeastern Conference believes in football.”

Collectively it did, maybe. Just not individually.

Within a week of the special meeting, Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky announced they were out.

• • •

The Florida Gators' return to football was front-page news in 1944, after a year off.
The Florida Gators' return to football was front-page news in 1944, after a year off. [ TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

When the 1943 season kicked off, Harris was right. It wasn’t the same.

The college football section of the website Sports Reference lists 76 teams participating nationwide in 1943, down from 121 the year before. The University of Tampa also sat out. Miami, after months of indecision, played.

The SEC shrunk to four full competitors: Georgia Tech (which finished 3-0 in the league and won the Sugar Bowl), Tulane, LSU and Georgia. After initially sidelining its team, Vanderbilt reversed itself in September for an informal five-game season.

Related: How the coronavirus pandemic has changed football recruiting

In the next few months, the SEC began to unfreeze. Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky announced they were bringing football back. Mississippi’s legislature was urging its schools to retake the field, too. Vanderbilt opted for one more informal season.

The Gators didn’t have a schedule lined up for 1944, nor did they know how many eligible boys would want to join the team. V-E Day — May, 8, 1945, the day Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies — was still 16 months away.

But by February 1944, Florida decided it couldn’t wait for the war to end. The Gators had to resume playing. They had to accept the new normal.

“(If) we don’t get back into football now,” Tigert told The Associated Press, “we’ll be down for years to come.”