The Original Game of the Century - 1935's SMU vs. TCU

TCU and SMU are set to square off an Ford Stadium on Friday night. While we hate college game infringing on the sacred Friday night of high school football, we love the Iron Skillet game. It's the private school, metroplex showdown.But more than that, it's a deeply routed rivalry. 

In 1915, SMU fielded its first football team and their first game was a roadie in Fort Worth against TCU. TCU were and old hand in collegiate football, playing the game since the 1896.

The two teams would eventually each join the Southwest Conference, a fledgling startup with the likes of Phillips College, Oklahoma A&M, and Southwestern University. SMU joined in 1918 while TCU would wait until 1923. The league had issues. With no governing body, schools were able to schedule as the liked and they like scheduling local YMCAs, high schools, and even a Deaf and Dumb Institute. The league was generally considered a joke compared to the traditional powers in the Ivy, Big 10, and west coast teams. 

The TCU/SMU continued, only interrupted by the occasional World War. Neither team gained much notoriety or national attention. But in the 1930's both programs would become regional and eventually national powers.

TCU was dominate in the 30's posting an 83-23-8 during the decade.SMU, not to be outdone, went 64-39-9.  The two teams were scheduled to meet on November 30, of 1935 in Fort Worth.  It just so happened that both teams would enter the game undefeated. Both were known for their daring offensive exploits, a departure from the stodgy style played everywhere else. The press took notice. TCU was ranked the number one team in America and SMU ranked fourth.

At the time, the game was the biggest sporting event in the history of the state. It bears noting that in 1935 Texans were still almost 30 years from almost any professional sports franchise gracing the state. The NFL made a brief appearance in the form of the Dallas Texans, but they were a one and done franchise in 1952. The Cowboys and Oilers (and the second incarnation of the Dallas Texans, who later to become the Kansas City Chiefs) wouldn't play until 1960. The Rangers and Astros started up in '61 and '62 respectively. 

College football was King and the only game in town. 

 Dutch Meyer

Dutch Meyer

Heading into the 1935 season expectations were high at TCU. Dutch Meyer's 1934 team had finished 8-4 and they returned the best quarterback in college football, the Pride of Sweetwater, Texas - Sammy Baugh. Baugh actually signed on to play baseball at Washington State of all places as a high schooler, but an injury a few months before he was set to enroll kept Baugh at home. Meyer recruited Baugh with the promise that he could play football, basketball, and baseball at TCU.

It was on the diamond that Baugh earned the nickname Slinging Sammy. Baugh was an All-American selection in both 1935 and '36. After a career with the Detroit Lions, Baugh was selected to both the Pro and College Football Hall of Fame.

His coach at TCU, Leo Robert "Dutch" Meyer was a TCU grad, who after a stint as head coach at Fort Worth Polytechnic, was hired on as the freshman coach at TCU in 1923. He was named head coach at TCU in 1934. Known as the "Saturday Fox" Meyer immediately put his stamp on the Horned Frogs with his offensive innovation and fiery pep talks, one of which is used today at TCU: "Fight 'em till hell freezes over then fight's on ice."

Meyer coached at TCU from 1934 to 1952, retiring to take over as athletic director and later coaching TCU's baseball team and leading the Horned Frogs to a SWC title. 

The Mustangs were also primed for 1935. They had also won eight games in 1934 including a 19-0 shutout of the Horned Frogs at Ownby Stadium on the SMU campus. The Mustangs allowed 18 points in nine games coming into the November 30th showdown with TCU. Both teams undefeated, the winner would be first in line to head west to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl. 

 Matty Bell

Matty Bell

SMU was coached by Matty Bell, who was in his first year on the Hilltop after coming north from Texas A&M. Bell replaced legendary SMU coach Ray Morrison who left SMU for his alma mater Vanderbilt after an 84-44-23 record. 

Bell coached at TCU from 1923 to 1928 compiling a 33-17-5 record. He then headed to College Station where he led the Aggies from 1929-1933. He coached at SMU until 1941 when World War II caused a coaching hiatus in his coaching career. During the war Bell was the commander of the United States Naval Reserve. After the war, Bell resumed his coaching responsibilities at SMU, leading the Mustangs to two SWC titles and later taking the helm as athletic director. 

The game was played at TCU's original Amon G. Carter Field. Built in 1930 the stadium's capacity of somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000. Demand grew to such an extent in anticipation that estimates are 37,000 to 40,000 were crammed in. 

That 1935 game was considered by the esteemed Grantland Rice as the greatest game played in college football history. He later formed a website and then got fired by ESPN. Maybe that's someone else. Whatever. Rice was a giant of the sporting world in the 1930s. Here's Rice's article on the game from 1935. 

SMU jumped out to a 14-0 lead over the Frogs. Baugh led the Frogs back on a furious comeback to tie the game in the second half. Momentum, if it ever existed, shifted to TCU. 

 Slinging Sammy Baugh

Slinging Sammy Baugh

SMU's aptly named Jack Rabbit Smith returned the ensuing kick off to TCU's 47, where the SMU set up shop, however the drive stalled and the Mustangs faced a fourth and seven.

An interesting note, Matty Bell turned play calling over to Jack Rabbit Smith and not quarterback Bobby Finley. Coaches didn't call plays during the era, leaving that job up to ruddy faced college kids. We barely trust college kids with skateboards today. 

Facing fourth and seven Smith, made a decision that would transform the game,  instead of kicking, he called a fake for Finley, also the teams punter. Finley dropped back as if to punt but instead hit running back Bobby Wilson between two Horn Frog defender at the goal line and Wilson did the rest. There was a lot more that that play than just a fake punt.  

Today that play would've been a huge gamble, an incompletion would've have left TCU with great field position, in 1935, not so much. A odd rule quirk treated any fourth down pass that landed incomplete in the end zone as a touchback and the ball would have turned over to TCU and be placed at the 20 yard line. To read the the accounts of the day, the play was a gamble that most teams wouldn't even attempt. Except of course most did. TCU even expected the play and double covered Wilson. 

But whatever, the narrative was cast and football in Texas was the envy of the country.

As for the rest of the game, Slinging Sammy couldn't bring the Frogs back, though not for lack of trying. He made several throws into or near the end zone before time expired, but TCU couldn't find the winning score. Baugh left TCU having never beaten SMU, the two teams tied in 1936.

The 1935 game had wide reaching repercussions. 

The teams combined for an ungodly 677 yards of offense. Video game numbers for the era. If only video games had existed. 

In attendance that day was sports promoter J. Curtis Sanford who used the game as a springboard to establish the Cotton Bowl game.

Finley's fake punt/pass became known as the "$85,000 pass" the amount SMU was paid to participate in the Rose Bowl. The Mustangs were the first Texas school to make the trek west. SMU used the funds to pay off Ownby Stadium. The rest of the trip to Pasadena wasn't as lucrative as SMU lost to Stanford 7-0, ending SMU's season at 12-1. The Dickinson System, which we can only imagine featured numerous gears and a coal pit, selected SMU as their 1935 National Champion. 

TCU was rewarded with a trip to the Sugar Bowl on New Years Day 1936. The Horned Frogs beat LSU 3-2 on a 36 yard field goal in a mud pit at Tulane Stadium. The Horned Frogs claim the 1935 National Title as their own. Sure, why the hell not. 

Rice would write "In the Southwest they play football that crowds in the East, the Midwest and the Pacific Coast dream about but never see.”

We tend to agree.

Posted on September 21, 2016 and filed under Southwest Round-Up.