Standing shoulder to shoulder with the undefeated football teams of the nation—Michigan State, Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, Colorado and Ohio State—is Washington and Lee, which last Saturday won its fifth game of the season by beating Emory and Henry 27-6. While naturally proud of its record, students at Washington and Lee are quick—even happy—to admit that their team is not in the same class with those other undefeated teams. At Washington and Lee football is strictly amateur. No athletic scholarships are given, nor have any been given for the past seven years, a decision which at the time it was taken brought screams of protest from ardent alumni. But this year's team, made up purely of students who play football rather than football players who study, is proving that winning football on an unsubsidized basis can be as much fun to play and as exciting to watch as any football anywhere.
Washington and Lee, of course, is not the only college to have abandoned big-time football. The University of Chicago, in perhaps the most famous instance of de-emphasis, dropped football completely in 1940 after 44 years in the Big Ten. Carnegie Tech, a football power of the '20s, toned down its schedule in 1936, just as Johns Hopkins (SI, Dec. 5) had done the year before. Santa Clara, which twice played in the Sugar Bowl and once in the Orange, withdrew from national competition in 1952, although it has been creeping back quietly during the past two years. Of all the schools that have in varying degrees de-emphasized their football programs and kept them that way, Washington and Lee, which has not lost a game since 1959, has been the most successful.
Washington and Lee University is located in Lexington, Virginia, deep in Civil War country, a school of red brick buildings fronted by white columns. The grounds are hilly and crowded with giant elms. Reminders of the Civil War and its Southern heroes are everywhere. Robert E. Lee is buried on campus. Stonewall Jackson lies not far away in the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery. There is a Robert E. Lee Hotel, a Robert E. Lee Church and a Stonewall Jackson Hospital. No university office is considered properly furnished without a portrait of Lee.
Washington and Lee is a gentleman's university. Coats and ties must be worn in class. When one student passes another on campus, it is customary for both to say hello. The honor system prevails, and violators are disciplined by the students themselves.
November 6, 1961
It was partly to preserve this reputation that the university decided in 1954 to secede from big-time football. The 1950 team had been a powerhouse, winning eight of its 10 games, being ranked 15th in the country and going to the Gator Bowl. To maintain its eminence in competition with larger schools like Tennessee, Maryland, Navy and Alabama, Washington and Lee had offered athletic scholarships to boys who, in the words of one university professor, "were not Washington and Lee types."
When the football teams of the next three years did poorly, causing alumni to press for even more athletic scholarships, the time for a policy decision was at hand. The football program was costing the university a great deal of money. The football players, on the whole, were proving scholastically inferior. Still, it is possible that the Board of Trustees might have yielded to the pressure of the alumni had not a large portion of the football team been caught cheating during the final exams of 1954. Somehow they had made duplicate keys to rooms where exams were kept and had bought off the janitor. Those caught were expelled immediately, but the feeling still exists that many more violators graduated before an investigation could be carried out.
A month later the Board of Trustees announced that Washington and Lee would award no more athletic scholarships and that the football schedule for that fall would be canceled. When the university resumed varsity football the next season, 1955, it was against teams like Sewanee, Centre and Hampden-Sydney.
It was a lean season. The team lost all its games and scored only four touchdowns. In one game it gained only three yards. "No one covered our games," says Frank Parsons, the university's sports publicity man. "It was lonely in the press box. Just the P.A. announcer, a statistician and me."
It was lonely in the stands, too. What few people would come to watch a game usually left at half time for the warmth of the fraternity house and the big game on national television. "It took guts to watch our games," says one professor.
Not many boys turned out for football that first season of unsubsidized football. During practice one afternoon Boyd Williams, an assistant coach, told all the ends to follow him down to a corner of the field. Williams trotted to the appointed spot and when he turned around found that he was being followed by only one man.
The pressure to return to big-time football increased after the winless 1955 season. Campus polls favored it. "The students were embarrassed to have schools like Hampden-Sydney as opponents," says one faculty member.
One professor took his daughter to a dentist on a Saturday in 1955. "His waiting room was crowded with children," he recalls, "but when he saw me he took me aside and started arguing that Washington and Lee just had to return to big-time football. He got so worked up over it I decided right then not to let him work on my kid's teeth anymore."
The weakest link
A local columnist urged the university to give up football entirely. "If a football team is to be a link between a school and its alumni, it had better be a stronger link than the 1955 Washington and Lee team." Many influential alumni, through the press, seconded the motion. "They were like a bunch of kids who had their little red wagon taken away," said a former player recently.
After Washington and Lee won only one game in 1956, Coach Bill Chipley was fired. "It was a ticklish situation," says one faculty member. "It didn't look too good, firing the coach just after we had de-emphasized." The official statement released by the university explained that Chipley had been let go because he was not "a good teacher of football."
In his place the university hired Lee McLaughlin, a solidly built man in his late 30s with a grin as wide as his shoulders. When he held his first football meeting, less than 20 boys showed up. "It had become fashionable not to play football," says Frank Parsons. "Boys used to say, T was great in prep school, but I wouldn't play here.' "
"People used to come up to me and say, 'Isn't it a shame that so-and-so hasn't come out for football," McLaughlin says. "I'd tell them maybe, but I don't think so-and-so could make our team. I knew we couldn't get anywhere until we stopped making heroes out of boys who didn't want to play."
McLaughlin traveled about looking for football players, although he could not, of course, offer anything more than a good education. He covered New England, concentrating on Connecticut. "Many of our boys come from prep schools," he says. "You can't throw a rock in Connecticut without hitting a prep school." McLaughlin used to get depressed when prospective Washington and Lee football players were lured away by athletic scholarships. "I've gotten used to it now," he says. "Recruiting is like selling insurance. If you see a thousand boys, maybe you get 10."
What Washington and Lee liked best about Lee McLaughlin is the way he accepted the de-emphasized football program. He held a spring practice, but it was only for two weeks in February so that the boys were free to go out for spring sports. Daily workouts in the fall were only an hour and a half, and if a boy could not make practice because of studies, McLaughlin understood. In fact, several times he ordered boys not to show up for practice because he knew they had important tests coming up. He held a weekly skull session, an hour every Monday night. If the session ran past the hour, McLaughlin told his boys that they were free to leave.
McLaughlin's first two seasons were no better than Chipley's, but in that second year many of the boys who form the foundation of this year's fine team arrived on the Washington and Lee campus. One was Terry Fohs, the 145-pound linebacker who consistently leads the team in tackles. "One of the reasons I came to Washington and Lee is that I knew I could make the team," he says.
Quarterback Steve Suttle had no intention of playing college football. McLaughlin invited him out to watch a practice session one day. "When I saw that the players weren't a bunch of goons," says Suttle, "I changed my mind." Suttle also went back to his dormitory and talked his friend Ned Hobbs into trying out. Hobbs became the right end and is now a captain of the team. Jerry Hyatt had never played football before he entered Washington and Lee, because his high school in Maryland had no team. Hyatt tried out anyway, made the team and is now an outstanding center.
In 1959 the team won three games, one more than it had won the previous four seasons. And last year Washington and Lee was undefeated, being tied only by Johns Hopkins. With each victory the howls of the alumni to return to big-time football diminished and interest in the team grew. Once again people showed up to watch Washington and Lee play football, and if most of them still left at half time occasionally it was because the team was winning by such big scores, not losing.
This year's team, after barely winning its first game against Hampden-Sydney 7-6, has scored 148 points in its next four games to its opponents' 12. There have been no outstanding stars, although Fohs, the little linebacker, has again led the defense. A dozen players have scored touchdowns for Washington and Lee. In last week's victory over Emory and Henry, for instance, the four touchdowns were made by four different men. Coach McLaughlin generally uses most of his 50-odd players, not because he is kind but because the talent is evenly distributed. Washington and Lee uses a running game, passing only when necessary. "When you pass," says McLaughlin, "three things can happen and only one of them is good."
The resurgence of football at Washington and Lee has created a new worry among university officials. At the close of last season there were a few moments when it looked as if the school might lose McLaughlin. Virginia was looking for a new football coach and McLaughlin had graduated from there in 1941. But McLaughlin, if he got an offer, turned it down and now says he has no intention of ever leaving.
"I have the best coaching job in the world," he says. "I have the rank of associate professor, tenure and extra benefits. This is a nice town, a fine place to live. And I work with nice boys."
McLaughlin recently gave a small party for some of the faculty. One of the guests was Dana Swan, a young man who in his first season as coach of the freshman team has had the unhappy experience of watching his team lose every game. In fact, the team has yet to score a touchdown.
As the guests were leaving, McLaughlin came over smilingly to Swan's young wife. "You've probably heard already," he said, "but in case you haven't, your husband is doing a fine job." At Washington and Lee, even the football coach is a gentleman.