Official NCAA records show there was plenty of uncertainty as to the best college football team in the nation in 1921.
One thing is for certain. California and Iowa earned every right to stake a claim to the national championship that season.
Cornell and Lafayette also claim national titles in 1921. Washington & Jefferson and Vanderbilt are also recognized as national champions by the NCAA, but neither school was tabbed as champions by one of the voting outlets that season.
Cornell, Lafayette and Washington & Jefferson were all independents that season. California represented the Pacific Coast Conference, while Iowa was a member of the Western Conference, the forerunner of the Big Ten.
CALIFORNIA GOLDEN BEARS
For the second time in as many seasons the University of California dominated football in the Pacific Coast Conference and ran its way to a second national championship in as many years.
California, which won all nine games during the regular season, was retroactively chosen as the top team in the nation by the Billingsley Report. That organization used a margin of victory method in determining its national champion. Later, the College Football Researchers and Jeff Sagarin also tabbed the Bears as champions. Boand, another ranking group used at the time, put the Bears in a tie with for the national championship.
The Bears, under sixth-year coach Andy Smith, were never seriously challenged until a history-making season finale in the Rose Bowl.
Cal opened the season by blanking Saint Mary’s (21-0) and the Olympic Athletic Club (14-0) to set the tone for another dominating season by bay. Nevada managed to break through the Cal defense, but not enough as the Bears extended its record to 3-0 with a 51-6 win over the Sagebrushers.
A team representing the Pacific Fleet gave the Bears their stiffest during the regular. The Bears still won the game though with a 21-10 triumph. The 10 points were more than the Bears would allow in a single game all season. Oregon and Washington State failed to put points on the board as Cal cruised to the final two shutouts of the regular season.
After relatively easy wins over Southern Cal and Washington, which the Bears won by a combined score of 110-10, the Bears traveled across the bay for its annual Big Game against arch-rival Stanford.
The game had added significance as it was the first game in Stanford Stadium.
Constructed in just five months, the new stadium was designed to seat 66,000 fans in the 66 row U-shaped structure. Its original capacity was the second largest stadium in the nation when it opened. Only the Yale Bowl was larger at the time.
With its perfect 9-0 record Cal, which had outscored its opponents 312-33 during the regular season, was looking for that when they tangled with Washington & Jefferson in the Rose Bowl and the Bears were the heavy favorite to win the game.
Mother Nature had other plans.
Steady rains turned the field at Tournament Park into treacherous sledding for both teams. The troubles to establish any sort of offense was evident as the two teams combined for 186 yards of total offense in the game that ended in a 0-0 tie. The Presidents, who had claimed the championship in the South Atlantic Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SAIAA), had the edge statistically with 137 yards of total offense compared to just 49 for the Bears. All of Cal’s yards came via the ground. W&J completed just two of six passes in the game for 23 yards. Washington and Jefferson did manage eight first downs in the game and Cal could only muster two first downs.
It remains the only scoreless tie in Rose Bowl history.
Washington and Jefferson, which had just 450 students at the time remains the smallest school to ever play in the Rose Bowl, actually scored on a 36-yard run in the game, but the play was called back on an offside penalty and neither team seriously threatened to score again.
The tie snapped Cal’s winning streak at 18 games.
California school officials threatened to not play the game as they alleged Washington & Jefferson’s scholarship requirements, which were reportedly far below Cal’s, allowed many of the Presidents to be older than the average college football player.
The game also marked the final time the Rose Bowl would be played at Tournament Park in Pasadena.
(4-0-0 PCC/9-0-1 All)
W-SAINT MARY’S (Calif.) 21-0
W-OLYMPIC AC 14-0
W-PACIFIC FLEET 21-10
W-vs. Washington State 14-0 (at Portland, Ore.)
W-SOUTHERN CAL 38-7
W-at Stanford 42-7
Rose Bowl (at Pasadena, Calif.)
T-vs. Washington & Jefferson 0-0
CORNELL BIG RED
Gil Dobie had established a history of winning at each coaching stop along the way in his storied career.
After stops at North Dakota State, Washington and Navy, the former University of Minnesota quarterback had amassed an 84-3-3 record in 14 seasons as a collegiate coach. His Washington team once put together a 40-game winning streak, which remains the second-longest winning streak in NCAA history. He finished his nine-year career with the Huskies with an incredible 58-0-3 record before moving across the country to lead Navy for three seasons (1917-19) prior to bringing his winning ways to Cornell.
And it didn’t take long for Dobie to live up to expectations and lead Cornell to a new level of success at the school.
The Big Red outscored their nine opponents 392-21 on the season, including a 110-0 thrashing of Western Reserve.
Cornell’s backfield of George Pfann, Eddie Kaw, Floyd Ramsey and Charles Cassidy is considered one of the greatest backfields in college football history.
The Big Red of 1921 was later selected as national champions by several voting outlets, including the Helms Athletic Foundation, the Houlgate System and the National Championship Foundation. They shared the national title with Iowa, according to Parke H. Davis.
1921 Big Red
W-ST. BONAVENTURE 41-0
W-WESTERN RESERVE 110-0
W-at Columbia 41-7
W-at Penn 41-0
After opening the 1921 season with a dominating 52-14 win over an out-manned Knox College team, Iowa had a chance to showcase what many observers thought was a pretty solid Hawkeye contingent when Notre Dame came riding into Iowa City.
Boy, did the Hawkeyes ever deliver.
Notre Dame ventured into Iowa City on a 20-game winning streak dating back to the 1919 season. The Irish had outscored its two opponents 113-10 to open the 2021 season leading up to the clash with Iowa.
Irish coach Knute Rockne also made a decision prior to the start of the game against the Hawkeyes that proved to be of little benefit to the visitors from South Bend that day. More than half a century later a similar decision would prove monumental and become one of college football’s most memorable moments.
Noticing the navy uniforms of his team closely resembled the black uniforms worn by the Hawkeyes, Rockne opted to have his team don green jerseys. The Irish would not don the green jerseys again until a 1977 game at home against rival Southern Cal that the Irish would win 49-19 and earning the name Green Machine on their way to the national championship.
The 1921 game between Iowa and Notre Dame proved to be the closest game all season for the Hawkeyes.
Gordan Locke scored the first touchdown of the game on a one-yard run in the first period of play and quarterback Aubrey Devine kicked the conversion to stake the Hawkeyes to the early 7-0 lead. Devine extended the Iowa lead to 10-0 on a 33-yard field goal later in the quarter.
Notre Dame would hang around.
The Irish closed the gap in the second quarter when all-American halfback Johnny Mohardt hooked up with a pass that covered 30 yards to Ed Kelley. Buck Shaw’s conversion kick pulled Notre Dame to within 10-7.
Despite several scoring chances by both teams, neither team managed to score again in the game. It was the first loss for the Irish since losing 13-7 at Michigan State midway through the 1918 season.
Notre Dame, which famed sports writer Grantland Rice noted at the time was “the first team we know of to build its attack around a forward passing game, rather than use a forward passing game as a mere aid to the running game,” would rebound from the loss to the Hawkeyes to finish the 1921 season with a 10-1-0 overall record.
The 10 points surrendered to the Hawkeyes would be the most given up all season by the Irish.
Iowa, meanwhile, was never seriously challenged in most of the games the rest of the season on the way to a 7-0-0 record. Only Purdue, which lost 13-6 to the Hawkeyes in West Lafayette two weeks after Iowa’s upset of the Irish, managed to stay within seven points of the eventual Big Ten champions.
It was the first outright champion captured by Iowa in program history. It was also the first perfect season since Iowa began playing intercollegiate football in
Iowa was invited to play California in the 1922 Rose Bowl, but the Big Ten Conference forced the Hawkeyes to decline the invitation.
Devine, would finish the season as the nation’s leader in total offense after running and passing for 2,211 yards on his way to being selected as an all-American. He was joined on the all-American team by teammate Duke Slater, who would become the first black lineman to play in the National Football League.
Notre Dame standout Eddie Anderson would finish the season with 26 receptions for 394 yards. Both of those totals were tops in the nation in 1921.
Iowa was retroactively chosen as the national champion by the Billingsley Report and were co-national champions by Parke H. Davis, a selector recognized by the NCAA of the time.
Devine, Iowa’s standout quarterback, finished with 2,211 yards of total offense, tops in the nation, and was named to the All-American team.
(7-0-0 overall/5-0-0 Big Ten)
W-KNOX COLLEGE 52-14
W-NOTRE DAME 10-7
W-ILLINOIS (HC) 14-2
W-at Purdue 13-6
W-at Minnesota 41-7
W-at Northwestern 14-0
A narrow win over visiting Pittsburgh in the second game of the season seemed to be the impetus as Lafayette steamrolled its way to the school’s first national championship.
The Maroon were never seriously challenged after defeating the Panthers 6-0 and rolled to a 9-0-0 record in Jock Sutherland’s third season as coach at the school. Sutherland, who is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame (1951), would spend five seasons at the helm of the program and compiled a 33-8-2 (.791) during that span.
He would leave Lafayette to take over the Pittsburgh program and finished his 15-year tenure with the Panthers with a record of 111-20-2. His overall coaching record stands at 144-28-1 and led Pittsburgh to the 1934 national championship.
The 1921 Lafayette squad was paced on offense by George Seasholtz, a five-foot, eight-inch fullback, who went on to play in the NFL. Frank Schwab, a lineman, was voted to the all-America team at season’s end.
Lafayette outscored its nine foes 274-26 in 1921.
The Maroon were retroactively chosen as co-national champions by the Boand System and by Parke H. Davis.
W-at Bucknell 20-7
W-at Fordham 28-7
W-at Penn 38-6
W-at Lehigh 28-6
Conference Champion Coach
Big Ten Iowa Howard Jones (6th year)
Missouri Valley Nebraska Fred Dawson (1st year)
Pacific Coast California Andy Smith (6th year)
Rocky Mountain Utah State Dick Romney (5th year)
SAIAA Washington & Lee W.C. Raftery (5th year)
SIAA Centre College Charley Moran (5th year)
Georgia Herman Stegeman (2nd year)
Georgia Tech William Alexander (2nd year)
Vanderbilt Dan McGugin (17th year)
Southwest Texas A&M Dana X. Bible (4th year)
Pos. Name School
QB Aubrey Devine Iowa
QB Bo McMillin Centre College
FB Eddie Kaw Cornell
HB Mal Aldrich Yale
HB Glenn Killinger Penn State
End Eddie Anderson Notre Dame
End Harold Muller California
Center Herb Stein Pittsburgh
Guard Fiske Brown Harvard
Guard Iolas Huffman Ohio State
Guard Stan Keck Princeton
Guard Frank Schwab Lafayette
Tackle Dan McMillan California
Tackle Duke Slater Iowa
College football history was made on Oct. 8 when West Virginia played Pittsburgh at Forbes Field in the Steel City.
The game marked the first live radio broadcast of a college football game. The Panthers won the game 21-13.
Three weeks after the historical broadcast tiny Centre College shocked the college football world when the Colonels defeated Harvard 6-0 in what is widely considered one of the greatest upsets in college football history.
Students at Centre, basking in the notoriety of the outcome, painted the “impossible formula” C6H0 on nearly everything in sight in reference to the stunning upset.
The 1921 college football season two new conferences begin play.
The Midwest Collegiate Athletic Conference, which is still in existence as an NCAA Division III conference, originally began competition with
The Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) also began play in 1921. The league was formed with as members. The SWAC remains in operation today as an FCS conference.
There were two other bowl games played at the end of the 1921 regular season. And Centre College played in both of those contests.
The Colonels took on Arizona in the first-ever Christmas Classic in San Diego on Dec. 26, 1921 and defeated the Wildcats 38-0. It turned out to be the final bowl win in history for Centre. Arizona, meanwhile, was playing in a bowl game for the first time in school history.
Texas A&M, which had won the Southwest Conference championship, defeated Centre College 22-14 in the Dixie Classic one week later at Fair Park Stadium in Dallas. The Aggies scored a safety in the first half to take a 2-0 lead at halftime, but held on to win the game.
The game is believed to be where the Texas A&M tradition of the 12th Man originated.
After noticing a rash of injuries to several of his players, A&M coach Dana X. Bible summoned E. King Gill to the sideline and told him to put on a uniform in case he was needed.
Gill, who had left the football team at the end of the regular season to play basketball, did not play in the game against Centre – but the tradition of the 12th Man was born.
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.