Today, football is king in the south. Weekends in the fall revolve around television kickoff times and grilled meats outside of stadiums the size of city blocks.
But in the early 1940’s – the glory days of Mississippi State football under head coach Allyn McKeen – fights over the pigskin were trumped by battles for freedom. As World War II began, strife across the world was the news each day, and in 1941 it hit home for those both on-campuses and off across America.
On December 6th, 1941, McKeen and the Mississippi State College Maroons ended their season by defeating the San Francisco University Dons on their home field in California. The next morning, Sunday December 7th, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, a direct attack on American soil. McKeen and his team were visiting Hollywood in Los Angeles when the news broke.
For whatever reason, the 8-1-1 Maroons (SEC champs with wins over Florida, Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss) were not selected to a bowl game that year, though the 1942 Reveille (the MSU yearbook) suggested that “Perhaps several of the Bowl teams failed to invite the Staters because they were afraid they would receive a sound shellacking.”
The headline of the story from the Reveille: STATE INVADES PACIFIC COAST: Maroons Trample Dons on Eve of Pearl Harbor Attack.
After the game, seniors and team captains Bill Arnold, an all-conference tackle, and Harold Grove, an honorable mention guard, hung up the cleats and put on their boots. Immediately after graduation, the pair enrolled in the Naval Reserve, prepared to fight for their country the same way they fought for their school.
In the words of the Reveille, the two “continue to show the fine spirit and sportsmanship for Uncle Sam that they have shown for the past four years at State.”
Players arrived at Mississippi State as boys ready to play for the Maroons and learned to how to work and win on the gridiron. Many of those boys took their lessons from McKeen across the world, becoming men as they served alongside their American brethren, defending the United States and serving with the Allies from all over.
By 1943, Arnold and Grove were just two of the many Maroons serving their country. Mississippi State then had one of the top military programs in the nation, and with so many of his players fighting in World War II, McKeen’s club couldn’t even field a team in 1943.
The year off was a break after the most successful stretch in the history of MSU football. From 1939-1942, Mississippi State College put up a 34-5-2 record under the guidance of McKeen – a former University of Tennessee player and assistant under General Robert Neyland – including a 1940 season which ended with a 10-0-1 record and a 14-7 win over Georgetown in the Orange Bowl in Miami, as well as the much-ballyhooed 1941 campaign.
In that 1940 season, the Maroons had victories over Florida and LSU, as well shutout defeats of Alabama and Ole Miss. The only tie came in a 7-7 game with Auburn. McKeen went on to finish his MSU career with an overall record of 65-19-3.
Coming off of the Orange Bowl victory, the “Staters” had lost many key players, and 1941 was supposed to be a rebuilding year for McKeen. However, the Reveille tells us the idea of rebuilding was gone by the end of the first game.
“The 1941 edition of the Mississippi State Maroons opened the season with a thrilling 6-to-0 victory over a strong University of Florida eleven before a crowd of ten thousand fans who came to Humphrey Stadium mainly to find out what brand of football Coach Allyn McKeen’s new ’41 Maroon edition would produce against Tom Lieb’s veteran Gator eleven.
“For three quarters it was a nip-and-tuck affair with both teams playing mainly a defensive brand of ball. The day was saved late in the fourth period when J.T. (Blondy) Black received Tommy Harrison’s punt on the Gator 42-yard stripe and ran for a touchdown, aided by splendid downfield blocking. Sonny Bruce failed to convert for the extra point and the score ended 6-0 in favor of the McKeen-men.
“And so the Maroons were off to an auspicious start, minus many veterans from the 1940 Orange Bowl championship eleven.”
In what may remind many of a more recent Gator-Bulldog battle, the Maroons only completed two passes in that game, or “forwards,” as they were listed, while Florida only completed five of their own. The home team out-rushed the Gators 132 yards to 44.
The SEC slate in 1941 ended with an Egg Bowl win at Ole Miss, sealing the Maroons conference championship, as told by the 1942 Reveille.
“November 29 was a great day for Mississippi State, for on this day the Maroons battled the Ole Miss Rebels before a capacity crowd of 26,000 for the Southeastern Conference Championship at Oxford.
“In the second quarter, Jennings Moates, sophomore quarterback, took the ball on a quarterback sneak and ran through the Ole Miss team for 30 yards and a touchdown. Sonny Bruce missed his first conversion of the season, but State had a 6-to-0 lead, and it proved good enough for a victory.
“Both teams battled with everything during the second half, but failed to score. Bill Eubanks, of the Rebels, made a beautiful touchdown run, but the play was called back because he went out of bounds at midfield.
“In the final quarter, the Rebels took to the air in a desperate attempt to score, but the alert Maroons were ready, and the Hapes-Hovious combine failed. The Maroon supporters were relieved when Blondy Black intercepted one of Hovious’ passes near the State goal and a few minutes later the ball game ended.
“The victory gave the Maroons their first Southeastern Conference championship. Their conference record for the season: four victories and one tie. The victories were over Florida, Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss, while L.S.U. played the Maroons to a scoreless tie.”
Blondy Black, it turns out, was quite the star for State. In addition to duties on defense and special teams, Black was the top running back for the Maroons squad that out-rushed its opponents 1,837 yards to 1,121, including a 410-78 differential in a stomping of Millsaps College.
Blondy was one of several stars in the McKeen era, though many of the true heroes to don the Maroon and White had stories which went untold. Those who defended their country, fighting for the freedoms we enjoy now, are the ones in Mississippi State lore who we remember today.