DWU vs. LSU? Yes -- in 1930, it really happened
Massive Louisiana State University is ranked No. 1 in this week's NCAA football poll. At the moment, the Tigers are the best college football team in the land.
Tiny Dakota Wesleyan University is ranked No. 16 in the NAIA, the division reserved for the smallest of college football teams.
LSU has an enrollment of nearly 29,000; Wesleyan's enrollment is around 780.
Eighty-one years and two weeks ago, they met in a nonconference matchup that today is all but lost to memory. Even Wesleyan President Bob Duffett was caught off-guard when asked about it earlier this week.
"You've got to be kidding me. We played LSU?" Duffett said. "Are you sure?"
It sounds crazy, but yes, a 20-man team from Wesleyan -- average weight: 170 pounds -- traveled by train to Baton Rouge and met the mighty LSU Tigers on Sept. 20, 1930. Wesleyan lost 76-0, but these days, the score really doesn't matter as much as the odd pairing itself.
Although a casual search through The Daily Republic archives doesn't explain how that game came to be, it possibly was for the same reason that drives big-time college football today: Money.
It's well-known that today's top-level teams seek out weak early-season opponents. Not only do those games usually serve as basic tune-ups for the larger team, but there's dough to be made by both teams. The University of South Dakota, for instance, was paid $300,000 last year to play at the University of Minnesota.
Duffett said he understands that "money games are money games," but still -- DWU at LSU?
"It's amazing to me that No. 1, we would schedule (LSU) and No. 2, we would take the time to travel that far," he said. "I'm sure it had something to do with what they paid us."
News reporting at the time was different than it is today. Reporters at today's Daily Republic are trained to ask how much things cost and who's paying. Such questions were never answered -- and probably were never asked -- at the 1930s Mitchell Evening Republican.
Here's what the Republican reported:
In the days leading up to the game, a very brief story, evidently written during the train ride, reported that the team was "just entering Louisiana. The boys are enjoying the most interesting scenery they have ever seen. We are looking for alligators most of the time." The brief piece was headlined "D.W.U. Tigers huntin' gators on southern trip."
The day before the game, the Republican reported that "the New Orleans papers are giving the Wesleyan Tigers excellent publicity and are hoping for an upset of the highly taunted university eleven tomorrow."
Should taunted have been touted? Either way, it can only be assumed that the New Orleans papers were favorable to Tulane University, located in New Orleans. Perhaps they considered LSU, located in Baton Rouge, a rival.
The Republican also reported that Bill Banker, a former football great and contemporary movie star, had been "engaged in the capacity of trainer for the Dakota eleven." A quick Internet search Tuesday found that Banker was a former all-America player who starred in the 1930 Warner Brothers feature "Maybe It's Love."
The game story was written, as the reporter noted, "aboard train en route home with Wesleyan Tigers."
Despite the 76-0 drubbing, the reporter wrote that "in spite of the top-heavy score, the crowd, the largest ever to see an opening game at Louisiana State and including Governor Long of Louisiana, remained in the stadium until the final whistle, indicating the game was an interesting one."
Later, the reporter editorialized a bit: "While Wesleyan was completely outclassed, handicapped by the terrific heat, the weight of their opponents and playing on a soft field, their play was exceptionally smooth and showed no ragged spots."
Obviously, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, even on a football field.
Two days later, the Tigers returned from the 3,500-mile train trip at noon and "resumed practice sessions on the Wesleyan gridiron ... preparing for their next game Saturday with Augustana in Sioux Falls. Fortunately, all Tigers returned without injuries." Wesleyan won its next game 33-6 and went 6-3 that season under coach Stewart Ferguson, dubbed "Fergie" by this newspaper.
Interestingly, another milestone happened the week Wesleyan returned from its "gator-huntin' trip" to Louisiana. The Mitchell football stadium, later named Joe Quintal Field, opened.
In a front-page story, the Sept. 25, 1930, Republican declared that the stadium is "Ready to accommodate a crowd of 5,000 for first game" against Wagner. And better yet: The stadium was equipped with lights, making it "a new-fashioned atmosphere."
"Night football is drawing capacity crowds wherever it has been installed," the Republican wrote. "This style of play has many features not connected with the daylight game."
Nighttime games featured less wind, less fatigue and larger crowds, the newspaper explained.
It gets better: "The athletic field at Mitchell was secured for the purpose of mass athletics, to be used for the development of physical weaklings as much as the strong ones. A good start has been made in that direction. ... The new field on which this first game will take place is without doubt the best high school gridiron in South Dakota. A new turf of velvet awaits a mussing-up."
Using a silver-coated football, Mitchell beat Wagner 51-0 in front of 3,000 fans that night.
Things sure have changed. According to newspaper advertisements at the time, a "fall dress" cost a woman $7.95 and the Harrison Hotel in Chicago purchased ads in Mitchell that offered rooms for $2.50 and $3.50 a night, "with running ice water in every room."
Evening football was a futuristic phenomenon, and Dakota Wesleyan served as the cupcake du jour for the mighty LSU Tigers. Don't dwell on the score; instead, daydream about the significance of a wildly unlikely game that's now just a footnote in history.
Duffett said he wouldn't want DWU to serve as a tuneup for some major program these days. Beaming with no little pride, he said Tuesday that he thinks Wesleyan would obviously struggle against a Division I foe, but this year's coaches could still "pull out some plays that might surprise them."
It's likely Fergie thought the same thing 81 years ago. Maybe that's the real reason Wesleyan made that long, historic trip.