Colorado didn't uphold Cornell's 5th-down honor

John Steadman

October 15, 1990|By John Steadman

Giving back a victory, changing a win to a loss, would have been the honorable thing to do. There should be a place in college football, certainly among respected rivals, to show consideration for each other and a basic desire to set the record straight. But, no, that didn't happen. Another depressing example that gentlemanly sportsmanship has become passe.

The University of Colorado was the beneficiary of an error by a game official and scored on a fifth down for the decisive points against the University of Missouri. It happened on the final play in a 33-31 Colorado win that should have been recorded as a 31-26 Missouri triumph.

After the second down, as Colorado was inside the 5-yard line, the sideline down marker wasn't changed. It enabled the team with the ball, Colorado, to get an extra down, five instead of four. rTC Colorado coach Bill McCartney, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, refused to change the outcome when a check of the play-by-play, supported by films, conclusively showed his team wasn't entitled to the victory.

As a direct contrast, college football never knew a more honorable moment than, with almost identical circumstances prevailing, Cornell decided it couldn't accept an erroneous 7-3 win on a fifth down against Dartmouth 50 years ago. In a gracious display of ethical responsibility, it notified Dartmouth it was altering the decision -- accepting a loss instead of a win.

At the time, Nov. 16, 1940, Cornell enjoyed an 18-game winning streak and was the second-ranked team in the country. But it gave up all of that by deciding it couldn't accept a tainted 7-3 triumph it didn't honestly deserve. Documents are available that provide how the entire proceedings evolved. The words expressed therein create admiration for those involved.

First the referee, William "Red" Friesell, submitted a report to Asa Bushnell, commissioner of the Eastern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, that, in part, said: " . . . I am now convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that I was in error in allowing Cornell possession of the ball for the play on which they scored. This mistake was entirely mine as the game's referee and not shared in or contributed to by any of the three other officials . . . "

Friesell could have mentioned head linesman Joe McKenney was somehow responsible but he didn't do that. None of the three officials working with Friesell questioned his decision at the time. But Friesell accepted full responsibility, which told you the kind of man he was, even though he was held up to national disgrace and criticism.

After Friesell admitted he had confused the situation and given Cornell the opportunity to unfairly win the game, James Lynah, Cornell athletic director, and Carl Snavely, head coach, sent the following telegram to Dartmouth: "In view of the conclusions reached by the officials that the Cornell touchdown was scored on a fifth down, Cornell relinquishes claim to the victory and extends congratulations to Dartmouth."

In return, William McCarther, graduate manager of athletics at Dartmouth, replied: "Thank you for your wire. Dartmouth accepts the victory and your congratulations and salutes the Cornell team. The honorable and honored opponent of her longest unbroken rivalry."

It was the kind of an act, on the part of the referee and the competing universities, that elevated football and the men involved to an even higher level of respectability. The same could have been done between Missouri and Colorado but it didn't transpire. It's natural then to wonder: Have college sports and we as a society lost all touch with the reality of common decency when it comes to engaging in fun and games?

The referee of the Missouri-Colorado contest, J.C. Louderbach, and the seven-man crew were suspended. It seems unfair and without justification. Their mistake was no different than a coach sending in the wrong play or a fullback fumbling a ball or a quarterback throwing an interception, which happens all the time. Errors are a part of the game.

Friesell went through life, after the Cornell-Dartmouth mix-up, accepting the pain that went with the rampant ridicule. He talked about it and denigrated himself publicly over his own miscalculation. A close friend, Art Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, put it all in focus when he named one of his race horses after Friesell.

It was called "Fifth Down Red." Everybody, including Friesell, enjoyed the intent.

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