Eighty years ago, a Louisiana team dominated southern football and headed for Pasadena
1931 football team and coaches
Photographs Courtesy of Tulane University archives
Except for an undefeated campaign in 1998 and a handful of other decent seasons, the last several decades of Tulane University football have been marked by mediocrity.
The Green Wave has struggled to put together any sense of consistency on the field, thanks to coaching turnover and, for better or worse, an emphasis on academics over athletics that some say has hamstrung the program to the point where it simply can’t compete with the nation’s better teams.
But tucked away in Tulane’s lengthy gridiron past, before the university pulled out of major-conference football, before point-shaving scandals and hurricanes threatened to destroy the school’s athletic programs, is a period of football glory for the Green Wave.
For roughly a quarter-century between 1924 and 1949, Tulane was frequently a football power in the South and occasionally the nation, with squads built on homegrown Louisiana talent and overseen by a coaching staff and athletic administration that was committed to gridiron success.
And perhaps the peak of those glory years came in 1931, when the Green Wave reeled off 11 straight regular-season wins – the majority by shutout – and earned a trip to the prestigious Rose Bowl for a contest with the University of Southern California that determined the national football champion.
“That was the greatest period of Tulane football,” says former Times-Picayune reporter and author Marty Mule. “At that time, they were part of college football’s elite.”
But now, on the 80th anniversary of that magical season, the 1931-32 team is fading into hazy history. As the years tick away, fewer and fewer Tulanians have any idea that the Green Wave once dominated its opponents so much that it earned a trip to the Rose Bowl.
“There are older fans who understand what Tulane was all about [decades ago],” says former Times-Picayune Green Wave beat writer Benjamin Hochman. “They know about the Rose Bowl, and they tell stories about the glory years. They’re still passionate about Tulane football, but there are fewer and fewer of them left.”
With the Tulane football program’s struggles over the past 60 years, the memory of the 1931 team is fading even more in New Orleans and beyond. But 80 years ago, the Green Wave was the talk of the South.
While the nation was mired in the early years of the Great Depression and the waning years of Prohibition, Tulane was a rapidly growing crucible of gridiron success. The 1925 squad had gone undefeated, and during the two-year stretch from 1929-30, the squad went 17-1, including an undefeated mark in conference play.
Overseeing Tulane’s rise to greatness was Athletic Director Wilbur C. Smith, whose firm hand, no-nonsense disposition and devotion to football had created an atmosphere that not only nurtured success but demanded it. Part of Smith’s grand plan was the hiring of Bernie Bierman, a former Wave assistant coach, for the head football job in 1927, and Bierman quickly set to work.
With All-American end Jerry Dalrymple and a corps of talented backs returning from a 1930 season in which the Green Wave outscored its opposition 263-30, expectations were soaring in the Crescent City – and in all of Dixie – at the start of the 1931 campaign.
“This year the Tulane 11 is going to be very painful to a lot of boys,” wrote Atlanta Constitution sports editor Ralph McGill. “Maybe all of them. There doesn’t seem to be any way to keep the Green Wave from washing out a lot of the good football teams this fall.”
The Wave wasted no time living up to those high hopes, ripping through its first three foes – Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Spring Hill – by a combined scored of 78-0. That brought Tulane to its first stiff test of the season: a trip to Nashville to face Vanderbilt, another favorite in the Southern Conference race, on Oct. 17.
But local sports scribes were still predicting victory, with New Orleans States writer Harry Martinez comparing the Wave to the 1929 undefeated team.
“There is that same atmosphere at Tulane this year,” Martinez wrote. “It isn’t overconfidence. It’s just a determination on the part of the Greenies that has enabled them to believe that Tulane’s team is as good as the next one and that it is going to take a super team to beat them.”
Vandy turned out not to be that team. Tulane flattened the Commodores 19-0 after jumping on the hosts early. The game featured the heroic play of Wave fullback Nollie “Papa” Felts, who dragged himself from a sickbed with a gimpy leg and 103 degree fever and, wrote the Times-Picayune’s Wm. McG. Keefe, “played like two men on his one good leg.”
The Green Wave then crushed Georgia Tech 33-0, after which some observers began calling Tulane the clear conference favorite.
Tulane did nothing to dampen those proclamations over the next two games, in which they obliterated Mississippi A&M and Auburn by a combined score of 86-7. Despite a troubling propensity for fumbling, the high-flying Wave offense was clicking on all cylinders as the squad prepared for another dangerous foe: Georgia.
And the Bulldogs had some in the Tulane camp worried. Not only was the Nov. 14 contest being played in Atlanta, but the Bulldogs – who had their own all-star end, the cocky Vernon “Catfish” Smith – were also chomping at the bit to avenge recent losses to the Greenies.
In fact, the entire college football world was keyed up for the Nov. 14 contest, with some observers going so far as to ascribe national title and Rose Bowl implications to the clash.
Associated Press sports editor Alan Gould said that in Atlanta, “the powerful, undefeated teams of Georgia and Tulane stake their Southern and national championship aspirations in Dixie’s big game of the year.”
DOMINATING THE DOGS
Overcoming still more fumbling problems, the Green Wave passed the test, dominating the ‘Dogs in a 20-7 win.
While a handful of fistfights between opposing fans broke out in the stands, Tulane was paced by halfback Don Zimmerman, whose stellar all-around performance catapulted him into the debate for All-America status.
With the triumph, Tulane became the clear favorite for the Southern Conference crown, and talk of a trip to California built to a fever pitch.
“Not only did the victory prove Tulane the class of Dixie,” wrote United Press correspondent Henry McLemore, “it proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the New Orleans 11 is one of the finest in the country and must seriously be reckoned with when the time comes for the award of national honors.”
Green Wave supporters were now filled with optimism about what lay ahead in the season, partially because they believed that the Greenies still hadn’t played a complete game yet that season. The Times-Picayune’s Keefe wrote: “The Green Wave will show, before this season is over, that the full fury of its attack is yet to be shown. ... In short, we don’t believe its victories over Vanderbilt and Georgia saw the Wave at its very top form.”
What immediately followed for the Wave was a 40-0 pasting of Sewanee, setting up the Greenies’ annual cross-state rivalry clash with LSU. In recent decades, the Tigers have dominated Tulane, but in the 1920s and ‘30s, the Wave held the upper hand.
That trend continued on Nov. 28, 1931, when Tulane clobbered the Tigers 34-7. Although LSU scored first – marking the first time the Wave had trailed a Southern opponent in two years – the Wave roared back, outgaining their rivals 422-120. In the win, the Wave was keyed by yet another halfback hero, Harry “Wop” Glover, and another dominating defensive performance by Dalrymple, who was in the process of sewing up his second straight All-America selection.
LSU coach Russ Cohen was duly impressed after the game, dubbing the Wave “the greatest team I’ve ever seen anywhere, anytime, anyplace.”
All that stood between Tulane and a trip to Pasadena was a non-conference home clash with Washington State on Dec. 5. The Cougars ended up giving the Greenies their toughest game of the season up to that point – fumbling once again hampered the Wave – but Tulane emerged with a 28-14 victory, thanks to another outsize performance by Zimmerman.
The formal invite to the Rose Bowl quickly followed, giving the Wave a much-deserved, and much-savored, reward for putting together a dominating 11-0 regular season mark in impressive fashion.
But on the same day that brought happy news from the Pacific coast, Bierman announced the decision legions of Tulane supporters had feared all season: He was resigning after the Rose Bowl to take over the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
“I regret to leave Tulane more than I can express in words,” Bierman said in a statement. “Only the natural love for my alma mater takes me away. My relations here with the authorities at Tulane, the people of New Orleans, and everyone in Southern athletics will be remembered as the finest of my life. I will always be pulling for the Greenies and will always look upon them as my boys.”
But before Bierman departed for the upper Midwest, he remained to lead the Green Wave to California and the Rose Bowl. Facing the Greenies would be the USC Trojans, who, after an initial loss to St. Mary’s, had steamrolled through their slate with ruthlessness and overwhelming brawn.
As the Green Wave made its way across the country on a three-day train trip in two special Pullman cars, the Greenies nursed their wounds – including a kidney injury suffered by Dalrymple against WSU that put him in the hospital for a week – and tried to block out the media prognosticators, as well as a slew of famed football coaches and betting oddsmakers, who installed USC as early favorites in the bowl.
“It comes down to a matter of manpower,” stated America’s dean of sportswriters, Grantland Rice, “and Southern California has enough manpower for two strong teams.”
But Crescent City journalists countered with their own brand of indignant trash-talking. Item-Tribune reporter Charles L. Dufour predicted a two-touchdown win for the Wave, writing that the Greenies were the objects of “dozens of ... glib utterances revolving around Trojan greatness and Tulane impotency. These same stories which have been puffing the Trojans up have got the Greenies fighting mad. They’re going into this battle confident that they can stop the Trojans. ... They call [USC] out here a superteam. Well, that it is not.”
By the time the last whistle blew on New Year’s Day, the Greenies and the Trojans had proved both Dufour and the slew of USC faithful wrong. Neither team won by multiple touchdowns; in fact, by all accounts, the 80,000-plus people who jammed the Rose Bowl were treated to a thrilling nail-biter that some proclaimed the best Rose contest ever.
And although the Green Wave came out on the short end of a 21-12 final score, the Greenies earned the respect of the entire nation. After the Trojans used their unstoppable reverse play and a handful of good breaks to build up a 21-0 lead midway through the third quarter, Tulane refused to lie down and, guided by the heroics of “Wop” Glover, stormed back with two touchdowns of their own before ultimately succumbing to the men of Troy.
“The Southern champions convinced a capacity crowd of 84,000 people that ... they were, as Dixie experts claimed them to be, the greatest and most dangerous 11 that ever came out of the South to invade the Pacific coast,” wrote Los Angeles Examiner reporter Mark Kelly. “Southern California won not by the 20 points that had been offered in the betting but only by one touchdown and conversion after a fiercely fought battle that found Tulane given more glory in defeat than the Trojans in victory.”
Although they weren’t crowned national champions, the Greenies were proud of how they performed on college football’s greatest stage. In fact, despite the final score, the Wave outgained the Trojans 310-230 and posted more than twice the amount of first downs as USC.
“While we did not win, we gave a great account of ourselves and won the respect of our opponents and thousands upon thousands of fans,” stated Tulane quarterback Lowell “Red” Dawson after the game. “In fact, if the game were to be played over, the cocksure Californians who seemed to have pretty much of a superiority complex as far as football goes would leave their shekels in the safety deposit vaults.”
Even members of the USC football contingent itself congratulated the Wave. In a letter to Tulane President Albert Dinwiddie, Alfred Wesson of the USC Athletic News Service wrote: “Your team won thousands of new friends for its great showing in the Rose Bowl game, while your coaches and officials who came here in advance of the game also did much to bring about a warm friendship between Tulane and Southern California.”
INTO THE FUTURE
Four days after the contest, the Green Wave arrived back in New Orleans to a fervent welcome by thousands of supporters, who filled the city’s train station and streets to laud the team that now, 80 years later, ranks as the greatest Tulane has ever produced.
But as the 2011 Tulane football season opens, the 1931 squad is a distant memory. Says author and reporter Mule, “They’re a long ways from where they were then.”
The program began to change drastically in the 1950s and ‘60s, says unofficial Tulane historian Gayle Letulle, when university administrators, tired of financial deficits in the athletic department and sliding academic standards, decided to de-emphasize intercollegiate sports, including football.
Perhaps the most important part of that transition was withdrawing from the Southeastern Conference, which, thought Green Wave officials, contained schools that had lower academic standards than Tulane. The Green Wave was now an independent team in football, but gridiron success didn’t follow.
“Tulane thought they could be the Notre Dame of the South,” Mule says. “But guess what – that’s not the way it worked out.”
Other significant developments included a controversial move from the beloved but decaying Tulane Stadium to the cold confines of the Louisiana Superdome and the elimination of a physical education major that attracted numerous athletes who didn’t care too much about their studies.
The result was a football program that, for good or bad, rarely posted winning seasons and couldn’t attract the type of coaches and players needed to reach gridiron greatness. That trend, despite periodic spurts of more administrative support — including the one that produced the stellar unbeaten season in 1998 — continues to this day.
“The truth Tulane University has had to face for decades is do you do what you need to do to win, or don’t you?’”
Letulle says. “Do you relax your academic standards? Do you do what the other guys do even though it’s distasteful? Tulane drew a line. Tulane is now insistent that players graduate, and that’s good. If a kid is around for four or five years, he’s going to get a degree, and I’m proud of that. But it might cost you success on the field.”
However, Mule disagrees somewhat, saying that the Tulane administration has used the “academics come first” policy as “a kind of a crutch” when explaining the school’s football mediocrity. “Tulane leans on that too much,” he says. “Tulane acts like they don’t want to lower themselves [academically], but years of that kind of thinking is one of things that’s hurt Tulane.”
Longtime Tulane sports broadcaster Bruce Miller agrees. He says the demolition of Tulane Stadium and the move to the Superdome have crippled fan enthusiasm for the program, especially among the student body. In addition, a revolving door of coaches has hindered the football team.
“It’s just been up and down,” he says. “That’s the problem. They build up the program under a certain coach, but then they lose the coach because he moves on to another program. What they need to achieve is consistency.”
Mule agrees, noting that after the 1950s, Tulane administrators have vacillated between periods of strengthening athletics and periods of de-emphasizing them. “The policy has changed every few years,” he says.
Also not helping the Green Wave’s cause was a demoralizing point-shaving scandal in the basketball program in 1985 that threatened the future of the school’s athletic department, as well as, 20 years later, the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, which similarly placed Green Wave football in jeopardy.
However, despite Katrina and all the other obstacles facing the program, Tulane football has managed to survive. The school is now a member of Conference USA, a lower-tier but improving league that is glad to have Tulane’s academic prowess and steady membership.
“Having been a charter member, Tulane has provided a lot of great moments for Conference USA,” says Russ Anderson, the conference’s assistant commissioner for baseball and football operations. “Tulane is a very highly respected institution across the nation. I believe Tulane is a very good fit for Conference USA, and Conference USA is a very good fit for Tulane.”
Current university officials also state their support and optimism for Tulane football, and so far they’ve backed up their words. Earlier this year, the administration, led by Athletic Director Rick Dickson, unveiled The Playbook – Inside the Game Plan for Tulane Football, an assertive effort chronicling the recent gains of the program and outlining an ambitious vision for the future. Then, in June, the athletic department launched The Playbook Campaign, a concerted effort to boost fundraising, ticket sales and fan support for Wave football.
“I see the progress that we’ve made, and I’ve seen all the hard work our players and coaching staff have put into this program,” current head coach Bob Toledo said at the announcement of the campaign. “I see a bright future. I am proud to be the head football coach at Tulane University, and I believe in this program.”
But can the Green Wave ever return to those glory days 80 years ago, when Tulane reached the pinnacle of national gridiron acclaim? And just as important, can the football team rekindle the kind of fervent following those legendary teams attracted?
Former Times-Picayune beat writer Hochman, who covered the Wave from 2003-05 and wrote a book about the program’s gritty 2005 post-Katrina campaign, says that remains to be seen. That the team survived Katrina’s devastating aftermath proves that the potential for future success is there, he says.
However, the Wave lacks support on campus, where students are devoted to their studies and distracted by all the other recreational offerings found in New Orleans. Winning their hearts and minds will be difficult, Hochman says.
“There are still those ‘Southern gentlemen’ who love their Greenies,” Hochman says. “There are still generations who bleed green. But those people are getting gray, and for a lot of [current] students, athletics is an afterthought.”
And even if enthusiasm for the current Green Wave team experiences a groundswell, that’s no guarantee that newer, younger fans will even be aware that Tulane has a hidden tradition of excellence in its past.
“You want to encourage fans to embrace the history, to learn about the history,” Hochman says. “But because the interest of Tulane fans is just here and there, they’re clearly not [knowledgeable of the past]. But in a perfect world, you would like them to know about the 1931 team,” he adds, “because it’s something you can hang your hat on.”