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Last Chance U: About Those Praying Football Teams From The South

On July 21 Netflix released Season 2 of Last Chance U, which documents the 2016 football season at East Mississippi Community College. Since you clicked on this post, I'm going to assume that you are familiar with Last Chance U's basic storyline--if not, this piece provides a nice introduction to the series. 


The "Praying Colonels" of Centre College
Association Men, March 1920

On Season 1 of Last Chance U, it quickly became apparent that the Lord's Prayer was routine and familiar for members of the East Mississippi Community College football team. "Everybody touch somebody," head coach Buddy Stephens would say. Then, players' heads bowed, the words came tumbling out: "Our father who art in heaven...."

Apparently the efforts of the Freedom From Religion Foundation did not halt the prayers at East Mississippi, because Season 2 shows that rapid-fire recitations of the Lord's Prayer are alive and well in Scooba, Mississippi. Although team prayer is a common occurrence on college football teams across the nation, it is a ritual most closely associated with the South. And that connection—between prayer, football, and southern identity—has a long history, extending back at least a century to the days when the Centre College "Praying Colonels" became a national phenomenon.

Today Centre College, a small (formerly) Presbyterian college in Danville, Kentucky, plays NCAA Division III football. It's a far cry from the bright lights and glamor of big-time football (and even a step below top junior colleges like East Mississippi). But nearly a century ago the Colonels briefly ran with the elites, competing against and defeating some of the nation's top football teams.

Centre College's climb into college football lore began in 1917. Despite an enrollment of just a couple hundred students, Centre College claimed a distinguished group of alumni, including successful politicians, judges, and lawyers. Its supporters loved to quote Woodrow Wilson’s 1903 words: “There is a little college down in Kentucky which, in her sixty years, has graduated more men who have acquired prominence and fame than has Princeton in her 150 years.”

In athletics, however, Centre College lacked great achievement. In an effort to bring athletic glory to the school, in 1917 Centre College graduate Robert L. Myers took over as athletic director. Myers had previously coached an undefeated high school football team in Fort Worth, Texas, and he convinced five of those players—including star player Bo McMillin—to bring their talents to Centre College. Myers also convinced Charley Moran, a Kentucky-born journeyman athlete who had experience as a football player, coach, and referee, to take over coaching duties for the team in 1917. With an experienced coach and a soon-to-be superstar in McMillin, the 1917 season marked the beginning of Centre College’s rise to prominence.

The most important game that year was against Centre's in-state rival, the University of Kentucky. Led by Bo McMillin, who drop-kicked the game's only points, Centre College emerged with an upset 3-0 victory. More importantly for Centre College's future fame, a newspaper report of the game included this detail:

"A touching incident occurred in the game before the team came out on the field. When the coaches had finished their final instructions to the men and had made their last appeals, Bob Mathias, fullback of the Colonels, got down on his knees on the floor of the dressing room and prayed to God for victory and for old Centre. There was not a dry eye in the room when he finished."

Mathias was not the first football player to pray before a game, nor was Centre College the first team to do so. Reports from the late nineteenth century tell of players from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton praying before their football showdowns. But Mathias's prayer did inaugurate the pre-game ritual for the Colonels.

Two years later Centre's prayers began to attract national attention. The impetus came from an upset win against West Virginia. At the time the road to football glory went through the elite northeastern schools, and West Virginia had beaten one of them (Princeton) the previous week. Thus, Centre's supporters viewed their victory over West Virginia as proof that they—and the South—had arrived. One Kentucky newspaper declared that Centre's win proved to "a doubting continent that football teams are grown south of the 'Smith and Wesson' line."

The win immediately piqued the interest of the northeastern sports press. Curious about the upstart football power from Kentucky, sports editors dispatched reporters to inquire about the team. They were especially interested in finding something distinctively "southern" about the team, some way to depict Centre College as different. The team's pre-game ritual proved to be just the ticket. The first nationally syndicated article about the Colonels, written by Fred Turbyville in 1919, began this way: "Centre College gets down on its knees and prays and cries and then goes out and wins another football game."

Turbyville emphasized prayer throughout the article. He wrote of the "briny tears" that "course down the cheeks of the husky athletes" during pre-game prayers, and he discussed the team's prayer before their game against West Virginia, which was supposedly led by Centre College's president, William Ganfield.

"It was something new to me. I've prayed before, of course, but I never prayed for a football team," Ganfield told Turbyville. "I felt sort of foolish crying with the boys, but the tears came. I have never seen a college with such spirit as Centre. A successful football team is: first, material; second, coaching, and third, spirit. We have all."

Having gained national attention for praying, Centre's coach Charley Moran decided to embrace the team's ritual. In post-season banquets celebrating the undefeated 1919 Colonel football team, Moran spoke publicly for the first time about his team's prayers. He credited the ritual with providing the "divine assistance" that "enabled our victories." With a keen eye for publicity, he also began asking players to end the celebratory post-season banquets with a prayer. Newspapers, of course, dutifully reported this detail. And when Association Men, the YMCA’s national publication, published a March 1920 article celebrating the “Praying Kentuckians,” the team's pious reputation reached new heights.

The article attributed Centre's penchant for prayer to Charley Moran, and framed it as an extension of "the simple religious faith" of Moran's Horse Cave, Kentucky, hometown. "Down in my country I have never heard that being a Christian took anything out of a man," Moran told Association Men. "In fact, put a clean, right-thinking man against one of dirty mind and unrighteousness and see who comes out on top." In the wake of the Association Men article, sportswriters increasingly referred to Centre College as the "Praying Colonels." And with a game against Harvard looming in 1920, the Praying Colonels legend was ready to reach new heights.

In the run-up to the 1920 Centre College/Harvard matchup, northeastern sportswriters continued to lavish attention on the Praying Colonels. Although they did not focus exclusively on the team's reputation for prayer, they continued to pry for details. Sportswriters especially loved Centre fullback Red Roberts' reply when asked, "Is it true the members of your team pray just before going into a game?"

"Hell yes!" Roberts told the reporter.

Prayer did not bring victory against Harvard, however. Although Centre College jumped to an early lead, they could not match Harvard's depth, losing 31-14. Despite the loss, reports from northeastern sportswriters remarked favorably on Centre College's efforts. Keen on romanticizing intersectional games between northern and southern colleges, some reporters framed the game in Lost Cause hues, with the underdog southerners from Centre College fighting valiantly but coming up short.

One northern author was so enthusiastic about Centre College as a Lost Cause metaphor that he turned it into a novel. In First Down, Kentucky! (1921), based on the "true story" of Centre College football, Ralph Paine described the Praying Colonels' game against Harvard as a “bold raid” that stirred “the spirit of Dixie-Land.” Paine used the Colonels' pre-game prayers as a mark of their southern identity, a practice that differentiated them from Harvard. "To these shrewd practical No'therners this was sentimental drivel," Paine wrote. "Harvard football had the wealth, the material, the efficiency of a large business corporation. Football at Danville had been largely builded upon sentiment."

Reflecting Lost Cause interpretations of the Civil War, Paine ended First Down, Kentucky! with Centre College losing their game against Harvard but gaining honor and respect for the South.

Paine's book would need an update the very next year. In the rematch, Centre College upended Harvard 6-0, an upset for the ages. Southerners gloried in Centre's victory with headlines like "Centre Upholds Dixie's Honor." The governor of Kentucky, Edwin P. Morrow, participated in a victory parade on the Monday after the game. After announcing that he would gladly swap positions with Bo McMillin, Red Roberts, or any other Centre College player, he declared that "all Kentucky glories in the valor of this Centre team" and framed the game as a matter of regional pride. "From this day forward there will be a new football championship. The title will not remain in any one section but will be fought for by representatives from every section."

The Praying Colonels never topped their 1921 upset of Harvard, although they were relatively successful through the 1924 season. After that year, Centre College declined as a football power, in part because of their response to some of the same academic issues faced by East Mississippi in Last Chance U. While star players like Bo McMillin brought Centre widespread acclaim, McMillin—who left Centre College without graduating—had shown little interest in academic life or attending class. Word quickly spread about Centre's lax academic standards. Forced to choose between football glory and a respectable academic reputation, Centre College chose the latter. By the end of the 1920s the school was unable to keep up with the big spenders on the college football scene and the Praying Colonels were no longer nationally relevant.

Nearly a century later, prayer and football remain intertwined in the South. There are key differences of course. Centre College's pre-game ritual was used by sportswriters to depict the team as a throwback to the simple days of the romanticized "Old South," part of a mythology that was used to justify segregation and the continued subjugation of African Americans. Today, however, whether at East Mississippi or at Division I programs like Clemson and Alabama, most of the players on southern rosters are black.

There are differences, too, in the responses to prayer. In Last Chance U the prayers are usually routine and mechanical. But prayer was apparently an emotional experience for Centre College. To be sure, the descriptions of players (and college presidents) crying as they prayed were probably exaggerated, and there is no question that Charley Moran orchestrated some of the publicity for his praying team. According to one story that circulated years after the fact, the Praying Colonels were staying in a New York hotel one day when a familiar face happened to stroll through. "Down on your knees, quick, you bastards," Moran reportedly told his players, "here comes Grantland Rice." But that story is based on less reliable source material than the stories about the team's emotional, tear-inducing prayers, for which we have newspaper accounts in 1917, long before national sportswriters were interested.

Because of the many differences between the two schools and their cultural and historical context, we cannot simply draw a straight line between Centre College and East Mississippi. But we can at least say this: from the Praying Colonels to Last Chance U, the cultural image of the praying football team has been presented as a southern phenomenon for a long, long time. 

Comments

  1. Issues of separation of church and state aside (and that is one huge aside), victory in a football game is a questionable use of prayer.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree. The Centre College players seemed to recognize this, too. Although early reports of their prayers noted that they prayed for victory, as the team received more publicity they began to emphasize that they prayed not for victory, but only for the will to do their best and work together as a team, etc.

      Delete
  2. Centre is NOT a land-grant, state-sponsored college. It is private and its athletes can pray wherever and whenever they damn well please.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think I insinuated anywhere above that Centre College is a state-sponsored school. But you are obviously correct about that.

      Delete

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