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Prayer, revenge, and radiating manhood — A history of Kansas State in Morgantown

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The West Virginia Mountaineers and Kansas State Wildcats have met annually since 2012, but the connection of the two football programs began with a century-old legend surrounding a colonel’s prayer.

The 1931 Kansas State Agricultural College football team listens to instruction from coach Bo McMillin during a practice at Memorial Stadium.
The 1931 Kansas State Agricultural College football team listens to instruction from coach Bo McMillin (left) during a practice at Memorial Stadium.
From the 1932 edition of The Royal Purple yearbook, courtesy of archive.org.

Kansas State will travel back to Morgantown Saturday for the fifth time since the Mountaineers blessed the Big 12 with a splash of Appalachian culture. The two teams don’t seem to have much connection outside of their conference affiliation, but their history goes back more than a century.

And it began with a prayer.

The “Praying” Colonels

The popular version of the story goes like this:

Bo McMillin led his Centre Colonials to one corner of Laidley Field in Charleston, W. Va., where they knelt in prayer.

Centre was a small school in Danville, Ky. with somewhere between 150-300 students. The Colonels were 5-0 so far in 1919, but they had come to West Virginia to face a Mountaineer team fresh off a 25-0 blowout of powerhouse Princeton. The win garnered national attention and prompted Walter Camp to declare West Virginia’s offense “unstoppable” and name them his early pick for the National Championship.

Reports claim Bo McMillin and the Colonels arrived at the game in tattered jerseys and had to borrow a few helmets from the Mountaineers to play.

Ira “Rat” Rodgers was the Mountaineers’ star fullback. Coming out of the Princeton game, Walter Camp called him the best player in the country. Rodgers viewed the Centre game as a “breather” before West Virginia’s matchup with Rutgers.

He showed why in the first drive of the game as he led the Mountaineers to the end zone in just four plays to take a 6-0 lead.

Centre players after the defeat of West Virginia.
Centre players after the defeat of West Virginia. Left to right: Bill James, Ben Cregor, Norris Armstrong, Joe Murphy, Charles Moran
Unknown author, Public domain, via Centre archives

Bo — who played quarterback, safety, and kick returner — wasn’t fazed. The defense held Rodgers and West Virginia scoreless through the rest of the game, including two late goal-line stands. The Colonels took a 7-6 lead in the third quarter. Then Bo sealed the win with a sidestep and stroll into the end zone in the fourth to make it 14-6.

The win shifted national attention from Morgantown to Danville and made the “Praying Colonels” the closest thing to a household name that a college football team could be in 1919.

Bo would later say the story of the on-field prayer was embellished — that prayers did occur before Colonel games, but in the locker room, asking God not for victory but “that nobody got hurt real bad and that we’d play a real good game like we’d been taught.”

Despite his account, Centre’s football team is known colloquially as the “Praying” Colonels to this day. Bo would lead Centre to a 9-0 record in 1919, good enough to earn them a National Championship claim, according to Jeff Sagarin.

The Colonels would stay powerful throughout Bo’s playing years, going 8-2 in 1920 with losses to Georgia Tech and a Harvard team which seemed unbeatable. The Colonels would avenge the loss a year later, ending Harvard’s 25-game unbeaten streak with a 6-0 win that’s considered one of the greatest upsets in college football history. Following the victory, the local Danville paper named Bo “President of the United States for Time Being” and Kentucky governor Edwin P. Morrow declared, “I’d rather be Bo McMillin at this moment than the governor of Kentucky.

The Colonels would finish 1921 10-1, with the only loss coming against Texas A&M in Bo’s final game — notable also as the game that birthed “the 12th Man.”

Bo would make a name for himself off the gridiron as well. He was famous as a man who never drank, smoked, or swore, but he loved to hustle pool sharks and gamble. Some said he could throw dice against a ceiling and make them roll sevens on the bed. When Colonel teammates would slack off or miss assignments in practice, Bo was known to fight them or yell substitute swears such as “I’ll be a dirty name!” or “Oh my side and body!”

In 1922, Bo would split time between pro football and college coaching. After posting a 26-3 record in three years coaching Centenary College of Louisiana, Bo committed to coaching full-time. In 1925 he moved from Centenary to Geneva College in Pennsylvania, where he continued winning. He led the Covenanters to a 22-5-1 record, going unbeaten in 1927 and claiming a 16-7 victory over Harvard.

That’s when Mike Ahearn came calling.

“The qualities of manhood he radiates”

You must take a blow or give one
You must risk and you must lose
And expect that in the struggle
You will suffer from a bruise
But you mustn’t wince or flatter
If a fight you once begin
Be a man and face the battle
That’s the only way to win

Excerpt of a poem recited by Bo McMillan at a chapel gathering of Kansas State Agricultural College students, Apr. 8, 1928

Bo McMillin found football while running from the cops.

At least, that’s the story he told.

As a youth in Fort Worth, he had to quit school at age 12 and work so his brother could keep playing football at North Side High School.

“I was always in the scraps,” he said. “One day I tried to sneak into the baseball park. A cop caught me and shoved me into his car. I busted out the other side and ran for my life.”

The North Side football coach, Robert “Chief” Myers, saw him and later asked him to come out for football.

“I used to carry a cue stick around to protect myself,” Bo said. “I told Chief, ‘Just give me the ball and my cue stick and I’ll mow them monkeys down.’ And that darned Chief took my cue stick away.”

He liked to tell another story of the time a cop caught him breaking windows with rocks and asked him why he did it.

“Well sir,” Bo replied. “I was on my way to confession and I was short on material.”

Bo was a master orator and endeared himself to any crowd. With his deep Texas drawl, he had a unique talent for spawning smiles and raising spirits.

When Bo arrived in Manhattan, spirits were low.

“With Charles Bachman leaving ... word has gotten out that the Aggie gridiron would be an ideal site for a cemetery next fall,” read a column in the Dec. 29, 1927 issue of The Manhattan Republic.

Bachman had announced his departure in November, citing a need for a new climate for his ailing wife. He had been the most successful Aggie football coach since Ahearn left the position in 1910. He led the Aggies to their first competitive seasons in the Missouri Valley Conference and their first win against Kansas since 1906 (only their second such win in history). Bachman stepped away with a 33-23-9 record in eight seasons and a 17-20-7 record in conference. His teams finished in the top three in the conference three times, tying for second in 1921. He went 4-0-2 against the Jayhawks in his last six seasons.

Following the announcement of his resignation, the attitude around Manhattan wasn’t the most positive.

“Town support is nothing like it has been,” the Republic column continued. “There is hardly any school spirit either among the students and faculty. Pep meetings have a funeral air. An impression is general among students that the town people are merely tolerating them for the money they spend in Manhattan.”

Ahearn, who hired Bachman as his first act upon returning to KSAC as Athletic Director in 1920, knew he needed to hire someone who could restore confidence in Aggie football.

Ahearn traveled to Pennsylvania to meet with Bo and was immediately impressed.

“Mike’s report was so favorable that we had McMillin visit Manhattan and the college,” said Dr. H.H. King, chairman of the Athletic Council. “He said teaching men the principles of manhood through football had been his ambition since he was 14 years old.”

King said the primary factor in Bo’s hiring wasn’t his reputation or his winning record, but “the qualities of manhood he radiates.”

“He has those qualities which inspire one to believe in him,” King said.

Soon after the hire, prominent Manhattan businessmen were sending Bo letters of support. His demeanor had won them over after Ahearn introduced him at a Chamber of Commerce banquet. Students invited him to speak at the college chapel one Sunday, where he recited a favorite poem. Soon after, several students were in the library looking for the poem in print.

Bo was making an impression. All that was left to do was play football.

They meet again

While Bo was establishing himself in Manhattan, West Virginia continued the success of Ira Rodgers-led teams a decade earlier. After the famous “Praying Colonels” game in 1919, Rodgers led the Mountaineers to an 8-2 record and then joined the coaching staff.

Since Rodgers’ freshman season, Mont McIntire had been West Virginia’s head coach, but he left after 1920. Clarence Spears was hired from Dartmouth to replace him and kept Rodgers on staff. Spears led the Mountaineers to a 30-6-3 record in four seasons, including an unbeaten 10-0-1 campaign in 1922. West Virginia lost only one game each in 1923 and 1924.

Spears left after the 1924 season to become the University of Minnesota coach, and Rodgers was named his replacement. In 1925, Rodgers maintained Spears’ success, leading the Mountaineers to an 8-1 record and recording seven shutouts. The two teams to score on them were rival Pittsburgh in the lone loss of the year, and Grove City College, which West Virginia routed 54-3.

The Mountaineers would go on to post a 20-13-6 record over the next four seasons.

Meanwhile, in Manhattan, Bo’s first season saw the Aggies/Wildcats win their first three games before losing the next five — all conference games — including the first loss to Kansas in seven years.

Despite the losses, the overall attitude around Manhattan remained positive.

“While the Wildcats have failed to chalk up a victory against Big Six opponents, the spirit that has been instilled and the manner in which Bo McMillin is conducting the team is a source of satisfaction,” read a Nov. 27, 1928 column in The Morning Chronicle.

“Don’t count the Aggies out for 1929,” The Kansas Industrialist wrote following an 8-0 loss to Nebraska to close the season on Nov. 29. “Nobody that saw them battle with the Cornhuskers is doing so.”

The losing continued to open 1929 as the Wildcats lost their opening two games to Purdue and Texas A&M. But speaking to the crowd at a pep rally before K-State faced the Jayhawks to open Big Six play, Bo was unfazed.

“I’m gonna tell you folks something,” he said. “We’re gonna win Saturday.”

A photo of Bo McMillin.
Bo McMillin
from the 1932 edition of the Kansas State Agricultural College Royal Purple yearbook, via archive.org.

They did, beating KU 6-0. They followed the win with a one-point loss to Oklahoma, and then back-to-back wins over Missouri and Iowa State. The season ended with a 10-6 loss to Nebraska and a 25-6 loss to Marquette, and the Wildcats finished third in the Big Six.

After the season, spirits were high. But to find more success, Bo would need to dig into his past.

K-State would add two intersectional games to the schedule for 1930: It would play Bo’s alma mater Centre College on Nov. 22. But first, on Nov. 8 — exactly 11 years after the “Praying Colonels” game — Bo would face off with Ira Rodgers and the West Virginia Mountaineers.

As far as I can find, the game came about for two reasons. First, as college football was transitioning from a regional to a national game, both Ahearn and West Virginia Athletic Director H.A. Stansbury were under pressure from fans and boosters to schedule games in more sections of the country. Second, when Ahearn came to Bo and asked him if he’d rather play Wisconsin or West Virginia, he chose the Mountaineers.

I can find no evidence that the scheduling had anything to do with Bo’s history with Rodgers or the “Praying Colonels” game. One Associated Press article that appeared in the Nov. 2, 1930 issue of The Morning Chronicle breaks down the history between the two coaches without any input from either one. But considering the past and the coincidence of both games falling on Nov. 8, it’s easy to imagine that Rodgers was at least somewhat motivated to get his revenge on Bo.

The Wildcats opened 1930 2-2 with wins against Washburn and Missouri sandwiched around shutout losses to Kansas and Oklahoma. West Virginia began the season two weeks earlier, playing seven games before the matchup with the K-State, going 4-3.

“We certainly had a nice trip.”

The Wildcats were in good spirits following their win against Missouri, something they hadn’t done since 1922. Now, they would make the long trip to Morgantown. With intersectional games like this so rare at the time, the trip itself was news. The Nov. 4 issue of The Manhattan Mercury laid out each planned stop, which serves as a glimpse into the travel logistics for football teams of the time.

The Wildcats boarded a train to Kansas City on the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 5. From there, they went on to Chicago, where they arrived Thursday morning. They went from Chicago to Evanston, Ill. for practice at Northwestern. The next stop was Friday in Beaver Falls, Pa. for another practice on the field at Bo’s last coaching stop — Geneva. They traveled from Geneva directly to Morgantown.

The practice seemed to pay off for K-State as the game opened. After losing the ball on downs on their first drive, the Wildcats recovered a fumble at the West Virginia 28. Fullback Price Swartz would make the turnover count, running for a touchdown to give K-State a 7-0 lead.

The Wildcat defense was strong in the first half but allowed one score. The teams would take a 7-7 tie into halftime, but West Virginia would run in two more touchdowns in the third quarter to extend the lead to 21-7. The Wildcats moved the ball reasonably well in the game, but the Mountaineer defense was staunch when it mattered, and K-State had several drives stall inside the West Virginia 5-yard-line.

The game’s final points came when that staunch defense caught Wildcat halfback Elden Auker in the endzone for a safety. The Wildcats would end their first-ever trip to Morgantown with a 23-7 loss.

The 1931 edition of The Royal Purple yearbook opens its summary of the game with a quote from an unknown player.

“We certainly had a nice trip.”

In the 1953 book Football’s Greatest Coaches, Bo’s retrospective highlights that he loved to win but never took football too seriously. The book tells of Bo’s pure passion for football and how he often kept things light for players at practice, joking around and keeping the attitude generally positive.

“Boys, I want you to go out there and just have fun,” the book quotes Bo as saying. “Every time you block, say to yourself, ‘Podner, ain’t we havin’ fun? Ain’t it a great day for football?’”

But for all the focus on fun, he hated losing. He once described losing to a rival as “always something to make you want to take sleeping pills.”

Bo wanted his players to have fun, but he also wanted to win, and it was time for the Wildcats to start winning.

“Ample revenge”

K-State would rip off three wins to close the 1930 season, beating Iowa State and Bo’s alma mater Centre by a combined score of 40-0. The season would end with a 10-9 win over Nebraska in Lincoln — Bo’s first triumph against the Cornhuskers — to give the Wildcats another third-place finish in the Big Six.

The Wildcats would continue winning in 1931, opening the season with dominating wins over Pittsburg State (28-7) and Missouri (20-7). Two shutout victories over KU and Oklahoma would follow, giving K-State a 4-0 record — the best start yet under Bo — as it prepared to return to Morgantown.

Ira Rodgers resigned as the Mountaineers coach at the end of the 1930 season. The victory over K-State would be his last (though he would return to the job in 1943 for three more seasons).

The resignation conjured up some drama as WVU officials named Alfred Earle “Greasy” Neale as Rodgers replacement almost immediately. Stranger yet was the immediate announcement that Rodgers would remain on the coaching staff as an adviser and scout. Neale’s hire was not popular with alumni, and some speculation surrounded the fact that Neale and West Virginia Athletic Director H.A. Stansbury were once teammates at West Virginia Wesleyan. Despite the controversy, the hire stuck.

Concerns seemed to be confirmed as the 1931 season opened. The Mountaineers won the opener 14-6 against Duquesne, but a 1-3 record followed, including a 34-0 drubbing by rival Pitt.

As West Virginia entered preparations for its Halloween rematch with the Wildcats, the two teams seemed to be on nearly opposite trajectories. Since they’d met last season, K-State hadn’t lost a game (7-0). The Mountaineers were 2-5.

K-State made only one stop on its second trip east to Morgantown. Again it was in Chicago, but this time they practiced at Soldier Field. As luck would have it, the University of Mississippi team was also at Soldier Field that day, on its way to face Marquette in Milwaukee. The two teams held a dummy scrimmage, giving the Wildcats a more robust practice against tougher competition.

When the team arrived in Morgantown Friday, Bo found out they’d be riding with Notre Dame’s team on its return trip from facing Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh. Friday night, Bo met with the team and told them it would be terrible to ride with Notre Dame after a defeat.

As the game kicked off, heavy showers forced the teams to deal with a slippery field and low visibility. Despite the weather, Wildcat captain Henry Cronkite was able to hit field goals in both the first and second quarters. K-State’s defense was also unfazed as it held West Virginia to just 55 first-half yards and forced three turnovers, then opened the second half by forcing another. Elden Auker made it count on the next play, throwing a 33-yard touchdown pass to Emmett Breen.

Ralph Graham ran in the final Wildcat score in the fourth to seal a 19-0 shutout win, which The Kansas City Star called “ample revenge” for the 23-7 loss K-State suffered in 1930.

Epilogue

Following the game, the excitement around the program soared to maybe its highest heights ever. The Wildcats were off to their best start since 1926, and some thought the success might lead to the Rose Bowl. But Ralph Graham—who would later return to K-State as its coach—suffered a knee injury late in the West Virginia game that kept him out of the next three games. Without him, the Wildcats would lose by a combined four points to Iowa State and Nebraska in the next two games.

“I’ve thought about that season for 60 years,” Graham told The Wichita Eagle in 1993, “because I knew I was on a great team.”

Following the two losses, K-State would close the season 3-0 for an 8-2 finish.

“We came so close. Four points. That’s all we lost to those two teams by,” Graham said. “I keep thinking about it. If I just hadn’t gotten hurt.”

The 1931 team would outscore its opponents 164-39. The close losses to Iowa State and Nebraska meant another 3rd-place conference finish, but the season would be Bo’s best at K-State in terms of wins.

He would coach the Wildcats two more years, going 10-6-1. His final season in 1933 would see K-State lose only one Big Six game — a 9-0 slugfest with Nebraska. The Wildcats would finish second in the conference, and Bo would accept the head coaching job at Indiana for 1934. With a record of 29-21-1, Bo would be the last multi-year K-State head coach to leave with a winning record until Bill Snyder.

It would be 81 years before the Wildcats would make their next trip to Morgantown. Collin Klein and 4th-ranked K-State would pummel the 17th-ranked Mountaineers 55-14. The Wildcats would also win their next trip to Morgantown in 2014 but have been winless in two trips since.

The K-State-West Virginia series is 5-5 all-time, with West Virginia winning the last four in a row.

The Wildcats are 3.5 point underdogs this Saturday as the two teams meet again on Halloween. It will mark the 89th anniversary of K-State’s first win in Morgantown.

One more Bo quote applies to the occasion and encapsulates his spirit probably better than any other — one to which modern K-State fans can certainly relate.

“The underdog doesn’t always lose. Sometimes he comes out on top.”