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Lone Star Sports: Bo McMillin - player and coach

Left: McMillin at Ft. Worth's North Side High School in 1913, Right: McMilllin at Centre in 1919

 Texas football is king. If you ask anyone from Texas, this is an indisputable fact. Sure other states have great traditions, teams and players, but Texas highlights the greatest talent across all levels. In USA Today’s High School Sports Super 25 football rankings (which ranks the top 25 high school teams in the nation), Texas landed four teams on the list with three finding their way into the top 11. In college football, 50% of the nation’s top four teams hail from the Lone Star state with TCU coming in at #2 and Baylor at #4. While Texas pro teams have struggled the last few seasons, the Dallas Cowboys remain one of the NFL’s most storied franchises and stars across the league trace their roots back to Texas.

However, this wasn’t always the case. For much of football’s early history, the east coast was the place for football. From the first recognized college football game in 1869 to 1919, the first 50 years of college football was dominated by east coast teams, especially Ivy League teams. Even today, those early years are felt. The list of school’s with the most national titles shows an unlikely pair at the top – Princeton with 28 and Yale with 27 (for comparison the next on the list is Notre Dame with 22 followed by Alabama with 19). In those first 50 years, Princeton and Yale combined for 47 titles, although it is important to remember there were multiple major selectors at the time, resulting in there being as few as one national champion per year or as many as five. In that same time period, there were only two Texas teams that were ever recognized as a national champion. The first was the 8-0 University of Texas team from 1914 and the second was Texas A&M’s 10-0 squad led by D.X. Bible in 1919. The 1914 title was shared with Army and Illinois while the 1919 title was split with Centre (led by ex-TAMU head coach Charley Moran), Harvard, Illinois and Notre Dame.

This brief and, admittedly, incomplete history lesson demonstrates the power of eastern squads and the relative obscurity of Texas teams in early college football. Of course that stigma would completely vanish by the 1930s, a decade that saw four Texas teams receive the title nod (SMU and TCU split in 1935, TCU in 1938 and Texas A&M in 1939). However, before Texas teams began to make their mark with regularity, individual athletes from the Lone Star state helped break down the powerful east. Perhaps no single person was more instrumental in this endeavor than Alvin Nugent McMillin, better known as Bo.

McMillin’s athletic career began in 1912 at Fort Worth’s North Side High School. Originally persuaded to play for North Side by the school’s new head coach, Robert L. Myers, Bo enrolled as a 17-year old freshmen. Myers saw qualities in McMillin that he knew would translate well – natural athleticism and a mean streak. By the next season, 1913, Myers had coached Bo and his teammates (including another familiar name, Matty Bell) to such improvement, that they only lost one game. By their final year, Myers, Bo and North Side claimed the state title.

Following that season, Myers returned to his alma mater, Centre College. Located in Danville, Kentucky, Centre was a small Presbyterian school with no noteworthy football history. That was about to change. With Myer’s return, he recruited his “Fort Worth gang” to join him. Bo, having started high school late, didn’t have enough credits to immediately join the team, so he spent a season at a Kentucky prep school. In 1917, Bo joined his teammates at Centre along with another new face – Charley Moran, the head coach at Texas A&M from 1909 to 1914, would be taking over the reins in Danville. The team showed immediate improvement. After losing to Kentucky 68-0 in 1916, Centre would defeat the Wildcats 3-0 on a field goal by their newest player, Bo McMillin (it was his first field goal attempt ever).

McMillin’s biggest mark came in his final year at Centre, 1921, when the Praying Colonels made a trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts to play eastern power Harvard. Harvard was considered the greatest team in the country at the time having won 25 straight games including a 31-14 victory over Centre the year before. Harvard was very much a part of the eastern dynasty that included Princeton and Yale. While the Harvard Crimson’s national title count isn’t quite as gaudy as their Ivy League counterparts, they still boast an impressive total of seven. When Centre rambled into Harvard Stadium that October day, there was only one question – how bad would the hometown Crimson defeat tiny Centre?

The first half of the game was shocking enough for most in attendance, the Praying Colonels and the Crimson retreated for the mid-game break knotted at 0-0. In the 1920 version of the Centre-Harvard game, Centre had made a similarly shocking statement in the first half. In fact, the boys from Kentucky were leading mighty Harvard 14-7 before the superior Crimson flexed their muscle to run away in the second half. Almost everyone in Harvard Stadium that day (about 45,000) believed a similar storyline would play out in the second half of the 1921 game. Early in the third quarter the game’s decisive play would take place. Following All-American “Red” Roberts’ blocking, McMillin would spring free, racing away from Crimson defenders for a 32-yard touchdown run. It would be the lone score as the Praying Colonels won 6-0.

McMillin races past Harvard defenders for the game-winner

 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students in attendance to cheer against rival Harvard rushed the field, tearing down goalposts and carrying McMillin off the field on their shoulders. Back in Danville, Kentucky, Centre students celebrated the victory with what they dubbed the “impossible formula” C6H0 (Centre 6 Harvard 0). The “impossible formula” was painted all over the school, town buildings and even on a few passing cows. On October 29, 1921, Centre College became the first non-eastern team to defeat one of the Ivy League’s “Big Three” (Princeton, Yale and Harvard).

The game has been well remembered throughout the years – in 1950, the Associated Press named it the greatest sports upset of the first half of the 20th century while in 2005, The New York Times called it, "arguably the upset of the century in college football" and, in 2006, ESPN named it the third-biggest upset in the 138-year history of college football. All of this inspired by the short trot of a native Texan representing a Kentucky school with a student body of less than 300.

After the 1921 season, Centre would travel to play Texas A&M on January 2, 1922 in the Dixie Classic. While Centre would fall 22-14, the game made a huge impact on Texas sports history – this is the game where Texas A&M’s famous 12th Man tradition was born. Outside of the loss to A&M, McMillin and Centre finished the 1921 campaign by outscoring their opponents 314-6. Along with Harvard, Centre would defeat Virginia Tech, Auburn, Arizona and Clemson in 1921.

McMillin would conclude his Centre career with a record of 38-4 while the Praying Colonels outscored their opponents 1,757 to 121. He was a three-time All-American, making the list in 1919, 1920 and 1921.

After his playing days were done, Bo McMillin continued his career as a coach. While he coached at several schools, including Centenary College, Geneva College and Kansas State, McMillin’s biggest impact as a college head coach came at Indiana where he led the Hoosiers to their first conference title, winning the Big Ten in 1945. Twice, McMillin was elected as the coach for the College All-Star team as they played a match against the NFL’s reigning champions.

When he was elected the first time in 1938, McMillin said, “This is the greatest thrill I’ve ever had. I think that being chosen coach of the All-Star team is the pinnacle of a coach’s career.” McMillin lined up his players on August 31, 1938 to face the Washington Redskins and their star player, Sammy Baugh (TCU), in front of a crowd of 74,250. The All-Stars would win 28-16. McMillin was again selected to coach the All-Stars in 1946. This time, in front of a crowd of 97,380, McMillin would repeat, leading the All-Stars to victory over the Los Angeles Rams 16-0.

This College All-Star game, played from 1934 to 1976, saw the professional teams post a winning record of 31-9-2. McMillin posted two of the College All-Stars’ victories as a coach while never falling to his professional opponent (just for comparison Alabama’s Frank Thomas [two national titles], Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd [one national title] and Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy [five national titles] all coached the College All-Stars. As a group they posted a 1-4 record while being outscored by their professional opponents 67-33).

Impressed with his success in college, McMillin served brief stints as the lead man for the Detroit Lions and the Philadelphia Eagles. However, his story would end on devastating note. After coaching just two games for the Eagles, McMillin went into surgery for ulcers. What the doctors found was far worse – Bo had stomach cancer. On March 31, 1952, Bo passed away being buried days later surrounded by dozens of former players and fellow coaches. McMillin remains immortalized in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame. Bo was also selected as the AFCA Coach of the Year in 1945 and received the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award in 1952.

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