This Date in Cardinal Football:
To reflect on what Stanford achieved with the football in 1940, consider 1968 cinema.
The success of head coach Clark Shaughnessy's T-formation was a landmark in the evolution of college football, not unlike the transformation Stanley Kubrick portrayed in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Picture the prehistoric man's airborne bone morphing into 21st-century spacecraft.
Opponents had no answer for the Indians' sudreliance on forward passes, men in motion and southpaw quarterback Frankie Albert's dazzling array of play-fakes. There had never been anything like it.
A season that ended 10-0 with a win over Nebraska in the Rose Bowl officially began on this same date 69 years ago, as the Stanford Indians blanked the University of San Francisco 27-0 at Kezar Stadium. Sportswriters penned Stanford the "Wow Boys" after the team took the field in stunning, new uniforms that inspired cries of "Wow!". It was a day where college football held court in the Bay Area.
The game was the second of a doubleheader at Kezar. In opener, Utah outlasted Santa Clara. Across the Bay at Memorial Stadium, Michigan and legendary running back Tom Harmon beat up on Cal 41-0, apparently using the same blunt instrument Oregon did last weekend. That year's Heisman Trophy winner ran a punt and a kickoff back for a touchdown. One fed-up Cal student ran onto the field to tackle him. Same old story for the Bears!
For Stanford, the Indians dominated statistically and on the scoreboard. They outrushed the Dons 209-33. Pete Kmetovic returned a punt 60 yards for a score. The effort showcased the gridiron wizardry of the lefty Albert (#13, aka the original "Mr. T"), a converted single-wing halfback who would enjoy many great games at the Golden Gate Park-based bowl as the original San Francisco 49ers quarterback.
Said Albert at the time, "I'll never forget the opening day against USF. For the entire first quarter, whenever we put Pete Kmetovic or Hugh Gallerneau in motion (before the snap of the ball), no Don griddes would follow them. It was just a matter of taking the ball from Vic Lindskog, our center, and throwing the ball 20 yards in the flat to either Pete of Hugh, and each would run 30 yards or perhaps all the way. It was that easy!"
"If Stanford ever wins a game with that crazy formation, you can throw all the football I ever knew into the Pacific Ocean," former Stanford head coach Pop Warner had said before the 1940 season began.
Such was the conventional wisdom Shaughnessy, who debuted at Stanford after going just 17-34-4 at the University of Chicago, would help to overcome.
While the T-formation opened up the entire field, teams normally pounded the ball straight into the line of scrimmage. A watermelon-shaped ball discouraged much passing. Quarterbacks were blockers; they almost never lined up under center. The single and double-wing formations, where ball-carriers took a direct snap seven yards behind the line, ruled the day.
Stanford was small compared to its Pacific Coast Conference rivals. Fullback Norm "The Big Chief" Standlee was the biggest, at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds. "The other team may score on us with their power, but we'll score on them faster with our speed and finesse," Shaughnessy said.
Shaughnessy also knew the importance of style. Today's date in 1940 saw the debut of a now-familiar look: The Indians ditched their usual moleskin pants and leather helmets, taking the Kezar field in crisp red jerseys, white pants, and plastic white helmets.
The Dons were the favorites, with oddsmakers mindful of the Indians' dismal 1-7-1 record of 1939. Stanford punted on its first three possessions before going 41 yards for a score. Albert found fullback Hugh Gallarneau for 17 yards in the flat. Standlee ran 20 yards on a counter play. Kmetovic then took the handoff and went up the middle for the game's first score.
The Indians doubled their lead with a TD by their reserves in the second quarter (in this "limited substitution" era, teams could only substitute once each quarter). Standlee burrowed into the end zone to make it 20-0 in the third, blasting through Don defender/star fullback Cliff Fisk. Kmetovic, a San Jose native who went on to be a coach, rugby coach and administrator on The Farm for 33 years, capped the scoring with a majestic return.
It was the first game of something very special. Stanford went on to engineer what remains as the program's only undefeated and untied season. The Indians finished No. 2 to Minnesota in the final national polls, which unfortunately came out before the postseason bowl games. Albert took fourth in the Heisman voting. Gallarneau, Kmetovic, Standlee and lineman Chuck Taylor established themselves to be among the top players in the country.
The Tribe outlasted a UCLA team whose star player was the great Jackie Robinson. At home against USC, Albert led a late touchdown drive to break a 7-7 tie, and then he returned an interception for a touchdown. Stanford survived a crowd of almost 90,000 at Memorial Stadium to beat the Bears 13-7, after losing the previous four Big Games.
Seven years ago, ESPN rated football's shift to the modern T-formation the second-most important innovation in sports, right behind baseball free agency. Credit Stanford University for pushing football so far along, even though it was long ago.
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