The 47 Santa Clara football players and their entourage weren’t sure what was in store at the other end of the line when their Southern Pacific Bronco Special pulled out of the Santa Clara train station the day after Christmas 1936. But they knew who they were and whence they had come: through a season that, by the end of November, was 7-0 and had them ranked fifth in the Associated Press college football poll, introduced that fall. They beat Stanford, Auburn, and rival St. Mary’s. And on Dec. 4, they accepted a bid to play No. 2-ranked Louisiana State University in the Sugar Bowl at New Orleans’ Tulane Stadium.
It was virtually a home game for the Tigers; oddsmakers favored LSU 4-to-1. The LSU program had been a public plaything of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long before his assassination in 1935: He’d hired and fired coaches, involved himself in recruiting—even tried to dictate play calls. He devoted enormous state resources to strengthening the university. One result: The LSU line averaged 212 pounds—25 pounds more than Santa Clara’s.
The Broncos were virtually unknown in the football-loving East, Midwest, and South. An AP preview story on the eve of the Sugar Bowl included multiple references to the “Bronchos.” Most Santa Clara players came from first- or second-generation immigrant Bay Area families and regarded their football experiences as extensions of their working-class backgrounds. In the midst of the Depression, few of them could have considered college had it not been for their football skills. They played as if far more than the outcome of a game was at stake.
They also had Coach Buck Shaw. He drilled his men in “moving your feet, keeping your balance, things like that,” said center Phil Dougherty ’37.
They were smaller but faster.
“There was no question we thought we could win the game,” teammate Jesse Coffer ’37 said. “We were good, and we knew it.”