Celebrating 75 years of back-to-back victories in the Sugar Bowl
This year marks the 75th anniversary of when Santa Clara University’s football program reached the rarest of sports apexes: In a Sugar Bowl rematch turned reprise, the 1937 Santa Clara Broncos defeated Louisiana State 6–0 in New Orleans on Jan. 1, 1938, to complete their first and only perfect season against collegiate competition. Unbeaten and untied, the 1937 Broncos and their 9–0 record qualify as elite by any standard.
A QUIET SEASON?
Only three starters from the 1936 season—center Phil Dougherty ’38, tackle Al Wolff ’40, and quarterback Chuck Pavelko ’40—were in the starting lineup for the 1937 season opener. The schedule seemed to offer little in the way of platforms for national exposure. At a time when national television broadcasting didn’t exist and most of college football’s radio, newspaper, and magazine coverage was generated east of the Mississippi, seven of Santa Clara’s eight 1937 games were to be played in California. Among those seven opponents, only Stanford, in the season opener, qualified as a readily recognizable national brand.
The Pacific Coast Conference, the forerunner of today’s Pacific-12 Conference, had established a freeze-out scheduling policy against small-school independents like Santa Clara, and Stanford was the only PCC school that would agree to schedule the Broncos. The University of California at Berkeley, citing the freeze-out, had taken Santa Clara off its schedule after the 1935 season, and the teams didn’t resume playing until 1941. A Santa Clara–Cal game in 1937 would have been among the most eagerly anticipated on the West Coast up to that time. The Bears, led by All-America first-team selections Vic Bottari and Sam Chapman, went 10–0–1 (including a scoreless tie against Washington), beat Alabama in the Rose Bowl, and finished No. 2 in the final AP poll—still the highest ranking in school history.
BUCK SHAW’S SECRET SAUCE
But Santa Clara had head coach Buck Shaw, who had shocked the college football realm in his first season in 1935 by challenging for the national championship with a program that went 3–5–1. After his first Sugar Bowl win, in 1937, he saw opportunities rather than obstacles. One reason was the fact that he knew his team wouldn’t have to put up more than perfunctory point totals to win.
Shaw today is considered the master defensive innovator of his coaching generation; he is credited with originating what’s now called the 4–3 system, and it wasn’t until 1941, the sixth of his seven seasons as Santa Clara head coach, that any opponent surpassed LSU’s 14-point total in the 1937 Sugar Bowl.
DEFENSE! DEFENSE! DEFENSE!
The Broncos loosed few offensive salvos in their first four games, scoring only 60 points in wins over Stanford, San Francisco, Portland, and Loyola while gaining virtually all of their yardage on the ground.
The Bronco defense was tougher than tough. They allowed only one touchdown all season.
At Soldier Field in Chicago, Santa Clara took on Marquette before a crowd of 40,000. While the Broncos had passed hardly at all in their first four games, in the Windy City they unleashed a fusillade of thrown footballs against the Marquette secondary. The Broncos won 38–0.
Three different passers in Shaw’s Notre Dame box formation collaborated with three different receivers to account for SCU’s first four touchdowns. Bruno Pellegrini ’39 passed 40 yards to Jim Barlow ’39. Barlow in turn hooked up with Bill Gunther ’39 on a 5-yard scoring play. And Jack Roche ’40 added TDs on 25- and 40-yard throws to Tom Gilbert ’39. The Broncos wound up with 173 passing yards, the equivalent of a 400-yard passing game today.
AN INVITATION TO THE BOWL?
The victory over Marquette vaulted the Broncos from 14th to 10th in the following week’s AP rankings, and the Broncos subsequently beat San Jose State, St. Mary’s, and Gonzaga to complete their 8–0 regular season. They were tied for ninth in the final AP poll, which in those days was conducted at the end of the regular season and did not reflect bowl-game results. Aside from Stanford’s opening-game touchdown, the Broncos had given up only two other points all season, on a safety scored by San Jose State.
Even with that résumé, though, the Broncos were fortunate to get a return invitation to the Sugar Bowl, then second only to the Rose Bowl in prestige and payout. Third-ranked Fordham and its famed Seven Blocks of Granite line, which included future NFL coaching nonpareil Vince Lombardi, originally was extended the invitation to play No. 8 LSU but declined because the Rams were expecting a Rose Bowl invitation that instead went to Alabama.
Despite Santa Clara’s victory the year before, LSU was a 2-to-1 betting favorite entering the game, given the Tigers’ stronger schedule and virtual home-field advantage in New Orleans. This didn’t faze the Broncos, who felt their defense could withstand any opponent and knew they wouldn’t be detoured by distractions during their weeklong trip and stay in New Orleans.
“The year before, we knew we’d have to play over our heads to beat LSU,” Al Wolff said later. “But for the 1938 game, we were the better team. Our feeling was LSU would have to play over their heads to win.”
GRUDGE AND GRIND
Before 41,000 spectators, Santa Clara was on the precipice throughout a game that was played in grudging increments as each team punted 14 times. LSU outgained Santa Clara 201 yards to 101 and racked up 10 first downs to Santa Clara’s four. The Broncos lost three fumbles. The first, by backup halfback Orv Hanners ’39—who replaced starter Tom Gilbert after Gilbert suffered a head injury on the first play of the game—gave LSU the ball on the Santa Clara 28-yard line. The Tigers quickly advanced to a first-and-goal at the 4, but three thrusts into the line resulted in no gain, with Wolff making a one-on-one stop on the third-down play. On fourth down, Phil Dougherty, Fran Cope ’38, and Lou Farasyn ’38, J.D. ’41 stopped the LSU runner at the 3.
Even though the Broncos could make little headway against the LSU defense, their defense and their superior depth began to grind down the Tigers as the game progressed. Early in the third quarter, Santa Clara drove to the LSU 28, whereupon Shaw took advantage of LSU’s tendency to overpursue on sweeps. Jim Barlow took a handoff and simulated a sweep to his left, while quarterback Ray McCarthy ’40—like Barlow, a nonstarter—meandered through the flow of the play almost unnoticed. Barlow suddenly wheeled and threw a diagonal pass over the LSU defenders to McCarthy, who made his way to the 8 before being tackled. One play later, Bruno Pellegrini passed in the flat to Jim Coughlan ’39, who staggered into the end zone after being hit by three defenders. Santa Clara led 6–0.
A 55-yard punt by Barlow on a play that started at the Santa Clara 1 rescued the Broncos from a field-position dilemma. Johnny Schiechl, a sophomore center who in 1939 would become Santa Clara’s third and last consensus All-American (after Nello Falaschi ’37 and Wolff), saved a touchdown with a tackle at the 4, and Santa Clara engineered another goal-line stand. Finally, after a short Santa Clara punt and a failed fourth-down-conversion try by the Broncos, Gunther brought down LSU star Ken Kavanaugh at the SCU 23 on the final play of the game.