In the middle of Kentucky sits a small town called Danville. Settled in 1783 it was an early indication of the incessant westward push that was beginning in the wake of American independence. The centerpiece of the small community is its local college, the aptly named Centre College. The college was charted in 1819, has a student enrollment less than many city high schools, and plays at the Division III level in the NCAA. Completed in 1820, it’s a miracle the frontier college survived its formative years. It survived six wars, occupation by Union and Confederate soldiers, disputes with the Presbyterian Church with which it is loosely affiliated, and blizzards. The school prides itself on holding classes in all conditions with only a handful of class cancellations in its entire history. Even the Civil War only resulted in 13 days total of cancelled classes, this despite occupations and the Battle of Perryville occurring less than five miles from campus.
If it was up to me I’d start every article with a picture of a Civil War battle.
Perhaps even more amazing than surviving the Civil War from the front lines, it was also once a college football powerhouse.
Before the modern college football era, Centre consistently played major universities and football powers and beat them. From 1917 until 1924, Centre compiled a 57-8 record. They defeated the University of Kentucky so frequently that Kentucky began to refuse to schedule them. The Centre-Kentucky series still stands at 18-12-2 to this day in favor of Centre. The 1919 Centre Colonels went 9-0 claim a national championship and scored 485 points while only allowing 23 points to be scored on them. The 1919 team became the first team to sport two All-Americans and the year before Centre became the first southern program to field an All-American. The 1920 team defeated a 9-0 TCU team in Fort Worth on News year Day to complete an 8-2 season. Over their strongest era they hold three Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association conference titles, the same conference that housed future SEC, Big 12 and ACC powerhouses. The 1924 team alone defeated future SEC powers Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.
It was 1921 though that was Centre’s signature season. Centre started the year 4-0 with an opening win at home over Clemson before traveling to Massachusetts to take on Harvard. Harvard had not lost a game since 1918, was the consensus 1919 national champion (over Centre despite their claim), and had won four of the past ten national titles. More impressively, Harvard had never lost to a team west of the Appalachians. Before the game, Harvard had not allowed a point against them. After a scoreless first half, Bo McMillian ran for a 32 yard touchdown that ended up clinching the upset. Centre downed Harvard 6-0 in a win that changed the game of football. Tulane coach Clark Shaughnessy said that the win “first awoke the nation to the possibilities of Southern football.” The Associated Press called the game the greatest upset in the first half of the 20th Century. The New York Times called it the upset of the century. From this point on southern football would be taken more seriously and the east coast stranglehold on the game began to erode. The victory was so popular with the student body that they carved the phrase “C6H0” into school buildings and the phrase quickly became the defining slogan (or formula) of the school for decades to come. The Colonels won out in the regular season and played in two bowl games. The first was the San Diego East-West Classic where they defeated Arizona 38-0. The second, the Dixie Classic, a precursor to the Cotton Bowl, saw Centre take on a 5-1-2 Texas A&M squad. In a stunning upset of their own, the Aggies defeated Centre 22-14 in a game that gave birth to the Aggie tradition of the 12th Man.
By the late 1920’s Centre regressed back to the mean. Much of the Colonel’s success can be attributed to head coach Charley Moran. Moran himself was the architect of Texas A&M’s football dominance in the 1910’s. At Centre, he compiled a 42-6-1 record over five seasons. Much of Moran’s success can be traced back to his experience at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School where he assisted football legend Pop Warner. He coached at the University of Nashville for two seasons, guiding the 1901 team to a 6-1-1 record before opting to play baseball for several years. From 1903 until 1917 Moran bounced between southern minor league teams where he coached, played and umpired as well as spending some time with the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1909, he took a position with Texas A&M to supplement his baseball career and began coaching football in the fall. Moran’s success with the Aggies and the Colonels didn’t translate as well to his last two coaching stops at Bucknell and Catawba but he forged himself into a coaching legend in a little over a decade.
Charley Moran coached Centre to a 42-6-1 and coached his team to one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
The 1930’s marked the end of Centre’s glory days. Centre found some success in the 1950’s but school administration began to decline bowl invites as they sought to deemphasize football. The Colonels dropped to Division III where they played in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference from 1962 until 2011. In that time they took home 11 SCAC titles and continued to field solid teams. In 2012 they moved to the South Athletic Association and even went 10-0 in 2014. Despite continued success the Colonels have only moved beyond the first round of the D-III championship tournament once.
Ultimately, Centre faced the same problem so many small colleges faced after the heady early days of college football. Resource constraints, recruiting, and the rise of public institutions as powerhouses forced Centre to reexamine its football program. Accepting its low enrollment, location, and resources they decided to move to D-III where they could continue to compete but where athletics typically does not overshadow the academic mission of the university. No matter what the future holds or what de-emphasis of athletics has happened since the 30’s, Centre’s 15 year stretch of success, and C6H0, is burned into college football history and remains a part of the fabric of the college itself.