College football: 75th anniversary of Catawba’s Tangerine Bowl win over Marshall

Published 12:01 am Sunday, December 25, 2022

By Mike London

SALISBURY — New Year’s Day will bring the 75th anniversary of one of the great moments in Catawba College athletic history — the 7-0 Tangerine Bowl win against Marshall on Jan. 1, 1948.

It was a different world in a lot of ways in the late 1940s.

Pro football had “re-integrated” in 1946 with four Black players — future Hall of Famers Marion Motley and Bill Willis, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode — after owners had collectively barred Black athletes from 1933-45. Pro football had moved to the West Coast in 1946 and there were now two pro leagues competing for talent. Doors were opening. Things were changing.

Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Hank Thompson, Willard Brown and pioneering pitcher Dan Bankhead, broke the MLB color barrier during the 1947 season.

Black players Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper and  Sweetwater Clifton would do the same for the NBA in a five-day span in the fall of 1950.

Marshall, in West Virginia, integrated its student body in 1954 and its athletic programs shortly after that. Roy Goines, who had come to Marshall on an academic scholarship, integrated varsity football. Hal Greer, a West Virginia native and future NBA Hall of Famer, was the first Black athlete on an athletic scholarship. Greer made his varsity debut for the Thundering Herd during the 1955-56 season. Greer also played baseball for the Thundering Herd.

Catawba wouldn’t integrate its student body until the 1965-66 school year, breaking barriers with soon-to-be legends — Ike Hill in football and Dwight Durante and Larry Bullock in basketball. Bullock (Class of 1969) was the first Black to graduate from Catawba. He became a minister and, among other things, served for eight years in the Illinois House of Representatives.

The 1948 Tangerine Bowl obviously was contested by all-white teams.

The players had different dimensions than today’s giants. Catawba tackles Martin Luther (M.L.) Barnes Jr. and Ray Yagiello, both listed in the program at 6 feet, 220 pounds, were considered huge, powerful men. Yagiello, who came to Catawba from New Jersey, was a three-time All-America selection. He would play for the L.A. Rams in the 1948 and 1949 seasons and was good enough to start some games in the NFL.

Many of the players, at least on the Catawba side of things, were older than traditional college students, not because they struggled academically, but because World War II had affected every life and disrupted normal educational and career paths.

Several of the Catawba Indians had seen heated action in the global conflict. Barnes and punter/back Harold Bowen had been U.S. Marines in the Pacific Theatre and had returned to college after the war. Barnes was 25 and newly married when the 1948 Tangerine Bowl was played. Bowen was the team’s elder statesman at 26.

Other Catawba Indians, such as 5-foot-8 back Marion Lee “Leapin’ Lee” Spears, who had played for Duke against North Carolina as a 17-year-old in 1944 before transferring to Catawba, were much younger than Barnes and Bowen. Spears was 20 when he soared to fame in the Tangerine Bowl.

Catawba was regarded as a national power in the late 1940s under head coach Gordon Kirkland. Not just a small-college power, but a program capable of competing with almost anyone. Catawba was ranked in the top 25 by the Associated Press before and after the Tangerine Bowl.

Kirkland had transitioned to the college ranks in 1934 after a strong run at Salisbury’s Boyden High School. Except for a down season in 1936 and a non-season in 1943 when Catawba hadn’t been able to field a team because of the war, the Indians rolled under Kirkland.

Kirkland suffered a heart attack in 1945 following a Catawba loss to William & Mary, but he directed the team the rest of that season from a bed in his home, not far from the field. He communicated instructions to his assistant coached via messengers, who sprinted back and forth from the Kirkland residence to the field.

Elon shut out Catawba late in the 1939 season, but Catawba wouldn’t be held scoreless again until after Kirkland, his health faltering, retired following the 1948 season. The Indians would break a national record for scoring in consecutive games. Wofford finally stopped that streak, which garnered national attention for the Indians, at 89 games in 1949.

Bolstered by returning military veterans, the Indians capped a 10-2 1946 season by smashing Maryville College’s previously undefeated Fighting Scots, 31-6, in the inaugural Tangerine Bowl on New Year’s Day, 1947. That overwhelming victory made Kirkland’s program (he was assisted by Earl Ruth and Chub Richards) the undisputed kings of small college southern football.

That Catawba team had only a handful of seniors, so the Indians were expected to be even better in the fall of 1947. They lived up to the hype.

They got even better defensively. The Indians would shut out nine teams in 1947, allowing only 27 points during an 11-1 season. They prevailed in struggles with Presbyterian (7-0) and Lenoir-Rhyne (6-0) and blew out Western Carolina (42-0), Appalachian State (19-0) and Elon (38-0). The lone loss came early to VMI (13-6).  VMI had made the switch from the single wing to the T-formation and proved hard to stop.

The Indians’ fine season earned them a return trip to the Tangerine Bowl to face Marshall College. The Thundering Herd had lost to Canisius and Xavier and was 9-2.

Catawba faced Marshall at an ideal time.

Marshall’s head football Cam Henderson was also the school’s head basketball coach, and basketball was huge at Marshall. Henderson is credited with being one of the first college coaches to employ the fast break and he is credited with inventing the 2-3 zone defense. With an innovative coach calling the shots, the Marshall Thundering Herd won the NAIB (now the NAIA) national championship tournament in Kansas City in March 1947.

Marshall’s basketball team had been invited to play with the nation’s big boys in a marquee tournament in Los Angeles in late December 1947, so Henderson missed the Tangerine Bowl for that event. He left his right-hand man, assistant coach Roy Straight, in charge of the football team. Marshall did win that basketball tournament, topping Syracuse 46-44 in a championship game played on Dec. 30, 1947.

Marshall also didn’t have its most talented player available for the Tangerine Bowl. That was 6-foot-2, 225-pound Norman “Wild Man” Willey, who was also starring for the Marshall basketball team. Willey was in L.A. with Henderson.

How much difference Willey would have made against Catawba can only be speculated about, but he was a serious player. He good enough to last eight seasons in the NFL and made two Pro Bowls. He produced an incredible game in 1952 as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, racking up 17 sacks in one game at the Polo Grounds against the New York Giants. That was before sacks became an official NFL stat, but no one disputes that Willey destroyed two quarterbacks that day and single-handedly demolished the Giants. New York officially had 127 “passing yards lost.” The story goes that after film study of the game an Eagles assistant handed Willey $170 in cash — a bounty of $10 per sack. The NFL frowned on monetary incentives for battering opponents, but teams paid them anyway. Willey needed the loot. His largest annual NFL salary was $9,000.

Also missing from Marshall football team in the Tangerine Bowl was blocking back Bob Koontz. Koontz was absent because he was the basketball team’s leading scorer.

Catawba was perhaps fortunate not to have to deal with Coach Henderson or the “Wild Man” or Koontz when the Indians traveled to Orlando, Fla., but Marshall’s Big Green was still a formidable opponent.

Played in a stadium built in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration, the 1948 Tangerine Bowl was the most publicized and hyped event in Catawba sports history.  The Associated Press covered the action. So did United Press International. West Virginia papers ventured to Orlando, along with writers from Salisbury and Greensboro and Catawba publicist Herman Helms. WSTP and WBT broadcast the game to the folks back in North Carolina listening on their radios.

The Catawba players enjoyed a street parade on New Year’s Eve, then headed to their hotel. Kirkland had imposed a 10:30 p.m. curfew. It’s not known if the players complied.

Kirkland offered no quips to the media and was too busy with practice and game plans to meet parade queens or dine with dignitaries. The only pregame quote that’s available from the business-like Kirkland was right to the point. “A trip this far is not made to be on the losing end,” he said.

Kirkland was concerned about Bowen, his punter, because there would be plenty of punts, and Bowen was questionable with a back injury.

The Indians had to wait around all day on Jan. 1 to finally play the game at Greater Orlando Stadium at 8:15 p.m. The crowd, eager to support a game whose proceeds benefited a home for crippled children, exceeded 9,000.

It was the physical game everyone expected with both teams trying to move the ball with the smash-mouth, blood-and-guts single wing. Catawba was held to six first downs and 54 net rushing yards. The Indians completed only two passes for 38 yards. Still, their defense was so good they were able to find a way. And they were disciplined, a testament to Kirkland’s coaching.  Catawba didn’t have a single penalty.

It was still scoreless in the fourth quarter when a magnificent punt by the ailing Bowen rolled and rolled and was downed on the Marshall 1-yard line.

Marshall went three-and-out. The Herd got off a nice punt to midfield. Catawba returner Bill Speacht muffed the punt momentarily, but then he recovered and reached the Marshall 45.  Catawba had a short field to work with.

Spears, the fullback from Lexington, lugged the ball to the 40. Bobby Gore completed Catawba’s second pass of the day to the 30, and Gore and Speacht fooled Marshall with a fake reverse for 8 yards to the 22. Then Spears pounded to the 15 and the chains moved.

From there, it was all Spears and all crunching power as he pounded behind legends such as end Art Claar and guards Lester “Lefty” Gardner and Red Lambeth.

Spears, who would carry seven straight times, took it to the 13, then the 8, and then the 6. On the critical fourth-and-1 from the 6, he battled for 3 yards.

Two plays later, Spears leapt into the end zone for the only TD of the game with 4:30 remaining. Lamar Dorton, who played minor league baseball from 1948-1956, added the extra point.

Catawba’s defense needed one last stop — and got it. Marshall, led by All-American Marvin Wetzel and Tangerine Bowl MVP Donnie Gibson, who had stepped in for Willey, reached the Catawba 30, but the Indians pushed the Big Green back to the 40 as the game ended.

“They were a good hard-knocking club and it hurts to lose, but we were up against a first-class team,” Straight said.

Their mission accomplished, Catawba’s team became tourists, stopping at Daytona Beach, St. Augustine and Savannah, Ga., on the trip back home.

Kirkland’s 14-season record at Catawba would be 107-31-7. His last season at the helm of Catawba’s football team would be 1948, a year in which Spears would duel with Washington & Jefferson’s “Deacon” Dan Towler, a Black future NFL star, for the national scoring title. Kirkland would die in 1953 when he was only 48.

Many of the Indians out-lived their head coach by more than six decades. Barnes passed in 2015 at 93 and Bowen at 95 in 2016. Both men had long careers as coaches and educators. Barnes was the first principal at Central Cabarrus.

The year of 1947 was a brutal one in Rowan County, with 45 violent deaths recorded. Citizens were killed by falling trees and exploding gas cans. They were fatally struck by trains, trucks, cars and tractors.

But the Catawba football team’s triumph in the Tangerine Bowl brought hope for better days in 1948.

Catawba’s long-ago visits to Orlando are just one segment in that city’s rich football history.

In 1966, an invitation to play in the Tangerine Bowl was extended to Morgan State, the first traditionally Black college ever to play in an NCAA-sanctioned bowl game. Morgan State beat West Chester State, 14-6.

And in 1991, Georgia Tech was crowned as national champion after beating Nebraska 45-21 in the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando.