As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, November 1, 2009
By Greg Tucker, President of the Rutherford County Historical Society
It was the most dramatic fall from competitive dominance in the history of Southern Interscholastic Athletic Conference football. The 1940 season was to be the “comeback year.”
In 1935, the State Teachers College Blue Raiders (STC, now MTSU) were undefeated in football, winning the conference title and recognition as one of only 10 undefeated teams in the nation. In 1936 they repeated as conference champions with their only loss to Vanderbilt University. The 1937 season saw STC finishing second with one conference loss, but with a satisfying 29-0 win over “arch-rival” Tennessee Tech (TPI) to close the season.
Picked in 1938 to continue playing at the top of the conference, STC went into a two-year tailspin with a combined total of only three wins and one tie for the 1938 and 1939 seasons. In these late-Depression, pre-war years, home team athletics was a unifying and major source of entertainment and pride, and Murfreesboro had been favored with winning football at both the high school and college levels. When the STC team slumped, it was like a sickness in the family. But the local fans, coaches and players had several reasons to expect a turnaround in the fall of 1940.
First was new head coach, E.W. “Wink” Midgett, promoted at the end of the 1938-39 academic year. Previously assistant coach, Wink was popular and well-respected. He had been quite successful at Watertown High and Castle Heights Military Academy. Local fans particularly appreciated that STC had “stolen” Wink from arch-rival Tennessee Tech where he had starred in football, basketball and baseball.
Second, four outstanding senior starters promised experience and leadership. Fullback William “Ug” McCrory had been part of the 1936 championship team, and was recognized as one of the best defensive players in the conference. Team captain Elbert Patty was starting his third season at left end. Charley Greer from East Nashville High was intimidating at right tackle, weighing over 200 pounds and standing at 6 feet 2. At left tackle was Bob Sarvis, also weighing over 200 pounds at 6 feet 1. All four were seasoned “60 minute players,” working both offense and defense.
Finally, the local fans were expecting a big boost from the first-year starter at halfback, a Rutherford County native and former star for Murfreesboro Central. While at Central, the local media had dubbed him the “triple threat” because he led the team in both running and passing, and did all the kicking. A Tennessee/Kentucky High School All-Star in 1939, Burney Lee Tucker had declined a football scholarship to the University of Tennessee in order to play for the home team.
The 1940 team roster was destined for STC/MTSU history as the “Fighting ’40s” team, though not entirely for the reasons that excited the fans as the season kicked off. Certainly the season began as hoped with big wins over Jacksonville, Ala., and Austin Peay. After a close loss to Memphis State, a win over Cumberland brought STC a mid-season tally of three wins and one loss.
The team and fans believed that STC was back on track with its winning tradition, but then came three straight losses with STC scoreless. Acknowledging an STC bright spot in the stunning upset by Union University in Jackson, Tenn., on Nov. 7, the Jackson Sun reported: “A drive late in the second period gave the Teachers their first scoring opportunity after Burney Lee Tucker had made one of the most brilliant plays of the game, running from fake punt formation…to the Union 49 and shaking off five Union men along the way.” Two plays later, however, a pass interception ended the drive and STC went scoreless.
A home game the following week against Murray State was no better. The STC offense was “listless,” according to The Daily News Journal account, until the fading minutes of the game when STC “uncorked an aerial attack … McIntyre snagged the first pitch to rack up a gain of 15 yards, then Burney Lee Tucker stepped into one on the 27, and another to McIntyre put the leather down on the 22 when the whistle sounded for completion of the contest.” Another scoreless effort for STC.
After a two-week layoff, STC faced arch-rival Tennessee Tech on Thanksgiving Day for the STC Homecoming. Tech had won the two previous encounters and was a heavy favorite. STC was hoping for a 4-4 season if it could handle Tech. According to newspaper accounts, the pre-game festivities were the most lavish in school history, beginning with a big dance on the night before the game with Nancy Wysong and Leonard “Boots” Little, the football team manager, reigning as Homecoming Queen and King. The morning parade down Main Street included three high school bands, the college marching band, and several dozen homecoming floats.
Coach Midgett started the game with McCrory, Tucker, Ed Hodges and Tommy Hudson in the backfield. Billy Evans stepped in for Fount Watson at guard, and Billy Burch, a sophomore from Bruceton, replaced Billy McDonald at right end. The first quarter was a defensive deadlock with neither team scoring.
In the second quarter, McCrory, Bryant, Tucker and Patty ground out yardage to the Tech 20. Using a timeout, Midgett switched Tucker from halfback to the quarterback slot. The next play was described prophetically by George Parrish in The Daily News Journal: “Tucker climbed into the cockpit and rifled to end Billy Burch who caught the oval over the goal for the touchdown.” The second half matched the scoreless first quarter and STC prevailed 6-0.
With a 4-4 season and a victory over Tech, everyone knew STC was back on the “winners’ track,” but world events intervened.
Forty years later, at the initiative of Dr. Joe Nunley, MTSU author, historian and professor, the MTSU Homecoming ceremonies honored the “Fighting ’40s” team.
“I don’t believe any school in the country gave more to the war effort than MTSU,” said Nunley. “Every player on that 1940 team entered the service and played a significant military role in the war.”
Six team members paid the ultimate price: First Lt. Arthur Scates was shot down over the Mediterranean, July 9, 1943. Capt. Jimmy Schleicher was killed while flying “the hump” over India, June 26, 1944. USMC Capt. Roger Smith died in the Battle of Guam, July 21, 1944. Capt. Robert Sarvis was shot down over the English Channel, D-Day 1944. Army Cpl. Robert J. McClintock was killed in action on Attu, May 29, 1943. USMC Capt. William “Ug” McCrory was killed on Iwo Jima, Feb. 25, 1945.
Other team members, all war veterans, present and honored at the 1980 Homecoming were Elbert Patty, Fount Watson, Charlie Greer, Billy Bryant, Dave Adamson, Kenneth “Skip” Anderson, Sam Burton, Emory Davenport, Ken Ellis, Bill Evans, Joe Gibson, Ed Hodges, Billy McDonald, Gene McIntire, Billy Burch and Burney Lee Tucker.
The Oct. 15, 1980 newspaper account of the ceremonies noted: “Every member of the 1940 team saw service in the war. Tucker, who threw the pass that beat Tennessee Tech that afternoon 40 years ago, became a member of the famous USMC Black Sheep Squadron. Burch, who caught the pass, became the first American Ace in the Pacific.”
Greg Tucker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.