When the Aviation Bowl didn’t fly

While doing some research for my post about attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium, I started reading about a relatively unknown footnote to The Citadel’s football history, specifically the 1961 campaign.

The Citadel’s 1961 football team, which won the Southern Conference title, actually had an opportunity to go bowling following the season. That would have meant the team would have gone to bowls in consecutive years, as the Bulldogs had played in the 1960 Tangerine Bowl. Instead, the school (and team) turned down not one, but two bowl invitations.

One of the two bowls in question was the Tangerine Bowl, which after being renamed multiple times is still going strong as the Capital One Bowl, although it is almost unrecognizable from its early days. The other bowl is long gone, as it was doomed by tragedy, bad luck, and just a touch of hubris. That one-and-done game was known as the Aviation Bowl.

The idea behind the Aviation Bowl wasn’t a bad one. It was an effort to raise the profile of the Mid-American Conference (MAC). The champion of the MAC would play a team from another region of the country at Welcome Stadium (capacity: 12,000) in Dayton, Ohio, the hometown of aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright.

(I have friends who would say calling a game played in Dayton the Aviation Bowl was the organizers’ first mistake, as that title should have been reserved for a bowl game in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina — but I digress.)

There were high hopes for the game, in part because the two favorites to win the MAC in 1961 were Bowling Green and Ohio University, both located in the state of Ohio. Alas, it was not to be. Bowling Green did win the MAC that year, but a tragedy that took place the year before would place the Falcons in another contest.

After a game between Cal Poly-SLO and Bowling Green on October 29, 1960, an airplane carrying members of the Cal Poly team crashed on takeoff in Toledo, Ohio. Sixteen members of the Cal Poly football team were among those killed in the disaster.

The following year, a benefit bowl game (the Mercy Bowl) was played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the families of those who had perished, and for those victims who had survived the crash (one of whom was future Southern California and San Diego State head coach Ted Tollner). Bowling Green was asked to play in the game and accepted, eliminating the Falcons from Aviation Bowl consideration.

Ohio U. was in position to take the MAC’s berth in the Aviation Bowl, even after a 7-6 loss to Bowling Green, but needed to beat Western Michigan in the season finale to claim the spot. Instead, the game ended in a 20-20 tie, and the Broncos sneaked past both Ohio and Miami (OH) to grab the bid. Thus, the MAC representative for the bowl turned out to be not one of the Ohio contingent, but Western Michigan, with a record of just 5-3-1 and farther away from Dayton than any other MAC school.

The game between Western Michigan and Ohio was played on November 18. By that time, organizers were running out of candidates to fill the other spot in the game.

After originally releasing a wish list of sorts that included schools ranging from Colgate to Florida State to Wyoming, the folks in Dayton were having a hard time finding a school willing to play in the contest. It appears that offers to Rutgers and The Citadel were on the table at around the same time, but the Rutgers administration turned down the Aviation Bowl and the Sun Bowl on November 14, electing not to go bowling at all; the Scarlet Knights would eventually finish the season with a record of 9-0.

On November 18, the same day Western Michigan qualified for the Aviation Bowl, officials at The Citadel notified the Dayton organizers that the military college wouldn’t be accepting a bid either. That decision had apparently been left up to the team, as was a potential return trip to the Tangerine Bowl (more on that later).

Bowl officials then approached Xavier about playing (in an effort to at least have a semi-local team in the game), but before those negotiations could be completed, the bowl committee chairman worked out a deal with New Mexico to become Western Michigan’s opponent. He may have believed that a more “exotic” team in the game would increase interest in the contest, and a mysterious squad from the western part of the country fit the bill.

New Mexico was only 5-4, in third place in the Skyline Conference, and the Lobos still had a game against BYU to play, but hey — they were willing to go to Dayton! At least, UNM was willing to travel to Ohio for a guarantee of $15,000 (one source suggests it was $18,000), three times as much money as Xavier had been tentatively offered.

The contest was played on December 9 and was more or less a debacle. Two inches of snow fell in Dayton the morning of the game; with temperatures hovering in the 20s, the snow eventually turned to sleet and rain. Game attendance: 3,976, less than half of what the Dayton Jaycees needed to break even.

The Aviation Bowl queen and her court (one from each of the MAC schools) shivered under the Welcome Stadium grandstand for the first half, and when they went onto the field for halftime ceremonies, the microphone wouldn’t work. The PA system was fixed just in time for Gov. Michael DiSalle to launch into a campaign speech. He still was introducing other Ohio politicians when the third quarter began.

The game’s MVP was the New Mexico equipment manager, who acquired surgical gloves from a local hospital prior to the contest. The gloves allowed the Lobo ballcarriers to more easily hang on to the football in the brutal conditions (shades of “The Sneakers Game” of NFL lore). New Mexico won, 28-12.

The Dayton Jaycees lost about $15,000, and that spelled the end of the star-crossed Aviation Bowl.

At the same time The Citadel’s players elected not to play in the Aviation Bowl (a no-brainer of a decision, in retrospect), they also voted not to accept an offer to play in the Tangerine Bowl for a second consecutive season. However, the vote on the Tangerine Bowl was close enough that it was originally decided a “re-vote” would be held two days later. That didn’t happen, though, and the school informed the bowl it was declining the offer. According to The News and Courier:

It was rumored, however, that the seniors on the team had swung the vote to reject the offer. With senior essays hanging over their heads and exams coming up after the holidays, they decided it was best to forgo the playing for studying.

After the military college decided against going, Furman also declined a bid from the Orlando bowl (and also reportedly nixed a chance to be considered for a Sun Bowl berth). The Tangerine Bowl would eventually select Lamar to play OVC champ Middle Tennessee State in the contest.

The Citadel had accepted a bid to the Tangerine Bowl in 1960, beating Tennessee Tech 27-0. A year later, however, the cadets weren’t nearly as interested in making the trip to Orlando.

I don’t know what the difference was between 1960 and 1961; it’s not like there were no exams or essays on the horizon in 1960. On the other hand, it may be that the 1961 game would have had a “been there done that” feel to it. After winning the league title, the players may have felt they had nothing more to prove, and that fully concentrating on schoolwork was much more worthwhile than going to Florida again.

There could have been one more factor. From an article on the acceptance of the bowl invite in 1960:

Coach [Eddie] Teague said the Bulldogs would report for bowl game drills “about Dec. 5”. The squad will be given a week off for Christmas, then will depart for Orlando on Dec. 26.

That makes it sound like the players’ semester break would have consisted of about one week. I know firsthand how much cadets cherish semester break. That wouldn’t have been the most enjoyable situation, even without military obligations.

I could understand why some of the players might not have wanted to do that again for a trip to the same bowl. They probably were not unhappy to hear that the game between Lamar and Middle Tennessee State was played in “near-freezing temperatures”.

I could be completely wrong about that line of reasoning, of course.

Bowl history is convoluted enough as it is, but it’s important to remember that in the past, there were plenty of schools with teams good enough to play in bowls that simply weren’t interested in participating, either in certain years or at all. For example, Notre Dame did not compete in a bowl game between 1925 and 1970.

Ultimately, the decision not to play in a bowl game in 1961 is just a curiosity in The Citadel’s long football history. It may look a little strange 50 years after the fact, but in the context of the era, it makes perfect sense.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: