Lewis Bowling: Duke-Pitt making history yet again
Duke will make history Saturday (12:30 p.m., WRAL TV) when it hosts Pittsburgh as a fellow Atlantic Coast Conference member for the first time.
It’s not the first time the teams have made history in what is now Wallace Wade Stadium.
It was in the 1950 Duke-Pittsburgh game here that a black player, Flint Greene of Pitt, became the first black player to play in an integrated college football game in North Carolina, still very much in the throes of Jim Crow.
Pitt was the opponent on Oct. 5, 1929 when Duke played its first game at the then-Duke Stadium — later renamed to honor legendary Duke coach Wallace Wade.
And it was in 1938 that the Duke team that would forever live on as the Iron Dukes, completed an undefeated, untied and unscored upon regular season (9-0) with a 7-0 win over Pitt here. That Duke team ended up losing its next game — to Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day 1939 7-3 on a last-minute comeback touchdown pass.
‘WALLACE WADE’ DEBUT
Pitt was a power in 1929 when Duke debuted its spanking new stadium and routed the Blue Devils of Wallace Wade 52-7. The Panthers would finish the season 9-1, their only loss in the 1930 Rose Bowl, also to Southern Cal, coached by former Duke coach Howard Jones, whose departure had opened the way for the hiring of Wade.
A local reporter wrote of that Duke-Pittsburgh game in 1929.
“From everywhere the cars poured into Durham and the alumni and patrons of the game arrived early for the biggest event in the history of Duke football. Nearly every one of the 25,000 spectators was in their seat by the time of the kick off. Governor (Oliver Max) Gardner and his party of official guests arrived in time and were comfortably settled in the guest box when young Tony Duke, the son of Angier B. Duke and grandson of Benjamin N. Duke, trotted out with the team and put the ball in play. The students made whoopee over in their sections and the crowd was in great spirits.”
In 1938 Duke, coached by Wade, won its first eight games and Pitt came to town to face No. 3-ranked Blue Devils in their regular-season finale.
The Duke campus was alive with excitement. Preparations for the annual Victory Ball in the Woman’s College gym were underway. Portraits of the football team adorned the walls of the gym as campus big-band leader Dutch McMillin and the Duke Ambassadors tuned up.
A network of 39 radio stations would carry the game to much of the nation. A short-wave hookup sent the broadcast to parts of Europe.
Some 52,000 fans — to that date, the largest crowd ever at a football game in the South — jammed a snowy Duke Stadium as the teams met in late November.
Bolo Perdue blocked a Pitt punt and recovered the ball for a touchdown as Duke won 7 to 0.
The legendary Eric Tipton of Duke would have one of the greatest games ever for a punter, 15 times in 20 punts downing the ball inside the Pitt 20.
INTEGRATION A REALITY
In the second game of the 1950 season, Wade’s last season on the Duke sideline, the Blue Devils against hosted Pittsburgh, winning 28-14 to improve to 2-0. But that was a sidebar to the accompanying civil rights headlines.
Until that day, it was customary for a visiting team to not play black players — if it had any — when playing in the South. And Pitt had such a player in backup tackle Flint Greene.
Wade, who had broken another color barrier in 1938 when he gave his OK to Syracuse to play a black player on its home field against visiting Duke, took another stand for integration. With Wade’s approval, Duke issued the following statement:
“We have heard that the Pittsburgh team has a Negro on the squad. When we schedule a team we of course expect to play on fair and even terms. The coaches of each team have the unquestioned right to play any eligible man they choose to play. We have neither the right nor the desire to ask a coach to restrict or limit his team’s participation because of creed or color. Duke fans and students have a fine record of treating visiting teams courteously. We have every reason to believe that this record will be continued.”
Greene played and made history.
Then-N.C. Central coach Herman Riddick welcomed Greene to stay in Riddick’s home during Pittsburgh’s stay in Durham, since hotels here remained segregated.
Bill Stern, one of the most famous sports announcers in the U.S. at the time, had this to say on his national NBC radio show from New York two days after the game.
“Yes….history was made at Durham last Saturday when Flint Greene, a Negro tackle of the University of Pittsburgh, played against Duke at Durham in the heart of the South. Not only was he allowed to play, but he was a welcome member of the Pitt squad. To the Duke student body, to its coaches, to its President, and to the team itself, my sincere congratulations.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — Lewis Bowling teaches at N.C. Central and Duke and is the author of the book, “Wallace Wade: Championship Years at Alabama and Duke.”