With coach Wade at war, Duke wins first bowl game
The words of Duke football coach Eddie Cameron did not exactly lead a person to expect a great season from the Blue Devils in 1944.
“Things were so tough with us that I called off spring practice,” Cameron said. “We lost almost all our lettermen from last year. … All I can say is we’ll play the best football we can.”
World War II was raging across many parts of the globe, and many eligible, healthy young men were off fighting the Nazis and the Japanese. Even legendary Duke football coach Wallace Wade, in his early 50’s, was now Lieutenant Colonel Wade.
“My boys (his players) were going in to war and I felt we should stay together as a team; we were just participating in a different battle,” Wade said.
By the end of the war, Wade had led his 272nd Field Artillery Battalion in the Battle of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, and the Ninth Army drive through Germany. But Coach Wade had left the Duke football program in excellent hands.
Eddie Cameron was himself a legend on the Duke campus. After a brilliant football career at Washington and Lee, Cameron came to Duke in 1926. He became head varsity basketball coach in 1929 and held that position until 1942, winning 229 games against 99 losses. He also served as assistant coach in football under Wade from 1930 to 1942, when he succeeded Wade.
In 1942, Duke finished 5-4-1 in Cameron’s first year. In 1943 Duke was 8-1, the only loss was to a strong Navy team 14 to 13. What made the 1943 season even more special was that Duke beat UNC twice in the same season – Duke whipped UNC 14 to 7 on Oct. 16 in Durham, then gave the Tar Heels a double spanking on Nov. 20 in Chapel Hill by a score of 27 to 6. Duke also traveled over to Raleigh on Nov. 6 and put a hurting on N.C. State 75 to 0.
But by 1944, Coach Cameron was just not sure what to expect. World War II had changed things not only for his football team, but also Duke University. The draft took its toll among male students, and some faculty and staff took indefinite leaves of absence to serve the federal government
On campus, air raid drills and patriotic dances were held. The Dope Shops on campus ran out of syrup for Coca-Cola as a sugar shortage spread. The Department of the Navy placed a Naval Reserves Officers Training Corps on campus, providing a definite military presence
There was a renewed interest in physical education, to ready potential draftees for the rigors of war. Cameron converted the freshman football field into what the Chronicle called “a breath-taking and muscle-loosening 400 yard commando course” with iron pipes, walls, ditches and other obstacles. Memorial services were held on campus for alumni killed in combat.
Duke opened the 1944 season by mauling Richmond 61-7 but lost its next three games – 18-7 to Penn, 13-6 to North Carolina Pre-Flight and 7-0 to Navy. It was the first time since 1929 that Duke had lost three games in a row. In fact, under Wallace Wade, from 1932 to 1941, Duke compiled the best record in the entire nation, going 80-16-1.
The streak reached four as eventual consensus national champion Army scored 21 unanswered points to beat Duke 27-7 at the Polo Grounds in New York City. Glenn Davis, a future Heisman Trophy winner, ran 53 yards for a touchdown.
Duke finally won again with an upset over 5-0 Georgia Tech in Durham in front of over 30,000 in what was then called Duke Stadium. After beating Wake Forest and South Carolina, Duke beat North Carolina 33-0 in Chapel Hill to finish the regular season with a record of 5-4.
One strange note to the UNC game was that three players who started the season as Blue Devils ended the season as Tar Heels. The upheaval and shifting of military manpower during the war was the cause of this unusual occurrence. Thad Ellis must have especially felt strange, as he started the game by kicking off to Duke, his former team.
The Sugar Bowl invited Duke to play Alabama after the season, matching two of Wallace Wade’s former teams. Fans numbering 72,000 watched the game in Tulane Stadium in New Orleans. The lead changed hands four times, and the score was not settled until the final gun.
Alabama, behind the brilliant passing of Harry Gilmer, jumped to a 19-7 lead. Duke scored before half time to make it 19-13. In the third period, Tom Davis of Duke carried the ball 11 times on a 12 play 64 yard touchdown drive, then scored to put Duke up 20-19. Hugh Morrow of the Crimson Tide then intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown to make it 26-20 Alabama. Duke got the ball back and drove to Alabama’s 1-yard line, but the Tide defense kept Duke out of the end zone. Only three minutes remained in the game.
Alabama called for a safety to get a free kick from the 20, making it 26-22. But Duke took possession as George Clark caught Alabama’s punt on the Duke 40 and returned it to the Tide 39. Jim Larue then carried the ball for 19 yards on a reverse. Then Clark went over right tackle for the remaining 20 yards, and Duke led 29-26 to secure the first bowl victory in Duke football history.
Wade had sent word through a letter to Cameron and the Duke team that he would stop fighting to hear the game from France, where he was still involved in combat. In the letter, he sent an “order for victory.” He added that he was “setting up a special cheering section over here to help the boys along. Tell the boys they’ve got to win this one.”
Wade had asked the War Department to approve the Duke-Alabama game for reception to overseas troops, and the famous coach-turned-soldier got his wish.