Editor's Note: Nashville sports historian Bill Traughber has enlightened Vanderbilt fans over the years with his thoughtful essays on Commodore history. The award-winning author has recently written another book, Vanderbilt Football: Tales of Commodore Gridiron History. The 160-page paperback book includes 55 photos and can be ordered on historypress.net for $19.99.
Vanderbilt was in its fifth year in 1894 of playing the game of football that originated in the East and would eventually spread into the South. The Commodores’ previous records beginning in 1890 were 1-0, 3-1, 4-4 and 6-1. In 1894, Henry Thornton was the Vanderbilt coach in his first and only year coaching the Commodores.
It was in the third game of the season against the Louisville Athletic Club when frustrating and ridiculous calls by the referees permitted Vanderbilt captain W. J. Keller to pull his team off the field in the second half and not to return. The game was played in Louisville before 500 fans and the final score was 10-8 in favor of the home team.
The Nashville American gave this report:
“To say that the student body at Vanderbilt University were astonished at the news that their team had gone down in defeat before the Louisville Athletic Club Saturday is putting it mildly indeed. The Centre University team rolled up a score of 28-0 against Louisville Saturday before and Vanderbilt had beaten Centre College, considered the strongest team in Kentucky, by a score of 6-0. All this seemed to point with mathematical precision to the fact that Vanderbilt would have a walk-over. But, alast the ways of football are past finding out, and no man knows the result thereof.”
“It is no wonder then that the surprise was profound and the conjectures as to the cause as numerous as they were unsatisfactory. But as bits of news came in the mystery began to clear up. First it was learned that Capt. Keller was ill and did not play in the game. The loss of their general and strongest player was very demoralizing to the team, but it was nothing compared to the behavior of the umpire, the referee and the linesman. The Vanderbilt team found no trouble in skirting the Louisville Athletic Club’s ends for gains of 15 and 20 yards, but were almost invariably called back and the ball given to the Louisville Athletic Club and gave Vanderbilt no chance.”
In this era of college football, a touchdown was worth four points while the conversion was 2 points. The American gave these details of the game in the second half with Vanderbilt leading 4-0 on one touchdown. It is difficult to read what is actually taking place due to the style of sports writing in those days:
“In the second half Vanderbilt started with a rush and by a series of brilliant plays by Dortch, Gaines and Connell the ball was carried to Louisville Athletic Club’s 12-yard line, but here the ball was given to Louisville Athletic Club on a foul. McDonald kicked 35 yards, but Vanderbilt lost the ball and 10 yards on a foul. Louisville Athletic Club then worked the ball up to the Vanderbilt 35-yard line where McDonald kicked it behind Vanderbilt’s goal. It was brought out to the 25-yard line and Connell punted 40 yards. McDonald returned it 12 yards and Connell punted again for 60 yards. The ball was secured by Vanderbilt on the 8-yard line and Tuttle went through for the second touch-down. Connell missed the goal and the score was 8 to 0 in favor of Vanderbilt.”
The LAC scored the next touchdown and the conversion brought the score to 8-6 in favor of Vanderbilt. The American continued:
“Only nine minutes were left in which to play. Connell kicked 50 yards from the center of the field, McDonald catching and returning 30 yards to Dortch. Gaines then went around left end for 5 yards, but was called back and the ball given to Louisville Athletic Club due to foul interference. The ball was then worked back to the five-yard line, and here Louisville Athletic Club was allowed to try for six downs, without gaining the necessary five yards and instead of surrendering the ball on third down as they should. On the seventh trial the ball was pushed out of bounds and behind the goal, the umpire declaring it a touch-down. The Vanderbilt team indignantly left the field, refusing to play out the remaining time. The goal was missed and the score was 10-8 in favor of Louisville Athletic Club.”
The American added this report from Coach Thornton:
“Mr. Thornton says that with fair treatment the team would have won by a score of 20-0. The umpire told Mr. Thornton before the game that he was not in a position to rule against the Louisville Athletic Club except in the very plainest cases. With those facts in consideration the cause of the unexpected catastrophe is more apparent and the sting of defeat is in a great measure taken away.”
Coach Thornton also revealed his anger in this letter to a Louisville newspaper:
“To the Editor of the Courier-Journal: In justice to the football team of Vanderbilt University and at the instance of the alumni of that institution, I desire to say that Capt. Kellar withdrew his men from the field before the close of the second half of the match on account of the manifestly unfair decisions of the umpire, referee and linesman, and the ungentlemanly and discourteous treatment on the part of the members of the opposing eleven.
“For the above reasons he also declined to accept the final score as the result of the match. The decisions objected to on the grounds of injustice are specifically on the part of the linesman in prolonging the game beyond the agreed time, thus allowing the Louisville team to score an extra touch-down, to this they were not entitled; on the part of the referee in permitting the same team to have seven downs without advancing the ball five yards when they should have only been allowed three downs, and in granting the Louisville Athletic Club a touch-down when the ball was really shoved out of bounds before the goal-line was passed, and finally on the part of the umpire in disqualifying a Vanderbilt player whose only offense was defending himself from the brutal assault of an opponent.
“In conclusion the Louisville Athletic Club followed the coach containing the Vanderbilt team several blocks, thereby going considerably out of their way for the express purpose of jeering a visiting team, one of whose members was seriously ill. Very respectfully, Henry W. Thornton.”
Vanderbilt’s football team finished the season with wins over Auburn, Mississippi, Central (KY), Cumberland and Sewanee. The LAC was the only blemish on a 7-1 season. The Commodores opened the season with victories over Memphis and Centre.
Thornton was Vanderbilt’s first salaried head football coach. In the previous years a player would double as coach. Thornton played his college football at the University of Pennsylvania. After his lone season as a college football coach, Thornton began a career in railroad business beginning as a draftsman of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Thornton would gradually move up with promotions and was awarded the position of General Superintendent of the Long Island Railroad in 1912.
Thornton became the President and Chairman of the Board of the Canadian National Railways system and was made Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 1919, after distinguishing himself during World War I working with the allies, Thornton became a British subject and King George V made him a Knight Commander of the order of the British Empire. Though born in Logansport, Indiana in 1871, Sir Henry W. Thornton is the only Vanderbilt football coach to be knighted. He held dual citizenship (United Kingdom—1919) until his death in New York City in 1933 at age 61.
The photos accompanying this story are of the 1894 Vanderbilt football team. The drawing is from the 1894 newspaper the Nashville American. In this era, photographs were not used in newspapers.
Traughber’s Tidbit: Also in 1894, the Harvard-Yale game, known as the “Hampton Park Blood Bath,” had crippling injuries to four players therefore calling for a suspension of the rivalry until 1897. The annual Army-Navy game was suspended from 1894 until 1898 for similar reasons. The major cause of serious injuries were due to mass formations such as the “Flying Wedge” in which large numbers of offensive players charge as a unit against the defense. The harsh collisions often led to severe injuries and even death.
Tidbit Two: The game ball for this past week’s game with Army was delivered into Dudley Field by parachutes. SSG Jared Gough and SGT Matthew Thode of the 101st Airborne and Fort Campbell were the pair that parachuted in. In 1922, during the first-ever game played in Dudley Field, three airplanes flew over the field at a height of one thousand feet. One of the airplanes, piloted by Lt. Herbert Fox of the 136th Aero Squadron, swooped down over the northern goal post. Two hundred feet above the field, Fox dropped the game ball that fell near Vanderbilt head coach Dan McGugin, who caught the ball on one bounce. No attempt was made to catch the ball as a similar stunt in Texas resulted in an injury to the recipient. That game with Michigan was tied, 0-0.