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UCA’s First Post-Season Football Game – 1937

Fans of UCA Bear football have seen many post season games, with the first playoff game occurring after the 1976 regular season under head coach Ken Stephens.  There were only four teams in the playoff picture for 1976.  Coach Stephens’ team went on to defeat Elon College in UCA’s first ever National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Playoff game, 10 – 7. The win over Elon put UCA in the finals game with Texas A&I.  The Bears lost to powerhouse Texas A & I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville) in the Champion Bowl in Kingsville, Texas by a score of 26-0.  Even though the Bears lost in the nationally televised title game, they proved that they belonged in the upper echelon of NAIA football schools.

The very first post-season football game that Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas – UCA) participated in was on Christmas Day in 1937.  The Bears were undefeated and untied during the 1936 and 1937 regular seasons, and had won 16 games in a row.  Due to their gridiron success, the Bears were considered a worthy opponent for the Fresno State College Bulldogs in the Charity Bowl played in Los Angeles, California.

Head coach, Warren Woodson, selected 27 players to make the trip, which also included his assistant coach, Herbert Ball, President and Mrs. Heber McAlister, and Mrs. Woodson.  Also making the trip were two newspaper reporters, one from the Arkansas Democrat – Allen Tilden, and one from the Arkansas Gazette – Ben Epstein.

A sizeable crowd of about 500 well-wishers, mostly students and members of the Bear Backers Club, were on hand to see the team off at the Missouri Pacific Station in Conway. Another sendoff took place later that evening when the train from Conway, with the Bear football team on board, rolled into the Missouri Pacific Station in Little Rock.  That sendoff event included several dignitaries, including Lt. Governor Bob Bailey, Attorney General Jack Holt, Secretary of State C.G. Hall, State Auditor J. Oscar Humphrey, Little Rock Mayor R.E. Overman, North Little Rock Mayor Ross Lawhon, D. Hodson Lewis, manager of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, D.L. Ford, member of the State Corporation Commission and W.E. Phipps, Commissioner of Education.

While headed to their destination in Los Angeles, the Missouri Pacific passenger train stopped in Fort Worth, Texas, so the Bears could practice at the stadium of Texas Christian University.  The Bears went through a morning practice and then boarded the train for their next stop in El Paso, Texas.

The Bears reached Los Angeles on December 23rd, and were the guests of well-known radio personality, Bob Burns.  According to the Log Cabin Democrat, “The Arkansas team was invited to a radio broadcast tonight, featuring Bob Burns, the former Van Buren, Ark., resident, and Crooner Bing Crosby.  Burns is a sponsor of the game, to be played for the benefit of a children’s milk fund.  Burns also has invited his fellow Arkansans to a big ‘shin-dig’ tonight’”

One of Hollywood’s screen stars was also in the studio with the Bear football team, Madge Evans.  Ms. Evans was also a guest on Burns’ show.

The Charity Bowl had two major sponsors, Bob Burns and Dorothy Lamour.  Burns was the host for the Bears and Lamour was the host for Fresno State College.

Bob Burns was born in Arkansas and spent most of his youth in Van Buren, Arkansas.  He was musically inclined and eventually became a famous radio personality.  He invented and played an instrument that he called the bazooka.  Burns’ instrument was so well known that during World War II the U.S. recoilless rocket anti-tank weapon was nicknamed, bazooka.

The game between Fresno State College and Arkansas State Teachers College was closely followed by Hollywood stars as well as elected officials.  On the night before the game, President McAlister received a Western Union telegram from his friend, U.S. Senator Hattie Caraway of Arkansas. According to the Arkansas Gazette, the telegram read, “Best wishes for victory.  Tell boys to fight for Arkansas.”

After the Bears finished with their final workout, they engaged in some sight-seeing.  The group toured Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and the Malibu Mountains.  They also visited Santa Monica for a view of the Pacific Ocean.

The game turned out to be one of the best ever played on the west coast, according to the sportswriters.  The headline in the Arkansas Gazette read, “TEACHERS LOSE IN HAIR-RAISER ON COAST, 27-26.”

Ben Epstein, the writer for the Arkansas Gazette, did a splendid job of describing the game, and his efforts are included here in quotes in the next two paragraphs; “Hollywood’s cinema executives finally learned the meaning of ‘terrific’ as the Fresno State College Bulldogs nosed out the heretofore unbeaten and untied Arkansas State Teachers College Bears of Conway, 27 to 26, in an intersectional jamboree that literally stupefied 5,000 spectators in Gilmore stadium here today.  It was eeny, meeny, miney, moe, and we don’t mean maybe as the mad struggle see-sawed in unbelievable fashion.

Sensational isn’t the word for it as the score oscillated like a crew of amateur divers on a springing board.  The veteran coach, Pop Warner, who sat on the Fresno bench, bobbed up and down like a scared freshman. Bob Burns lost the curl in his hair, George Raft, Bobby Breen and a gang of other movie moguls acted like a lot of lunatics as the Bears from Arkansas and the Bulldogs from upper California collided in an unexpected offensive maelstrom.”

The legendary football coach Pop Warner was not Fresno State’s head coach; the head coach for the Bulldogs was James Bradshaw.  Coach Warner was a friend of Bradshaw’s, who had adopted Warner’s coaching philosophy.  At the time, Pop Warner was the head coach of the Temple University Owls.

The game was tied on three different occasions, 7-7, 14-14, and 20-20.  The 20-20 score came in the fourth quarter when both teams scored touchdowns, but both failed to convert the extra points. The difference in the game came after Fresno State scored their second touchdown of the fourth quarter and made the extra point.  Fresno State’s touchdown was followed by a kickoff return by Bear halfback Howard Montgomery.  Fresno State kicked off and Montgomery picked up the ball at the Bear five-yard line and then ran 95 yards for a touchdown.  The Bears were unable to convert the extra point, leaving the score Fresno State 27 and Bears 26.

A disputed touchdown by the Bears could have given them the victory.  Bear end Billy Estes, son of legendary Bear coach Guy “Big Dan” Estes, was one of Woodson’s best players.  Estes appeared to have successfully caught a pass for the touchdown, but the referee called it incomplete.  President McAlister disagreed with the referee’s call.

Note: President McAlister was also head of the Arkansas National Guard, and held the rank of colonel, and was routinely called Colonel McAlister.

According to the Log Cabin Democrat, “Colonel McAlister, however, lamented the ruling of a pass from Burnett to Estes that would have resulted in a touchdown and a victory for the Bears had it been ruled completed.  Little Rock sport writers, who accompanied the Teachers to the coast, wrote that the pass looked like the real McCoy to them and Colonel McAlister said it looked ‘completed’ to him.’”

Additional information about the disputed call came from Bob Erbacher, a former resident of Conway.  According to the Log Cabin Democrat, “Colonel McAlister said Bob Erbacher, former Conway man, told him before the team’s departure for Arkansas last Sunday night that he had a talk with the referee and that the official confided to Erbacher the pass could have been ruled completed.”

The Bears returned to Conway in the early morning hours of December 29.  Their game with Fresno State College was such a roaring success that there was much talk about the Bears playing Fresno State College in 1938 and 1939, or possibly playing the University of New Mexico in 1938.

The Bears were treated kindly by their California hosts, According to the Log Cabin Democrat, “The Fresno Chamber of Commerce presented the visitors with a large box of their famous raisins while they were at Los Angeles.  Colonel McAlister said he denied, however, any implication of ‘sour grapes’ in the gift.’”

Interestingly, Fresno State University referred to the Charity Bowl as the Little All-American Bowl on their sports website.  Additionally, they also refereed referred to Arkansas State Teachers College as Arkansas State University (ASU).  This author will contact Fresno State University and provide them with the correct information.

Sources for this article included: The Encyclopedia of Arkansas, The Scroll, The Log Cabin Democrat, Arkansas Gazette, UCAsports.com Record Book compiled by Steve East, and Fresno State University sports website.

 

PHOTOGRAPH OF 1937 Bear Football Team. Courtesy of 1938 Scroll.

 

1937 Bear Football Team

 

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF 1938 SCROLL