Pillbox

From the Archives: The time we beat Pitt at Football

Nobody can doubt the resilience of our boys in plaid. With their 17th consecutive win after beating Case Western this weekend, the Tartans have not only the longest current win streak in Division III but in all NCAA football.

The Tartans had humble beginnings. The first academic semester of the Carnegie Technical Schools began in mid-October of 1905, so by the time they scrounged together a football team, all the other nearby colleges had full schedules. Their athletic efforts were further hamstrung by the fact that they had neither athletic field nor gym in these early days. Interestingly enough, the ice hockey team seems to have had a pretty good season that winter.

Autumn of 1906 rolls around and the Tech Students finally get to compete on the gridiron. Their first game, amidst a "sea of mud and rain," was played against California Normal School. (I'm uncertain if this is the predecessor to PennWest California. It does not appear to have ever been the official name of that school, but it seems unlikely this could be an entirely separate school.) The athletes of Tech held their own, and the game ended with a resounding tie of 0-0. The lads of this team had a variety of wacky nicknames, including "Pone" Urling (whom you may recognize from last week), "Wink" Dowling and "Doodles" Grafton.

As Carnegie Tech grew, so did the athletics program. They soon got an athletics field, located behind the Margaret Morrison School roughly where the Donner Ditch is today, and 1923 saw the unveiling of the Skibo Gym (the future home of the Highmark athletic center).

The team expanded throughout the '10s and '20s. In the 1922 edition of The Thistle, we're given the stats of all the team members. The largest man on the team was a gentleman named Hubert Owen Sprinkle, a fridge of a right tackle who stood at 6'2" and 195 pounds. Hugh Sprinkle is quite the interesting fellow actually — hailing from Webb City, Missouri, he was a World War I veteran who entered college at age 22. During his senior year, he was in charge of the committee to build the "Senior Fence," the wooden predecessor to our current Fence. After graduating, it seems he stuck around Pittsburgh and gave back to his alma mater by helping coach the football team. He also played professional football for three years — two seasons on the Akron Pros, and one for the Cleveland Bulldogs.

I digress. In their 1922 season they played against some big names, including Yale, Notre Dame, and Penn State, (who all beat the Tartans), in addition to the local schools we still play today, like Grove City, Allegheny, and Thiel (who we beat).

It wasn't until the roaring '20s that Tech athletics hit their stride. The 1924 edition of “The Thistle” tells us, "Forbes Field crowded to capacity, and all Pittsburgh intense with anxiety … on that momentous twenty-seventh of October to decide the Collegiate Championship of Pittsburgh. … The score of that never-to-be-forgotten struggle was 7-2 and after ten years of hard determined effort, the Plaid had triumphed over her arch-rival, the Panther." After a "hectic nightmare" of a first half with "the Panther continually threatening the Skibo goal line", Tech held Pitt to a mere two points. It was only at the very end that Jimmy Anderson — whose name should be written in every history book — recovered a blocked punt with a diving catch, allowing Tech to score a touchdown. "One minute after the smoke had cleared away a raving, dancing, shouting, victory-crazy mob of students had turned Forbes field into the scene of one of the most hilarious celebrations ever…shouting and singing till Machinery Hall rocked in sheer ecstasy." We just don't party like our predecessors.

So what happened? Make no mistake, the Tartans are still a very good team, considering this is a DIII school with no athletic scholarships. But our school used to regularly go toe-to-toe with some pretty big names. Why isn't CMU on the caliber of schools like Georgia Tech, Boston College, and Duke? Turns out, this was no accident. According to “Carnegie Mellon: A Centennial History” by Edwin Fenton, up until the 30s athletics had been run by an independent "Athletic Council," which was significantly in debt. So president Robert Doherty got rid of this council and created a new "Athletic Board", making athletics part of his administration. He ordered them to eliminate athletic scholarships and to stop spending the money to play big-name teams. People were so outraged by this that they created effigies of President Doherty in protest. Responding to this popular backlash, Doherty argued, "I think that some of you have come to the wrong school."

The Tartans are now back in the playoffs after their sick performance last year. So let’s go and cheer for them. It’s what our predecessors would have wanted.