The 1940s

You can have the SMU team that never left Texas, we’ve got an all-timer California season in 1943 Del Monte Pre-Flight. They never left California and ended up ranked number #8 nationwide. Their one loss was at Pacific in Stockton, who were ranked #10 at the time. Pacific finished the year ranked 19. They crushed UCLA at LA Coliseum and Cal in Berkeley. They might not have been the best team in California however: March Field only lost one game (at UW) and ended the year beating USC and that Pacific team. Indeed, March Field is our MCC winner for that year:

Pacific 14 at Alameda Coast Guard 7 on Sep 17, 1943
Saint Mary's (CA) 12 at California 27 on Sep 24, 1943
USC 20 at UCLA 0 on Sep 24, 1943
Saint Mary's (CA) Pre-Flight 7 at Pacific 13 on Sep 24, 1943
Del Monte Pre-Flight 34 at Alameda Coast Guard 7 on Sep 25, 1943
USC 7 at California 0 on Oct 01, 1943
Pacific 19 at UCLA 7 on Oct 01, 1943
Pacific 12 at California 6 on Oct 08, 1943
Saint Mary's (CA) Pre-Flight 0 at USC 13 on Oct 08, 1943
UCLA 7 at March Field 47 on Oct 08, 1943
Alameda Coast Guard 26 at San Francisco 0 on Oct 09, 1943
California 13 at UCLA 0 on Oct 15, 1943
USC 34 at San Francisco 0 on Oct 15, 1943
Del Monte Pre-Flight 7 at Pacific 16 on Oct 15, 1943
Saint Mary's (CA) 7 at Alameda Coast Guard 21 on Oct 16, 1943
Saint Mary's (CA) Pre-Flight 39 at California 0 on Oct 22, 1943
Pacific 0 at USC 6 on Oct 22, 1943
Del Monte Pre-Flight 34 at San Francisco 0 on Oct 23, 1943
California 0 at USC 13 on Oct 29, 1943
March Field 7 at Saint Mary's (CA) Pre-Flight 6 on Oct 29, 1943
San Francisco 0 at California 32 on Nov 05, 1943
Del Monte Pre-Flight 26 at UCLA 7 on Nov 05, 1943
Saint Mary's (CA) 7 at Pacific 19 on Nov 05, 1943
Alameda Coast Guard 13 at Saint Mary's (CA) Pre-Flight 13 on Nov 06, 1943
UCLA 6 at California 13 on Nov 12, 1943
March Field 35 at USC 0 on Nov 12, 1943
Saint Mary's (CA) Pre-Flight 41 at San Francisco 0 on Nov 13, 1943
Alameda Coast Guard 7 at California 0 on Nov 19, 1943
Saint Mary's (CA) 7 at UCLA 19 on Nov 19, 1943
Del Monte Pre-Flight 37 at Saint Mary's (CA) Pre-Flight 14 on Nov 20, 1943
Del Monte Pre-Flight 47 at California 8 on Nov 26, 1943
UCLA 13 at USC 26 on Nov 26, 1943
Pacific 10 at March Field 19 on Dec 10, 1943

1943 final standings

March Field             4-0
USC                     7-1
Del Monte Pre-Flight    5-1
Pacific                 6-2
Alameda Coast Guard     3-2-1
California              4-6
Saint Mary's (CA) Pre-Flight2-4-1
UCLA                    1-7
Saint Mary's (CA)       0-4
San Francisco           0-5

1943, 33, March Field, 4-0

33 intra-California games at the highest level! (A record.) It’s a thing of beauty, even if the word salad “Saint Mary’s (CA) Pre-Flight” breaks our assumptions on max character length for a “college”.

What’s going on in the 40s and what are these schools?

Don’t you know there’s a war on? We touched on this in the 1951 post. After the rapid mobilization in early 1942 the US sprouted many new military bases. Many of these bases were explicitly called “schools” for e.g. training new aviators. And almost immediately they began fielding football teams. Here’s wikipedia’s overview.

Early in the war effort one football writer said about the applicability of the formation of football teams with military training:
Football is a body-toughener. Football lights the fighting spark in fighting men. It develops aggressiveness, teamwork, stamina, physical and mental coordination under active stress, and therefore it holds a foremost place in our national wartime training program. Teams by the hundreds are in formation at various Army camps and posts and Navy bases. The greatest participation in the history of the sport will be entered in the records of 1942. (Eddie Dooley, The Service Teams, 1942)
Beginning in the fall of 1942, the War Department began to promote organized football exhibitions involving select teams from its military bases that played full schedules against the depleted squads of regional universities.

“List of World War II military service football teams” Wikipedia, August 2022.

As you might be able to read between the lines, propaganda and real circumstances were converging here. The military quickly realized that the pool of college football players: male, 18-22, peak condition, competition-minded were exactly who they wanted to enlist. If they could sweeten the deal by saying “and you can keep playing ball” that would be all the better.

This is the earliest mention I can find of Pre-Flight and football, from The Baltimore Sun on March 5, 1942:

Bernie Bierman won national championships at Minnesota in 1934, 35, 36, 40 and 41. Less than 90 days since Pearl Harbor and the two-time defending national champion coach has jumped to the military’s pre-flight school. They’re going to play some ball. This wasn’t some emergent phenomenon. The military was all-in on combining football with mobilization from the beginning. Just in case you thought the deep entwining of the military and college football was something recent.

By June 23rd there was a story headlined “Pre-Flight Teams Play” on the AP wire. It was now official: the teams from the big bases would be showcased against each other in a new “conference” and major colleges could decide to get in or not. “Lieut. Comdr. Frank H Wickhorst said today: ‘Football gives the people the same thing that war does only without guns and bayonets ,and we can’t do without it.'” Directly below that story was this one:

Hinton Daily News, June 23, 1942

1941 Clemson had been a good team, finishing third in their conference with 3 All-Conference players. But by the next summer there was barely anyone left. Lieut. Comdr. Frank Wickhorst had 1800 cadets at each pre-flight academy.

Results

1940, 14, Stanford, 5-0
1941, 16, Santa Clara, 5-1
1942, 20, UCLA, 4-1
1943, 33, March Field, 4-0
1944, 15, March Field, 2-0-1
1945, 9, USC, 4-1
1946, 14, UCLA, 5-0
1947, 10, USC, 3-0
1948, 12, California, 5-0
1949, 14, California, 5-0
1950, 25, California, 5-0-1

By the time the 1945 season began the war was over. Demobilization was official by the next year. All but a few camps stopped playing and none were at a high level. I should note here that I haven’t found anything that would help tell which camp programs were actually at the highest level (AKA “FBS”) and which weren’t. There were all kind of camp programs. St Mary’s Pre-Flight played a team called Fleet City (of Camp Shoemaker) twice in 1944. So for these purposes we are using whatever the CFBData store has in its query as the FBS teams for a given year. Since many camp programs ended up in the AP top 20 we know how highly regarded some were. The CFBD records look good enough.

The other story of the 1940s is the all time high point for Cal. They never had a run like that again. Sorry Cal. Overshadowed by history.

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