It Started in 1947
By Jim Joanos
As the regular season winds down, it is normal for FSU fans to evaluate the season. When the season started, expectations were not as high as we have been accustomed to in recent past years. However, the team turned out better than expected and for awhile there were hopes of competing for the national championship again. But alas, that was not to be. The losses to Miami and Clemson destroyed those hopes. As I write this, there are still three games to be played, against North Carolina State, against Florida, and in a bowl game somewhere. As I do not have a crystal ball, I do not know how those games will turn out. But what I do know is that it is quite remarkable that the FSU program has advanced to such great levels so quickly. It is probably a good time to look back at the beginning and take note of those people who started the FSU football program when we try to evaluate the current team. FSU fans are very much indebted to a bunch of young men, mostly World War II veterans who got the program going.
From December of 1941 until the war ended in 1945, America' full attention was upon the Great War. America's young sons and some daughters left school and donned military uniforms while its other daughters and elders supported the war effort on the home front. Many have described the time as "America's greatest days" and those that participated as the "greatest generation". But when the guns had been silenced and the world was again safe for democracies, the young soldiers of America turned their attention toward thoughts of education. Boosted by federal financial support in the form of the "G.I. Bill" they streamed back to the college campuses. Accommodation had to be made for them.
In Tallahassee, then a small southern town, there existed the Florida State College for Women, a little college boasting an outstanding reputation in the study of arts and sciences and having about 2500 bright, beautiful women. The college opened its doors to the returning GI's. In 1946 about 600 privileged young men were allowed into FSCW as students technically registered in something called the "Tallahassee Branch of the University of Florida". Within a year thereafter, the Florida legislature chose to make a change and FSCW, a formerly women's only institution became The Florida State University, a coeducational one.
Back in the early 1900's when the college had been a coeducational one, it had participated in intercollegiate football. The 1904 team had an outstanding season and even won the state championship. Therefore, in 1947, it was natural that Florida State would entertain the idea of again fielding an intercollegiate football team. It did not take the school's administration long under the leadership of President Doak Campbell to concur in the idea and almost overnight the project of playing intercollegiate football was underway at Florida State.
The First Coach
Ed Williamson, a former high school coach, who had been brought to Florida State to teach physical education and oversee the intramural sports program was pressed into action as the football coach. He has been described by one of his former players as an "even tempered, adamant man". He was the father of a couple of my school mates. I saw him as a highly principled, quiet man, totally devoted to his family. He was assigned an assistant coach to help in the project, a pleasant guy named Jack Haskin. Haskin, also a physical education instructor would later become the founder of the FSU Flying High student circus and receive a great deal of acclaim in that endeavor.
The word was sent out that there would be a team. From somewhere, a supply of football shoes were acquired and distributed to the students who responded to the call. However, there were not enough shoes for all those who sought membership on the team. For awhile, the future players worked out on their own. They assembled in small groups on the grounds in western Tallahassee that had served as drill fields for the former Dale Mabry Army Air Base. They dressed out in the barracks where they lived, also located at the air base.
The First Meeting
Then, in September of 1947, the team met as a group for the first time. There were about 65 potential players at the meeting that took place in the gymnasium that had served the air base. Most of the players were military veterans but a few of them like Ralph Chaudron and Chris Kalfas were just out of high school. The oldest was 27 year old Clice Yancey. The youngest were several eighteen year olds. The largest was 230 pound tackle Leonard Gilberg. The smallest may have been halfback Harry Hughey at 155 pounds but there were a number of others about that same weight. Coach Williamson greeted the men and introduced Coach Haskin. The two coaches outlined the plans that had been made and the schedule of practices that would be followed. Williamson would coach linemen while Haskin would work with the backs. One of the things that Phil Rountree remembers about that meeting was that one of the men showed up with a pair of the precious football shoes tied across his shoulder and a cigar in his mouth. Coach Williamson looked at the cigar and then quietly reached over, grabbed the shoes off the man's shoulder, and handed them to another potential player who did not have any. In this way Williamson made the point that there would be discipline on the team.
Soon thereafter, the guys were practicing in preparation for their first game. There were limited dressing facilities. They amounted to little more than a shower and a small area for dressing. Therefore, most of the players kept their equipment and continued to dress for practice in their own barracks rooms.
J.P. Love came out for the team somewhat later than the others. In high school, he had only played six man football. He describes the practices as being quite different from what he had seen before. He saw some "very talented people". Practices were at West Campus near the old military theatre. The coaches were quite fond of "grass drills" and side-straddle hops. Lots of time was spent in "catching punts and tackling". The practice uniforms consisted of canvas pants, heavy cotton jerseys and coarse jock straps. In rainy weather, the uniforms never seemed to dry. Love was impressed with the athletic prowess of players like Bo Manuel and Bullet Barnes. He said that Ed Dilsaver "was so flexible that he could stand on a curb and touch the street below". He also recalls the Quigley brothers frequently squabbling with each other.
There was a lot of excitement in preparation for the first game. At practice, players were matched up with the positions that needed to be filled. A starting team had to be selected. While the players were required to play both ways, offense and defense, an early decision was made to have two backfields, one more suited to running the football and another with a little more skill at passing. On the campus, the students were getting into the football spirit. Guys and girls were lining up dates for the first game. FSCW had an all women cheerleading squad. The new FSU cheerleading squad boasted three males. In downtown Tallahassee merchants were decorating their store windows with posters and displays proclaiming the oncoming game. On October 11, a game like "East-West scrimmage" was held at night under lights and about 3,000 fans showed up to watch it. There were even special jerseys for each team with painted-on numbers. One team wore garnet which looked more like purple and the other wore gold. Soon thereafter game uniforms were distributed. There were not enough for all of the players so some would not dress for the first game.
The First Game
It was ironic that Stetson University of Deland was the opponent for the first game for the new Florida State team as the same college had supplied the competition in the last game played in 1904 just before Florida State was converted into an all female college where no intercollegiate football was played for forty-three years.
Tallahassee's Centennial Field was the site of that first October 18, 1947, game as well as all other FSU home games until 1950. Centennial Field, built originally to house a professional minor league baseball team also doubled as a football stadium. The layout for football had the gridiron stretched out over the area that served as left and center fields when the place was used for baseball. The train tracks ran along the hill just beyond the right field fence. You could count on at least one train to come chugging and smoking by during each game. On both sides of the gridiron were bleacher type seats. For football, there was seating for about 6,000 spectators. For FSU's first game in 1947 there were nearly 8,000 fans packed into the facility. The dressing rooms were tiny, crowded, and smelly from the close proximity of sweaty players on hot nights.
Acting game captain Jack Tully wearing number 31 won the coin toss and chose to receive. Stetson kicked off to Florida State. The large crowd was packed into and around the bleachers. Number 14, Don Grant, took the opening kickoff on the FSU three yard line and advanced the ball 29 yards to the 32. FSU ran from the Split T formation. In the second quarter of that first game, Grant threw to Charles McMillan in the southeast corner of the end zone to score the school's first touchdown in the modern era. Tallahassee Democrat sports editor Fred Pettijohn later described it as a "miracle catch" of a "high forward pass". Although FSU scored first, they lost the game to Stetson, 14-6.
A New Name
Between the first and second game, the Florida State team got a name. The name selected was "Seminoles" in honor of the native Americans who had fought valiantly to retain their presence in Florida and refused to surrender to the powerful United States military forces. There are conflicting stories about how the name was selected but nearly all accounts indicate that a vote was taken by the student body. There were apparently six names to choose from on the ballot. There are stories that the others were: "Golden Falcons", "Statesmen", "Crackers", "Senators", and "Indians". The Florida Flambeau, however, reported that the "Seminoles" won over, in order, "Statesmen", "Rebels", "Tarpons", "Fighting Warriors", and "Crackers". Apparently there were some write ins. There is also a story circulating that the name "Tallywhackers" was strongly considered. In any event, a student at the time, Odell Turner recently told me that he got $25.00 as a prize for being the first person to suggest the name, "Seminoles" which was chosen.
The Second Game-A Real Ordeal
FSU's second game took place about a month later on November 14, against Cumberland College in Lebanon, Tennessee. Thirty-three players made the traveling squad that left Tallahassee by bus two days before the game. The bus took two days to get there as the team spent the first night in Griffin, Georgia. There are stories that the team had to sleep on surplus army cots at Cumberland and that their locker room for the game was really a boiler room. The Cumberland game is also quite memorable because of the bad weather. It had rained all day and continued to rain during the game. Team member Phil Rountree does not believe that "there were more than twenty spectators there", because of the weather. The ball was quite slippery and both teams kept fumbling. Unfortunately, for FSU, Cumberland scored on a short pass in the second quarter that the receiver managed to hold on to and beat FSU 6-0 as there was no scoring thereafter. A great story that comes from that game is that during the game, some of the FSU players had conversations with the Cumberland center, Ted "Satchmo" Martin who was from Gadsden, Alabama, and interested him in coming to FSU. The story goes, that he showed up at the FSU bus after the game but was told that there was no room. He managed to get to FSU later and became an FSU player for the next two years. As the Cumberland game was the only game on the road that first year its memory gives rise to lots of other stories.
Tennessee Tech 27, Florida State 6
The third game was in Tallahassee, against Tennessee Polytechnical Institute. Tennessee Tech was highly favored to win the game. It had rained before the game, so the field was very muddy but it was something of a relief that it did not rain during the game as the team had enough of that in the previous game at Cumberland. FSU fought hard but Tennessee Tech was too much for them and beat the Seminoles 27-6. Bill Osteen scored Florida State's only touchdown from two yards out.
Troy State 36, Florida State 6
FSU played its fourth game on Thanksgiving afternoon at Centennial Field against Troy State from nearby Troy, Alabama. Troy overpowered FSU in the first half and led at the midway point, 24-0. The Seminoles played much better in the second half but lost the game 36-6. Right Halfback Leonard Melton scored FSU's only touchdown on a one yard run. The touchdown had been set up by an interception by Jack McMillan and a Ken MacLean pass to Chris Banakas.
The Final Game
The fifth and final game for FSU that season was against Jacksonville State of Alabama. Jacksonville State had an 8-0 undefeated record coming into the game and was probably the best team on the FSU first year schedule. In the beginning, there were no surprises. FSU fumbled early on its own 31 and shortly thereafter, with only three minutes off the clock, Jacksonville State scored a touchdown, made the extra point and went ahead 7-0. But from that point on, the game was played evenly and there was no more scoring by either team.
During the season, the team had used game captains for each game. Shortly after the last game, a meeting was called to elect the permanent captains of that first team. Jack MacMillan and Phil Rountree were elected.
The Future Looks Bright
Thus, ended the first season. Although the team had not won a game the team had been most competitive and was never embarrassed by any of the five teams that they played.
On January 20, 1948, at the Tallahassee Country Club, the Tallahassee Kiwanis Club sponsored the "First Annual Florida State University Football Banquet". It was a great evening. There was barbecue beef and pork along with all of the fixings that culminated with a dessert of cherry pie a la mode. One of the speakers was none other than the governor of Florida, Millard Caldwell. According to The Tallahassee Democrat, the governor told the crowd that "the best football that I saw played last season was by Florida State University". Two members of the Florida State Cabinet were also present. They were Superintendent of Public Instruction Colin English and Secretary of State R.A. Gray. Among the many guests were three members of the 1902-04 Florida State teams. Thirty-six players were awarded garnet sweaters with gold letters. You would never know that the team had gone winless by the spirit present at that banquet. FSU's football future looked extremely bright.
There were no last year's starters and no lettermen on that first FSU team. Neither of the two coaches had any previous experience coaching college football. There were no athletic scholarships. No special benefits. From that humble beginning has emerged one of the great programs of modern day football. Forty-six years later the FSU Seminoles advanced from that loss against Stetson in Centennial Field on that night in October of 1947 to a win over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and the attainment of the National Championship. There has been another national championship since and very likely there will be more in the future. There have been lots of conference championships. It has been a glorious trip that began with a team made up mostly of World War II veterans.