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The Strange Saga of the Impostor Opponent

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Old Dominion’s bizarre introduction to big time college football.

Texas A&M v Miami

On a balmy Saturday in South Florida, fans began filing into a football stadium to watch their Miami Hurricanes play another underdog opponent.

Besides talking about the game, there was plenty of chatter about other things such as the historic performance of the Chicago Cubs in the recent World Series, America’s success in the Summer Olympics, and the November 8th election which had swept a new president into office with surprising ease.

The year was 1932.

Hurricanes’ records show that on December 24, 1932, Miami defeated William and Mary, 6-2. What the records don’t show is that Miami’s opponent was an impostor.

Not only was Miami playing the wrong team, but the opponent they were facing was a two year college, or in modern terms, a community college.

There are two questions that come to mind at this time.

  1. How could players and coaches from a two-year college think they could take the place of the “real” opponent and get away with it?
  2. How could the folks of Miami not notice the difference in team colors and logos?

The answer to the first question is simple. As strange as it seems, the community college people didn’t know they weren’t suppose to be there.

As for the second question, the visiting impostors had similar colors and labeling as the eximious ones from William and Marry.

The odd saga began with a single piece of paper and advanced with a one-inch square worth exactly two cents. Yes—-a letter and a postage stamp.

Months before, the Hurricane sports department had written a letter to the College of William and Mary with an invitation and a contract to come to Miami and play a football game in the brand new Orange Bowl on Christmas eve.

When the postman picked up the letter, all was in order.

Except the mailing address.

Instead of addressing the letter to William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, it was sent to Norfolk. The postman in Norfolk delivered the letter to William and Mary-Norfolk Division, a two-year extension of the parent college in Williamsburg.

When the football people in Norfolk received the invitation, they were overjoyed. And why wouldn’t they be? They had only started their football team a year before and assembled it in two days, so being recognized by a big school like Miami so soon was unexpected affirmation; enough to make their heads nod. Without delay, they signed the contract and sent it back.

In November, the football people in Norfolk booked a two-day train ride to Miami and entered the stadium fully believing that they belonged. They played so well that the Hurricanes chose to take a safety late in the game rather than risk a mishap punt from their own end zone.

Not everyone at the school was surprised that the team played as well as it did. Dr. Rufus Tonelson was a student at the school in 1932 and he said that even though Norfolk Division was a two-year school and its team was new, many of its players had sketchy backgrounds and little interest in education.

In other words, they were football guys.

“I guess some of the boys may have been questioned as to their academic status at the time,” he said. “I know that a number of them, after the football season was over, just withdrew from school.”

Even as of this date, the Miami University website claims that the Hurricanes played William and Mary. However, for the website to be correct, it needs some modification.

The name of their opponent on that date should not be “William and Mary” because neither William nor Mary showed up. The correct name should be shown as Norfolk Division or Old Dominion University as it is now known.

Some records state that the game was played on October 14, 1933. Why? Because the 1932 regular season had ended a month before and some record-keepers figured that rightfully made it the first game of the next season.

The College of William and Mary-Norfolk Division football program was terminated in 1941 when the school concluded that changes in the rules and a $10,000 debt were insurmountable impediments.

It probably didn’t help that the 1941 team didn’t win a game. It also didn’t score a point.

Some notes about the culture of 1932:

  • The Great Depression had put 25% of the labor force out of work.
  • A month before, Joe Kershalla of Mt. Union College scored 71 points in a football game.
  • The South was on edge because Clyde Barrow had been paroled in Texas and had rejoined Bonnie to continue their lives of robbery and violence through the South that would eventually end in a police ambush in Louisiana. Bonnie was still wearing the ring of another man she had married eight years before. She had just turned 23.
  • On October 1, 1932, Babe Ruth had pointed to the center-field bleachers, then hit a home run to that spot.