Masters of the Hudson
The 1947 Columbia Lions
Game of the Day (Day 2)
October 25, 1947
Columbia 21 Army 20
1940's college football was dominated by Red Blaik and his West Point Cadets. That made sense because World War II made a decision to go to the military academies more attractive to the best high school recruits, while at the same time decimating the rosters of the civilian college sports teams. Even after the war ended in 1945, Army stayed strong. The Cadets came into Baker Field that gray October day with a record 32-game unbeaten streak. A year earlier, they trounced a good Columbia team, 48-14.
The Army-Columbia games of the 30's and 40's were always a great spectacle. When they were played at Baker Field, a large contingent of Cadets would often take a ferry down the Hudson from West Point directly down to the Stadium at Spuyten Duyvil.
Columbia's eventual victory was achieved on the greatest stage at a time when sports were retaking a place at the center of American attention. And while the Rose Bowl win is a close second, beating the world famous Army squad at this particular point in their history, (and without the help of terribly flooded field), was a greater achievement. In addition to the 32-game win streak, the Cadets were two-time defending national champs. They were the undisputed kings of football.
ESPN recently rated this game as one of the 20 greatest college football upsets of all time.
Here's a look at the game from an Army perspective. This comes from an Army program published in the late 1950's:
October 25, 1947: The fifth game of the college season. As mentioned earlier, Army, with major personnel departures to graduation, had attained a three victory and one tie record to this point. The next opponent, Columbia, had opened its season with two wins and two losses, and Coach Little’s Lions were not expected to pose much of a problem for Coach Blaik and his Cadets.
But Columbia had some fine performers in quarterback Gene Rossides (who received some expert tutoring from Sid Luckman), halfback Lou Kusserow and end Bill Swiacki.
The day of the game a crowd of 35,000 fans showed up at Columbia’s Baker Field
in New York City, and the action started early. Just five minutes into the game, on
the ninth play of a 55-yard drive, Army quarterback Galiffa scored on a two-foot
sneak. Place kicker Jack Mackmull then booted the extra point for a 7-0 Army lead
Still in the first quarter, with Army getting the ball after Bill Gustafson’s pass
interception, the Cadets drove to the Lions’ nine yard line. Then a pass thrown by
substitute back Charley Gabriel was picked off on the goal line by Columbia
defender Al Kachaduruan, thus stopping the Army drive. But in the second quarter, key runs by Army’s Jack (“Amos” according to the New York Times game recap) Gillette, Gustafson and “Rip” Rowan moved the ball 61 yards to the one, and from there Rowan went in for the second Army score. Mackmull again converted for a 14-0 lead.
Columbia’s ground game had trouble moving the ball before quarterback Rossides connected on three straight passes, the first to right end Bruce Gehrke and the next two to opposite flanker Swiacki (who would later join Gehrke with the New York Giants in 1948). The three catches were all of the sensational variety, and preceded Kusserow taking a handoff from Rossides and driving in from six yards out - these being the first points allowed by Army for the season. The point after was added by fullback Ventan Yablonski (who was to play four seasons with the Chicago Cardinals beginning in 1948), and the Army lead now stood at 14-7.
An Army turnover deep in their own end was followed by Columbia’s failure to capitalize; as Yablonski missed a field goal try to give the ball back to Army. As the end of the half approached, “Rip” Rowan of the Cadets broke loose for the day’s most sensational run - 84 yards for the final score before halftime. With Mackmull failing on the conversion, it was Army 20-7. The missed kick was to prove fateful.
The third quarter was scoreless, although Gene Rossides of the Lions completed eight passes and Kusserow one. Then early in the final period, Rossides connected twice to right half Bill Olson, before throwing to Swiacki, who made an extraordinary catch in the end zone for the touchdown, cutting Army’s lead to 20-14 when Yablonski kicked the point-after.
The fleet “Bobby Jack” Stuart returned the ensuing kickoff to Army’s 27. With Rowan gaining 18 and Stuart seven, Galiffa then threw to end John Trent to advance the ball to Columbia’s 34.
But the Lions’ defense stopped the Army drive, and with eight and a half minutes to play, Columbia faced the need to cover 66 yards to reach Army’s goal line. Rossides
was up to the challenge. Showing a lot of poise, he in turn handed off to Yablonski for 11, carried the ball himself for 22 yards to reach Army’s 33, and then gave the ball to Kusserow for four more. With the Cadets switching from a five to a six-man line, Rossides once again threw to Swiacki, who made another diving, highlight film
catch on the three. Two plays later, Kusserow went in for the touchdown and Yablonski kicked the crucial go-ahead point-after. Columbia now led, 21-20!
Still with time to come back, Army desperately went to the air. After a 30-yard catch by Rowan was wiped out by an off-side penalty, another completion was made to Trent. But then future NBC television sports producer Lou Kusserow intercepted the next Army pass, and Columbia managed to kill the clock and preserve the win that stopped the Cadets’ unbeaten streak.
Columbia’s Bill Swiacki, who served his country as an air force navigator during WW-II, was a consensus All-America for 1947, and was inducted into college football’s Hall of Fame in 1976.
Army’s Joe Steffy won the Outland Trophy, as he was voted 1947’s best interior lineman. Sadly,
Army Lt. John C. Trent tragically lost his life in 1950 during the Korean conflict.
The now-legendary 21-20 win over unbeaten Army in 1947 highlighted one of Columbia’s two best football periods under Coach Lou Little, as the Lions went 21-6-0 from 1945 to 1947. The other period of prosperity for Columbia was between 1931 and 1934, when the much admired coach Little’s teams went 29-4-2 and upset favored Stanford in the 1934 Rose Bowl.
Here's a description of the game from an L.A. Times piece written in 1999:
During World War II, a disproportionate number of high school football stars found their way to West Point, N.Y.
It was a time when most young men were destined for military service. So, better to go in as officers, many figured.
Predictably, Army ruled the roost in college football, particularly after the war ended in 1945. Between 1944 and 1947, the Cadets were unbeaten in 32 games, a streak that included victories of 83-0 over Villanova, 69-0 over Pittsburgh and 59-0 over Notre Dame.
But the streak ended 52 years ago today in New York City, at Columbia’s Baker Field. There, about 35,000 watched a stunning second-half comeback, with the Lions scoring what remains one of the century’s major football upsets, 21-20.
Columbia partisans then and now gave it higher marks than even Columbia’s 1934 upset of Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
And it didn’t seem to be in the cards–until the third quarter.
Army initially had no trouble with the Lions, cruising to a 20-7 halftime lead. Then Columbia’s quarterback, Gene Rossides, suddenly began throwing strikes to his best receiver, Bill Swiacki.
Overall, Swiacki caught eight passes, the most unforgettable a leaping, twisting catch in the end zone for Columbia’s third touchdown, with 3:32 left. The winning conversion was kicked by Ventan Yablonski.
Of Swiacki’s end-zone catch, the New York Times reported: “Nothing like it has been seen since Al Gionfriddo robbed Joe DiMaggio in the sixth game of the 1947 World Series.
Swiacki also helped set up the second touchdown, making an outstanding reception on a 26-yard play that gave Columbia the ball at Army’s three.
Here's Bill Swiacki's page at the College Football Hall of Fame