Sports at Texas A&M are currently on standby as the Southeastern Conference has canceled all remaining athletic events and championships for the spring, but COVID-19 isn’t the first pandemic to affect Aggie athletics.
Sandwiched between two of Texas A&M’s most successful seasons in the Aggies’ early football days lies one of the strangest in school history.
A&M faced similar issues back in 1918 toward the end of World War I when the Spanish Flu, which killed over 20 million people around the world, spread around the United States, including Bryan-College Station, during the fall and altered that year’s football season.
“It’s not the first time it’s happened. A lot of people don’t know that,” said John A. Adams Jr., a Texas A&M historian and author of several books including Over There in the Air: The Fightin’ Texas Aggies in World War I, 1917-1918.
A&M adjusted its 1918 schedule on the fly due to the Spanish Flu outbreak. The Aggies played only three of their original seven scheduled games and faced four teams from nearby military camps and flying fields. Even head coach D.V. Graves dealt with the Spanish Flu for two weeks just before A&M’s delayed season opener in late October.
Articles from The Eagle’s archives, the 1919 edition of the Long Horn, the name of Texas A&M University’s yearbook, give a look at how A&M navigated its odd football season in 1918 while the world faced turmoil.
War beginning of changes
Before the Spanish Flu hit Texas A&M’s campus in October, World War I already had altered the Farmers’ 1918 squad.
Coach D.X. Bible left the team in March 1918 to serve as a lieutenant in the 22nd Air Squadron of the First Army for a year in France. Bible had led Texas A&M in 1917 to an undefeated Southwest Conference championship season, one in which the Aggies shut out every opponent.
Then just days before the start of the season, A&M lost star players halfback Grady Higginbotham, backfielder Jack Mahan and captain Woodrow Wilson to the service. A&M’s entire senior class left campus to serve in the war and the Aggies would boast only two lettermen that season, according to the 1919 Long Horn.
“The power of the line and the human motorcycles from the backfield could not be replaced,” the 1919 Long Horn said of the star players. “We missed them all year, but we were glad to lose such men to the ‘Bigger Game.’”
Following Bible’s departure, A&M tabbed Graves to lead the team for the 1918 season. It was an easy transition since he already was an assistant football coach and head baseball coach. In March 1917, A&M became the nation’s first campus to give its facilities to the federal government for war training, according to Henry Dethloff’s The Centennial History of Texas A&M University. A&M already was the nation’s largest military college, even larger than the service academies.
The United States established the Student Army Training Corps in the fall of 1918 to train soldiers while they took classes. This caused a fluctuation of students at the A&M campus, according to Dethloff’s The Centennial History, and the school offered two-year and eight-month programs so students could graduate before they enlisted.
During the fall of 1918, additional drill hours were instituted for A&M students, cutting football practice hours in half, according to the 1919 Long Horn. The yearbook said there were military duties from reveille until taps, which equated to about 16 hours per day.
The 1918 Aggies looked much different than in 1917 as seniors were off to war and new students in the SATC program filled voids.
“They called it an A&M team, but it was made up of military personnel,” Adams said.
As the season approached, the Aggies’ schedule would begin to be altered, too.
A&M president William Bizzell announced on Sept. 18 football would be played that fall amid the war. A&M athletic director W.L. Driver said a scheduled game against Mississippi on Nov. 2 “is probably the only game that will have to be canceled in accordance with the war department’s ruling, as it is not deemed probable the Mississippians will be permitted to come to Texas this year,” according to The Eagle.
Spanish Flu hits A&M
The month of October was full of constant changes and cancellations due to the arrival of the Spanish Flu on A&M’s campus, which continued to push back the season opener, allowing the sick players, and the head coach to recover.
Spanish Flu was the most severe pandemic in recent history, according to the Center for Disease Control. Estimations from the CDC say around one-third of the world’s population became infected with the virus and around 675,000 Americans died from the Spanish Flu.
At A&M, 51 people died from the Spanish Flu, including 44 in October alone according to Adams’ book Over There in the Air. The CDC said a high mortality rate in younger, healthy people was a defining trait of the virus.
A&M put its entire campus on quarantine, according to The Eagle’s Sept. 30 edition, as the first cases of Spanish Flu emerged. Adams’ book notes Graves reported many of A&M’s football players were bedridden with the flu.
“The campus was on a wartime footing, so everything was upside down,” Adams said. “[The flu] just added more disruption than they already had.”
A&M’s 1918 season was scheduled to begin at home against Howard Payne on Oct. 5, but the game was canceled the morning of the contest because government camps were quarantined, reported The Eagle.
The SATC prohibited football games away from campus in October 1918 and an Eagle report said after Nov. 1, “team[s] may make two trips, but they are not to remain away longer than 48 hours on each trip.” Because of these strict mandates, A&M’s game against TCU in Fort Worth on Oct. 12 was canceled.
In turn, Driver filled A&M’s open October dates with teams from nearby camps and flying fields. Driver told The Eagle that A&M’s November schedule would go as planned with “Louisiana [State] and one other large university” slated to face A&M at Kyle Field.
This plan didn’t quite pan out, though.
A&M’s game against Carruthers Field of Forth Worth on Oct. 11 at Kyle Field was canceled because Carruthers Field was under quarantine. The Aggies’ game against Camp Mabry of Austin on Oct. 19 was also canceled.
Because of the ongoing interruptions to the college schedule, The Eagle wrote, the football season, which normally closes with the Thanksgiving game would be allowed to continue into December. A&M would play one game in December.
Four days prior to A&M’s revised season opener against Ream Field of Houston on Oct. 25, the “Regulars” beat the “Scrubs,” 21-0 in an intersquad scrimmage. Not a single letterman from the previous year’s team played, as The Eagle noted the majority of the 1917 team was either sick or gone to serve in the war, including the seniors.
More importantly, Graves had just recovered from battling Spanish Flu the past two weeks, leaving assistants in charge of preparing the Aggies for the start of the season.
Making the most of a season
Remarkably, after all the cancellations because of the war and flu, Texas A&M’s 1918 football season started three weeks later than originally slated with the Farmers hosting Ream Field on Oct. 26, 1918.
A month-long quarantine was lifted on A&M’s campus at reveille that day, according to The Eagle, and A&M beat Ream Field, 6-0.
As the calendar turned to November, A&M would win four straight games.
Camp Travis came to Kyle Field, falling to the Farmers, 12-6. It was the first time in two years A&M had been scored on and A&M used a trick play in the final minute to win.
A&M kept momentum rolling with a 19-0 victory over Baylor at the Cotton Palace in Waco and then added victories over Southwestern (7-0) and Camp Mabry (19-6). The game against Baylor was the only game A&M played on its original scheduled date that season.
A&M (5-0) was set to face rival and unbeaten Texas on Thanksgiving Day in Austin for the Southwest Conference championship, but because of injuries, A&M had to call up several reserves from the “Scrubs.” Texas was too much for A&M, beating the Farmers, 7-0. A&M was marching for a potential game-tying touchdown as time expired.
After the loss to Texas, A&M closed the season with a 60-0 win over Camp Travis Remount from San Antonio to finish the year 6-1.
“A remarkable record when you consider the difficulties encountered,” the 1919 Long Horn said.
|Original 1918 Texas A&M football schedule||Actual 1918 Texas A&M football schedule|
|Oct. 5 – Howard Payne (canceled)||Oct. 26 – Ream Field W 6-0|
|Oct. 12 – at TCU (canceled)||Nov. 2 – Camp Travis W 12-6|
|Oct. 19 – Southwestern (played Nov. 16)||Nov. 9 – at Baylor W 19-0|
|Oct. 26 – LSU (canceled)||Nov. 16 – Southwestern W 7-0|
|Nov. 2 – Mississippi (canceled)||Nov. 23 – Camp Mabry W 19-6|
|Nov. 9 – Baylor (played as scheduled)||Nov. 28 – at Texas L 7-0|
|Nov. 16 – at Texas (played Nov. 28)||Dec. 7 – Camp Travis Remount W 60-0|
Aftermath of 1918 season
After the 1918 season, as World War I had already ended in November and the initial outbreak of Spanish Flu subsided in the spring of 1919, things began to return to normal for the Texas A&M football team.
At the end of March 1919, Bible sent letters to A&M president Bizzell and Graves saying he would return to A&M and coach football.
The Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America (ICAAAA), the governing body for college athletics in 1918, allowed students who had served in World War I or were in the SATC to be eligible for an extra year of play.
A similar issue has arisen today as the NCAA will vote on Monday to potentially allow spring sport athletes to retain a year of eligibility due to the cancellation of the remainder of this season and its championships.
“[Bible] sends letters to all of his players saying, ‘OK guys, it’s over with. Come on back and we’re going to put the team back together,’” Adams said. “The NCAA then extended for one more season all the eligibility for all of the college players. The only time they’ve ever done that. So they automatically gave all of the players nationwide one more year of eligibility.”
On April 15, Bible arrived on campus and, according to The Eagle, “was looking exceptionally well and will enter immediately upon plans for building up the greatest football team next fall which the college has ever had.”
That statement rang true in the fall of 1919.
A&M went 10-0 and outscored opponents 275-0 and sealed the Southwest Conference championship with a 7-0 win over Texas at Kyle Field on Thanksgiving Day. Graves was on staff as the line coach. The Aggies were retroactively named national champions by the National Championship Foundation and the Billingsley Report. A&M didn't claim the title until 2012.
Yet, amid all the twists and turns of the 1918 football season, A&M managed to turn a troubled season into a success and nearly won consecutive Southwest Conference championships.
“A remarkable season was 1918 in many ways,” the 1919 Long Horn, said. “A&M had the lightest team in years but her fight and her ability to take untold punishment at the hands of heavier teams were wonders not to be forgot. The Farmers suffered defeat only once – defeated but not conquered.”