The Trinity College football team defeated the University of North Carolina 16-0 on November 27, 1888 in one of the first scientific intercollegiate football games played in the south. By “scientific” I don’t mean people in lab coats, with beakers. Rather it refers to the rules practiced by northeastern schools like Yale and Princeton, the accepted rules of the day that have a linear connection to 2021 college football.
John Franklin Crowell was Trinity’s coach. It wasn’t his only job, not even his most important.
He also was the school’s president.
Trinity College was still located in the Randolph County town of Trinity in 1888. The school was run by the Methodist church in North Carolina and they weren’t doing a very good job of it. The financially-challenged school was perpetually on the verge of closing its doors.
In 1887 the school’s trustees hired Crowell to drag the school into modernity. Crowell was a Yale grad. He changed Trinity’s curriculum from old-fashioned recitation to the new German-based research model, improved the library and set into motion a chain of events that led Trinity to move to Durham in 1892.
Crowell was also a believer that football taught “manly” virtues like courage, teamwork and discipline. Football was just what the doctor ordered.
But Crowell wore out his welcome. He wasn’t a people person, he was a Yankee and maybe modernity wasn’t all it was supposed to be. He resigned under pressure in 1894.
Football went with him. Rumors of activities like gambling and drinking permeated the game and made it unpalatable to the people calling the shots. Trinity played only 18 games before the program was shut down in 1894. A 28-0 loss to North Carolina was that season’s only game.
It stayed shut down. The school wasn’t anti-sports, just anti-football. Baseball was a staple and Trinity began its basketball program in 1906. In fact, Trinity, Wake Forest and Guilford were the first three basketball programs in the state.
The Great War helped change that. It was pretty hard to tell veterans of the Meuse-Argonne offensive that football was more than they could handle.
Trinity resumed football for the 1920 season. But the school dipped its toes in the water. That first season saw Trinity play a five-game schedule of Guilford, Emory & Henry, Lynchburg, Elon and Wofford. North Carolina got back on the schedule in 1922, NC State in 1924.
Trinity paid a competitive price for that long interruption. They could beat schools like Randolph-Macon and Wofford. But the school’s first three matches against Carolina resulted in losses by scores of 20-0, 14-6 and 6-0.
The Duke Endowment began to change the narrative. Trinity College became Duke University in 1924 and began to look for ways to raise its profile in all manners, including sports. Duke spent more and more money on football and joined the Southern Conference in 1928.
But they still couldn’t beat that school down the road. From 1925 through 1929 Duke was on the short end of 41-0, 6-0, 18-0, 14-7 and 48-7 scores.
Duke went all in to get better, hiring the legendary Wallace Wade away from Alabama, where he had turned that school into a national powerhouse.
But Wade had a contract and he insisted on fulfilling it. That meant that Jimmie DeHart was a lame duck in 1930.
In one of the great ironies in Duke sports history, DeHart put together a spectacular season. His best player might have been halfback Bill Murray, later a longtime coach at his alma mater. Duke traveled to Chapel Hill on December 6 with an 8-1-1 record and a great chance to break that losing streak against a 5-3-1 UNC team.
They were met with a deluge. No, that’s not a metaphor. It rained so hard and so long that pundits called the scoreless tie the Battle of Lake Kenan.
Still, the Duke fan-base hailed the tie as something of a victory. It wasn’t a win. But it wasn’t a loss. Still, the scorecard for Trinity/Duke football since the program’s 1920 revival read UNC 8 wins, Duke zero wins, UNC with a 167-20 scoring advantage.
It didn’t immediately get better. It took some time for Wade to establish his program. His first Duke team went 5-3-2. Yes, Wallace Wade lost his first game at Duke, 7-0 to South Carolina. Another scoreless tie with North Carolina ensued. Future Appalachian State head coach Kidd Brewer - their stadium is named after him - scored for Duke on a 21-yard run but it was called back on a holding penalty. The game “featured” 25 punts and 335 combined yards of total offense.
The tie brought Trinity/Duke’s winless streak against North Carolina to 10 games, spanning 38 years.
Wade’s second Duke team in 1932 was poised to end that streak. Lineman Fred Crawford keyed the line. In 1933 Crawford became Duke’s first AP football All-American. In fact, the member of the College Football Hall of Fame was the first AP All-American from any North Carolina school.
Duke went to Chapel Hill 5-3, the losses to Auburn, Tennessee and NC State.
Those were the only three teams to score against Duke.
North Carolina was 3-3-2, with three consecutive wins.
Again, it rained, which seemed to be standard for the Duke-Carolina game in those days, a cold, soggy mess that let up early in the game, too late to save the field.
So, again more punts (28) and more defense.
But one of those punts proved pivotal.
Carolina got the ball first, which meant they punted first. Earl Wentz blocked it for Duke and the Blue Devils took over at the Carolina 35.
Duke couldn’t take advantage and an exchange of punts ensued. Duke’s Nick Laney punted deep in Carolina’s territory. The punt nicked Carolina blocker Norman McKaskill in the back. Duke’s Al Means recovered on the UNC 20.
North Carolina coach Chuck Collins did not like the call.
After the game he explained to the media what happened next.
“There was considerable question as to the official’s decision on the Duke punt. I thought it best to protest to the referee. The interpretation of the officials was that by placing one foot inside the field of play, I was violating the rule against a coach coming onto the field of play, This technicality has never been enforced this strict in any football game in any place.”
The 15-yard penalty placed the ball at the Carolina five—no half-the-distance in this circumstance.
Lowell Mason rushed for one yard and then two. Third down, from the two. Laney then blasted into the end zone, Duke’s first points against North Carolina in three years.
The PAT made it 7-0.
Laney wasn’t an All-American. But he was known as the “crooning halfback,” because he sang with several campus musical groups.
Duke’s defense made it stand up. Duke reached the UNC 25 late in the first half but came up empty. Carolina never really threatened.
A 7-0 win might not inspire much celebration these days but it certainly did in 1932. The Durham Herald-Sun wrote the next day “a post-game pep meeting was held and considerable oratorical gloating was swept back on a wave of cheers. After the game and far into the night, the celebration continued, the streets being thronged with students.”
Duke defeated Washington and Lee the following week and finished the season 7-3, a springboard for Wade’s great seasons to come.
And one Carolina-blue monkey off Duke’s back.