Orange You Just Crushed?
During a pre-game pep talk at the Santa Rita Hotel in Tucson, Arizona, just before the last game of the 1947 football season, KU Coach George Sauer delivered a brief announcement he hoped would spur his Jayhawks on to another victory. The Orange Bowl Committee, he told the team with pride, had invited KU to play in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day, 1948.
Sauer’s news had its intended effect as the Big Six co-champions went on to crush the University of Arizona by a score of 54-28. They returned to Lawrence where the KU faithful greeted the first team from the University of Kansas ever to earn a bowl bid with a hero’s welcome. The fact that odds-makers listed the Jayhawks as a 13-point underdog to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets did little to diminish the excitement of their fans.
Indeed, they had cause for optimism. The 1947 Jayhawks (then known as the Jayhawkers) had enjoyed a Cinderella season. Coach Sauer had led his KU squad to a second consecutive conference title and improved his overall two-year record to 15-2-3. In part, this very impressive record was due to some good fortune. Many of Sauer’s athletes, for instance, were more mature than typical college football players – the average age for team members that year was 25. Some of these Jayhawks had even seen actual combat during their WWII service in the armed forces.
Sauer had the added benefit, as supporters were quick to point out, of coaching “talent [as had] never before been assembled on Mt. Oread.” Prior to the 1947 season, KU football had never had even one All-American. Sauer’s team boasted two of them. Ray Evans, who was also a two-time basketball All-American – and whose basketball number (15) – has since been retired, was at halfback/quarterback. Otto Schnellbacher, who was also an excellent basketball player, (a four-year all-conference selection on the hardwood) was at offensive/ defensive end.
Evans and Schnellbacher were not the only talented Jayhawks. Assisting them were defensive end David Schmidt, fullback Forrest Griffith, quarterback William “Red” Hogan, and halfback Bud “Twinkle-Toes” French, along with some very solid role players. As a team, the 1947 Jayhawks had earned a reputation as a bunch of scrappers who would never give up. “Fairy-tale last-minute victories had followed one after another,” as the Graduate Magazine pointed out, with the two biggest being over Nebraska and Missouri. The last minutes of the Orange Bowl would put that record to the test.
On December 26, 1947, the team returned from a three-day Christmas vacation. Players boarded a Pan Am flight captained by Elwood Leep, a KU alum and chief pilot of the airline’s eastern division, who had been granted special permission by Pan Am to fly the team to Miami. While the Jayhawks flew to the warm air and sandy beaches of the Sunshine State, the KU Band and other members of the student body began their long treks south as well.
Initially, it looked as though the KU Band would be unable to make the trip, since the University simply did not have the funds to cover travel and accommodation expenses to send the129 band members and cheerleaders to Miami. Kansas Governor Frank Carlson, however, on his own initiative raised the necessary $18,000. The University Daily Kansan covered the band’s three-day “Orange Bowl Special” train journey in great detail. Articles even exulted in the cheerleaders’ decision to lead “the band members and accompanying supporters in a complete round of KU yells” while refueling “in enemy territory [Georgia].” The band was granted a place in the Orange Bowl Parade as well as a place in the halftime show. “It was the first time in history,” asserted the University Daily Kansan, “that any organization had been awarded a solo performance in the halftime ceremonies.”
Another 30 or so students, thanks to the beneficence of one of their fathers, “got the use of a huge trailer-transport” for the trip to Miami. As the trailer had only a canvas top, the students referred to it as the “world’s largest convertible” and called their journey in it the “Roll to the Bowl.” Governor Carlson commissioned this entourage to bring official greetings to the governor of Florida, and the mayor of Lawrence asked the group to offer similar felicitations to the mayors of each town in which they stopped. The ungainly vehicle even ended up following the KU Band in the Orange Bowl Parade on New Year’s Day.
Although the Jayhawks were the underdog, they had a powerful ally in John D. Montgomery, a KU alumnus and publisher of the Miami Beach Sun-Star. (Montgomery was also a member of the Orange Bowl Committee, and had lobbied hard for the committee to extend the bowl invitation to KU in the first place.) Thanks to his efforts, when the Orange Bowl Stadium filled up on New Year’s Day 1948, the crowd of approximately 60,000 was decidedly in favor of the Jayhawks.
The game’s first half ended with the teams deadlocked 7-7. In the third quarter, however, Georgia Tech opened up a 20–7 lead. It was not until late in the fourth quarter that the Jayhawks began their comeback. With just under seven minutes left in the game, Evans scored his second touchdown and the University of Kansas had cut the lead to six. With time ticking down, the Jayhawks recovered a fumble by Georgia Tech at the Yellow Jackets forty-two yard line and began to drive towards the end zone.
They began their march when Schnellbacher caught a pass for sixteen yards that put the team on the twenty-six yard line. That play was followed by one in which Evans improbably turned a short gain into a long one by pitching to Schnellbacher who ran across the goal line, but not before the referees saw him step out of bounds at the ten. Evans then managed to plunge his way to the two-yard line before he was stopped. KU Quarterback Lynne McNutt, however, fumbled as he attempted to sneak across the goal line, and the referees, after some indecision, awarded Georgia Tech the ball with less than a minute to play.
Although Kansas lost the game 20-14, the Jayhawk faithful had reason to believe that their team was on the precipice of football greatness. The fans consoled themselves by attributing knowing – albeit undoubtedly apocryphal – remarks to Georgia Tech supporters, such as “this was probably the only bowl game in the country in which the better team lost.” To be sure, KU had exceeded expectations and nearly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. The University Daily Kansan quoted Frank Leahy, the great Notre Dame football coach, who praised the Jayhawks and hinted of good things in the future for the team.
Unfortunately, Jayhawk hopes to establish a football powerhouse following the 1948 Orange Bowl appearance remained unfulfilled. The game was the last for both Evans and Schnellbacher. Evans, who had used the Orange Bowl to extend his NCAA record for most passes without an interception, saw his number (42) retired a month after the Miami game; the first time in KU’s history that such an honor had been paid to an athlete. He went on to a nondescript career in professional football the next year. Schnellbacher played professional basketball in the Basketball Association of America (the NBA's predecessor) for the Providence Steamrollers and St. Louis Bombers, as well as professional football where in 1950 and 1951 he was an All-Pro for the New York Giants.
The 1948 Orange Bowl was also the last KU game for Coach Sauer, who left Lawrence less than two months later to coach football in the greener pastures of the United States Naval Academy. Sauer spent only a year at Annapolis. He then took on a series of other collegiate coaching positions, before heading to the ranks of professional football and constructing the New York Jets team that upset the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in 1969. That game took place in the same Orange Bowl Stadium a little more than 21 years to the day after Sauer had brought the Jayhawks there.
Sauer’s abrupt exit from KU bred a good deal of resentment and, as The Graduate Magazine asserted, “stirred countless articles” concerning the “moral issue of his leaving after signing a new contract” that had raised his salary $2,500 to a total of $10,000. The magazine’s hope that Sauer might be “a sort of permanent hero as just the first in a series of winning coaches at Kansas” proved futile as well. It also would be 21 years before the Jayhawks returned to the Orange Bowl.
Unlike Sauer, they would not enjoy a triumphal return visit. KU lost another heartbreaker of a game to Penn State 15-14 on New Year’s Day 1969.
It was not until the 2007 season under Coach Mark Mangino that the eighth-ranked Jayhawks finally triumphed at an Orange Bowl game, beating third-ranked Virginia Tech 24-21.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas