When the Harvard football team kicks off against Dartmouth tomorrow night at 6 p.m., both teams will be making minor history. It’s the first time that the Crimson has ever played two night games at Harvard Stadium in the same season, and it is the Big Green’s second game ever under the lights.
But few beyond the most fanatical football history buffs know the historical significance of tomorrow’s game.
Ninety years ago to the day, playing at the same stadium, Harvard hosted Centre College, a small school from Danville, Ky.
Coming into that 1921 matchup, Harvard hadn’t lost a game since 1916, excluding exhibitions during World War I that generally aren’t counted as official. The Crimson was just about two years removed from its first and only Rose Bowl win in 1920, and the team was still at the top of the football world.
A week before that game, Harvard tied Penn State, 21-21. Despite signs that the Crimson might not be as strong as it had been a year prior, no one in Boston gave the tiny school in Kentucky a chance.
But against all odds, in front of more than 40,000 fans at Harvard Stadium, the Crimson lost, 6-0.
It was an embarrassing loss for Harvard. Alumni and fans alike expressed both shock and frustration in the defeat at the hands of the Centre Praying Colonels.
“Centre College triumphed because they outrushed, outpassed, and out-maneuvered their Crimson opponents,” said R. B. Wigglesworth, class of 1912 and member of the football advisory committee, to The Harvard Crimson the Monday after the game. “If victory is to be achieved over Princeton and Yale the team must demonstrate on the field a complete reversal of form.”
The Crimson’s sub-headline captures the school’s sentiments on the game: “Raging Kentuckians Humble University Team by 6 to 0 Before Packed Stadium Crowd.”
Bo McMillin, Centre’s quarterback and a consensus All-American, scored the team’s lone touchdown, and he became an icon in the state of Kentucky for it.
“I’d rather be Bo McMillin at this moment than the governor of Kentucky,” Edwin Morrow, the governor of Kentucky, said after the game.
The 1921 Harvard-Centre game is remembered as one of the all-time major upsets in the history of college football, and the Associated Press called it the greatest upset in all of sports in the first half of the 20th century.
Even today, it is still considered one of the most shocking victories in the game’s history, on the same level as Appalachian State’s stunning 2007 win over Michigan.
“Centre admired the boys from Harvard … but they also wanted to beat them so they could enter into the level that Harvard was playing,” said Robert Robertson, a Centre graduate and author of a book on the Centre football team in the early 1920s. “During that era, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale were the powers. They were the Big Three. From the conception of the game in 1869 until the early ’20s, the big powers were in the East.”