PART THREE: A changing landscape (1930-1939)
PART TWO: A search for identity (1920-1929)
PART ONE: The pre-varsity years (1916-1921)
By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
If the first 20 or so years were the Tennessee Tech football team forging an identity, the team’s third decade in the 1940s was a period of transition. Almost as soon as the decade begins, a war will change the landscape of the student body and affect athletics. Before the decade draws to a close, the team will see leadership change and the dawning of a new era.
The 1940s opened with a tough 2-6 finish as the Golden Eagles claimed victories over West Tennessee (later Memphis) with a 16-13 triumph, then a 35-0 Homecoming victory over Maryville, but Tech saw four shutouts in the eight games as Chattanooga, Western Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee all blanked the Golden Eagles.
Hall of Famer Benton Bilbrey led the Golden Eagles against the Commodores, but Vanderbilt was determined to strike back at a Tech team that played them to a 13-13 tie the year before.
Chattanooga and Vanderbilt gave Tech defeats to open the 1941 season, but the Golden Eagles surged for three straight wins as Bilbrey ran for 35- and 75-yard touchdowns, then L.C. Stubblefield threw touchdown strikes to Alvin Rushing and Morford Locke for a 25-6 victory.
Stubblefield threw two touchdown passes to Mike Rukavina, while Wilburn Tucker picked up big yardage to sustain drives and eat up valuable time to keep Murray State in check for a 14-6 victory. Bilbrey then scored both touchdowns on the ground to give the Golden Eagles a 14-0 shutout victory over Sewanee the following week.
Following a rainy contest at Youngstown State that resulted in a 14-0 loss to the Penguins, the Golden Eagles countered with a 26-6 win over Western Kentucky as Stubblefield, Bilbrey and Gene Alford’s efforts carried Tech to victory.
Tech fell to Union 14-7, but the Golden Eagles ended the season with a defensive battle against Middle Tennessee on November 27. Tech was able to roll up a lot of rushing yardage in the game, but in the red zone couldn’t get much to find its way through. Stubblefield threw a short pass to Clarence Cobbs to get the lone Tech score. Middle Tennessee had first-and-goal at the Tech 1 in the final period, but the Blue Raiders fumbled on the first play of the drive, securing Tech’s 6-0 victory.
Just days later, the victory would seem hollow.
On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese and the United States was thrust into World War II. Able-bodied men enlisted to join the fight. While war raged, the games continued, but it was a distraction to events elsewhere.
From perusing the 1942 yearbook to the 1943 edition, it is a stark contrast. The earlier edition seems to be a slice of typical American college life at the time, while in 1943, the war is forefront as the front cover as the eagle soaring across a giant V for victory. The first page illustrated with the American flag and captioned with the Pledge of Allegiance.
After a foreword and a dedication to Tech’s Men In Service and a poem to “Heroes Living and Dead,” there is a page dedicated to the Tech students at that time missing in action – its “Gold Star service men,” followed by a two-page spread featuring the names of faculty, students and alumni who were serving in the United States Armed Forces.
Each section header is adorned with war propaganda images, cheering on the effort. There are pages on the military effort on campus as the Civilian Pilot Program is reorganized as the War Training Service and the Tennessee Tech company of the State Guard is overseen by football assistant coaches — captain Calvin Frey and second lieutenant Hooper Eblen.
The 1942 season was the last complete season the Golden Eagles had until the conclusion of the war. That year, Tech went 3-4-2 with a young squad. Bilbrey and Tucker were among the returnees, but, for the most part, the roster was filled with newcomers with little preseason training. With no freshman team, many freshmen were among the varsity squad.
Tech dropped the first two games 13-0 to Eastern Kentucky and 52-0 to Vanderbilt, before claiming a 54-0 victory over Camp Forrest and a scoreless tie to Morris-Harvey. After a 20-0 loss to Chattanooga, Tech beat Murray State 19-6, tied Western Kentucky 6-6, lost to Union 13-12, then topped Middle Tennessee in the finale 25-6.
In 1943, with just 23 players on the roster, the team was younger than the year before, touting one letterwinner, six returners and 17 freshmen. The Golden Eagles played six contests, going 1-5 on the season. The defeats included two Southern powers in Georgia and Vanderbilt – twice — and back-to-back losses to Milligan. Tech’s lone victory of the season was a 12-0 win over Sewanee.
The next year, Tech did not make the decision to field a football team until the fall semester was already underway. Only three games were played the team had just four returnees and freshmen filled the roster. The 1945 Eagle yearbook noted that many of them had never even played high school football.
Tech’s lone win of the season came in the opener as the Golden Eagles topped the Oak Ridge Army servicemen 52-6. The other two games were against Vanderbilt as the Commodores won 19-7 and 20-9.
By the time the 1945 season began, the war was over. Former soldiers were returning to campus. The year was not a success for the Golden Eagles as Putty Overall’s squad went 1-8 – the lone victory coming over Camp Forrest, 62-0. It was the fewest wins Overall had in a full season since 1935, 1926 before that.
Overall closed out his first stint as Tennessee Tech’s football coach in 1946. That year, the Golden Eagles had six seniors who had played on the 1942 team then left to serve in the military as Jimmy Massa, Johnny Tigue, “Beanie” Owen, Ed Gentry, Guy Jackson and C.I. Brown held the line.
After falling in the first three games to Eastern Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Chattanooga, the Golden Eagles got two wins in a row, topping Cumberland 7-0 in a muddy contest, then Eastern Kentucky in Richmond for the revenge effort. Following a 34-13 loss to Bradley Tech, the Golden Eagles won three of its last four, beating Western Kentucky 20-7, Georgetown (Ky.) 32-6 and Middle Tennessee 21-7 with a 20-13 loss to Murray State sandwiched in between.
More pieces were added to the Tennessee Tech identity in 1946. Written by composer Paul Yoder, the Tennessee Tech Fight Song was written that year and continues to be performed to this day by the Golden Eagle Marching Band.
“There they go today, what a team, yea, the Eagles!
You’ll hear everybody say, ‘Better get on the ball with the Eagles!’
Make that touchdown play again,
See them running up the score, for
We’ll be leading all the way
With out own Tech Golden Eagles!”
Yoder also wrote the fight songs for Texas State and Washington State.
At the end of the 1946 season, Overall stepped down from the head coaching position and became Tech’s athletic director, but he would not stay away from the sidelines for long. In his stead, Hooper Eblen became the new head coach. Eblen came to Tech in 1941 after spending time as head coach and athletic director at Tennessee Wesleyan. The University of Tennessee graduate coached the backfield for the Golden Eagles with a leave of absence to serve in the Navy in between.
On Eblen’s staff was Wilburn Tucker, returning to Tech after a graduate session at Tennessee, Raymond “Bull” Brown and former N.C. State, Appalachian State and Milligan assistant Star Wood. Tucker and Wood would later be head coaches for the Golden Eagle football team, while Brown was a long-time fixture as a coach at Tennessee Tech in multiple sports.
Eblen’s first season saw the Golden Eagles go 4-7. Opening the year with a 18-7 loss at Carson-Newman, Tech rebounded with a 13-7 victory over Maryville. Chattanooga and Western Kentucky took victories before the Golden Eagles claimed a 42-0 win over Cumberland. Tech saw consecutive losses with Tennessee in its first meeting against the Vols, Murray State and Vanderbilt, before beating Florida State in its inaugural season 27-6. The Golden Eagles topped Georgetown (Ky.) 33-6 before falling to Middle Tennessee 21-0 in the finale.
On February 27 and 28, 1948, the Ohio Valley Conference was formed at the Kentucky Hotel in Louisville. In the waning days of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, Murray State athletics director Roy Stewart, Eastern Kentucky athletics director Charles “Turkey” Hughes and Western Kentucky public relations director Kelly Thompson formed the idea in 1941 of creating a new conference. Discussions were put on hold as World War II broke out, but the idea was revisited. Murray State, Eastern Kentucky, Western Kentucky, Morehead State, Louisville and Evansville were the original six members.
Meanwhile in 1948, Eblen’s second season saw one more win as the Golden Eagles went 5-6. Tech split its two meetings against Morehead State, falling 19-7, then winning 19-6 in Cookeville. The Golden Eagles claimed a revenge win over Carson-Newman, victorious 26-7, but then dropped four of the next five games to Chattanooga, Georgetown (Ky.), Tennessee and Murray State. Tech rallied, winning three of its last four over Maryville, Union and Middle Tennessee.
It was also the Tech football team’s first season on a new field completed that season. Immediately south and adjoining the previous football field on Peachtree Street, the facility was described as having “a seating capacity of 8,000 in stadium-type steel construction and a well-drained, turtle-back playing field with the most modern lighting facilities.” The previous football field continued to be used for baseball, track and field and intramurals.
During the game against the Blue Raiders, the new Tech Athletic Field was dedicated as Overall Field in Coach Overall’s honor. To this day, the field the Golden Eagle football team plays on is named Overall Field.
In December 1948, Tennessee Tech and Marshall became the newest members of the Ohio Valley Conference. Marshall left following the 1951 season, following Louisville, who left after the 1949 campaign. The Golden Eagles have since been active members in the OVC for 74 of the conference’s 75 seasons.
In the conference’s second football season – the first for the Golden Eagles – Tech finished last in the conference, going 0-3 against OVC defending co-champions Murray State (26-7), Morehead State (12-7) and Marshall (20-7). The Golden Eagles picked up non-conference wins over Howard (later Samford), Georgetown (Ky.) and Union to finish the season 3-6. Marshall (4-0) and Louisville (3-0) were undefeated in conference play, but Evansville (3-1, 7-2-1 overall) is cited as the league’s champion that season.
It was a shaky start to play in a new league, but the conference would quickly learn Tennessee Tech’s name as the 1950s through 1970s was a period of dominance for the Golden Eagles in football.
Next: A team tragedy leads to a legacy of excellence as the Golden Eagles enter the 1950s.
Smith, A.M. (1957). The Story of Tennessee Tech. Nashville: McQuiddy Printing Company
Neufeldt, H.G. and Dickinson, W.C. (1991). The Search for Identity: A History of Tennessee Technological University 1915-1985. Memphis: Memphis State University Press
Johnson, Mancil and Dickinson, W.C. (2002). The College History Series: Tennessee Technological University. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing
Bell, R.R.; Dickinson, W.C.; Elkins, S.A. and Clemons, L. E. (2009). Practical Work: 100 Years of Dixie College and Tennessee Tech University