Georgia’s 1943 Rose Bowl team might not have been the best program on campus

ATHENS, Ga. — Charley Trippi, considered the greatest all-around football player in Georgia history, has been busy at age 96 talking about his MVP performance for the last Bulldogs team to play in the Rose Bowl 75 years ago.

 

Trippi, however, will be the first to admit that his national championship Bulldogs team that included Heisman Trophy winner Frank Sinkwich might not have been the best program on campus in 1942.

That title may have belonged to the Navy Pre-flight Skycrackers, who throttled the same Auburn team that beat the Bulldogs that season.

“They had some great players, even more than we did,” Trippi said.

Georgia’s most venerated head coach, Vince Dooley, doesn’t dispute that the point is debatable.

“No campus has ever had so many great football players and great teams at the same time as Georgia did in ’42,” said Dooley, who spent a year researching the Navy pre-flight team for an article published in the Fall 2014 edition of the Georgia Historical Quarterly. “People knew about the Sinkwich and Trippi team of ’42, but this other team was great and had All-Pros and All-Americans.”

Dooley’s report, entitled “A Year Like No Other: Football on the University of Georgia Campus, 1942,” details arguably the greatest single season in Georgia’s storied football history. Neither Dooley’s 1980 national championship team nor this year’s Rose Bowl-bound squad could stack up to the “galaxy of stars” that lit up the practice fields of Athens in 1942.

“There were more all-star football players than ever assembled on one college campus in the history of the sport,” Dooley wrote of the combined six consensus All-Americans, dozens of all-conference players and a few All-Pros that littered the two squads.

“They used to scrimmage each other, which is the amazing thing,” Dooley said. “Georgia kicker Leo Costa said the scrimmages were ‘quite intense.’ I’ll bet they were.”

Even the Skycrackers coaching staff included a 28-year-old line coach named Paul “Bear” Bryant. It was the discovery of the fact the Alabama coaching legend and longtime SEC nemesis spent a season in Athens that led Dooley to research the Skycrackers in the first place. Bryant was going to take the head coaching job at Arkansas before he got so fired up to join the war effort he took a train to Washington to enlist and was sent to Athens for the Navy pre-flight program.

“He only stayed here during the football season and ended up in 1943 stationed on a transport ship in north Africa,” Dooley said.

While the Bulldogs rolled up a 9-1 record that qualified them for the Rose Bowl, the Skycrackers put up a 7-1-1 mark against one of the toughest schedules in the nation. The Navy pre-flight team crushed Auburn 41-14 in Columbus just two weeks after the Tigers dealt the Bulldogs their only loss. It also won 31-19 in Birmingham, Ala., against eventual Orange Bowl champion Alabama, against whom the Bulldogs needed a late rally to beat.

When the Rose Bowl decided on Oct. 10 that it was safe to host another game in California, it was originally undecided if it would be a traditional collegiate matchup or a charity game featuring the best service teams. One way or another, some team from Athens was destined to go.

“No question their record and the fact they played the toughest schedule and finished so high in some polls – anywhere from 2nd to 3rd to 5th – I’m sure they would have been one of those teams if they had decided to play a charity game,” Dooley said.

The James Howell Poll ranked the Bulldogs No. 1 and the Skycrackers No. 2 in its final poll at season’s end.

The Skycrackers were certainly stocked with talent including Redskins quarterback Frank Filchock, decorated professional receivers Jim “Buster” Poole, Alex Piasecky and Herschel “Red” Ramsey.

Georgia certainly benefitted in the long run from its relationship with the Navy program that sent 20,000 through the school from 1942-45. The Navy built and enhanced the school’s athletics facilities including a fieldhouse, natatorium and the practice football fields the Bulldogs still use today.

The glory days, however, were short-lived. By 1943, the majority of the Bulldogs players from the Rose Bowl team went to war and Georgia fielded a squad with only 17-year-old freshmen and a few 4-F players who failed military physical requirements.

In turn, the “Georgia head of Navy school decided they would play only the cadets and not officers or pro players because they were playing college teams that had lost all of their players,” Dooley said.

For one season in 1942, however, football in Athens never had it so good.

As Dooley’s research concluded: “All fans of the Red and Black should take pride in the fact that no university campus — before or since — ever had two highly ranked teams with such an abundance of superstars as did the University of Georgia in 1942.”

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