The UCF Golden Knights finished 13-0, were left out of the top 10 (much less the College Football Playoff), and are accordingly giving the finger to the college football establishment by pulling an old-school football move and claiming a national title. I don’t blame them. Imagine if the 2009 Bearcats won that miraculous Pitt game and their reward was a December 29th matchup with 9-3 Oklahoma State. That’s essentially what the current college football landscape levelled against the Knights.
However, I’m not here to talk about UCF. This conversation of claimed national titles got me thinking about UC’s own history and it took me down an interesting path.
The Cincinnati Bearcats have finished a season without a loss just five times in their 130 seasons of play. However, four of those undefeated seasons came from 1885-1888, when the team wasn’t playing collegiate opponents and maxed out at two games per year. That leaves just one “real” undefeated season: 1918—100 years ago.
If you know your history, you know that 1918 encompassed the final stages of World War I. This wreaked havoc on college sports because a reported 25% of the male student body at UC was serving in the armed forces along with a “good part” of the faculty. 1918 was a rough time for America and a rough time in Clifton. Only 40 kids came out to play football. Within a few weeks, that number had dwindled to 25. Shortly thereafter, an influenza outbreak forced the university to go under quarantine for about five weeks. By my count, the virus claimed the lives of six UC students. The entire football schedule was rearranged and only three collegiate games could be scheduled. Such was life in 1918.
When talking about the 1918 football season, it’s really important to set the stage. The 1916 Bearcats went 0-8-1. Only the 1937 team would lose more games without winning one. The following year marked, in my opinion, the worst in UC history. The 1917 Bearcats were absolutely dreadful. They were so bad that we did a podcast about them. The team went 0-6 and didn’t score a single point in a season that played out like the first half of Bad News Bears. Cincinnati Bearcat football was lower than rock bottom.
This made 1918 an absolute miracle.
Despite the odds stacked against them, the Bearcats turned in “undoubtedly the most remarkable football season Varsity has every experienced,” led by head coach Boyd Chambers. The following year, Chambers would simultaneously coach football, basketball, and baseball in Clifton. His strong suit was probably hoops, but the 1918 football team may be his greatest achievement at UC.
The year opened at home against Ft. Thomas, whom the Bearcats “easily” defeated by a 6-0 score. It may seem pedestrian, but keep in mind this marked Cincinnati’s first win since the 1915 season. The following week the team hit the road for Athens, Ohio and a game against the Bobcats. The field was a mud bowl and the teams struggled to a 6-6 tie.
Two days later, the armistice was signed. The war was over. The Bearcats were re-energized. They returned home on November 16th to face Georgetown, destroying them 21-0 in a game “replete with sensational runs and long forward passes.” The Bearcats went into the bye week with a huge Thanksgiving Day game against rival Miami looming on the other side. The 1918 Battle for the Victory bell was a struggle, as the two teams battled it out on a wet field in front of “one of the largest crowds that has attended a game on Carson Field.” The result was a scoreless tie, “one of the best games ever played in Cincinnati.”
St. Xavier College across town was getting jealous, and issued a challenge for the city championship. The Bearcats cruised past the team from Norwood 12-0. “At no time was the local eleven able to threaten our goal while the Varsity backs advanced the ball at will,” reported the yearbook.
After a record of 0-14-1 across the previous two seasons, the Bearcats came back with the best year the program had ever seen, orchestrated by a basketball coach and a 141-pound sophomore quarterback from Cincinnati named Babe.
God bless the 1918 Bearcats, my national champions.