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‘C6 H0’: The History and Legacy of Harvard Football’s Stunning 1921 Loss to Centre College

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Inscribed today on a wall in the campus of Centre College, a prestigious private institution home to 1,300 students in Danville, Kentucky, is a short combination of white letters and numbers: “C6 H0.” Centre’s students first carved this message into the brick on October 29, 1921, to celebrate the score, six to zero, of their football team’s improbable victory over Harvard University, then among the most dominant programs in American college football. In 1950, the Associated Press named the game as the greatest American sports upset of the first half of the 20th century, a sentiment echoed in 2006 when ESPN selected it as the third-best college football upset in the history of the sport.

“C6 H0” commemorates not only the outcome of an emotional Saturday night contest in October 1921. It also captures how the game helped establish American football outside of the Northeast region and across the entire country. Through the last one hundred years, the spirit embodied in “C6 H0” — selflessness, courage, and pride — has remained foundational to Centre College, its alumni, and many of those who learn from its history.

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THE RISE OF CENTRE FOOTBALL

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Founded in 1819, Centre College had assumed by the middle of the century a reputation as one of the United States’ most elite educational institutions west of the Allegheny Mountains. Its name derives from being built in the geographic center of Kentucky in the town of Danville, which was itself an early, key settlement in the new state and the American West during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Centre’s academic excellence has continued to today, as it received a Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 1971 and U.S. News and World Report listed the college among its “top-tier” in the nation in the 1990s. One of the most defining features of Centre is its unrivalled levels of support from its alumni and the 17,000 residents of Danville.

“The college community is very strong with the town,” said Centre head football coach Andy Frye. “Centre is well known for what they call the ‘Centre mafia,’ the people who graduate [. . .] In the last 30 to 40 years, we’ve always either been one or somewhere in the top 10 of 3,000 college universities in the percentage of alumni giving. [Students here] obviously love Centre. I mean, really this was the college of the state of Kentucky” before the University of Kentucky was established in 1865.

In the wake of World War One, the rise of mass media and transportation in the United States helped birth a truly national market for college football. The sport had its roots in the Northeast, where the well-endowed, dominant “Big Three” programs of Harvard, Yale University, and Princeton University had set the first rules, fielded star players, and played in many of the most famous games since college football’s official inception in 1869. The following fifty years featured growing crowds and the expansion of the game to the American Midwest, South, and Pacific coast, with iconic names like Knute Rockne, John Heisman, and Jim Thorpe and new programs at Alabama, Michigan, and Ohio State populating sportswriters’ widely-read newspaper columns.

The Centre football program developed within this context, due primarily to the efforts of Centre graduate and high school football coach Robert “Chief” Myers. After arriving in Danville in 1917, he hired a well-qualified head football coach, recruited talented players from the region, and instilled a disciplined, moral, and selfless team spirit in the locker room. Centre and its talented quarterback, Bo McMillin, caught the attention of journalists and football fans around the country after finishing the 1919 season with a 9-0 record, including a stunning defeat of West Virginia University the week before Princeton, a national powerhouse, lost to them. Coach Frye explains how Centre’s bold choice to schedule opponents from outside its conference in the South helped lead to a matchup with the dominant Harvard Crimson.

“What Centre did was, which I thought was very wise, they started playing teams that Harvard would play,” he said. “Fortunately, a Boston sportswriter noticed that Centre was beating those teams maybe even by more points than Harvard was beating them. Centre forced the challenge to happen because they purposely started playing those teams. And those teams were willing to play a little Centre College because it was a [likely] victory. You always want to play somebody you know you can get a victory from.”

The 1919 season was also a successful one for the Crimson, which earned college football’s championship by defeating the University of Oregon at the “Rose Bowl” in Pasadena, California. However, as John Powers, who has covered Harvard football for The Boston Globe for nearly five decades and is a former sports editor for The Crimson, recalls, Harvard had reason to seek out Centre, as well.

“What happened in 1919 was the Harvard Rose Bowl team,” said Powers, “which is the one that everybody seems to remember where they went out and beat Oregon. But in that year they had been tied by Princeton, and that bothered them. What Harvard decided was that their schedule hadn't been tough enough [in 1919], that they hadn't been as well prepared for Princeton as they wanted to be, so for 1920 they wanted to go out and get some tougher games.”

THE GAME: C6, H0

In the fall of 1920, unbeaten Centre travelled nearly one thousand miles from Kentucky to the temple of college football, Harvard Stadium, to face the Crimson, also undefeated. The game stayed close for more than a half, but Centre’s small roster of 16 players wore down physically and was overmatched by Harvard by a score of 31 to 14. McMillin, convinced another offseason of training and a larger Centre roster would be enough to secure a win over the Crimson in 1921, turned down a lucrative professional football contract and implored his teammates to return with him to Danville for the following season.

McMillin’s teammates answered his call, bolstering the Centre squad to 25 members and setting the stage for a rematch that captivated the entire country.

“Somehow or another, the West and the South delight in the prospect of a Harvard trimming,” reported the Louisville Courier-Journal before the game. “When the team expected to do it comes from a remote and Lilliputian college in Kentucky, the joy is equal to that in Israel when David’s forward pass decided the game against Goliath.”

On October 29, 1921, an electric Harvard Stadium crowd of 45,000 watched as Centre once again challenged the titan of college football on their home field. Though, as Powers notes, Harvard was not at full strength for the contest because it prioritized winning against its historic rival Princeton the following week.

“The Harvard team that Centre beat in 1921 was mostly reserves. Harvard held out seven starters in that game. [. . .] Harvard had three very demanding games before they played Centre. They had Indiana, Georgia, and Penn State. Their guys got beaten up pretty well. They tied Penn State the week before Centre. They held guys out, because the game after Centre was Princeton, and they didn't want to lose any more guys, certainly, and they knew that Centre would be a very demanding game. [. . .] They held those guys out, and they still lost [against Princeton].”

A conservative offensive game plan from both sides kept the game scoreless through the first half. The second half, however, immediately began with a botched surprise punt and penalty from Harvard, gifting Centre the ball on the Harvard 32-yard line. Employing an innovative option play his team had fine-tuned in practice, quarterback McMillin rolled out right, tucked the ball, and swiftly changed direction to evade and barely outrace two Crimson defenders into the endzone. McMillin’s touchdown would remain the lone score of the day, landing Centre College its sought-after victory and on the front pages of newspapers around the United States.

The reaction in Kentucky was bedlam, with Danville’s local newspaper announcing in the Sunday headlines, "CENTRE WINS: McMillin, The Hero of the Football World, President of the United States for Time Being. He Is The Great Effulgent Star." Kentucky governor Edwin P. Morrow said, “I’d rather be Bo McMillin at this moment than the governor of Kentucky.”

The next day’s Boston Sunday Post also led its front page, “CENTRE TRIUMPHS OVER HARVARD, 6-0,” showering praise on “McMillin’s spectacular dodging run” and writing “Southerners clearly outplay Cambridge team.”

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE GAME

Beyond the dramatic events of October 29, Centre’s defeat of Harvard in 1921 catalyzed the national expansion of college football from beyond the Northeast to across the United States’ Midwest, South, and West.

“People don't realize the incredible significance of that game for college football,” said Frye. That game put college football on the front page in North Dakota. I mean, that game was known throughout the country. Up until that point, college football was a northeastern, midwestern [sport]. And southern college football was looked upon as intramurals by those guys. And quite honestly, it probably was intramurals.”

“And then all of a sudden this little college that probably only had three or four hundred students was challenging the ‘big boys.’ It would be like [Centre today] challenging Alabama. [. . .] The significance of the game had more than just an upset and more of an upset to an Ivy League power. It put college football on the front page. [. . .] That was the effect that Centre College had on college football.”

The game’s legacy endures at Centre, where the final score is written on student-athletes’ spirit wear and water bottles. A section of Centre College Athletics’ museum memorializes the matchup through framed pictures and national headlines from 1921. To honor the 100th year anniversary of the game, Centre labelled its donation campaign in October 2021 the “C6H0 Challenge,” helping the school to receive 138 percent of its fundraising goal.

“It's part of who we are,” Frye said. “It's a history, and I have to be very deliberate in making sure that our players are aware that there are generations of men that came up through Centre College to play football, and that you're part of a long line of the gold and white, and you're part of that.”

Last, as I near my graduation from Harvard in under three weeks, perhaps the most powerful lessons I will take away from my college experience can be explained through “C6 H0.” This concise, yet compelling phrase that comes from my home state of Kentucky captures how the past can resonate with and inspire us in the present. It symbolizes individual sacrifice and selflessness in the pursuit of a collective goal with those we value around us. It embodies embracing challenges and potential failures with the faith and persistence that will overcome them — whether that means travelling a thousand miles to face the nation’s most powerful football team or applying for an opportunity that seems out of grasp.

“C6 H0” also gives my father, a graduate of Centre College, a point of school pride to always hold over me. He first told me about Bo McMillin and the 1921 Centre football team defeating Harvard before applying here even seemed a possibility for my family, and the significance of the game has only grown for us since I arrived in Cambridge four years ago.

Today, May 6, 2023, is his 50th birthday, and sharing this story is one of the best ways I know how to show my appreciation for him. Happy birthday, Dad. Now, we just need to wait for the rematch...

— Staff writer A.J. Dilts can be reached at aj.dilts@thecrimson.com.

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