The Undefeated Champions of 1929: Mulerider Football during the 1920s

(Excerpted from James F. Willis, Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909-2009, pp. 111-13)

Coach Sage McLean, 1929 photo

Coach Sage McLean, 1929 (Click photo to enlarge)

President Charles A. Overstreet, 1935 photo

President Charles A. Overstreet, 1935 (Click photo to enlarge)

Cromer Ames, 1928 photo

Cromer Ames, 1928 (Click photo to enlarge)

Despite the setback on securing new buildings, the year 1929 remained among the best in Magnolia A&M’s twenty-five-year history. The school was accredited [by the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools], and the Mulerider football team went undefeated, a feat never achieved at A&M again. It was the climax of the “golden years” of Mulerider football when, for the third time, the team won a conference championship. While the varsity team played only colleges, the second team, nicknamed the Mulettes, had occasional games with high schools.

These remarkable football years began in 1926 with an unexpected victory over Henderson-Brown. Sage McLean said it was the “most exciting” game he ever coached in the fourteen years he led the team (1923 to 1936). The strong Reddies team was heavily favored. Late in the game with Henderson threatening to score again from the Magnolia fifteen-yard line, the Reddies quarterback threw an interception. Defender Cromer Ames caught the errant ball in his own end zone and ran back 101 yards for a touchdown. When Ames kicked the extra point to win the game, 14–13, McLean said that waiting for the ball to cross the goalposts was the “longest five seconds I have ever lived.” What students most remembered about the thrilling game was President [Charles A.] Overstreet, on the sidelines, becoming so excited when Ames made his runback that the president ran with him all the way to the Reddies goal line. McLean insisted Ames was the finest running back he ever coached.

The Muleriders marched to the 1929 championship of the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference (AIC) with seven wins, no losses, and two ties. The season began with what the Arkansas Gazette called “a savage 6-to-6 tie” with the Ouachita Tigers. Coach McLean’s usual game plan consisted of bruising “straight line plunges” and a stubborn defense that held its ground “like a stonewall.” This strategy worked in game after game. In six of nine contests, the opposing teams did not score.

The special train to Shreveport, 1930

The special train to Shreveport, 1930 (Click photo to enlarge)

Excitement grew when the Muleriders journeyed to Jonesboro to play the Gorillas (an early name of that A&M college’s team). Three hundred Magnolia fans gathered in the National Guard Armory to listen to live play-by-play reports via telephone from Ves Godley, the assistant football coach. He walked the sidelines with telephone in hand, a long wire trailing as he talked. Standing on the armory’s stage in Magnolia, cheerleader Curtis Youngblood relayed Godley’s descriptions to cheering supporters as the Muleriders rolled over the Gorillas 39–0.

When the team went to Shreveport to play Louisiana Normal College (Natchitoches) on Armistice Day, November 11, 1929, Magnolia’s Lions Club sponsored a special train for fans. Hundreds made the trip. Fifty-eight patriotic businesses in Magnolia closed that day to honor the fallen heroes of the First World War and to go cheer for Bill “Battering Bill” Brown, their Mulerider hero. In this game, as in previous ones, this tough fullback scored with “irresistible line plunges.” As always, the team’s front wall was anchored by Jason Greer, “the big red-headed right tackle”; John Hamm, the fierce left guard; and Paul Umbach, the left tackle, “a brainy fighting type that never quits.” The Muleriders shut out Normal’s Demons 13–0.

Homecoming Queen Ruthe Youngblood, 1930

Homecoming Queen Ruthe Youngblood, 1930 (Click photo to enlarge)

As the final game with the traditional rival, the Monticello Boll Weevils, approached on Thanksgiving Day, the Arkansas Gazette reported that the city of Magnolia was “football mad.” If the Muleriders won, the team would secure the conference title outright and have a solid claim to the state championship. The Lions Club, American Legion, and Business and Professional Women’s Club competed to see which could sell the most tickets—$1 each—to the 2:00 p.m. game at Smith Field. The Bray’s staff prepared a twenty- page souvenir program and printed a thousand copies to sell.

To add pageantry and color to the football game, Magnolia’s faculty and staff decided to hold a Homecoming Day and to crown a football queen for the first time. Before the game began, as the band played, uniformed student members of the campus’s Arkansas National Guard unit escorted Queen Ruthe Youngblood, a popular cheerleader, and her court of maids to the midfield ceremony. After receiving her crown, she in turn presented a large bouquet of roses to the captain of each team as the huge crowd cheered and applauded. So many people—more than three thousand—came to Smith Field, which had no bleachers, that officials had to suspend the game several times to push fans off the playing field.

The Prize: "Frankie" the Goat, 1930

The Prize: “Frankie” the Goat, 1930 (Click photo to enlarge)

Monticello added to the festivities by bringing a white female Angora goat to be awarded to the winning side. Each season for the next seven years, this goat—named for the Monticello president “Frankie” Horsfall when won by Magnolia and “Charlie” Overstreet when won by Monticello—became the prize of the Turkey Day game. Knowing that a mule and a goat were featured mascots of the famous Army-Navy football rivalry, the Arkansas Democrat opined that “from the frothing and foaming and sputtering which goes on” the “Mulerider-Boll Weevil game bids to become the Army-Navy battle of Arkansas football.”

From the opening play that Thanksgiving Day in 1929, the Muleriders fooled the Boll Weevils, who expected their opponents’ well-known “cold-blooded smashing tactics.” Instead, Monticello players faced a “brilliant surprise forward passing attack” that Coach McLean devised and that quarterback J. D. Cooksey skillfully executed. More confusing still was that Custer Ross, the right halfback, did most of the passing, twice throwing for touchdowns. Three scores occurred through the air, and the other two from the reliable running of Bill Brown. Monticello was held to two first downs while Magnolia gained nineteen. The Muleriders would have achieved another shutout but for the runback of an errant pass in the game’s waning minutes. It was, however, a long-remembered Magnolia A&M victory, the final score 32–6.

Football at Smith Field, 1932

Football at Smith Field, 1932 (Click photo to enlarge)

Coach McLean ran a scandal-free football program, and as a chemistry teacher, he emphasized scholarship as much as athletics. A number of his players went on to make notable records as athletes and as students at four-year institutions. Within two years, members of the 1929 team were playing for major college programs at the University of Arkansas, the University of Arizona, and Louisiana State University. The University of Wyoming awarded scholarships to five Mulerider players. The Bray’ssportswriter, Horace Wilson, followed his friends to Wyoming and subsequently completed a law degree there. Other players received undergraduate or graduate degrees at Wyoming, most notably Paul Umbach, who earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology and geology. Umbach returned to Magnolia A&M to teach and to assist in coaching. A freshman member of the 1929 team, John H. Wilson, graduated from the University of Arkansas Medical School and became medical director of the Dyess Colony, an important New Deal experiment for resettling tenant farmers in the 1930s. Wilson later returned to practice medicine in his hometown of Magnolia and served as an A&M board member for two decades. Two Mulerider centers of this era—Claude H. Hughes (1924–25) and Richard V. Fincher (1931–32)—also played center on varsity teams at the U.S. Naval Academy. Hughes won the Navy team’s coveted Thompson Trophy Cup in1930. These young Magnolia A&M alumni finished their almost-parallel lives, both serving as naval officers and both dying in accidents before the Second World War.

Claude Hughes, 1930

Claude Hughes, 1930 (Click photo to enlarge)

Custer Ross, 1930

Custer Ross, 1930 (Click photo to enlarge)

Richard Fincher, 1932 photo

Richard Fincher, 1932 (Click photo to enlarge)