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The Sound and the Fury: The football scandal of 1951


Alumni Gazette | Aug. 2000, Vol. 66, No. 1

In the middle years of the Twentieth Century, when it was printed in magazine format, the masthead of the Alumni Gazette declared that it was published by the Society of the Alumni on the first day of October, December, March, and May. Accordingly, the issues were labeled October, December, March, and May respectively. In spite of this, the cover of one of its issues was identified 'September, 1951' -- clearly, legibly, and incorrectly.

It should have read 'October, 1951'. The person responsible for that cover, including the banner, the photograph, and the glaring and inexcusable error in its dateline was its managing editor. Me.

Under normal circumstances I would have carried the embarrassment of this mistake for the rest of my life. But I didn't. On the contrary, the issue of the Gazette which I dated improperly allowed me to participate in what may have been the Gazette's finest moment. I'm proud of everything in that mis-dated September 1951 issue ... including my blunder.

To explain why this is so, I must dredge up a tragic, distasteful episode in William and Mary's otherwise long and illustrious history. In 1951 President John E. Pomfret and football coach R.N. "Rube" McCray had to resign after disclosure of corruption in its intercollegiate athletic program. Newspapers across the nation blackened William and Mary's reputation with their stories--unfortunately quite true--of the way in which coaches, particularly in football, had broken academic rules and violated the honor council code in order to enroll scholastically unqualified athletes and to keep athletes eligible.

Although the story did not become public until August, the campus community had for months been hearing rumors of questionable practices in the athletic department. When Nelson Marshall, dean of the faculty, advised President Pomfret that his position was untenable because he had been prevented from investigating the administration of intercollegiate athletics, we knew something was terribly wrong with the football program.

Charles P. McCurdy, Jr., was alumni secretary and editor of the Gazette in 1951. Under his tutelage our magazine that year was chosen by the American Alumni Council as one of the "Best Ten" in the nation. Others so honored included much larger institutions like Johns Hopkins, Chicago, Columbia, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State and Yale. Not only that, McCurdy was elected president of the American Alumni Council.

McCurdy had hired me a year earlier, in June 1951, to take on most of the work of publishing the Gazette while helping him with other duties of the alumni office. (Our staff consisted of McCurdy, a secretary, and me.) I had qualified for the position by contributing to the Gazette on a free-lance basis after my graduation in 1946 and gradually becoming deeply involved in its publication. The fact that I was willing to work for a pittance in order to enter the field of journalism helped make my employment possible.

Weeks before the scandal became public knowledge, McCurdy and I decided to do a thorough review of William and Mary football. We chose to cover the years from 1939 -- when the College undertook to compete on a national level -- to 1951. We drew up a list of five questions :

1. Has football as it is played at William and Mary become too important?
2. Is it effecting aversely the high academic standards of the College?
3. Has it become too costly for a college of William and Mary's size?
4. Is it a sport staged for the benefit of the students?
5. Is it effecting the Honor System?

We decided to compress the answers to these questions into a three-part series. Since they would deal with a controversial subject and possibly cover more than simple factual material, we also decided to print them separately from our news column and label them clearly as editorials.

We agreed that I would take on the task of researching the series and writing first drafts of each installment. McCurdy, an excellent writer, would take it from there, add such information as he had obtained on his own and revise the articles as necessary to fit his style. Since they were editorials and he was editor, he decided to place his initials on them. (He never said as much, but I'm sure he was also trying his best to protect me from some of the flak which we expected to generate. As it turned out, we grossly underestimated the intensity of the gunfire.) We finished the first article and had the other two in draft stages when installment number one appeared in the October--mis-labeled September--1951 issue.

That first 'editorial' focused on some academic aspects of the football program, including the graduation rate of football players compared to other students and practices of the athletic staff in maintaining their eligibility. Without too much difficulty I had unearthed some damning statistics and when promised anonymity, faculty and administration members provided us with equally damning information about methods used by members of the coaching staff to ensure the eligibility of their athletes.

When the Gazette was distributed, the stuff hit the fan. Unfortunately we were on the wrong side of the blades.

The Board of Visitors jumped into the mess with both feet. Since this was the body that had initiated William and Mary's big time football program, its anger was directed not at itself or the coaching staff but at those who had the temerity to question the wisdom of it's policies. This attitude, unfortunately, spilled over to the Board of Directors of the Alumni Society. At its request, McCurdy did not print the second installment of our series in the December 1951 issue, but he made it quite clear that he wanted permission to run the last two parts in the March and May issues of 1952.

When in January the Board refused this permission, McCurdy resigned. I had no choice but to do so similarly.

Neither of us had another job awaiting us, but we found that fortune sometimes smile on the Quixotic. Within weeks, McCurdy had been hired to run the American Association of Land Grant Universities in Washington. At the same time, out of the blue, the Richmond Times-Dispatch employed me to open a bureau in Williamsburg. Thus we both landed on our feet and, I should add, in positions which paid us considerably more than we had earned as employees of the Alumni Society.

Although McCurdy and Frechette were never recognized, let alone honored, either by the Alumni Society or by their alma mater for what they attempted to do, they earned the following accolade from the Board of Judges of the American Alumni Council 1952 Alumni Magazine Contest on June 8, 1952:

For Distinguished Reporting To Charles P. McCirdy, Jr. and Fred L. Frechette, former editor and managing editor, respectively, of the William and Mary Gazette -- While it is not usual in this competition to make awards to individuals, there seems to be no alternative in this case. The judges unanimously record their praises for the fearless, unbiased and comprehensive reporting of the "football scandal" at William and Mary and the repercussions which followed. The issues of the William and Mary Gazette produced during this period reveal "vitality, professional standards...and editorial responsibility" in the highest degree.

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