Yale expects to do much better against Brown on Saturday than in 1941, when debatable strategy kept them from making a single first down

By Joel Alderman

Yale and Brown meet on Saturday in their annual Ivy League contest, and it is extremely doubtful there will be the type of game played by those traditional opponents in the same Yale Bowl 64 years ago. What happened then never happened before, and will most likely never occur again.

Yale played a game without making a single first down

Yale lost to Brown on Nov. 1, 1941, without making a single first down. It still is the only time in its modern football history that Yale failed to do that in a 60-minute game. However, it should be noted that in 1906 Yale defeated Army (then referred to as West Point), 10 to 6, failing to register a first down in a contest that was limited to 45 minutes of playing time.

Spike Nelson
Spike Nelson resigned after just one season at Yale, matching the shortest tenure in school history.

Even in the greatest of mismatches, losing teams are rarely if ever that inept. But in this game in 1941 there was a good explanation, summed up by one word, “strategy.” Unfortunately for Yale and fortunately for Brown, the strategy did not pay off.

The afternoon consisted of a steady torrential downpour, and the field was a quagmire. Emerson “Spike” Nelson, Yale’s “coach for a year,” devised a strategy which he hoped would give the Bulldogs a reasonable chance to score under horrible conditions. But it did not work. It did, however, give the “Monday morning quarterbacks” plenty to talk about.

Punt, punt, and punt again

Rather than risk losing the slippery and muddy football on a fumble, Nelson had his team punt on virtually every first down. That, he figured, would give the ball back to Brown, and transfer to the Bruins the burden of having to hold on to the football.

It also made Yale play a lot of defense in an era of one platoon football. George Greene was the star, along with Spence Mosley, Frank Kemp, Hovey Seymour, Ted Harrison and George Ruebel. They kept Brown bottled up around midfield most of the day.

Yale punted 20 times and Brown 17

All told, Yale had an amazing total of 20 punts, averaging 37 yards. Brown, which also was playing for the breaks, but not quite as conservatively, was doing almost the same thing. The Bruins kicked 17 times, for an average distance of 30 yards.

The differences were that while Yale did not register any first downs, Brown had nine. Yale tried only 18 running plays, while Brown used 58. Finally, Yale never got past the Brown 30 yard line in the entire game, which was played mostly in midfield or in Yale territory.

Those are amazing statistics for any college game, and may never have been matched in the past or in the future.

There’s more. Yale returned 17 Brown punts a total of only 39 yards, whereas the Bruins picked up 118 yards following the 20 Yale punts.

The official program from the game in 1941.
The official program from the game in 1941.

Yes, Brown did fumble, but Yale still could not score

In one respect the Yale strategy of giving up the ball on practically every first down worked. Brown fumbled seven times in the game, but Yale recovered only three of them, and failed to capitalize.

The game 64 years ago was scoreless until there were only five minutes remaining. Then Brown registered its only completed pass of the day out of but three attempts.

With the Bruins in punt formation on Yale’s 35-yard line, which was where The New York Times placed it, Dan Savage’s short toss was caught by Dick High on about the line of scrimmage. Another report of the game, in the Yale Daily News, claimed that the completion took place on the 22.

In any case, High caught the ball, then went down the sidelines, and crossed the Yale goal line. A few minutes later, Brown had won, 7-0.

Why Nelson was “coach for a year”

Earlier in this article Spike Nelson was referred to as Yale’s “coach for a year.” Here’s why.

A headline from a United Press story about Spike Nelson's resignation as Yale's football coach in December 1941.
A headline from a United Press story about Spike Nelson’s resignation as Yale’s football coach in December 1941. (Click to enlarge).

A former University of Iowa star lineman, he became the Yale football mentor in January that year to succeed Raymond “Ducky” Pond, under whom he was an assistant coach for two years. At the age of 36, he became the first non-Yale graduate ever to hold that position since football was first played there in 1872.

The Bulldogs finished the 1941 season 1-7, and he resigned a few days before Christmas of that year. Despite the poor won-lost record, he was popular with students and alumni and was expected to remain on the job.

But with World War II still in progress, and because of, as he put it in his letter of resignation, “uncertainty of athletics and general conditions,” he accepted an offer to join the staff of the procurement department of the U.S. Engineer Corps in Philadelphia.

And so Spike Nelson left Yale, where he was the football coach for only one year- matching the shortest time of any of his predecessors or successors.

The aftermath

This game with no Yale first downs may have been one of the most bizarre contests played up until then in the Yale Bowl, and continuing to the present time, when Brown and Yale will face each other for the 120th renewal of the series on Saturday.

Only once in the previous 119 meetings was there a game like the one described here. Let’s hope nothing like it happens again on Saturday or anytime in the future.

It could set college football way back – to November 1, 1941.

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