A few eggheads may remember that Princetonian Adlai Stevenson's grandfather (who was a Vice-President of the U.S.) was graduated from Centre College in Danville, Ky. But that is not what made Centre famous. What made Centre famous is another graduate: the great Alvin Nugent McMillin, known to his classmates and to football fans of the '20s as Bo and to himself as Ol' Nuge. For it was Ol' Nuge who helped the Prayin' Colonels of Centre bring proud Harvard to its knees half a century ago in one of the great chapters of intercollegiate football history.
In the highly competitive intellectual atmosphere of today, McMillin probably wouldn't make it past the registrar at Centre. Even in 1917 he was that tiny college's most unlikely matriculant freshman—a Texas orphan who grew up with a pool cue in his hand, who loved football and gambling to the exclusion of all else and who frankly didn't give a damn for study.
As a boy in Fort Worth Bo neither drank nor smoked nor swore. His closest brush with profanity was, "Oh, my side and body." But he didn't do much else either, except skitter on the rim of trouble. His saving grace was football and his favorite haunt was the field at Fort Worth's North Side High, where a Centre graduate, Robert L. (Chief) Myers, was head coach. The first time Myers saw Bo run, he was being chased by the cops.
Sometime after that, in the summer of 1916, Myers wrote Dick Williams, a former classmate who was working in a Somerset, Ky. drugstore: "I've got a boy under my wing down here in Texas who's a football-playing fool and I want him to go to Centre. He lacks enough credits to get in, but he's hankering for a college education and he'll study if he must. I'd like for you to get him in a high school up there—away from his pool-playing pals in Texas—and close enough to Danville to absorb some of that old Centre College spirit."
Happily enough, Williams belonged to a newly formed group called the Stovepipe Committee, so named because its members sat around a potbellied stove in a doctor's office figuring ways to improve Somerset High's football team. A special meeting was called by Williams, and the upshot of it was that a dusty, pug-nosed, bushy-headed kid named McMillin soon made his appearance in Somerset.
Getting Bo to Somerset and keeping him there soon proved to be two different matters. Time after time he complained of homesickness and threatened to go home. To keep him happy the committee summoned two of his pals, James (Red) Weaver and Thad McDonald from Texas. The three boys were put up together in the spare bedroom at motherly Mrs. Frank Ellis' house to make them feel at home, and arrangements were made with the night long-distance operator for Bo to call Texas free of charge. The Stovepipe Committee also gave the boys an iron and began a "pressing club," whereby 30 members agreed to pay SI each per month to have their suits pressed. This lasted until McMillin, forgetting his iron to flirt with a girl, burned a hole through the seat of his coach's pants. Nevertheless, backed by such homegrown talent as James (Red) Roberts and John Sherman Cooper, now a U.S. Senator, Somerset's Texans helped their football team win every game except one by a large margin. Soon McMillin was moving his act on to Centre.
It didn't take Bo long to become a phenomenon around Danville: gambler, nonstudent and football player extraordinary. He attempted at first to renew his pressing business, but soon found he could make easier money rolling dice. Legend has it that he could toss the ivories against a ceiling and make them roll seven on a bed, and that he could roll from two to 12 and back to two on successive rolls. "Ol' Nuge isn't doing this because he wants to," he would say, "only because he has to." On road trips Bo and Red Roberts would do their best to look like country hayseeds, then go hustle the local pool sharks.
McMillin the scholar would usually be found sitting back of a coal stove in Greek class where he would sleep until the professor, who liked football, would shout, "Will somebody kindly wake up that trifling McMillin?" Then Bo would get to his feet and begin mumbling until the professor stopped him. "Well, now, that's pretty good for an athlete," the professor would say, putting down a high mark for Bo, who would go back to sleep. McMillin liked to kid about his curriculum: "The ABC course—Athletics, Bible and Chapel."
Meanwhile, Centre's football team rolled along largely unbeaten, reaching new heights with a 3-0 victory over the University of Kentucky in 1917. At half-time in that game the Colonels hadn't scored and the coach, Uncle Charley Moran, suggested a prayer. "God damn it, coach, let me do the prayin'," said Bob Mathias, and he did. After that Centre had a nickname, the "Prayin' Colonels." Later Bo made this distinction: "Lots of folks think we'd go out on the field afore a game and kneel down in front of everybody to ask God to help us win another football game. That's not true. Pray? Shore, we'd pray. But we'd ask that nobody got hurt real bad and that we'd play a real good game like we'd been taught."
Centre first gained notice in the East by beating West Virginia 14-6 in 1919, soon after the West Virginians had upset a strong Princeton team. Curiosity brought Harvard star Eddie Mahan and Boston Sports Editor Howard G. Reynolds to Danville to see if the Prayin' Colonels were for real and—more specifically—to see if they were good enough to come to Cambridge and take on Harvard. On that day Centre beat Georgetown, Ky. 77-0, and the scouts returned with such a glowing report that Centre was scheduled to play mighty Harvard the next season.