In the football seasons of 1939-40-41 a kind of Messiah of the also-rans arose among college coaches in America. He was Stewart Ferguson, a friendly professor with a Ph.D. and a unique football philosophy that hinged on failure of a sort. He agreed to coach the Arkansas A&M football team only after it was spelled out in his three-year contract that he didn't have to win a single game, and he seemed happiest when his Boll Weevils were losing—as long as they had fun doing it.
Some coaches considered him an eccentric, or worse. Among other things that Ferguson insisted upon was that his athletes—and he attracted some excellent ones—receive no financial help. And he encouraged his teams to do some strange things, like punt backward after they had driven down to the opposition goal line.
"Above all," he once declared, "football must be fun. We'll trade a laugh for a touchdown any day."
What private vision drove Ferguson and his football squads may never be known, but the coach did admit that the Boll Weevils were the instruments of his aim to "ridicule and satirize high-pressure collegiate football." He wanted "to give the game back to the boys."
The "boys" on Ferguson's first Weevil squad were scarcely that. They included a 38-year-old Methodist preacher, the town barber in Monticello, Ark. and a former cheerleader whom Ferguson transformed into a passer. There were also a number of really gifted athletes, several of them acrobats and gymnasts, and two who had won collegiate wrestling titles. They were doubtless good enough to have won most of the 33 games they played through this era, but Ferguson's men were never ones to let victory get in the way of success. And so, from 1939 to 1941, their record was three wins, 30 losses and no ties—a triumph of imagination over incentive.
"We had to work hard to lose some of those games," recalled John Scritchfield of Austin, Texas, who played halfback, guard, center and end on all three of Ferguson's squads. They also had to go a long way to lose. Ferguson loved to travel, and he planned the Weevil schedule so that only five games were played at home while he coached at A&M. For the rest, the Weevils journeyed as far as California, Pennsylvania and South Dakota. In light of their record, this arrangement might seem more self-protection than desire, but Ferguson just thought travel would broaden his men. As for the games played once the Weevils got there, things occasionally turned downright absurd. For one thing, the team was frightfully casual about scoring touchdowns. "Just when we were on the lip of the enemy goal and about to score," Scritchfield said, "we'd go into our London Bridge Is Falling Down formation—that is, the whole team would just fall flat—or Red England or one of our other punters would whirl and kick the ball back downfield."
Scritchfield, who later was the first-string quarterback for Georgia Pre-Flight, a service team that remained unbeaten and had four All-Americas on its roster, said Ferguson didn't actually discourage touchdowns. "Sometimes he'd let us score early just to unnerve the opposition," he recalled. One maneuver that Ferguson instituted probably did more than unnerve the opposition. J. P. Leveritt, a halfback, perfected a play in which he would walk on his hands for a touchdown with the football clutched between his legs. Once he hand-walked in from the 15.
"It certainly upset the other team to give up six points to a ballcarrier walking on his hands," said Scritchfield. "The other side would figure at that point we were going to give them a bad whipping. After one of those walk-in touchdowns we might drive right down to the goal line again, but then we'd revert to our losing style. In one game against a Pennsylvania college, we scored that way, then drove to their five-yard line on the next series. But instead of running it over, we huddled and made up a play involving 19 successive laterals that carried us back to our own 10."
Ferguson's ambition to lose all his games eluded him until his final season at A&M. He failed in 1939 when his team played one of its two home games of the year and beat Northwest Mississippi College 26-6. In the 1940 campaign the Weevils nearly found themselves humiliated, beating both Northwest Mississippi and the South Dakota School of Mines. But his 1941 team, which he called his masterpiece, managed to lose all 12 of its games. To achieve this inverted perfection he had to make adjustments in the schedule, scratching off the South Dakota and Mississippi outfits as being simply too inept.
Some sportswriters and coaches who didn't understand Ferguson's motivations pictured him as either crazy or a man who hated football. Neither assessment was correct. If anything, he loved football too much to willingly accept the excesses of overemphasis. He had been a successful college player, achieving Little All-America honors as an end at Dakota Wesleyan, and for five years prior to taking on the Arkansas A&M job he had been the winningest coach in the history of his alma mater. There he was regarded as an authority on scoring from within the 10-yard line, and he even wrote an article on the subject for the Athletic Journal.