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I'd rather be Bo McMillin at this moment than the governor of Kentucky," exulted the Honorable Edwin P. Morrow, the governor of Kentucky, on October 30, 1921. No one could blame him. Rugged, pug-nosed Bo had quarterbacked Little Centre College's football team to an astonishing conquest: a 6-0 conquest of Harvard.
Few could believe it except the 43,000 who jammed the stadium at Cambridge. Harvard had won or tied 25 games in a row, including a now almost forgotten victory over Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Harvard had never lost an intersectional game. But on this fateful afternoon the team from Danville, Ky. outskilled and outlasted the Crimson, using only five subs.
Centre's victory thrilled the nation. Thousands quickly adopted the Pray-in' Colonels as "their" team. Little boys mimicked McMillin's famed running pass, their dads regaled each other with the wondrous feats of Red Roberts (who started as end and substituted as tackle and back against Harvard), and coaches copied the favorite plays of Uncle Charley Moran.
A SHY LITTLE MAN
Although it was generally accepted as such, the rise of the Prayin' Colonels of Centre was no accident. Robert L. (Chief) Myers had planned the whole show. This shy little man recruited the stars, most of them from Texas, hired the coach, handled the finances and inspired the lads with his own ambitions of national conquest. He was charting the course to the astonishing Harvard upset long before Centre had heard of McMillin, certainly well before Harvard knew there was a Centre College.
In fact, Myers' dream began taking shape in 1910 when the Chief was a schoolteacher at Fort Worth's North Side High, and football coach on a volunteer basis. His star, Bo McMillin, quarterbacked the team for two years while still in grammar school. Bo's teammates included Red Weaver, Matty Bell, Sully Montgomery, Bill James, Bill Boswell and Bob Mathias. The Chief, a Centre alumnus, planned to have this team play football at Centre.
Later McMillin recalled his saying: "Bo, you're going to be an All-American quarterback. Weaver, you'll be an All-American center, and Matty, you'll be an All-American end, even if you are too skinny." McMillin also testified, "He told us we'd get games with big Eastern schools, that we'd win the Southern and the national championship. He talked like that all the time, and we believed it. Funny thing, almost all of it came true, too."
But it was only talk until Myers chanced to visit Centre in 1916. Then he discovered Coach Bo Littick was resigning, effective after the 1916 season. Myers took the job and wired his old Fort Worth gang to "get on your mules." Six of them enrolled in time for Littick's last season. McMillin and Weaver came, too, but Centre wouldn't accept them. Myers farmed them out to Somerset High, 45 miles south of Danville.
When Myers took charge in 1917, he had 11 lettermen, plus McMillin (then 20 or 21), Weaver and Roberts. One letterman was Tom Moran, son of Uncle Charley, a National League umpire and former football coach of the Texas Aggies. When Moran visited his son in mid-October of 1917, the Chief impulsively offered him $700 (out of his own pocket) to coach the team. The Chief fancied himself more of a mastermind than a coach. When Moran accepted, an unbeatable combination took shape: Uncle Charley was a stern, tough master, a smart teacher and fundamentalist with a flair for the sensational; the Chief, assisting him, handled all off-field details; McMillin was the spiritual leader. Standing on a table in the locker room, Bo (weighing 170) warned, "If I see anybody break training rules I'm going to whip him then and there."
Centre had no money for football. Coach Moran doubled as a cobbler to keep the football shoes in trim. Negro boys, recruited from the city jail, served happily as masseurs at 35� an hour. Each player had one uniform. Despite such shoestring financing, the Myers-Moran-McMillin combine produced quick dividends. In 1916 Centre lost to Kentucky 68-0. A year later Centre won, 3-0. Uncle Charley eschewed his usual pregame ranting and gruffly asked one of the boys to pray. Bob Mathias, later to head a Chicago bank, responded: "Damn it all, let me pray." Centre beat Kentucky that day on McMillin's field goal, the first and last one he ever tried. And the prayer idea stuck. Never again did this team face the kickoff without a solemn moment of prayer. Cynics called it showmanship, but the players believed in it.