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The Story of Purdue’s Stolen Football National Title

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Yes, Purdue has a claim on a college football national championship.

Cleveland Browns
Using this 1948 Cleveland Browns photo because it has Alex Agase in it.
Photo by: Henry Barr Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images

On Monday Central Florida defeated Auburn in the Peach Bowl. That clinched an undefeated season for the Knights, and since Auburn has a victory over both participants in this year’s playoff championship game, officials at Central Florida are claiming this year as a national championship.

This is not as audacious as it seems. For over a century there have been questionable at best claims to a national championship and the NCAA even recognizes many of them. This article here outlines it. Purdue has one, as college football historian Parke H. Davis awarded Purdue a national championship in 1931 under Noble Kizer. He used extensive research to go back and award championships for much of the early history of college football. Purdue went 9-1 that season, losing only to Wisconsin. It was two years after what is, to date, Purdue’s only outright football Big Ten championship.

Purdue has an even stronger claim to another championship, however, and it is high time we claim it. The year was 1943. World War II was raging and Purdue was 1-8 the previous season. The war would benefit Purdue football, however, as the V-12 Navy College Training Program was set up to assist in training commissioned officers for the military. This brought in several new young men who came to be known as the Purdue Marines:

As the 1943 football season approached, Purdue’s football team was apparently going to be vastly improved due to having the use of seven naval trainees and 26 marine trainees from the school’s V-12 program. Certainly Purdue football fortunes could use the help as they had gone 1-8 in 1942. The early preseason forecasts for Purdue were a little mixed, due to not knowing just who was going to be on the 1943 squad, but the Chicago Tribune noted that “Purdue is suspected as one of the teams which may have profited by the installation of a military training program.”

When Coach Elmer Burnham, starting his second year, greeted the candidates for his 1943 Purdue squad he found only one returning letterman from his previous year’s team. But he couldn’t have been concerned when he looked at the players the V-12 program had made available to him. From a good 1942 Illinois team there were eight marines now wearing Purdue colors, Genis, including outstanding linemen John Mike Kasap and Alex Agase, and powerhouse fullback Tony Butkovich. There were seven lettermen from Missouri’s 1942 Big Six champions and if that wasn’t enough, there was Sam Vacanti from Iowa to play quarterback and halfback Stan Dubicki from Shurtleff College.

Sure, it came as basically a team of ringers, but this was still a team of college players and they were enrolled at Purdue. Alex Agase, who would later coach at Purdue, was named an All-American. Tony Butkovich, the team’s fullback, was also selected as an All-American and his 16 rushing touchdowns that season is still the school single-season record, only tied by Kory Sheets in 2008. Even though that was the only season Butkovich played in West Lafayette he is still 11th on the school rushing touchdowns list. Even more astounding, he did it in seven games, as he missed the final two due to being called up to active duty in the Marines because of that whole war thing going on.

Purdue would start the season ranked 7th as a result of a 2-0 start. The first polls back then were not released until October, and by then the Boilers had beaten Great Lakes Navy and Marquette. Great Lakes Navy was one of those war-time college programs that happened to be really good at football. In 1942 they had won the service championship, and they were loaded again with top college and even pro talent:

Purdue took the opening kickoff, and on the second play from scrimmage fumbled the ball away deep in their own territory. Two plays later Ray Jones of Great Lakes connected on a pass to ex-Notre Dame star Steve Juzwik, who raced in for the TD and a 6-0 lead after only 90 seconds of play. But Purdue, bounced back midway in the first quarter, using mainly the single wing, and staged a 42-yard drive behind the punishing running of Tony Butkovich, capped off with his three yard TD blast, and Purdue had a 7-6 lead. In the second quarter Purdue started from their own 25, middle for a 21-yard gain. as Butkovich blasted up the The drive ended when Bill Stuart raced right the middle on a 24-yard TD dash and Purdue led 13-6 at halftime. A third up quarter field goal by Dubicki stretched the lead to 16-6 but early in the final quarter Great Lakes, led by Emil Sitko, pounded 46 yards to a TD to cut the margin to 16-13. Then later in the period Great Lakes had to punt from its end-zone and Dubicki raced the return 33 yards to the Sailors’ 12 yard line. Three plays later Dubicki swept around end for the TD that capped off the surprising 23-13 win for Purdue. The Tribune noted that “any doubts about the war time strength of Purdue’s 1943 football team were convincingly dispelled.”

Let’s bookmark this win, because it will be critically important later on. Purdue handled Marquette 21-0, then started Big Ten play with a wild 40-21 win over Illinois. Agase likely knew many of his former teammates, as he was an All-American there the previous year before transferring to Purdue because of the V-12 program. The teams EACH had 10 fumbles, per the story on the Purdue Marines:

Then came the wild game against Illinois that saw each team fumble ten times, Illinois losing seven of them and Purdue losing nine! Early in the first quarter Purdue recovered a fumble at the Illini 12 and on the second play Vacanti passed to Joe Buscemi for the TD. After another Purdue TD, midway in the second quarter Butkovich roared right up the middle for an 80 yard TD dash and a 21-0 lead. The rest of the game the teams battled back and forth, the biggest play coming when Stan Dubicki intercepted an Illini pass and raced 53 yards for a TD. Purdue did not have to punt until the fourth quarter, and then both kicks were blocked, one being recovered for an Illinois TD. For the day Butkovich scored 4 TD’s and rushed for 207 yards to pace Purdue’s 40-21 victory.

Butkovich’s Bundy and 200 yard day still rates as one of the best rushing days in Purdue history. Markell Jones cracked 200 yards this season against Indiana, and it was only the 13th time in Purdue history a Purdue player has rushed for as many as 200 yards in a single game. He finished the day against Indiana with 217 yards, 7th most in a game in school history. Butkovich’s 207 that day against Illinois is still 12th.

Purdue’s defense was completely dominant the rest of the season. In the remaining six games the Boilers gave up just 21 points in wins over Camp Grant (another military team), Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Indiana. The 7-0 win over the Hoosiers clinched the last perfect season in school history.

So what about the polls? Well, Purdue was as high as No. 2 on November 1st, trailing undefeated Notre Dame. At the time Purdue was 7-0 and coming off of a 32-0 win at Wisconsin. Purdue would stay at No.2 the following week after a 14-7 win at Minnesota. That’s when weird stuff started to happen.

The week of November 15 Purdue was off, and Iowa Pre-Flight, another wartime power, jumped ahead of the Boilers. They defeated Camp Grant 28-13 (the same Camp Grant Purdue defeated 19-0 a few weeks earlier) and moved to No. 2 at 8-0. That set up a November 20th game between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Iowa Pre-Flight, while Purdue, now at No. 3, was playing Indiana. The Fighting Irish beat Iowa Pre-Flight 14-13, while Purdue beat Indiana 7-0. Surely Purdue would move at least to No. 2, right?

Nope. Not only did Iowa Pre-Flight stay at No. 2 despite losing, Michigan, who was 8-1 and did not play Purdue in Big Ten play (thus a split championship that season since both were 6-0 in the conference) passed Purdue for No. 3 despite being 8-1. The Wolverines’ only loss that season was to the Fighting Irish 35-12 on October 9th.

Purdue’s season was done at 9-0, but Notre Dame still had a game left, as did No. 5 Navy. Navy would beat Army 13-0 to finish the season 8-1, while Notre Dame would actually lose a game. The team that beat the Irish… Great Lakes Navy: The same Great Lakes Navy that Purdue had beaten 23-13 in the season opener. They defeated the Irish 19-14 in Chicago.

Purdue was the ONLY undefeated team among major colleges in 1943. They owned a victory over the only team to beat Notre Dame. Purdue was given 12 first place votes in the final AP Poll, but Notre Dame stayed at No. 1 and was awarded the national title. Even worse, Purdue actually fell to 5th because they had the week off and Navy had beaten Army to leapfrog the Boilers. Great Lakes Navy finished 6th at 10-2, but had that victory over Notre Dame. Their other loss was 13-0 to Northwestern on October 16th. Purdue also did not play Northwestern that year, and the Wildcats would finish 6-2 with a loss to Michigan.

Arguably, Notre Dame played the tougher schedule. Their final tally was 9-1 with wins over No. 2 Iowa Pre-flight, No. 3 Michigan, No. 4 Navy, and No. 11 Army. They outscored opponents 340-69 and played an extra game. Still, Purdue did beat the only team that beat the Irish. Purdue held opponents to just 55 points over nine games, and we were the only undefeated team in the country. Unfortunately, the only team the Boilers played with a winning record aside from Great Lakes Navy was a 5-4 Minnesota team.

Purdue had not played Notre Dame since 1939, however (a 3-0 loss in South Bend). The teams would not meet again until 1946, which started an uninterrupted series that ran until the 2014 season and our current last game against them. In that time Purdue defeated the No. 1 ranked Irish in 1950, 1954, 1965, and 1967, earning the venerated title of “Spoilermakers”. The 1950 Purdue team finished just 2-7, beating only Notre Dame and Indiana. The 1954 victory likely cost the 9-1 Irish another National Championship. The same is true for 1965, as Notre Dame went 7-2-1 and Nebraska was declared champions at 10-1. Notre Dame would finish 1967 at No. 5 and 8-2, with 10-1 USC winning the title. You could therefore say Purdue got a small measure of revenge in costing the Irish three more championships.

Still, this was a lost title for the Boilermakers. There is precedent for claiming titles decades later, as Oklahoma State recently claimed a 1945 championship. It is beyond time we declared 1943 the Tony Butkovich Memorial National Championship. Butkovich would be killed two years later fighting on Okinawa. For many of Purdue’s players, 1943 was the only year they played in West Lafayette. Purdue slipped to 5-5 a year later and has not had an undefeated season since. We have had only seven seasons (1966, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1997, 1998, 2003) of 9 or more wins since.

This fall marks the 75th anniversary of that team and I am not sure how many of the members of that squad are even still alive. This fall we need to honor them, however. It’s time to award ourselves the title that was denied us so long ago. Write to Mike Bobinski and ask him to honor the true 1943 National Champions at a game this fall. If Central Florida can do it, why can’t we?