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Central Michigan

“The only game in college sports history whose the final outcome was decided after the game”

If you follow sports, you have probably heard about this:

In one of the more improbable finishes to a football game, Central Michigan wide receiver Corey Willis grabbed a lateral from fellow receiver Jesse Kroll at the 12-yard line after a Hail Mary and raced into the end zone with no time remaining to stun No. 22 Oklahoma State 30-27 on Saturday.

It never should have happened.

Mid-American Conference referee Tim O’Dey — as well as the MAC and the Big-12 conferences — acknowledged after the game that Central Michigan was wrongly awarded an untimed down, which resulted in the miraculous Hail-and-lateral finish.

“I’m going to leave that alone. We had a play, we executed, end of story,” Central Michigan coach John Bonamego told ESPN. “I’ll leave it for everybody else to discuss.”

With four seconds remaining, Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph threw an incomplete pass to the left sideline to run the final seconds off the clock for what seemed to be a 27-24 victory for the Cowboys (1-1). However, no receivers ran a route, thus resulting in an intentional grounding penalty on fourth down.

[…]

Since intentional grounding is a foul that includes loss of down, that meant Oklahoma State turned the ball over on downs.

“There’s a rule that says that the game cannot end on an accepted live ball foul. That’s the rule. There’s an exception to the rule that says if enforcement of the foul involves a loss of down, then that brings the game to an end,” O’Dey told a pool reporter.

“So in that situation, we’ve had the opportunity to run it back through our hierarchy, which includes the national rules editor, and he confirmed that should have been a loss of down and the end of the game at that point, so that extension should not have happened.”

The rule in question is Rule 3, Section 2, Article 3.1 in the NCAA football rule book: “A period shall be extended for an untimed down if … a penalty is accepted for a live-ball foul(s). (Exception: Rule 10-2-5-a). The period is not extended if the foul is by the team in possession and the statement of the penalty includes loss of down.”

The Mid-American Conference issued a statement that the officiating crew was in the wrong, but the result of the game would stand.

“The Mid-American Conference officiating crew … made an error on the final play of regulation,” Bill Carollo, the coordinator of football officials for the Collegiate Officiating Consortium, said in a statement. “The crew made a misapplication of the rule and should not have extended the contest with one final play. Despite the error, this will not change the outcome of the contest.”

MAC officials weren’t the only ones in the wrong. According to the Big 12, Coordinator of Football Officials Walt Anderson said “the Big 12 replay crew missed an opportunity to stop the game to inform the MAC officiating crew of the misapplication of the intentional grounding penalty as time expired.”

According to the Big 12, NCAA rules permit instant replay to “correct egregious errors, including those involving the game clock.”

None of those explanations mattered to Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder, who issued a statement saying it’s “incomprehensible” that the outcome can’t be reversed.

“We were told there is nothing that could be done,” Hoder said. “… The final score shows that Oklahoma State lost the game but that doesn’t mean that I have to agree with it.”

All of the officials involved have been suspended as a result of the screwup, which seems reasonable. I question that assertion that there is nothing that can be done about the outcome of the game. College football historians will note that there is a precedent for this, from way back in 1940. Here’s a WBUR story from last year, the 75th anniversary of the infamous “Fifth Down Game”, between Dartmouth and unbeaten and #2-ranked Cornell:

According to the informal historian of Dartmouth sports, Jack DeGange, Dartmouth’s opponent on Nov. 16, 1940, had a lot to lose.

“Cornell was on an 18-game unbeaten streak,” he said. “They were nationally ranked. They were clearly the dominant team in the Ivy League. And at that point, Dartmouth, by contrast, was 3-4 coming into the game. But there was a lot on the line, especially for Cornell.”

It was a low scoring affair, and Dartmouth took a 3-0 lead into the closing seconds of the game. The tension must have been terrific, and maybe it was that tension that effected one of the officials, Red Friesell.

Anyway, Cornell had the ball deep in Dartmouth’s territory. After a couple of unsuccessful running plays inside the Dartmouth 10 yard line, it looked as if Cornell might need all four tries to score.

And then they did score a touchdown on a pass play. But it was only after Red Friesell had inadvertently given them…a fifth down.

“And he says, ‘I think I may have made a terrible mistake,'” DeGange recalled.

“This is the official, who admits this in the car on his way to the train!” I said.

“Well, yeah,” DeGange said, “but they hadn’t looked at the film on both teams, which, over the next 24 hours is what happened. They looked at the film and concluded that, in fact, Cornell got the fifth down.”

Once everyone agreed this is what had happened, Cornell made the unprecedented and since-unrepeated offer to concede the game to Dartmouth, which was accepted. The game went into the books as a 3-0 win for Dartmouth. I read about this as a kid in the book Strange But True Football Stories, which is a bargain at many times the price listed at that Amazon link. What I didn’t know and only learned as I googled around for this post, is that Cornell didn’t actually expect Dartmouth to accept their offer:

It would go down as perhaps the greatest act of sportsmanship in college football history, but Lou Conti and his Cornell teammates wanted no part of it.

Cornell President Edmund Ezra Day, declaring the outcome to be “tarnished,” sent a telegram to Dartmouth, offering to forfeit the victory to the Indians.

“I remember he was a Dartmouth man,” Conti says of Day, a Dartmouth graduate, “and his classic remark was, ‘You can offer them the game, but they won’t accept it.’

“We didn’t believe that. I didn’t believe that. Nobody believed that they would not accept the game.”

And they were right.

Dartmouth accepted.

“Our coach and athletic director told us, ‘As the years go by, this will resonate as a fine example of sportsmanship’ — and they were 100% right,” Conti, 91, says during an interview at his home outside Chicago. “But if I had been a grown person with some authority, I never would have offered to give the game away.”

In that case, of course, it would have been long forgotten.

“Winning evaporates in time,” Conti’s 92-year-old former teammate, Bud Finneran, says from his home in Bensenville, Ill. “But something like this goes on forever.”

Indeed, Cornell’s selfless act was celebrated far and wide, its implications reverberating through the decades.

Sportsmanship, wrote the New York Herald Tribune in the immediate aftermath, “remains in its true form so seldom these days that when it can be truly applied, as it can to Cornell University … there seems again to be hope in the world.”

Wrote the New York Times, in a similar editorial praising the Big Red’s offer: “If we were Cornell, we wouldn’t trade that telegram for all the team’s victories in the past two years.”

Years later, commentator and longtime college football observer Beano Cook would rank Cornell’s magnanimous gesture as the No. 2 moment in the sport’s long and storied history — behind only Knute Rockne’s “Win One for the Gipper” speech.

“I’ll be darned,” Conti says.

That was from 2010 and the 70th anniversary of the game. I’m delighted there were still a couple of players from the game around to talk about it. Some of you may recall that there was another Fifth Down game in the much more recent year of 1990, in which Colorado was the beneficiary and Missouri the victim. Colorado and its coach, Bill McCartney, who went on to be a founder of the Christian conservative group Promise Keepers, declined to consider the possibility of mimicking Cornell. I never cared for Bill McCartney, who did eventually regret his decision, and this did nothing to change that.

Anyway. It sucks to be Oklahoma State right now, and this loss is going to sting even if the playoff committee takes the circumstances of the loss into account. But don’t say there’s nothing that can be done. There is, and there’s precedent for it, even if it only ever happened once.