Even to this very day, it is something that remains largely swept under the rug even as the University of California at Los Angeles, itself, celebrates the athletic career of Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson in a most prominent and visible manner. Still, there can be no question that UCLA Bruins star left halfback KENNY WASHINGTON’s failure to secure official Consensus First Team All-America status in 1939 was a bona fide travesty of sports justice that continues to receive little, if any, attention from the general public. Meanwhile, it has always been the very specific aim of these UCLA football articles to shine a much more bright light on Kenny Washington’s athletic accomplishments in a modest bid to generate more of the genuine glory that the “Kingfish” so richly deserved but, for whatever reason, never quite got.
As has already been documented here at this blog, there was a laundry list of of different “All-America” teams that were announced by a wide range of various accredited organizations in 1939. No fewer than 20 backfield players were recognized as either First, Second or Third Team All-America that year by the 15 major accredited organizations that were carefully analyzed by this blog. Starting with said pool of twenty backfield players, this blog has narrowed a retrospective list of ‘serious’ consensus All-America candidates down to an elite group of nine gridiron standouts — junior left halfback Tom Harmon of Michigan, senior left halfback Nile Kinnick of Iowa, junior fullback John Kimbrough of Texas A&M, junior quarterback Paul Christman of Missouri, senior left halfback Kenny Washington of UCLA, senior left halfback George Cafego of Tennessee, senior right halfback George McAfee of Duke as well as senior quarterback Grenville Lansdell of USC.
Scholars and other analysts searching for evidence of outright discrimination in NCAA college football circa 1939 never quite seem to find the time to present the statistical data directly comparing the major All-America candidates side by side — common sense says this is exactly the sort of concrete evidence that will always do the most to convince an impartial jury of knowledgeable football observers from any time period.
Considering the overall importance of the running game in the pre-World War II era of Single Wing football, it is most appropriate to begin a statistical review of the nine major All-America backfield candidates’ on-field performances for the 1939 NCAA season by looking at net yards gained on the ground. Viewing matters from a national perspective, Michigan’s Harmon was the second-leading rusher in the country with UCLA’s Washington finishing close behind as the # 3 ball-carrier in all of major college football that year. Both USC’s Lansdell as well as Texas A&M’s Kimbrough also wound up on the list of the nation’s top ten ground-gainers in 1939 while, for his part, Duke’s McAfee ranked # 11 on the NCAA’s rushing chart that season :
868 rushing yards …. 6.7 avg … 12 tds …… Harmon, Michigan *
811 rushing yards …. 4.8 avg ….. 5 tds …… WASHINGTON, UCLA
742 rushing yards …. 4.8 avg ….. 9 tds …… Lansdell, USC
627 rushing yards …. 3.7 avg … 12 tds …… Kimbrough, Texas A&M *
596 rushing yards …. 6.2 avg ….. 4 tds …… McAfee, Duke
480 rushing yards …. 6.3 avg …. 4 tds …… McFadden, Clemson
452 rushing yards …. 5.5 avg ….. 1 tds …… Cafego, Tennessee *
436 rushing yards …. 4.3 avg ….. 7 tds …… Christman, Missouri
374 rushing yards …. 3.5 avg ….. 5 tds …… Kinnick, Iowa *
(* asterisk indicates 1939 Consensus First Team All-America selection as recognized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association … final rushing totals include statistics from the Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl games played on January 1st, 1940)
As has already been noted here at this blog in the previous blog post, “The Multitude of All-America Teams & NCAA’s Official Consensus XI”, a clear majority of the All-America squads named by the fifteen major accredited organizations studied closely by this blog were actually released before the 1939 NCAA football campaign had even been completed. In other words, a good percentage of the voters selecting the various All-America teams that year had to make their choices without knowing the results of some rather pivotal showdowns late in the season, such as the monumental clash of unbeatens featuring the then # 9 ranked UCLA Bruins and the then # 3 ranked USC Trojans in front of 103,303 spectators at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on December 9th. Therefore, it would have only been natural for some voters, if only subconsciously, to be somewhat influenced by the track records of players who had already accomplished great things in the past.
This helps to explain why a player like Tennessee’s Cafego, whose season statistics lag well behind some of the other ‘serious’ backfield candidates being scrutinized here, was named First Team All-America by no fewer than six major accredited organizations in 1939. The Volunteers star left halfback struggled with injury towards the end of his senior year and played very sparingly in Tennessee’s last regular season game against the Auburn Tigers on December 9th before picking up just nine yards on eight carries against the vaunted USC Trojans in the 1940 Rose Bowl Game. However, Cafego had excelled as a junior, rushing for 690 yards (5.5 avg) while amassing another 344 yards on punt returns (14.3 avg) as the Tennessee Volunteers concluded their 1938 NCAA campaign with an unblemished record (11-0-0) after defeating the Oklahoma Sooners 17-0 in the 1939 Orange Bowl contest.
But it should be remembered that UCLA’s Washington had also done well in his first two seasons of collegiate football and had gained almost as many net rushing yards as Tennessee Cafego, this despite the fact that the combined record of the Bruins (8-10-2) in 1937 & 1938 could not even begin to match the very same two-year slate of the Volunteers (17-3-1) :
1,191 rushing yards … 6.0 avg …… Cafego, Tennessee (37 & 38)
1,103 rushing yards … 3.9 avg …… WASHINGTON, UCLA (37 & 38)
879 rushing yards … 4.5 avg …… Lansdell, USC (37 & 38)
525 rushing yards … 5.4 avg …… McFadden, Clemson (37 & 38)
398 rushing yards … 5.2 avg …… Harmon, Michigan (38)
388 rushing yards … 3.5 avg …… Christman, Missouri (38)
350 rushing yards … 2.4 avg …… Kinnick, Iowa (37 & 38)
309 rushing yards … 4.8 avg …… McAfee, Duke (37 & 38)
271 rushing yards …. 3.9 avg …… Kimbrough, Texas A&M (38)
On the subject of packing the ole’ pigskin, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Iowa’s Kinnick was not cited as a First Team All-America in 1939 by 13 of the 15 major accredited organizations studied because of any special abilities to gain significant amounts of yardage via the land route.
With his three backfield mates moving into position to form a protective barrier, UCLA Bruins left halfback KENNY WASHINGTON (# 13) prepares to “roll out” to his right during the Pacific Coast Conference game against the Oregon State Beavers at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 25, 1939 … the spearhead of UCLA Bruins blockers escorting the All-America ball-handler are quarterback NED MATTHEWS (# 55), right halfback DALE GILMORE (# 25) and fullback LEO CANTOR (# 2).
Despite the overall dominance of a conservative brand of Single Wing football during the late 1930s, this did not mean that certain collegiate teams did not strive to use the forward pass as an offensive weapon far more than just occasionally; again, for the purposes of a national perspective, it will be noted that Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback Kay Eakin was recognized as the NCAA’s leading passer in 1939 with 962 yards from 78 completions out of 193 attempts :
752 pass yrd ….. 5 tds … 13 int … 162-72 att/comp …. Christman, Missouri
638 pass yrd …. 11 tds … 13 int ….. 93-31 att/comp …. Kinnick, Iowa *
572 pass yrd ….. 5 tds ….. 6 int ….. 71-30 att/comp …. McFadden, Clemson
559 pass yrd ….. 7 tds ….. 8 int ….. 91-37 att/comp …. WASHINGTON, UCLA
488 pass yrd ….. 6 tds ….. 8 int ….. 94-37 att/comp … Harmon, Michigan *
479 pass yrd ….. 2 tds ….. 6 int ….. 85-42 att/comp … Lansdell, USC
138 pass yrd ….. 0 tds …… unk ………… unknown …….. McAfee, Duke
92 pass yrd ……. 3 tds …… 1 int ….. 20-8 att/comp ….. Cafego, Tennessee *
30 pass yrd ……. 0 tds ….. 0 int ……. 2-1 att/comp …… Kimbrough, Texas A&M *
completion percentage – Lansdell 49.4%, Christman 44.4%, McFadden 42.3%, WASHINGTON 40.7%, Cafego 40.0%, Harmon 39.4%, Kinnick 33.3%
average yards per completion – Kinnick 20.6 avg, McFadden 19.1 avg, Washington 15.1 avg, Harmon 13.2 avg, Cafego 11.5 avg, Lansdell 11.4 avg, Christman 10.4 avg,
interception percentage – Kinnick 13.98%, WASHINGTON 8.79%, Harmon 8.51%, McFadden 8.45%, Christman 8.02%, Lansdell 7.06%, Cafego 5.00%
(* asterisk indicates 1939 Consensus First Team All-America selection as recognized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association … final passing totals include statistics from Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl games played on January 1st, 1940)
It was largely on the strength of feast-or-famine passing that Iowa Hawkeyes senior left halfback Nile Kinnick was able to carry off the prestigious Heisman Trophy as the nation’s very best collegiate football player in 1939. Both Iowa and the undersized Kinnick (5’8″ 167 lbs) captured a great many hearts & minds across the country by completing a stunning turnaround — the Hawkeyes had posted a disappointing record of 1-6-1 (which included a decisive 27-3 loss to the UCLA Bruins) in 1938 but rebounded well to register the much more impressive mark of 6-1-1 in 1939. The signature moment for both Iowa and Kinnick in 1939 arrived with the 7-0 triumph over the then # 3 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish on November 11th, a spectacular result which came just at the right time of the year to strongly influence both Heisman voters and All-America selectors alike.
Kinnick scored the lone touchdown of the game against Notre Dame on a short run and also tossed a pair of touchdown passes versus the then # 20 ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers one week later but the rest of the Iowa left halfback’s season statistics are somewhat suspect. Eight of the Heisman Trophy winner’s eleven touchdown passes in 1939 came at the expense of lightweight South Dakota, a non-Division I opponent, in addition to the two Western Conference also-rans, Indiana (2-4-2) and Wisconsin (1-6-1). Also, three of Kinnick’s five rushing touchdowns in 1939 coincided with the Hawkeyes’ season-opening 41-0 romp over hapless South Dakota.
In terms of quality of opposition, there is certainly no question that UCLA’s Kenny Washington contested what was a far tougher overall schedule in 1939 as compared to that of Iowa’s Nile Kinnick. The eight opponents of the Hawkeyes in 1939 featured a combined total of 16 senior players who were chosen by professional clubs at the 1940 National Football League Draft for an average of two per team. The ten adversaries of the Bruins that season, however, had a combined total of 31 senior players who were tabbed at the 1940 NFL Draft for an average of slightly more than three pro prospects per squad.
Being formally recognized as the nation’s total offense leader for the 1939 NCAA season by virtue of accumulating the most passing and rushing yards combined was easily the crowning on-field accomplishment in UCLA Bruins left halfback Kenny Washington’s entire three-year collegiate career.
1,370 yards rushing & passing …… WASHINGTON, UCLA
1,356 yards rushing & passing …… Harmon, Michigan *
1,221 yards rushing & passing ……. Lansdell, USC
1,161 yards rushing & passing ……. Christman, Missouri
1,052 yards rushing & passing …… McFadden, Clemson
1,012 yards rushing & passing ……. Kinnick, Iowa *
734 yards rushing & passing ……… McAfee, Duke
657 yards rushing & passing ……… Kimbrough, Texas A&M *
544 yards rushing & passing ……… Cafego, Tennessee *
touchdowns rushing & passing – Harmon 18, Kinnick 16, WASHINGTON 12, Christman 12, Kimbrough 12, Lansdell 11, McFadden 9, McAfee 4, Cafego 4
(* asterisk indicates 1939 Consensus All-America selection as recognized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association … final total offense figures include statistics from Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl games played on January 1st, 1940)
It is a fact that Michigan’s Harmon played two fewer contests in 1939 than UCLA’s Washington and, thus, the Wolverines junior left halfback posted a significantly higher average of total offense per game as compared to his senior counterpart from the Bruins. However, as was the case with the Iowa Hawkeyes, it is undeniable that the UCLA Bruins (6-0-4) had to negotiate much stiffer competition over the course of the ’39 NCAA campaign than the Michigan Wolverines (6-2-0) did. The Wolverines had to face eight opponents whose combined rosters had only 11 senior players who were selected at the 1940 NFL Draft whereas the Bruins, again, lined up against ten opponents with a combined total of 31 senior players who later became NFL draft picks.
Also factoring juniors and sophomores who were ultimately chosen at the annual NFL Draft into the equation, UCLA’s ten opponents in 1939 had a combined total of 75 bona fide professional prospects on their respective rosters for an average of seven and one-half per team but, by the exact same token, the eight schools that Michigan played that year boasted a combined total of 42 future NFL draft picks for an average of just five and one-quarter per side.