District revelers on the night of Oct. 22, 1916 must have seen the strange glow emanating from the Georgetown campus. Those closer could plainly see that the source of the glow was in fact a raging inferno, and the audible cries and screams of thousands might have convinced residents that the morning would bring tragic headlines and the smoldering ruins of Healey Hall. But if the bravest had climbed the hill to lend a hand, they would have heard the cries and screams become yells and cheers because the scene through the main gates was anything but tragic.
“The wildest kind of a night was seen at the Hilltop last night. The biggest bonfire Georgetown has ever known was kindled … and at its height was visible for miles into Maryland and Virginia,” the next day’s Washington Times read.
The creators of the growing conflagration were the very same students—some 1,000 strong—who “snake-danced and sang and yelled until the fuel supply vanished and the band lost its breath.”
The scene could have easily been last year’s student body storming M Street after the Elite Eight, or waiting eagerly in front of McDonough Gymnasium for the return of their hardcourt heroes, but for a few minor details. There is no Youtube clip of the jubilation, just that crumpled yellow clipping from the Times tucked away in the Lauinger Archives. The ecstatic Georgetown students didn’t gather around McDonough gymnasium, but around Father Vincent S. McDonough himself, the new faculty director of athletics. But perhaps the greatest surprise to current Hoyas is that the students weren’t waiting for the basketball team at all.
“Georgetown football completes the greatest triumph in its history by knocking off the mighty Dartmouth eleven!” exclaimed Charles Parker in the Oct. 22, 1916 issue of the Boston Post.
Even the most jaded Georgetown football fan may not be ready to look back to the World War I era for comfort, but Homecoming week gives us an opportunity to acknowledge Georgetown’s football tradition. The Hoyas have enjoyed sporadic success throughout their history, including a 1997 MAAC championship and even an appearance in the 1941 Orange Bowl, but the only true period of dominance came in the early 20th century. No Georgetown football team knew as much success as the great eleven of 1916, and with an All-American coach, an innovative system and a legendary running back, it is a tale worth telling.
The story of the 1916 Hilltoppers (Georgetown in the pre-Hoyas era) begins three years earlier, in 1913. Midway through what was amounting to a disappointing season, Georgetown was 2-2 and awaiting their stiffest competition yet, in what the Post called the “fleet-footed aborigines” of the famous Carlisle Indian School. Carlisle, who until a year before was led by the legendary Native American athlete Jim Thorpe, outclassed the Hilltoppers to the tune of a 34-0 rout. The lopsided score wasn’t surprising, but many were shocked at what the victorious Indians left behind.
Albert Exendine, half-Cherokee and half-Delaware Indian, was an All-American standout for Carlisle alongside Thorpe. In 1913, he was the assistant coach to Glenn “Pop” Warner, the Carlisle skipper. Warner, whose name is now synonymous with youth football, ranks among Vince Lombardi and Knute Rockne as one of the greatest coaches of all time. As a favor to his long-time friend Edward “Bunny” Larkin, a former Georgetown player, Warner left Exendine in Washington to prepare the Hoyas for their final games.
“Last year, Warner took occasion to say that [Exendine] was one of the greatest football men that had ever played under his jurisdiction. Coming from such a source it is about as high a tribute as could be paid a gridiron warrior,” the Feb. 4, 1914 Washington Post later read.
Under the authority of such a respected pedigree, Exendine wasted no time in scrapping many of Georgetown’s old plays and enacting a replica of the Warner System. Players played on both sides of the ball, and the majority of the offensive plays involved one line working as a unit to smash into the other with brute force in plays called “line bucks,” opening up small holes for the backs to run for short gains.
The Warner system was a little different, and its effectiveness was a major step in the evolution of modern football. It is described by Morris Bealle in his book The Georgetown Hoyas: The Story of a Rambunctious Football Team as a somewhat complex scheme featuring the “double wing” formation, as well as innovative plays like the new forward pass. Exendine and the team drilled endlessly to master the system in such a short period of time, with immediate results.
Within weeks of the coach’s arrival, Georgetown faced longtime rival the University of Virginia as five to one underdogs. The new offense kept the Cavaliers on their heels, but the game was anyone’s until the very end. On the last play, Georgetown broke through the Virginia line and blocked a punt into the endzone for a safety and an 8-7 victory. It was the last time Georgetown would ever face UVA on the football field.
Another week to work on the system was more than enough for Georgetown to prepare for its final opponents of the season, Holy Cross. The final scoring play of the game was vintage Warner, a run that is now known as the “reverse,” and it gave the Hoyas the 16 to 7 Thanksgiving victory to close out 1913.
After spawning such a miraculous comeback in so little time, it came as no surprise to anyone in February of the next year, when a bold faced headline in the Post read “Pick Exendine as GU Coach.” A new era had begun for Georgetown football.
Despite his proven abilities as a coach of the Blue and Gray, Exendine would have his hands full in his first season, as the 1914 Hoyas were decimated by the loss of graduating seniors, including All-American Harry Costello.
Even Exendine’s football genius could only do so much with an inexperienced team in the face of a daunting schedule featuring the likes of Navy and Pittsburgh. The team managed just two wins and a tie in nine games, but a 12-7 victory over Gallaudet—whose impairments did little to keep them from being one of the strongest teams in the District that year—to end the season left them hopeful once more.
The 1915 season saw the Hilltoppers improve significantly, to 7-2. The final mark was impressive but the two losses came against Princeton and Army, the only real quality teams on the schedule in a time when the Ivy League and the service academies ruled football. Still, the winning record was a confidence booster for Georgetown, and a fitting prelude to the following year.
The beginning of the 1916 campaign brought with it yet another series of preseason woes. Graduation had again punctured holes in the Georgetown line, but these holes turned to canyons when Exendine received a telegram from team captain John Mahlum.
“Cannot return. Father. Very sorry. Mahlum.”
The Post reported that Mahlum had entered into business with his father and that his parents required him to remain at home in Minnesota. The terse message was enough to send even the most optimistic supporters reeling, as Mahlum was the fulcrum of the already-gaping line.
The opening day of practice did little to assuage the Georgetown faithful. Coach Exendine was joined on the field by eight aspiring players, less than half of what he had hoped for. Traffic problems in New York had held up the team’s substantial New England contingent, but the final line of the Post’s opening practice coverage offered a last bit of optimism: “In all likelihood, the squad will be greatly augmented today.” Help was indeed coming, for stranded somewhere between New York and New Hampshire was Johnny “The Great” Gilroy.
Johnny Gilroy was Georgetown’s most potent offensive threat in the 1915 season, earning All-Southern honors. The only blemish on his freshman campaign came when he was knocked out at the beginning of the Army game and forced to watch from the bench as his teammates lost an all-out slugfest with the cadets. But despite the successful season, no one could have predicted the numbers he would churn out in 1916 or the legendary feats that would earn him his nickname.
When Gilroy, along with other returning stand-outs like quarterback Jackie Maloney and defensive end Bill Cusack, finally arrived on campus, they got to work immediately to prepare for the opening opponent. With so many new faces and a mostly inexperienced line, Exendine and his staff had scheduled Randolph Macon College of Virginia for the season-opener. The smaller opponent would give the Blue and Gray a chance to work out some kinks and see the system in action before facing the schedule’s tougher opposition, but in a pattern that was quickly becoming an Exendine-era trend, the early-season plans fell through. Just a week before the home opener, Randolph Macon cancelled the game. The cancellation couldn’t have come at a worse time, forcing the untested Georgetown eleven to set their sights on an opening showdown with the highly praised veterans of Navy.
The game was a battle from start to finish, and featured the best halfback match-up of the year. Opposite Gilroy behind the Midshipmen line was Jonas Ingram. Ingram, who would go on to achieve the rank of admiral and win the Congressional Medal of Honor, as well as become the commissioner of the All-American Football Conference (formerly one of the NFL’s greatest competitors), out-dueled the Great Gilroy as the Middies came out on top 13-7. The loss would be a lone thorn in the sides of Exendine and Gilroy.
The unlucky team that got to play the role of whipping boy for the frustrated Hilltoppers was tiny Eastern College of Manassas. There are few accounts of the game, but one Georgetown senior wrote in the GU College Journal, “If you have ever watched a cat toy with a mouse, clutch the little animal in its paws, and then throw it carelessly aside … then you may father an idea of how Georgetown used [Eastern].”
Gilroy and company ran wild en route to a 60-7 win, the first of many 1916 blowouts. But a game against such a weak opponent answered very little about the team, and with the upcoming match-up against Dartmouth, there were many questions.
“A Dartmouth win by a margin of two or more touchdowns has been freely boasted and is the general prediction,” a Boston Post preview read.
With Georgetown’s loss to Navy, a team considered inferior to the 1916 Dartmouth squad, there were few who gave the Hilltoppers much of a chance in their upcoming game against the Ivy-Leaguers. Perhaps out of necessity, but maybe out of arrogance, Dartmouth scheduled the game to be played on a new high school field in Haverhill, New Hampshire. But Dartmouth officials overlooked the glaring connection between Haverhill High School and the Blue and Gray. Before attending Georgetown, Johnny Gilroy was one of the best halfbacks in the history of Haverhill High, and with the nagging loss to Navy still fresh in the mind of the proud back, he hardly needed any more motivation.
Right from the opening kickoff, the Hilltoppers took the Warner-Exendine attack to the befuddled Dartmouth defense. Gilroy ran 35 yards around the Dartmouth line on the first play, and then took to the air with a 16-yard halfback pass to Cusack. Exendine then called for two old-fashioned line bucks up the middle to keep the defense honest. With the Dartmouth linebackers still trying to understand the offense being thrown at them, Gilroy faked the run and sent a 10-yard spiral over the defense to Tommy Whelan for the opening touchdown.
Down 7-0, the Dartmouth offense tried desperately to respond to the blitzkrieg opening drive, but Georgetown started to bear down.
“Georgetown presented tackling of a type seldom equaled, and an ability to follow the ball and size the plays, that gave the team the appearance of being a perfect machine,” Charles Parker of the Boston Post wrote.
The flustered Indians of Dartmouth took to the air in desperation, but the Exendine-coached defense was every bit as good at defending against the forward pass as the offense was at executing it. The Hoyas denied 16 of the 17 Dartmouth passes, and the final whistle sealed a 10-0 upset for Georgetown.
Major newspapers up and down the East Coast ran coverage of the game, and distinguished spectators, including the governors of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, offered their praise to the Blue and Gray. But perhaps the best account comes from the simple observation of yet another distinguished guest. Father James H. Dolan, S.J., a Jesuit priest ordained at Georgetown and a future president of Boston College, scribbled on the top of his ticket stub, “Dartmouth outplayed in every detail.”
The rest of Georgetown’s opponents were made to look foolish by the perfectly functioning Exendine “machine.” Wins by 55 and 80 over North Carolina and the then-highly touted Albright College, along with a 78 point rout over rival Bucknell, were highlights of a finishing stretch that led our friend from the GU College Journal to observe that, “the remaining opponents were out-classed as one of the present-day super dreadnaughts would surpass an ancient wooden man-of-war.”
By season’s end, the team was the South Atlantic champion at 9-1, and its numbers were astounding. They outscored their opponents 474-33. The 474 points were the most scored by any team in the country in 1916; the 69 touchdowns the most in school history. Johnny Gilroy’s 20 rushing touchdowns were the most in the country and a Georgetown record, as were the 164 total points he tallied. The eight game winning-streak to close the season would increase to 14 in the 1917 campaign, a school record at the time.
Perhaps the most eye-popping of these numbers, however, is the year, 1916. All this occurred almost a century ago, and is long lost to most of today’s Georgetown football fans. But all the Ivy League schools and service academies that dominated the earliest football fields have fallen out of football relevancy. Football cultures are now generally reserved for larger public institutions, but football tradition lies with the teams that were at the top of the game as it developed. Georgetown was one of those teams, and for one storied season, it was the best of all.