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The first intercollegiate football game in the South was played April 9, 1880, between Centre College and Transylvania University in Lexington. Transylvania won the game 13 ¾ to 0. A rematch was played a week later at Danville. Transylvania again won by a score of 5 ½ to 0. Centre would not field another team until 1891, and has played continuously since, with only the World War II years 1943 through 1945 not seeing a team.

The teams of the 1890s saw great success, with a decade record of 38 wins, 10 losses, and 6 ties. Undefeated seasons occurred in 1891, 1892, and 1896. Centre played a schedule of university and athletic club teams, including Vanderbilt University, Ohio State University, University of Cincinnati, Frankfort YMCA, Winchester Athletic Club, and the Louisville Athletic Club. In 1891 the University of Kentucky appeared on the schedule, and would remain a rival until 1929 when the university decided to drop Centre from its schedule. The team played games as near as Nicholasville and as far away as Nashville, Cincinnati, and Charleston, West Virginia, no easy task considering the difficulties of travel in that era. The coach from 1891-1893 was Walter L. Berry. A sign of the lack of eligibility rules at that time is that Berry was simultaneously Athletic Director, coach, and starting quarterback for the team.

The first decade of the 1900s saw continuing success. In the early years Centre continued to play athletic clubs, but by the end of the decade only intercollegiate games were on the schedule. The 1900 game with the University of Cincinnati was cancelled after 15 minutes due to fighting, and in 1905 Centre played on consecutive Saturdays the universities of Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The team travelled as far as New Orleans and Birmingham to play games. In 1903 the team temporarily disbanded during the season because of accusations by other teams of playing ringers. A second team was organized to finish the season. The 1910 team was undefeated in nine games, holding opponents to a total of eleven points. However, the team suffered through four consecutive losing season beginning in 1912. This was to dramatically change in 1916 when Robert “Chief” Myers became coach, ushering in the golden era of the Praying Colonels.

A graduate of Centre, Myers was head coach at Fort Worth (Texas) High School before returning to Danville. On his team were future stars Alvin “Bo” McMillin and Robert “Red’ Weaver. The two were recruited by boosters of Somerset (Ky.) High School, where they joined future All-American “Red” Roberts to form a dazzling high school team. All three enrolled at Centre, and were joined by Texans Matty Bell, Sully Montgomery, Bill James, and Bob Mathias. In 1917 the team posted a record of 7 wins and one defeat, beating Kentucky Military Institute 104-0. Myers realized he was dealing with a group of exceptional athletes, who were far beyond his ability to coach. He needed someone who could the team justice, and found that person in Charles Moran.

In 1919 the team went undefeated, and placed Bo McMillin and Red Weaver on Pop Warner’s All-America first team, and a third player, Red Roberts, on the third team. More importantly, Centre defeated a strong West Virginia team in Morgantown, garnering press coverage in Boston newspapers. As a result of the publicity, Harvard, then one of the premier football powers in the country, invited Centre to play at Cambridge in the 1920 season. Tiny Centre suddenly shot into the national limelight.

The story of the Centre-Harvard football games have been told and retold countless times. In short, Centre lost the 1920 game, but earned the respect and admiration of fans in New England and was invited back for the 1921 season. Centre won that game 6-0, setting off delirious jubilation not only in Danville, but also in the state and many parts of the nation. Offers flowed for post-season appearances, including one from Knute Rockne and Notre Dame. Moran refused the offer. Centre defeated Tulane in New Orleans on Thanksgiving Day and Arizona State on December 26 in San Diego. The last game was against Texas A&M in Dallas on January 2, 1922, when the Aggies pulled their own upset and defeated the Colonels 22-14. Centre had risen from relative obscurity outside the state to national prominence in only a few years, and become the darlings of the national press and focus of passionate public attention. However, storm clouds were beginning to form.

Centre was an early supporter of the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools of the Southern States (today’s Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) having joined the organization in 1905. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching announced funding to eligible colleges and universities to support faculty retirement. Eager to prove their eligibility for Carnegie pension funds, schools began to reconsider their attitudes toward accreditation. By the early 1920s accreditation had become as important to Centre as football victories. The sudden success of Centre’s football team was looked on by SACS leaders with suspicion. In 1919 a policy change gave SACS the power not only to advise, but to approve higher education institutions. The SACS now had teeth. In 1920 SACS released its first list of approved schools. Thirty-three of the then 52 members appeared on the list, none from Kentucky. The 1921 meeting increased the number to 50, but Centre, a long-time SACS member, was only one of two member schools not receiving approval. The situation wasn’t helped by the resignation of William Ganfield – the Centre president who had championed the football team, hired Myers and Moran, and gave them a free hand in running the team – in December 1921, leaving his successor, R. Ames Montgomery, to fight the battle.

What caused the rift isn’t entirely apparent. At no point did the SACS specify in writing the charges, despite repeated requests from Centre officials for them to do so. By the end of 1921 there was a growing realization among Centre’s leaders that athletics, not academics, was at the heart of the matter. What where the charges? As noted earlier, Myers and Moran had been given a relatively free hand in running the football team, creating what in today’s terms would be termed a lack of institution control. Despite protestations that athletes weren’t given any financial aid, a June 3, 1921, memorandum from Centre’s athletic department identifies 19 varsity players and 8 freshmen whose tuition (and in some cases room, board, and spending money) clearly were provided by alumni. Moran, who had no college responsibilities other than football coach, earned more than the president. Centre’s alumni, powerful and highly influential, pushed aggressively for a big-time football program. Although the implications of academic fraud might have been overblown, there were plenty of questions surrounding Centre’s football program.

McMillin left Centre after the 1921 season, with an incomplete in every class for that fall term. He signed a contract to coach football at tiny Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana, for the 1922 season. Moran, disgusted by what was happening, resigned following the 1923 season, vowing to never again coach in the South. Centre’s alumni, supporters, and even some trustees demanded that McMillin be hired as the new coach, placing R. Ames Montgomery in a lose-lose situation: if McMillin was hired, Centre would lose accreditation; if McMillin wasn’t hired, Montgomery would lose the support of trustees and alumni. Fortunately, McMillin flatly refused Centre’s offers, and Centre regained accreditation by 1926.

While this drama was being played out, the football team continued to enjoy success. Big-time schools remained on the schedule, and a new football stadium was constructed. In 1924 Centre defeated future SEC schools Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia on four consecutive Saturdays. Myers returned as coach for the 1924 and 1925 seasons, but the heroes of the Praying Colonels were gone and the glory days were over. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the schedule continued to be peppered with big name schools, but more and more smaller schools replaced former foes as Centre began to de-emphasize football. Beginning in 1925 Centre suffered four straight seasons with losing records, being beaten badly by several opponents. In 1935 and 1939 Centre would win only one game in each season. Photographs show a football stadium largely empty.

Centre would not field a football team during the 1943 to 1945 seasons because of the war. When the sport returned in 1946, all the big name schools were gone, replaced by what would now become Centre’s new rivals, not the University of Kentucky, Tennessee or Harvard as in the past, but Rhodes College, University of the South, Hampden-Sydney College, etc. The school’s Athletic Council ruled that Centre would adhere to a policy of no athletic scholarships and play only schools following a similar policy.

In the decade of the 1950s the team had an overall record of 50-24-3, going 8-0 record 1955 and setting a small-college record for per-game average yards for a single season. Halfback Gene Scott was named to the Associated Press little All-American first team. Centre declined an invitation to the Tangerine Bowl. The 1960s saw an up and down record, ranging from one win seasons in 1961 and 1962 to seven win seasons in 1966 and 1967. The 1970s only had one winning season (1976) and an overall record of 30 wins, 59 loses, and one tie.

In 1980 Joe McDaniel became head coach, a position he held until retiring in 1997. McDaniel holds the all-time record in football victories at the college with 101 wins, 63 losses and three ties. During his coaching career at Centre, the football team won seven conference titles and placed six players on the American Football Coaches Association's All-America team. Six of his players were named to the GTE Academic All-America team. In 1991 the College Athletic Conference was renamed the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, and McDaniel was selected SCAC Coach of the Year three times. Following McDaniel’s retirement Andy Frye was named Centre’s football coach. After finishing the 2011 regular season with an 8-1 record, Centre played in the first round of the NCAA Division III Football Championship, the Colonels’ first postseason game in 90 years. In 2001 the team traveled to Innsbruck, Austria, to play the Tyrolean Raiders of the Austrian International Football League. The NCAA granted ten practices for the Colonels in preparation for the game. This is the first time Centre had conducted spring football since 1972. The 2005 team concluded its spring season with a 21-6 exhibition win over the Great Britain Lions at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in London, England.

Centre has been a member of several athletic conferences over the years. In 1962 Centre, Washington and Lee, Southwestern University (Rhodes) and University of the South joined to form the College Athletic Conference with competition beginning in the 1962-63 season. The CAC was renamed the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) in 1991. In 2011 Centre, along with Birmingham-Southern, Centre, Hendrix College, Millsaps College, Oglethorpe University, Rhodes College, University of the South, and Berry College formed the Southern Athletic Association with competition beginning the 2012-13 season.