Decisions for a Lifetime

By Katherine Athens, Assistant Coach, St. Francis University  @RedFlashLax

[Editor’s Note: The author would like to acknowledge assistance with writing and editing this entry from Arthur Athens, Director of the Naval Academy Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership. Col Athens was the Keynote Speaker at the IWLCA Annual Meetings in 2013 and 2016, and is the author’s father.]

There aren’t many athletic contests decided AFTER the game is over. But the Cornell-Dartmouth football game in 1940 was one of those games. And the final outcome of that game provides a powerful lesson in integrity.

         Photo courtesy of the author.

Cornell entered the November 16th game with an 18-game winning streak and with a victory, would be declared the national champions. The field conditions that day at Dartmouth were less than ideal—wet, snowy, muddy and cold. The game became a defensive battle and towards the end of the fourth quarter, Dartmouth struck first with a field goal. Now behind 3-0 with only one last chance to maintain their perfect record and win a national championship, Cornell drove down the field to the Dartmouth one-yard line. At this point, Walter Matuszak, the Cornell Captain, called a timeout. Unbeknownst to Matuszak, Cornell was out of timeouts and the team received a 5-yard penalty. With the ball at the six-yard line, the Cornell quarterback, Walt Scholl, threw an incomplete pass. The referees signaled it was fourth down and Cornell had one more play. Scholl dropped back and found Bill Murphy in the end zone for the winning touchdown. With a successful extra point after the touchdown, the final score would stand: Cornell 7, Dartmouth 3. Celebration and excitement roared through the Cornell team and fans!

When Cornell arrived back to Ithaca, New York and Coach Snavely had the game film developed, he noticed something unusual. Probably because of the confusion and excitement surrounding the last couple minutes of the game, the referees had mistakenly given Cornell a fifth down and it was from the extra down that Cornell scored their winning touchdown. The head referee, who provided the extra down in the game, confirmed the mistake which led him to apologize profusely to both teams.

Coach Snavely talked with the President of Cornell, Edmund Ezra Day, and they agreed the right course of action would be to surrender the seven points and the game. Day sent a telegram to the President of Dartmouth forfeiting the game, which Dartmouth accepted. Snavely brought the team together, still beaming from their victory, and along with President Day, explained the actions they had taken. The team and assistant coaches were shocked, disappointed and some angry. The majority felt the players and coaches should not be penalized for an error on the referee’s part when neither team, at the time, was aware of the extra down until after the game was completed. The President and Snavely, however, communicated this was an issue of honor and integrity and the possible lesson of a lifetime for all involved. The forfeiture by Cornell would lead to the University of Minnesota eventually being crowned national champions for 1940.

Lou Conti, an outstanding guard on that team, an honorable mention All-American and eventually a Major General in the United States Marine Corps, with heroic service in World War II and Korea, said many years after that 1940 game, “I think they made the right decision—now. At the time I didn’t think so, but we did what was right.” He would go on to say that the example set by the Cornell leadership would stick with him for his entire life. Other players had similar reactions looking back at the decision.

As we consider a Cornell-Dartmouth game that took place almost seven decades ago, we can conclude there is a very remote chance we would find ourselves in similar circumstances and this is an interesting, but irrelevant story. The head coach of the University of Colorado, however, did find himself faced with a similar decision in 1990 when his team defeated the University of Missouri with a fifth down touchdown that was discovered before the teams actually left the field. The referees conferred before ending the game, but allowed the touchdown to stand. When journalists asked Colorado head coach, Bill McCartney, whether he would consider forfeiting the game based on that fifth down, he said, “My reaction to that would be that it would be unfair because the field was treacherous; it was not a playable field.”  So McCartney quickly rationalized his stance and took an opposite approach from the Cornell head coach.

So do these stories provide 21st century coaches with some takeaways to consider? Here are a few lessons I have learned after hearing about these two separate events and decisions:

  • I never know when I will be confronted with an issue of integrity. The issue may be as weighty as a national championship or having your best player sit out a big game because she didn’t obey team rules or as simple as following some of those tiny NCAA compliance rules or being willing to be honest when we make a mistake. Since I don’t know when these issues will arise, I need to be clear about my values and standards.
  • With issues of integrity, there will often be the temptation to cave into peer pressure or rationalize a dishonorable choice. Because of that, I must pause as I make a decision to ensure I am not allowing inappropriate factors to influence that decision.
  • I have to remember that wins and losses will fade over time, but lessons I can teach others about integrity, honor, and character can last for a lifetime.

David Brooks, author of the best-seller The Road to Character, writes that every day we have a choice whether we are living for our resume or our eulogy. The resume is what we have achieved… the eulogy, spoken at our funeral, will describe our character and the legacy we will leave for others. Brooks believes the eulogy is much more important than the resume and I agree. With the stories of Cornell and Colorado fresh in my mind, I want to live, coach and lead so my players can remark with Lou Conti, “we did what was right!”

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