As one would expect, WWII drastically affected the face of college sports during the 1940’s, especially football. After the 1942 season and the beginning of the war, college football nationwide experienced a great decline in attendance and media attention. Many teams, including Furman, were forced to cancel their seasons because they did not have enough males to field a team and because wartime shortages left them without sufficient funding. Furman had no team participating in football from 1943 until the start of the 1946 season.
Skipping forward to the end of the war, we are able to evaluate how significant an effect the returning veterans had on Furman’s football program and other schools around the country. In 1945, only 220 universities had football teams. With the wars end, that number exploded to 650 in 1946 and many powerhouses like Notre Dame and Army began to emerge. This was the boom that college football had been waiting for to help transform intercollegiate athletics. As we will see, Furman experienced a great change in its football program and student body.
The main engine of change was the GI Bill of Rights that provided government funding for all former service personnel that wished to attend a university. This permitted a higher education and economic advancement for those who never would have had a chance like this before. Returning college athletes, however, received a “double bonus” because they were eligible to receive athletic scholarships on top of their GI Bill benefits. This was obviously a flaw and led to the development of the NCAA in 1946 as a regulator of college athletics.
In the pre-war ear, the enrollment at Furman usually stayed at about 1,000 students. Naturally, when the servicemen left for battle, enrollment at Furman dropped significantly. To combat this loss of students on campus, Furman housed gilder pilots and air cadet candidates on campus while they were being trained. When the war was over, many veterans returned to campus and Furman became overcrowded with about 1,450 students.
The first post-war football season began in the fall of 1946 and it turned out to be a miserable year with the team finishing the season with a record of 2 wins and losses. Scheduling tough opponents like the University of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida probably was a big reason for this unfortunate record. All of the returning players had served for the U.S. military in some capacity and many coaches recruited players that played on their military base teams because their experiences on the bases had helped develop positive relationships. An example of this is when Coach Red Smith of Furman recruited Punchy Thornton and Don White that had played on his Pensacola Naval Base team.
During this time the Furman football team was not known as the Paladins. Their mascot was the Purple Hurricane. Sirrine Stadium, which is now home to Greenville High, served as home field for the Purple Hurricane instead of the current Paladin Stadium. The development of platoon football, where players would specialize in playing one certain position, became significant in college football because now teams would have more players on their rosters due to the return of the soldiers. This was a big factor for smaller schools like Furman because the bigger and more competitive schools picked up the 2nd tier players that often would have slipped down to the smaller schools. This made it very tough for the small schools to compete and this explains why the Furman football program struggled so much in post-war years. The Furman team posted high roster numbers (50), but these were not they quality players that they needed to be as successful as they wanted.
So as you can see, the Furman campus, especially the football team, was severely affected by the return of the veterans in the post-war era. Recruiting practices and strategy became very difficult as team performance struggled.
Written by Matt Sides
Bonhomie. Furman University: 1942.
Furman Purple Hurricane Media Guide. 1946-1947.
Furman University Archive News Clippings. 1943-1948
Sperber, Murray. Onward to Victory. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.
Watterson, John Sayle. College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2000.