Few people think of “golden eras” of Indiana University football, but the 1940’s under the leadership of head coach Bo McMillin might just be the closest the Hoosiers have come to such a period. Today we look back at the Hall of Famer on the 121st anniversary of his birth.
Alvin Nugent “Bo” McMillin was born in Prairie Hill, Limestone County, Texas, on January 12, 1895. His family moved in 1897 to Waco and in 1901 to Fort Worth, where McMillin’s father worked for a meat-packing firm.
HIGH SCHOOL YEARS
At five feet nine inches and 165 pounds, McMillin entered the ninth grade at North Side High School and joined the football team. He played left halfback all four years in high school. Robert L. (Chief) Myers, the coach, had visited professional coach Glen S. (Pop) Warner then at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, and taught his players Warner’s system. In McMillin’s senior year, the football team lost the state championship game by one touchdown, while the basketball team, on which he also played, won the state crown.
With Myers’ assistance, McMillin moved to Kentucky in order to play football at Myers’ alma mater, Centre College. McMillin was shifted to the quarterback position. In 1919 McMillin was selected as Walter Camp’s first-team All-America quarterback. The next year the governor of Kentucky appointed him a colonel on his staff, the state’s highest honor. The 1921 season gave McMillin and Centre College national attention when they defeated Harvard University, which had not lost a game in 6 years. McMillin scored the winning touchdown.
At the time it was considered the biggest upset in the history of college football, and the game still often appears on various lists of the all-time greatest upsets. You can read the 1921 New York Times article on the game here.
In an attempt to name Heisman Trophy winners retroactively before 1936, the National Football Foundation selected McMillin as the 1921 recipient.
INDIANA HEAD COACH
After playing a few years professionally in the NFL for the Milwaukee Badgers and Cleveland Indians, McMillin coached at Geneva College, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, from 1925 to 1927; and at Kansas State Agricultural College (now Kansas State University) from 1928 to 1933.
Zora Clevenger, another IU legend in his own right, was the athletic director at the time Indiana hired McMillin in 1934. The hire was heralded as a major win for the program.
In 14 seasons leading the Hoosiers, McMillin compiled a 63-48-11 record. After some good teams early on in the mid-1930’s, it is McMillin’s mid-1940’s teams that saw the most success. From 1942 to 1947 the Hoosiers had a combined record of 38-16-4.
The 1945 Season
After early season close wins at Michigan and Illinois and a tie at Northwestern, the Hoosiers started rolling. Indiana would win its last seven games by an average score of 36-6, pitching shutouts in the final 3.
Late in the year IU went on the road to Minneapolis and beat a ranked Minnesota team 49-0. To this day it remains the most lopsided conference win for the Hoosiers in school history and IU voted it as one of the 10 greatest wins in program history.
Indiana ended the season with a 26-0 victory over Purdue and clinched its first ever Big Ten title. Big Ten rules at the time prohibited its members from playing in the post season. Indiana finished the season 9-0-1 overall and 5-0-1 in the Big Ten.
Indiana finished the season as the fourth ranked team in the nation and McMillin was the college football National Coach of the Year.
Selected Noteworthy IU Players Under McMillin
- Pete Pihos played nine years for the Eagles from 1947 to 1955 and was later inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
- John Tavener was a 1944 1st Team All-American.
- Bob Hoernschemeyer was a 1943 1st Team All-American and played several years in the NFL.
- John Cannady played eight seasons with the Giants from 1947 to 1954. and played in the first NFL Pro Bowl.
- Mel Groomes was undrafted in 1948. Indiana head coach Bo McMillin became head coach and general manager of the Detroit Lions in 1948 and signed Groomes to a contract with the Lions. At the time, only one other NFL team had an African-American player, and Groomes was the first African-American to sign a contract with the Lions. Groomes played for the Lions in 1948 and 1949.
- George Taliaferro played seven years in the NFL from 1949 to 1955 and was the first African-American drafted in the NFL.
- Lou Saban became a captain on the Cleveland Browns and then a head coach in the NFL.
- Corbett Davis was a 1937 1st Team All-American at IU and the first overall pick in the 1938 NFL draft.
- Bill Hillenbrand was a 1942 1st Team All-American at IU, a first round NFL pick, and played in 41 NFL games.
- Ted Kluszewski was a star on the IU football team and went on to play 15 seasons in Major League Baseball.
NFL HEAD COACH
McMillin left IU to be the head coach of the Detroit Lions in 1948. He coached in Detroit for 3 years and then had a brief 2 game stint with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1951. He compiled a 14-24 record as an NFL coach.
AWARDS AND HONORS
In 1951 McMillin was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame for his success as a player. Two months later, he received the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award from the American Football Coaches Association for his contributions to the sport. In 1982 McMillin was inducted into the Indiana University Athletics Hall of Fame.
Bo McMillin passed away in 1952.
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