Cardinal grid dip begins during war years
Nothing lasts forever. All good things come to an end. If it goes up, it will eventually come down.
Say it any way you wish, or perhaps you can just blame the “small town cycle” of success and failure.
After a brilliant run of success from 1925-1939 (103-31-6) under revered coach William E. Putman, Albion’s football fortunes were destined to wane at some point.
A combination of Putman’s departure following 1939 and the upcoming “war years” interrupted Albion’s claim as “Northeast Nebraska champions” through the early portion of the 1940s.
The Cardinals posted a competitive 5-3-1 record in 1940 with Lester France at the coaching helm, but then slid to 4-5 and 1-7-1 in two seasons under the tutelage of Marty Koolen.
Albion scored its only victory in a 1-6 1943 campaign when Bill Karges tossed a touchdown pass to Tom Flanagan, and Flanagan booted the PAT for a 7-0 decision over Aurora. That 1-6 was better than what lay ahead.
Albion suffered an arid run of 0-14 in 1944-45, and the Cardinal losing skid reached 21 games before a 35-13 victory over Neligh in ‘46. Albion players, local fans – and newspaper reporters! – had apparently been starved for success during that barren spell. Mac McGraw wrote in the Albion Weekly News the following week, “The defeat complex is gone – for Albion has tasted victory meat, they like it, and they want some more.”
The Cardinals would taste only a few victory morsels during that first season under coaches ‘Bud’ Best and Glen Hilligas, finishing 2-4-1, but then started to feast more regularly. Albion boosted its mark to 4-4-1 in 1947, setting the table for a veritable smorgasborg of success the following year.
In fact, Albion broke through with its fifth undefeated season, producing a 9-0 record that saw the Cardinals outscore their opposition 232-52.
Led by the one-two backfield punch of Delaine Dunagan and Gil Karges, Albion swept by Ravenna (24-6), St. Paul (57-0), Neligh (40-12), Ord (7-6), Aurora (20-7), Madison (33-0), Central City (12-2), Schuyler (20-13) and Fullerton (19-6). Albion proved it could win in almost any fashion – blowouts, nailbiters, high-scoring, low-scoring, the Cards were dominant.
With a more inexperienced squad the following year, Albion concluded the 1940s with a 6-3 campaign. Led by standout quarterback Don Johnson, the Cardinals defeated Stanton, Loup City, Neligh, Madison, Central City and Schuyler, with losses to Ord, Aurora and Fullerton.
The 1950s would be proof that sports, like life, are most often a roller-coaster ride. The “small town cycle” took a downward swing and the fourth decade of Albion football would turn out to be the worst to date. Following a robust 58-16-7 run in the ‘30s, results in the decade of the 1940s had dipped to 32-46-4. After a strong start, the ‘50s produced a record of just 26-58-2.
Albion fans probably did not see it coming, however, as the Cardinals rolled to an impressive 8-1 mark in 1950. This was the advent of the Central 8 Conference, which eventually evolved into the Central 10. In the early ‘50s, the Central 8 consisted of Albion, Seward, Fullerton, David City, York, Aurora, Central City and Crete. Teams were to play at least five conference games to qualify for the league championship.
‘Bud’ Best’s troops made a strong run at that title, suffering only a 7-0 loss to a powerful York team and edging Ord and Schuyler in one-point thrillers.
The Cardinals nipped Ord 7-6 in the season’s third game when Duane ‘Mike’ Flanagan ran for a three-yard touchdown and, “Jerry Johnson’s magic toe proved the difference between victory and defeat.”
(Apparently the Albion News considered a possible tie with the Chants a defeat? They made the point, however. Colorfully, as always.)
Two games later, Albion faced a “rugged” Central City team. The News reported, “On the fourth play of the game, ‘Mike’ Flanagan scampered to paydirt, and from then on, the outcome of Albion’s grid battle with Central City was never in question.” Flanagan ran for touchdowns of 35 and 30 yards, and also threw a 30-yard scoring pass to Bill Curren.
The Cardinals had their five-game win streak stopped by York the following week, but bounced back with a thrilling 20-19 victory over Schuyler. The News noted, “Naturally, it was Jerry Johnson doing the Cardinal kicking, and it was also the 171-pound end who blocked a Schuyler kick after the Warriors’ third touchdown, which saved the game from ending in a draw.”
Johnson was named to the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Star all-state teams following the season for, as Lincoln sportswriter Gregg McBride put it, “his rugged end play.”
From that 1950 high-water mark, Albion’s fortunes began to sink. Best closed his Cardinal coaching career with a 4-5 season in ‘51, a mark matched by Bob Webb’s first Albion squad in 1952. Cardinal halfback Johnny Beckman was named the World-Herald’s “Star of the Week” after his performance in a 33-13 win over Neligh, which included an 80-yard kickoff return touchdown.
Albion posted a 5-4 record in ‘53, which would seem almost nostalgic during the dreary years ahead. The Cardinals failed to win a game in Webb’s final season, and new coach Bud Harris didn’t fare much better in 1955, as Albion finished 1-7. At the end of the campaign, Albion News reporter Dick Howe bluntly opined, “It was a 1-won, 7-lost season, which nevertheless was better than last year when they didn’t win a game.”
‘Hilly’ Beck took the coaching helm in 1956 and, while success was difficult to come by in a 1-6-1 season, the News did trumpet, “phenomenol work by the entire grid team that locked second-in-the-state Ord into a 14-14 tie.”
That was followed in ‘57 by an 0-6-1 record in, “one of the most dismal football seasons in the school’s history.” Prior to the 1958 opener, Beck acknowledged, “Recent seasons have been spectacular failures. A win at Stanton could make a big difference in this season.” Albion proceeded to thump the Mustangs 20-0, but enthusiasm was quickly tempered the following week when, “Albion’s Cardinals went down to complete, absolute and stunning defeat, 38-0, at Ord.” There would be more days like Ord than like Stanton, unfortunately, and Albion finished the season 3-6.
Remember Albion’s first undefeated season in 1929? The “Championship Eleven?” The spotless 9-0 record in 1939? Or 1948’s 9-0 success, followed by a solid 6-3 ‘49 season?
Alas, the conclusion of the 1950s reflected the period, as well, with Albion finishing 0-8, outscored 264-18.
Albion’s fourth grid decade had, after a rousing start, been mostly a dreary struggle. However, the name Martin Peterson loomed on the horizon and the sun would again shine on Cardinal football in the near future.
Next week, we look at the 1960s – a tale of two halves.