Everybody wants to win, right? But at what cost? Don’t get us wrong, there’s nothing better than seeing your very own college team experience success. But if winning becomes so important that it begins to compromise the academic integrity of a school, that’s where we draw the line.
Believe it or not, these are the very issues and questions that the College of William & Mary was trying to answer in 1951. “The Scandal of 1951” occurred during a time when colleges across the nation were growing at a rapid rate. These same schools, in an effort to brand themselves as an attractive destination for the increasingly educated American public, felt immense pressure to succeed not only in the classroom, but also in athletics. And the “young,” growing 253-year-old William & Mary was no exception.
In this article, we take a step back in time, breaking down the full scandal that rocked William & Mary from beginning to end. This was a debacle that led to many resignations, and much conflict between the athletics and academic communities at the College. When it ended, several resignations were submitted, including those of the Football and Men’s Basketball Head Coaches, the Athletics Director, the President of the College, The Dean of Students, and many faculty members. It’s hard to believe, but the Scandal of 1951 chartered a course for the College, with academics ultimately winning out over athletics — a culture on campus that continues to this very day.
The Golden Years
William & Mary enjoyed incredible athletic success in the 1940s when the team was coached by Carl Voyles (1939-42) and Rube McCray (1944-1950). At the time, W&M as a college was attempting to build a big-time, national football program — all with an enrollment of less than 1000 males. And it was actually working. From 1940 to 1949, the William & Mary Indians fielded teams that were more dominant than any other era in the program’s history.
In his four years as Head Coach, Carl Voyles compiled an eye-popping 29-7-3 record (74.4 win %). In 1942 specifically, Voyles’ William & Mary team compiled a 9-1-1 record, which included a ground-and-pound 14-7 victory over the mighty Oklahoma Sooners in Norman, Oklahoma. William & Mary finished the year ranked 14 in the country.
The Indians’ next Head Coach, Rube McCray, was equally impressive in his 7 seasons at the helm, finishing with a sparkling 45-22-3 record (64.3 win %), including two bowl game appearances (Dixie Bowl in 1948 and 1949) — one of those included a 20-0 thrashing of Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State). His team tied the #3-ranked North Carolina in 1948, and often defeated Southern Conference schools such as Duke, NC State, and Wake Forest. From 1940 until 1950, W&M boasted 44 consecutive victories against in-state competitors.
Now stop and let that sink in: 44 wins against in-state schools (Virginia, Richmond, Virginia Tech, etc.). In Voyles’ and McCray’s tenures, 24 players were drafted to the NFL, W&M won two Southern Conference championships, and the team played in its first two bowl games. Oh, and they also produced W&M’s one and only NFL Hall of Famer, Lou Creekmur.
During this epic run, in 1946, and after McCray’s 3rd season at the helm (boasting a 19-7-1 record), the athletic-minded William & Mary Board of Visitors announced a new goal: as it relates to collegiate athletics, and especially football, the Board now expected William & Mary teams “to win more contests than we lose.”
And this is where our story gets interesting.
What Goes Up…
After the W&M Board of Visitors announced the goal of achieving more contest wins than losses, Head Coach Rube McCray was provided a substantial pay raise, making him higher paid than any professor on campus. At this time, he also served jointly as both the head football coach and the Athletics Director.
To say that he was given a great deal of power on campus would be an understatement. Additionally, almost all of the College’s scholastic financial aid was given to athletes coming into William and Mary, despite some (likely many) boasting minimal academic qualifications. Obviously, this meant that less financial aid was given to W&M students who did not play sports.
Ultimately, the W&M football team directly benefited from the support of W&M’s Board of Visitors, as evidenced by the immense success of the program throughout the 1940s.
Must Come Down.
In order to continue the success of the football program and compete with big names like Michigan State, Oklahoma, etc., W&M needed to recruit big-time players. To do this, some in the athletic department believed it was necessary to alter players’ high school transcripts to get them admitted to the College.
Once these players were admitted to W&M, they were given credit and grades for summer school classes that they never attended. While former W&M Head Coach Rube McCray eventually admitted that the scandal occurred on his watch, he refused to admit that he personally altered any players’ transcripts.
In the Spring of 1949, The College’s registrar J. Wilfred Lambert, who was also the Dean of Students, led an internal investigation that discovered the transcript altering. A faculty member had discovered a discrepancy in the grade report of a football player and brought this to Mr. Lambert, prompting the investigation.
The athlete entered W&M with credits in Spanish, but insisted that he never took Spanish classes in high school. After Lambert brought this information to the then W&M President John Pomfret, the President did not seem shocked or surprised. The procedure for handling transcripts was revised, but no action was taken against anyone in the athletic department.
The very next year, in February 1950, Nelson Marshall, Dean of the College, began another internal investigation and uncovered a variety of issues, including grades given to football players who had not actually taken the classes. Mr. Marshall, much like Mr. Lambert, reported his findings to W&M President John Pomfret in 1951, as well as the Board of Visitors.
W&M President Pomfret’s Resignation
For reasons unknown, W&M’s president John Pomfret didn’t act swiftly after receiving the information of illegal grades from Mr. Marshall. Was he aware of the transcript altering? Perhaps. Worse yet, instead of actually addressing the issue, Pomfret recommended that Coach McCray become a full-time physical education professor despite wrongdoings in his own department.
Instead of going directly to the Board of Visitors to solve the problem openly, Pomfret conducted his own internal investigation. In so doing, he had to tell the faculty of the athletic investigation. At first, Pomfret accepted a delayed resignation of both the football and basketball coaches, so that they could finish out their respective seasons.
In an attempt to prevent coaches from manipulating grades in the future, he also decided to separate the athletics department from physical education. However, when the school had to publicly announce the administrative change, this is when news of the scandal leaked to the press. To add insult to injury, Al Vanderweghe, a coach who had been recently fired after being blamed by coach McCray for altering transcripts, told his side of the story to local sportswriters. It was an absolute mess, as an incredibly negative light was cast on the College.
Once information regarding the scandal got out to the press, it became a lead story in many major media outlets. Now, there was no way of hiding the academic scandal. After discussions between President Pomfort, the Board, and the the coaches, it was determined that Coaches Rube McCray (football) and Barney Wilson (basketball) had to resign immediately.
President Pomfret eventually explained the result of Mr. Marshall’s investigation to the Board, where he had few supporters. The Board was hostile toward Mr. Pomfret, building up a case against him and interrogating him. Needing someone to take the fall, the Board chose Mr. Pomfret as the primary victim, as he resigned as President of the College on September 13, 1951.
Deteriorating Relationship: Board of Visitors vs. Faculty
The whole scandal began a deterioration of the relationship between the Board of Visitors and the faculty at the College. The Board of Visitors tried to place all of the blame on the President, Mr. Pomfret, for not taking decisive action when information of the scandal was brought to him, as well as on the Dean of Students, who they claimed of trying to deemphasize athletics at the College. The faculty of the College supported the Dean, saying that the emphasis on athletics had become detrimental to the academic values of the College.
The faculty accused the Board of turning football into a commercial enterprise that wanted winning at any cost, including dishonest academic practices. The faculty argued for control of all phases of intercollegiate athletics, which the board strongly disagreed with. In an effort to put the faculty in its place, the Board, following the resignation of President Pomfret, immediately elected a non-academic Naval Officer, Alvin Duke Chandler, as the next President of the College without receiving any input or recommendations from faculty. In protest to the hiring, many faculty members and the Dean of the College, Mr. Marshall, resigned.
Life after the Scandal
After the scandal of 1951, any hope of big time football at William and Mary were forever tarnished. It was then that the faculty let the school know that they would never let them forget how the College’s academics had been tainted by the athletics department overstepping its bounds. Immediately following the scandal, specifically between 1955 and 1964, W&M failed to post a single season with a .500 record or better. When W&M’s peer schools formed the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in 1954, William & Mary was relegated to a less prestigious conference. The scandal had done its damage.
As mentioned, to this day, the scandal is sometimes brought up at W&M booster happy hours and among select fanatics on campus. If you’ve ever wondered how a football program as historic as William & Mary’s (founded in 1893) wound up in the FCS instead of the FBS, the Scandal of 1951 is a good place to start.
We’ll never know what the program would have looked like today if W&M could have experienced athletic success without altering transcripts — perhaps the team would be a top-25 powerhouse. But one thing is for certain: to this day, an unrelenting emphasis has been placed on academics at the College of William & Mary. Student athletes brought into the College today are just that — students first, and athletes second. But boy do we wonder what Tribe football could have looked like if things had been done the right way.
LET’S GO TRIBE.