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'Upset of the century': Tiny Kentucky college beat Harvard football 100 years ago

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 10/29/2021 Hayes Gardner, Louisville Courier Journal

“C6H0” has been written in large block letters on a campus building for decades. Alums have it hung in their homes. Football commits, to this day, mention it in social media announcements.

The simple combination of two letters and two digits is a century-old rallying cry for Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, a celebration of a monumental triumph. It commemorates an event from 100 years ago today, when, on Oct. 29, 1921, Centre defeated Harvard 6-0 in a college football game.

It was a historic upset, and it made front-page news across the country, increasing interest in the sport of college football. Tiny Centre had gone to Boston and knocked off mighty Harvard, a powerhouse of the time, and in 2006, ESPN cited it as the third-greatest college football upset ever. The New York Times called it “arguably the upset of the century.”

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“It would be like us playing Alabama today,” said Andy Frye, the current Centre football coach.

Centre is a Division III liberal arts school of 1,300 students, but at the time, there were no divisions and it was a school of merely a few hundred. Harvard was the premier institution, and it had gone undefeated in both 1919 and 1920, laying claim to the national title in each year and winning the Rose Bowl, the school’s only-ever bowl appearance, in 1920.

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A Courier-Journal write-up previewing the Centre v. Harvard game noted Harvard’s dominance and marveled at the Crimson’s extensive use of “subs,” a term it put in quotes. It, however, pointed out that upstart Centre had a deep team of 25 players and suggested that the team could build upon its surprisingly competitive 1920 game at Harvard, which the Crimson wound up winning 31-14.

“Somehow or another, the West and the South delight in the prospect of a Harvard trimming. When the team expected to do it comes from a remote and Lilliputian college in Kentucky, the joy is equal to that in Israel when David’s forward pass decided the game against Goliath,” the Courier Journal penned ahead of the game.

A crowd of 45,000 watched the contest, played at Harvard Stadium, which was scoreless at halftime. Then, in the third quarter, Centre quarterback Bo McMillin scored on a 32-yard touchdown run.

Harvard threatened to tie it late but was stopped, and McMillin's touchdown run remained the only score of the game. The Praying Colonels, as Centre was known, had defeated the Crimson.

Bo McMillin, pictured with the ball, scored on a 32-yard touchdown in front of 45,000 spectators at Harvard Stadium. © Centre College Bo McMillin, pictured with the ball, scored on a 32-yard touchdown in front of 45,000 spectators at Harvard Stadium.

Newspapers across the country, from Buffalo to Denver to San Francisco, printed the shocking news: a little-known school in Kentucky had defeated the juggernaut, Harvard.

A story from the Associated Press noted the “remarkable football triumph” and Harvard’s first home loss in five years. A Tulsa Daily World headline said: “Football Precedents Upset.”

“Centre defeats Harvard, Idol of the East, 6-0,” read the top of the front page of the Courier Journal.

Regional affiliation was paramount. Reports touted it as a victory for essentially any American region aside from the Northeast, which had dominated college football for much of the sport's early existence.

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The game and McMillin’s touchdown run were the Boston Globe’s front-page story, too.

“Bo McMillin, pride of Texas, Kentucky and the entire Southland, brought joy to the land of cakes and cotton yesterday by beating the Harvard football team, 6 to 0,” the Globe article began.

The Danville Daily-Messenger kept its headline simple: “Centre 6; Harvard 0.”

Centre students kept it even simpler. They covered campus with “C6H0” and some even painted the score on the sides of cattle. A Centre chemistry professor at the time said he’d figured out the organic compound which had “poisoned” Harvard: C-6, H-0.

McMillin, who went on to play in the NFL and coach Indiana University, was the hero, and his run became instant lore.

Originally from Texas, McMillin came to Kentucky, alongside a couple of teammates, with a coach from Texas who’d joined the Centre football staff. McMillin, shy of academic credits, first played football for Somerset High School — it was his 1916 team that earned the school its “Briar Jumper” moniker — before joining the Centre team and leading them to national relevancy.

Following the win over Harvard, Kentucky governor Edwin P. Morrow said, “I’d rather be Bo McMillin at this moment than the governor of Kentucky.”

Centre had defeated Transylvania 98-0 the week before Harvard and then followed it by topping the University of Kentucky 55-0, led by McMillin’s three touchdowns. That week, the Harrodsburg Board of Commerce presented the Centre football players with a silver cup “in recognition of their valor in winning laurels for Kentucky in the Centre-Harvard football game.”

Centre finished the regular season undefeated and then took a train to San Diego to play Arizona in a bowl game, which Centre won 38-0. The Colonels next played in another bowl game, this time against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on Jan. 2, 1922.

McMillin, the team’s star player and perhaps the most famed player in college that year, got married in Fort Worth the morning of the game.

“I don’t think Tim Tebow would’ve got married before the national championship,” Frye, Centre’s current coach, said with a laugh, “but that was a different era.”

The Colonels were 10-0 entering the game and had only allowed six points all season, but they fell to A&M 22-14 that day. A&M’s players, however, suffered injuries throughout the game, eventually thinning the team’s roster to only 11, and so an A&M student and former player, E. King Gill, was asked to come down from the stands to the sideline and put on an injured player’s uniform.

Gill didn’t enter the game, but in dressing and readying against Centre, the tradition of the 12th Man — which continues to this day — was born at Texas A&M.

And to this day, another tradition from that season continues at Centre, too.

Centre was nationally recognized after defeating Harvard 6-0 on October 29, 1921. This photo is captioned: "The Boys Who Beat Harvard" © Centre College Centre was nationally recognized after defeating Harvard 6-0 on October 29, 1921. This photo is captioned: "The Boys Who Beat Harvard"

Centre football players today learn about the legendary upset before they ever play a snap: they see “C6H0” written in the athletic facility as recruits. And on at least one occasion, Centre alumni have re-enacted McMillin’s touchdown run at Harvard’s stadium.

The white letters spelling “C6H0,” first painted in 1921, are still present to this day on a brick building on the west side of Centre’s campus. 

“It’s a model that we can do anything. We’re the Mighty Mouse of higher education,” Milton Reigelman, Centre’s former Director of International Programs, said in a 2018 video from the college.

Centre made an effort to play Harvard again a couple of decades ago, Frye said, but the Crimson weren’t interested. Centre would benefit, in particular recruiting-wise, from such a game, but what would Division-I Harvard gain by playing a D-III school and commemorating a defeat?

The game was 100 years ago — on the same day as the famed contest, Sewanee beat UK, also 6-0. A lot has changed in that time.

But for Centre, the combination of two letters and two numbers, C6H0, remains a sense of pride, a century later.

“To me, it’s never been about the game,” the school’s former president, John Roush, said in the 2018 video. “It is a way in which Centre College defines itself as being a place that hits above its weight, where remarkable things occur, but more importantly, it sends a signal to students that I think it is much more powerful and important, which is — anything is possible.”

Hayes Gardner can be reached at; Twitter: @HayesGardner.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: 'Upset of the century': Tiny Kentucky college beat Harvard football 100 years ago


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