(EDITOR’S NOTE: For the last several years, this space has been dedicated once a summer to a retrospective on the former St. Bonaventure football team. Previous stories have centered on a monumental win over Boston University, the program’s lone bowl season of 1946 and the day Ted Marchibroda outdueled Johnny Unitas at Forness Field. That series continues with a look at the Bonnies’ 1947 furious fourth-quarter rally in Cincinnati.)
The feeling was far-reaching, and it lingered through the year-end team dinner at the Hickey Memorial Dining Hall that winter:
St. Bonaventure was robbed.
In Week 2 of the 1947 campaign, Bona was tasked with its biggest challenge since restoring its football program following a three-year hiatus for World War II a season earlier: mighty Cincinnati, a team that had advanced to its first bowl game the year prior and would go on to win the ‘47 Mid-American Conference title.
In the days leading up the tilt, which was so anticipated it commanded a last-minute regional radio broadcast, the Brown Indians had every reason to believe they could hang with the bigger Bearcats.
Bona was coming off perhaps its best season, a 7-2 campaign under new coach and former Notre Dame boss Hugh Devore punctuated by the only bowl appearance in program history (a 26-25 loss to Muhlenberg in the Tobacco Bowl). It had back signal-caller Dave Curtain, who that fall set the school’s single-season passing mark.
And it had gotten off to an ideal start, shutting out St. Vincent, 21-0, in its opener a week earlier.
Through three quarters, however, this one was going exactly the way most pundits thought it would when they predicted a one-sided Cincinnati victory, shaping up to be a more onerous test than Bona might have initially believed.
ENTERING THE fourth, the Brown Indians, who logged a .698 winning percentage in their gridiron hey-day from 1946-51, had been no match for the Bearcats, trailing 20-0. Making it worse was the fact they had twice fumbled inside their own 20 and couldn’t get a capable offense led by Curtain and Frank LoVuolo off the ground.
That’s when their fortune began to change.
Curtain engineered a 53-yard drive, which included a 33-yard pass to a leaping LoVuolo and a short TD run by Bob Hays, to bring Bona to within 20-7. After coming up with its own takeaway, Devore’s team scored on a 22-yard Curtain pass to make it 20-14 with seven minutes remaining.
And even then, it wasn’t done.
Starting one final drive at its own 34 with three minutes left, Bona advanced deep into Cincinnati territory on a wild jaunt that included a Curtain completion past midfield, a 15-yard penalty on the Brown Indians, a fourth-down conversion and a completed pass to Nunzio Marino, who latereled to Phil Colella for further yardage.
All the while, the large home crowd, which had been basking in a blowout, became frantic, almost charmed, even, by the show this plucky, upstart program from back east was putting on down the stretch.
“It was a drive that had the crowd in a frenzy as the Bona-men battled their way down the turf yard by yard,” a special report in Monday’s Olean Times Herald read.
IN THE final seconds, Curtain hit Glenn Haggerty, who was forced out of bounds on the Cincinnati 9-yard line “on a play that had the crowd screaming.” And that’s when the controversy occurred.
Though Haggerty was pushed out of bounds with the clock still ticking, the horn overhead sounded, indicating the game was over. Assuming it had fallen just short, Bona was then told by an on-field referee that there were actually a couple of seconds remaining.
But after desperately lining up for a final look, it was unable to get a final play off in time.
Despite the outcome, Devore’s group had certainly endeared itself to its bigger-conference brethren.
“A fighting St. Bonaventure football team amazed upwards of 20,000 fans here Saturday night with a sensational last period rally that was halted by the clock to lose to Cincinnati by a 20-14 score,” the lead in Monday’s story said.
And on Dec. 15, 1947, at the team dinner sponsored by the Gridiron Club, the locals weren’t bashful about making their feelings on that contentious final call known. It had sat in the pit of their stomachs since making the seven-hour bus ride home in October.
“EXCITEMENT in the closing minutes was at a fever pitch as Bona’s hammered at the gates for a third touchdown after an irresistible drive down the field — only to have the game suddenly snatched out of their hands by an official’s now notorious bungle,” read an excerpt in that night’s souvenir program.
The loss overshadowed an incredible fourth-quarter from Curtain, whose passing performance would be deemed impressive by today’s standard, let alone where the game was 72 years earlier. It was one of the few blemishes in a 6-3 season for the Bonnies, whose three setbacks came by a combined 10 points.
It was perhaps the greatest comeback effort in program history, however. And it would remain so until Bona football folded five years later … even if that valiant attempt at the biggest win of the year fell nine yards short.
(J.P. Butler, Bradford Publishing Company group sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)