The Bacardi Bowl

1937

Villanova 7

Auburn 7

 

Villanova Fight Song

Auburn Fight Song

 

 

The Cuban Christmas Sports Festival of 1936 was the brainchild of idealistic President Miguel Mariano Gomez y Arias. His hope was to ballyhoo Cuba's political serenity and create a boom in Havana’s tourist trade. But, unfortunately for Arias, the Cuban Senate impeached him, Fulgencio Batista came to power in a bloodless coup and, two days later, the Sports Festival started off serenely under the new Government.

 

The main event on a week-long schedule was to a New Year's Day college bowl game between two US college teams that would culminate the Festival. The press christened the game “The Bacardi Bowl”, although it has also been historically known as the Rhumba Bowl or the Cigar Bowl. Other events during the festival included an amateur boxing tournament, jai-alai matches, an international basketball tournament and the baseball championship of Cuba. As a special opening attraction, Jesse Owens made his first track appearance as a professional following his Olympic success in Berlin by racing a horse. With 3,000 spectators squealing joyously, Owens ran 100 yards on the cinder track beside the Tropical Stadium football field in 9.9 sec. His opponent, a mediocre racehorse named Julio McCaw started 40 yards behind Owens, gained ground by cutting across a curve onto the football field, but finished second by 20 yards. Owens got $2,000 for defeating the horse.

 

A Cuban postseason game was actually played six different times in Cuba. The first five occurrences matched an American college team (all from the Deep South) against Cuban universities or athletic clubs. The Rose Bowl was first played in 1902, but had become dormant and would not return until 1916. In between, these Cuban bowls, now referred to as the Bicardi Bowls, became the only collegiate football postseason games. There were four games between 1907 and 1912, and one in 1921. In 1907, LSU met Havana University. The Havana University team had dominated every American service team it had played, but had never encountered a collegiate football program. The finesse of the Tigers took the big Cuban team by surprise on Christmas Day at Almendares Park and LSU walked away with a convincing 56-0 victory before 10,000 fans.

 

The 1937 game itself almost did not happen for a number of reasons. First, Arias' overthrow clouded the events and created a revolutionary atmosphere. Second, Auburn was not certain of the payout in the game and Head Coach Jack Meagher insisted on collecting their share before the game. He sent Elmer Salter to travel to Cuba to collect Auburn’s share of its money before he would allow the team to travel from Jacksonville to Cuba to play. Third, Batista threatened to cancel the game when he discovered that his picture wasn’t in the game program. Quickly, the programs were reprinted and the game was played.

 

Auburn and Villanova bowl histories start in the 1937 Bacardi Bowl. Auburn’s 1936 squad was known as Meagher's Marauders and had rolled up an impressive 7-2-2 record and had closed out the regular season with wins over Loyola, 44-0, and Florida, 13-0, their fifth and sixth shutout wins of the season. Villanova, under coaching great Maurice “Clipper” Smith, piled up a sterling 7-2 record, and had earned victories over the likes of Penn State, Boston University, Detroit and South Carolina. Like Auburn, Villanova boasted of an outstanding defense, one that recorded four shutouts and had not allowed any opponent more than seven points. Auburn was favored by the press and betting public.

Batista arrived amid the cheer of the crowds 5 minutes into the game. The players were unnerved by his by his armed guards. During the unusual circumstances and in a strange setting, the two universities met on a sunny, warm day. Auburn flexed its muscles early when it mounted an offensive attack that saw the ball pushed to the Villanova 10-yard line. But the ’Cats defense stiffened and took over the ball on downs. Unable to do much offensively, Villanova punted the ball away, and on the ensuing possession, Auburn put together its only scoring drive of the day. The Tigers broke the scoreless tie when halfback Billy Hitchcock broke through the Wildcat defense and rambled 40 yards for a touchdown. The extra point was good, and Auburn had a 7-0 lead. In the second Quarter, the crowd was thrilled when a fight broke out between Auburn’s Sam McCrocksey and Villanova’s Joe Missar. Both players were ejected from the game. As expected, the defense of both squads continued to dominate play, and at halftime Auburn still held their lead.

 

Midway through the third period, Villanova’s offense, behind the direction of Anthony Stopper, drove to Auburn’s 12-yard line, but came away scoreless after Auburn’s defense rallied to stymie the ’Cats. Early in the fourth quarter, Auburn had possession of the ball inside its own 15-yard line. Facing second down and eight yards to go for a first down, Meagher called for a quick kick, a play Auburn had used successfully on a couple occasions in the first half. Shifting into the quick kick position at the Auburn goal line, Villanova’s John Wysocki and Valentine Rizzo blocked the kick, and lineman Matthew Kuber grabbed the ball at the two-yard line and went in for the touchdown. William Christopher kicked the all-important point after, and the Wildcats had gained a 7-7 tie. Villinova outgained Auburn on the afternoon, but suffered from 7 fumbles.

 

The Bacardi Bowl would go down in sports history as the last bowl game played on foreign soil in the Century.  It also is remembered as the bowl game that, at least through association, was the original sponsor-named game. Some 20 years later, Batista would be overthrown by the communist revolutionary forces of Fidel Castro.

 

Auburn captain Walter Gilbert (right) greets Villanova's Tong Sala before the game.

 

The day belonged to the punters. Villanova punts in 1937 Bacardi Bowl.

 

Jesse Owens raced against a horse as part of the festivities.

 

The game was played against the backdrop of Batista's overthrow of the government.

 

Attendance: 12,000

 

Scoring Summary

 

Second Quarter

AU - Hitchcock 40 run (Fenton kick)

 

Fourth Quarter

VU - Kuber recovered blocked kick in endzone  (Christopher kick)

 

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