If a team ever triumphed in defeat it was Cornell’s football team in 1940.
On Nov. 16 that year, Cornell beat Dartmouth 7-3. The No. 2-ranked team in the Associated Press poll scored on the game’s final play, improving to 7-0 with its 19th consecutive victory.
Or so everyone thought.
But in a moment of unprecedented sportsmanship, when the stakes could not have been higher, Cornell conceded defeat after it was discovered they scored on fifth down.
The Fifth Down Game, as it came to be known, ended Cornell’s winning streak, undefeated season — which included victories against Syracuse and Ohio State — and hopes for a repeat national championship.
“I think they made the right decision — now,” Lou Conti told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, following a notorious “fifth down” that year. “At the time, I didn’t think so. But we did what was right.”
As such, and in contrast to a later event, it’s the sports moment judged the greatest in Big Red history.
Here’s how it unfolded, according to game accounts:
Trailing 3-0, Cornell drove to Dartmouth’s 6-yard line in the final minute. On third-and-goal from the 1, Cornell’s Mort Landsberg was ruled down short of the goal line. Conti, one of Cornell’s linemen, begged to differ.
“I was in the end zone,” he told the Times, “and Mort was right on top of me. I think he scored.”
Officials ruled otherwise and Cornell called a timeout. But the team didn’t have any remaining and a 5-yard penalty moved the ball back to the 6.
On fourth down, Walt Scholl rolled right and fired an incomplete pass into the end zone. Then, instead of turning the ball over to Dartmouth on downs, referee Red Friesell mistakenly signaled fourth down — perhaps because of the penalty following the previous play.
Cornell scored on the next play when Scholl hit Bill Murphy in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
A day later, informed of his mistake, Friesell reviewed game films. Realizing the error, Friesell sent a telegram to Dartmouth’s president that Monday: “I want to be the first to admit my very grave error on the extra down, as proven by the motion pictures of both colleges.”
Nothing compelled a change of the outcome, but Cornell President Edmund Ezra Day declared it to be “tarnished.” He offered to forfeit the victory and concede Dartmouth won, 3-0.
Dartmouth accepted. Cornell, dejected, lost its season finale 22-20 to Penn and finished 6-2.
“Our coach and athletic director told us, ‘As the years go by, this will resonate as a fine example of sportsmanship’ — and they were 100% right,” Conti told the Times. “But if I had been a grown person with some authority, I never would have offered to give the game away.”
That was the attitude of Colorado head coach Bill McCartney, whose team beat Missouri 33-31 on Oct. 6, 1990, scoring the game-winning touchdown on an inadvertent fifth down.
But McCartney, a former Missouri player, vehemently decided against a forfeit. The Big Eight Conference upheld Colorado’s victory because the fifth down was not “a post-game correctable error.”
Colorado went on to win the national championship, finishing No. 1 in the AP poll.
In 1940, Cornell dropped to 15th in the final AP poll but won praise, respect and admiration. “There seems again to be hope in the world,” the New York Herald Tribune wrote.
Fifty years later, Baltimore Sun columnist John Steadman compared Colorado and Cornell:
Giving back a victory, changing a win to a loss, would have been the honorable thing to do. There should be a place in college football, certainly among respected rivals, to show consideration for each other and a basic desire to set the record straight. But, no, that didn’t happen. Another depressing example that gentlemanly sportsmanship has become passe. …
As a direct contrast, college football never knew a more honorable moment than, with almost identical circumstances prevailing, Cornell decided it couldn’t accept an erroneous 7-3 win on a fifth down against Dartmouth 50 years ago. In a gracious display of ethical responsibility, it notified Dartmouth it was altering the decision — accepting a loss instead of a win.
In 2006, ESPN commentator Beano Cook listed Cornell’s act of sportsmanship as the second greatest moment in college football history, behind Knute Rockne’s “Win One for the Gipper” speech.
“Winning evaporates in time,” Bud Finneran, Cornell’s center in 1940, told the Times. “But something like this goes on forever.”