The Strange Saga of the Impostor Opponent

the ORANGE BOWL 1932


On a balmy Saturday in South Florida, fans were filing into a football stadium to watch their Miami Hurricanes play another underdog opponent. It would be weeks before they would realize they had witnessed one of the most unusual games in college football history.

Besides talking about the game, there was plenty of chatter about other things such as the historic performance of the Chicago Cubs in the recent World Series, America’s success in the Summer Olympics, and the November 8th election which had swept a new president into office with surprising ease.

The year was 1932.

University of Miami records show that on December 24, 1932, Miami defeated William and Mary, 6-2. What the records don’t show is that Miami’s opponent was an impostor.

Not only were the Hurricanes playing the wrong team, but the opponent they were facing was a two year college, or in modern terms, a community college.

There are two questions that come to mind at this time.

  1. How could players and coaches from a two-year college think they could take the place of the “real” opponent and get away with it?

  2. How could the folks of Miami not notice the difference?

The answer to the first question is simple. As strange as it seems, the community college people didn’t know they weren’t suppose to be there.

As for the second, the visiting impostors had similar colors and labeling as the eximious ones from William and Mary.

The odd saga began with a single piece of paper and advanced with a one-inch square worth exactly two cents. Yes—-a letter and a postage stamp.

Months before, the Hurricane sports department had written a letter to the College of William and Mary with an invitation and a contract to come to Miami and play a football game in the brand new Orange Bowl on Christmas eve.

When the postman picked up the letter, all was in order.

Except the mailing address.

Instead of addressing the letter to William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, it was sent to Norfolk. The postman in Norfolk noticed no discrepancies because William and Mary had started an extension campus in Norfolk two years before with the name William and Mary, Norfolk Division.

When the football people in Norfolk received the invitation, they were as delighted as they were surprised. And why wouldn’t they be? They had only started their football team a year before and had assembled it in just two days.  So being recognized by a big school like Miami so soon was unexpected affirmation; enough to make their heads nod. Without delay, they signed the contract and sent it back.

When the time came, the football people in Norfolk booked a two-day train ride to Miami and entered the stadium fully believing that they belonged. They played so well that the Hurricanes chose to take a safety late in the game rather than risk a mishap punt from their own end zone.

Not everyone at the school was surprised that the team played as well as it did. Dr. Rufus Tonelson was a student at the school in 1932 and he said that even though Norfolk Division was a two-year school and its team was new, many of its players had sketchy backgrounds and little interest in education.

In other words, they were football guys.

“I guess some of the boys may have been questioned as to their academic status at the time,” he said. “I know that a number of them, after the football season was over, just withdrew from school.”

Some records state that the game was played on October 14, 1933. Why? Because the 1932 regular season had ended a month before and some record-keepers figured that rightfully made it the first game of the next season.

The College of William and Mary-Norfolk Division football program was terminated in 1941 when the school concluded that changes in the rules and a $10,000 debt were insurmountable impediments.

It probably didn’t help that the 1941 team didn’t win a game. It also didn’t score a point.

Norfolk Division grew into a four-year university and three decades after the 1932 Orange Bowl, the Norfolk administration announced its sovereignty, a new name, and its rite to all-things Norfolk dating back to the campus’ inception in 1930.

The new name?

Old Dominion University.

Even as today, the Miami University website claims that the Hurricanes played William and Mary but of course, neither William nor Mary showed up. If we wanted to correct the Hurricane website, how exactly would we do so since Norfolk Division no longer exits and the Old Dominion University didn’t appear until 1962?

My suggestion: since the ODU emblem states it was formed on the Norfolk campus in 1930, it inherits all of Norfolk Division’s history, including the saga  of its impostor team that played in the Orange Bowl on December 24, 1932.

Some notes about the culture of 1932:

  • The Great Depression had put 25% of the labor force out of work.

  • A month before, Joe Kershalla of Mt. Union College scored 71 points in a football game.

  • The South was on edge because Clyde Barrow had been paroled in Texas and had rejoined Bonnie to continue their lives of robbery and violence through the South that would eventually end in a police ambush in Louisiana. Bonnie was still wearing the ring of another man she had married eight years before. She had just turned 23.

  • On October 1, 1932, Babe Ruth had pointed to the center-field bleachers, then hit a home run to that spot.

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