- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

In December 1933, Columbia University football coach Lou Little phoned Bill Corum, a prominent New York City sports columnist who had been pushing for Little’s team to be invited to the nation’s only postseason game.

“If we go, we’re not going to lose,” Little told Corum about a possible New Year’s Day game against Stanford in the Rose Bowl. “I know these kids, know them like a brother, and no football team that ever wore cleats can outfight them.”

Few football experts agreed despite the Lions’ 7-1 record in Little’s fourth season after moving north from Georgetown. Second-ranked Stanford was considered nearly invincible after shutting out five opponents in an 8-1-1 season. What’s more, the best Eastern team that season appeared to be Princeton, whose seven consecutive shutouts included a 20-0 rout of Columbia on the way to a 9-0 record.

In those distant days, the Pacific Coast champion selected its opponent for the game in Pasadena, Calif. With an eye on the gate receipts, Stanford wanted to invite another West Coast team, but none of its previously vanquished foes would accept. Then Princeton and top-ranked Michigan also declined because the bowl payout might not even match the travel costs. Finally, only undermanned Columbia was left, so an invitation was extended and accepted after hundreds of students demonstrated on campus.

We don’t know whether the Stanford players were overconfident, but most sportswriters certainly were. The consensus was that the poor little Lions were being led to slaughter, and after a four-day train ride at that.

Of course, there was no slaughter. Instead Columbia defeated Stanford 7-0 in what remains, 70 years later, the most startling upset in bowl history. And for many football historians, few plays stand out more than KF-79 — the trick maneuver on which Al Barabas ran 17 yards for the game’s only score in the second quarter.

Nowadays, when Ivy League teams are far removed from football’s top echelon, it is hard to conceive of the impact wrought by Columbia’s victory. College football started in the East with Princeton playing Rutgers in 1869, but by the ‘30s the Midwest and West brand was considered superior. So in one sense, the Lions were striking a major blow for an entire region.

“We were an 18-point underdog — nobody thought we had a chance,” recalled Cliff Montgomery, Columbia’s All-American quarterback, during a party in 2000 to honor Columbia’s “Team of the Century” and mark his 90th birthday

Nobody except Little and his undersized band of brothers. Said one spectator in a Rose Bowl crowd held to 40,000 by a steady downpour: “The game seemed all wrong. Every time Stanford sent in a substitute, he looked bigger than the man he replaced, and every time Columbia sent in a substitute, he looked smaller than the man he replaced.”

But thanks to the Lions’ true grit, it didn’t matter. Columbia also got an assist from the weather. It rained in Southern California for a week before the game, nearly a postponement and forcing officials to bring in the fire department to pump water from the field. The soggy footing helped negate Stanford’s supposed advantages in size and speed.

Nonetheless, the Indians dominated much of the game, gaining 227 yards on the ground to Columbia’s 76 (a total of only three passes were thrown) and holding a 16-6 edge in first downs. But the Lions’ defense stiffened whenever it had to and Stanford helped out by fumbling eight times and losing six.

Columbia had a chance to score in the first quarter on a naked reverse designed by Little to take advantage of Stanford’s overpursuing defense, but a desperation tackle by the Indians’ safety saved a touchdown.

Late in the first half, Montgomery drove his Lions downfield again, hitting Tony Matal for 28 yards on his only completion of the day for a first down at the 17. Now the time was at hand. In the huddle, Montgomery stared at his teammates and barked the magic combination of letters and numerals: “KF-79!”

Operating out of the single wing, Montgomery faked a handoff to halfback Ed Brominski, who ran right with the defense giving chase. But the quarterback yanked back the ball and handed it to fullback Al Barabas, who sped around left end all alone on another naked reverse.

The same Stanford safety smelled the play and moved up to halt Barabas, but left end Owen McDonnell slanted over and cut him down as Barabas sped into the end zone untouched.

KF-79 was history, literally and figuratively.

Newt Wilder added the extra point, and Columbia led 7-0 at halftime. The scoreless second half was dominated by play in the trenches. Stanford kept sending in new players, but Columbia used just 17 all told.

Finally, it was over, and the rejoicing began.

“Oh, boy, oh boy, oh boy!” shouted Little, who would coach Columbia through 1956 and take up residence decades later in the College Football Hall of Fame despite a 110-116-10 overall record for his 27 seasons on Morningside Heights. “Did the boys play football, or did they play football? … Clean, hard football from start to finish, that’s what it was.”

In a way, Little proved to be a prophet. Upon being hired in 1930, he stated, “I did not come here to fail,” and he didn’t. His first Lions team finished 5-4, but a pair of 7-1-1 seasons preceded the magic season of ‘33 and KF-79.

A throng of 5,000, including 3,000 students, were on hand to greet the players at Penn Station when they arrived home four days after the game. Then came a motorcycle escort to the campus on the Upper West Side as thousands cheered and sang the Columbia Fight Song, which ended, “For this is old Columbia’s day.”

And how unbelievable was the upset, really?

In his 1958 biography, “Off And Running,” Bill Corum recalled the final reunion of Columbia’s 1933 wonder team 21 years later. After everyone saw films of the first half, Barabas turned to Little and said, “Coach, let’s not watch the second half — they might beat us.”

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