The following weekly series recalls stories of Erskine’s football team from 1915 to its disbandment in 1951. The Fleet is scheduled to resume playing football in fall 2020.
The previous edition of this weekly article explored the much different college sports landscape in which the Erskine Flying Fleet played football from 1915 to 1951.
Another component to college football’s formative years became what schools could offer their athletes. Scholarships were banned by the NCAA until 1952, coincidentally the year Erskine stopped its football program.
Some of Erskine’s best years came in the era in which the school’s small stature and emphasis on sports across the athletic department played to an advantage. The influx of players from Georgia under John D. McMillan in the late 1940s gave some semblance of the sport’s development, but the Fleet’s greatest players such as Dode Phillips, Gordon Parkinson or James Boyce Pressly had family connections to the school or continued to be part of the athletic program after they graduated.
Erskine’s success without scholarships was evidenced in its regional success, too. The Fleet had its great success in the Dode Phillips years from 1918 to 1921 playing in the South Carolina Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The least successful period of the program’s existence came in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, a wide-ranging group that had members across the Deep South.
Clemson and USC, which had a significant head start over small state colleges because they had little or no early opposition to the sport on administrative or religious grounds, promptly stepped up to the national stage. Both schools joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1953.
Schools across the country widely offered scholarships by the late 1930s, and the NCAA issued a statement emphasizing amateurism in 1939. The NCAA issued its “Sanity Code” in 1948, banning scholarships unless they were based on financial neediness. A group of seven institutions dubbed the “Sinful Seven” defied the NCAA. That group was led by Virginia and Maryland, and also included The Citadel.
The struggles for the Erskine program began as early as 1940. An April 30, 1940. Erskine coach Jake C. Todd was quoted in a story published in the Index-Journal saying that the team might have to discontinue football after the 1941 season.
“We want to get several other schools that are willing to go back and play football on the basis it was played 10 years ago and if we can’t get up our own class league we’ll simply have to give up for we can’t compete with the big boys,” Todd told the Index-Journal in 1940.
When the program did meet its end, however, it strengthened the athletic department as a whole and ushered in a prosperous era in men’s basketball. Gene Alexander and Red Myers coached the Fleet’s team for many years and oversaw many winning seasons.
Information for this article was gathered from newspaper reports in the Index-Journal archives and the 2009 book, “Glory On the Gridiron: The History of College Football in South Carolina” by John Daye and Fritz P. Hamer.
Contact sports writer Skylar Rolstad at 864-223-1813 or follow him on Twitter @SkyRolSports.