Cornell's sportsmanship didn't feel that good to everyone

It would go down as perhaps the greatest act of sportsmanship in college football history, but Lou Conti and his Cornell teammates wanted no part of it.

Seventy years ago this month, the Big Red scored a last-second touchdown to secure a controversial 7-3 victory over Dartmouth, extending its winning streak to 19 games and keeping alive its dream of winning a national championship.

But then the muckety-mucks decided to give it away.

Here's why: A review of game films revealed that, because of an officiating error, Cornell was mistakenly awarded an extra play, scoring its winning points on fifth down.

Fifty years later, in 1990, Colorado would famously ride a game-winning fifth-down touchdown against Missouri to a national championship — and think nothing of it.

But this was 1940.

Then, in this case, character trumped a championship bid.

And so Cornell President Edmund Ezra Day, declaring the outcome to be "tarnished," sent a telegram to Dartmouth, offering to forfeit the victory to the Indians.

"I remember he was a Dartmouth man," Conti says of Day, a Dartmouth graduate, "and his classic remark was, 'You can offer them the game, but they won't accept it.'

"We didn't believe that. I didn't believe that. Nobody believed that they would not accept the game."

And they were right.

Dartmouth accepted.

"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, 91, says during an interview at his home outside Chicago. "But if I had been a grown person with some authority, I never would have offered to give the game away."

In that case, of course, it would have been long forgotten.

"Winning evaporates in time," Conti's 92-year-old former teammate, Bud Finneran, says from his home in Bensenville, Ill. "But something like this goes on forever."

Indeed, Cornell's selfless act was celebrated far and wide, its implications reverberating through the decades.

Sportsmanship, wrote the New York Herald Tribune in the immediate aftermath, "remains in its true form so seldom these days that when it can be truly applied, as it can to Cornell University … there seems again to be hope in the world."

Wrote the New York Times, in a similar editorial praising the Big Red's offer: "If we were Cornell, we wouldn't trade that telegram for all the team's victories in the past two years."

Years later, commentator and longtime college football observer Beano Cook would rank Cornell's magnanimous gesture as the No. 2 moment in the sport's long and storied history — behind only Knute Rockne's "Win One for the Gipper" speech.

"I'll be darned," Conti says.

In 1940, Conti was a 5-foot-10, 180-pound two-way guard. Cornell, unbeaten since early in the 1938 season, had spent several weeks atop the Associated Press poll before slipping to No. 2 behind Minnesota. The Big Red took a 6-0 record into its Nov. 16 game against Dartmouth at Hanover, N.H.

Dartmouth was 3-4 and had lost to Cornell a year earlier, 35-6, but the Indians managed to stymie the Big Red offense for nearly four quarters on a muddy, sloppy field.

Trailing by a field goal late in the game, Cornell mounted one last push. A pass gave the Big Red a first down at the Indians' six-yard line, and two running plays put the ball at the one.

A third-down run by Mort Landsberg was ruled to have been stopped short of the goal line, though Conti begs to differ.

"I was in the end zone," the former lineman says, "and Mort was right on top of me. I think he scored."

But when the officials did not signal touchdown, Cornell called a timeout. It had already used its allotted number, however, and the resulting five-yard penalty moved the ball back to the six.

On fourth down, Walt "Pop" Scholl rolled to his right and fired an incomplete pass into the end zone.

Instead of turning the ball over to Dartmouth on downs, however, referee Red Friesell mistakenly signaled fourth down.

Cornell ran the same play, Scholl this time finding Bill Murphy in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

A day later, informed of his mistake, a chastened Friesell reviewed game films and, in a telegram, apologized profusely for his "grave error," assuming "full responsibility."

Later, a friend sent Friesell a note reading, "Don't let this get you down … down … down … down … down."

Cornell, dejected and injury-depleted, lost its season finale to Penn and wound up 15th in the season-ending AP poll.

Conti went off to play in the East-West Shrine Game. In 1941, after graduating from Cornell, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, eventually rising to the rank of major general. An aviator in World War II and the Korean War, he later was a successful businessman. Long retired, the father of six and grandfather of 10 now is the prime caregiver for his wife of 66 years.

In time, he says, his pride in Cornell's forfeit grew.

"I think they made the right decision — now," he says. "At the time, I didn't think so.

"But we did what was right."

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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