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Big Green vs. Gridiron Gods

  • Dartmouth graduate and former football player Ray Truncellito at his home in Manchester, N.H.<br/><br/><br/>Gil Talbot photograph

    Dartmouth graduate and former football player Ray Truncellito at his home in Manchester, N.H.


    Gil Talbot photograph

  • Dartmouth freshman guard Alex Mitola looks for an outlet near the basket in the first half of last night’s game against Colgate. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Dartmouth freshman guard Alex Mitola looks for an outlet near the basket in the first half of last night’s game against Colgate. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

  • Dartmouth graduate and former football player Ray Truncellito at his home in Manchester, N.H.<br/><br/><br/>Gil Talbot photograph
  • Dartmouth freshman guard Alex Mitola looks for an outlet near the basket in the first half of last night’s game against Colgate. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

The top two teams in the country — two of the most storied programs in history — will take the field in Miami tomorrow night to determine college football’s national champion.

Notre Dame, which started playing football in 1887, and Alabama, which picked up the pigskin for the first time in 1892, have — by unofficial count — won at least 25 national titles between them. (Because of the vagaries of selecting a champion down through the years, nobody really knows the accurate number).

Still, when you’re a major football program and have frolicked on the gridiron for more than a century, chances are an Ivy League team has been on your schedule once upon a time.

Even if your name is Notre Dame.

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In a way, Dartmouth was a victim of its own success.

With a team loaded with older, more mature military-student players — known as “V-12” athletes — the Big Green was coming off a 6-1 record in 1943 — losing only to Penn by a 7-6 count.

Flushed with that success, Dartmouth went out and booked a home-and-away series for the next two years to upgrade its schedule with a high-profile, premier college program — the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.

It was quite a step up ... especially with Notre Dame coming off a national championship season and after the majority of V-12 players left Dartmouth to continue their military careers, leaving the Big Green a little short on both experience and talent.

In those days, colleges,and their partnering football teams had a different look. With World War II raging, the bulk of the college-age males were obviously called to the war effort. Thus, institutions of higher learning were struggling financially to keep their doors open due to a shortage of students, which consequently also meant a shortage of college-educated commissioned officers for the military.

To help solve both problems, the Navy devised the V-12 program, in which a college education was combined with military training. According to an article by Jennifer Seaton for Dartmouth Engineer magazine, the college became host to the largest of the Navy’s V-12 programs, enrolling some 2,000 enlisted men.

Incoming freshman Ray Truncellito remembers his football indoctrination at one of his first Dartmouth practices in 1944. “I was lined up next to a guy who said, ‘How old are you, kid?’

“I was almost 17, but admitted I was still only 16. He looked at me and said, ‘I’m getting too old for this game.’ He was 26.

“It was a different college experience then,” Truncellito, 84, said in a phone interview last week. “These guys were coming back from the war and all they went through. Now they were being asked to make all these other sacrifices in time and effort. Many of them just didn’t want to go through with it.”

With head coach Tuss McLaughry serving in the military, the 1944 team was coached by E.M. Brown. Missing so many top players, the Big Green struggled that year to a 2-5-1 record, scoring just 57 points. And playing the Fighting Irish didn’t help.

Notre Dame outdid the Big Green’s season output in one afternoon, routing Dartmouth, 64-0 in front of a crowd of 40,000 at Fenway Park, which stood as the home field for Dartmouth that day. It was the most points Notre Dame had scored in a game since 1932.

The Irish gained 429 yards on the ground — 51 on the first play. Dartmouth, on the other hand, rushed for minus-18. With the score 30-0 at the half, Notre Dame emptied its bench.

“Your offense is as good as your material, and we were outmanned in all 11 positions,” Brown said in a Boston Globe account. “I’m not the least bit disappointed in my kids. They tried their best, and that’s all I asked of them.”

In the style of the day, the Globe reported on the action. “Just before that period was out, (Nunzio Marino) went 18 yards on the frayed ol’ Statue of Liberty play, which was ushered in by a torrent, as if even the heavens above wept copiously for lo, the poor Indians!”

A year later, Truncellito and his teammates were off by train to South Bend to complete the two-year obligation. “I don’t remember much about the preparation for that game,” Truncellito admitted. “I knew I wasn’t going to play that much, so I really didn’t feel much anxiety over it.

“I was more excited about the trip. I had never been out of New Jersey until I came to Dartmouth.”

The team left from White River Junction, and stopped in Springfield, Mass., before boarding a train heading west.

“It was quite exciting,” recalled Truncellito, who had just been moved from offensive end to a lineman. “We were on that train for at least two days, but we had Pullman cars, so we were able to get our sleep.”

The 1945 team was quarterbacked by Meryll Frost, who was captain along with Carl McKinnon.

“That Frost, now there was a guy with guts,” Truncellito said. “He was a returning veteran who had been shot down over Italy.

“He suffered severe burns all over his body. It took him more than a year to recover. You certainly looked up to him.”

Truncellito, who had just turned 17, didn’t get to play much that October afternoon in Indiana — “A few plays, a few minutes.”

Meanwhile, not much had changed on the scoreboard a year later. It was all Notre Dame: 34-0.

Notre Dame scored on its first play from scrimmage and had its first string on the bench by the end of the first quarter.

Dartmouth was outgained, 513-66, and had only one first down in the first half. Its longest gain on the day was a 14-yard passing play. One bright moment that came out of that game was that defensive end George Rusch was put on Notre Dame’s All-Opponent team at the end of the season.

For Truncellito, the high point of the game came before the opening kickoff, when he was reunited with an old high school teammate now playing for the Irish.

“It was quite an experience,” Truncellito said of playing against Notre Dame. “Not something you forget.”

The following year, with the war over, the Dartmouth roster underwent more changes. Tackle Atherton “Pinky” Phleger returned to his native West Coast and played tackle for three more years at Stanford. He was drafted in 1948 by the Rams in the 12th round.

Ted Youngling also left to pursue his gridiron career elsewhere, playing two more years at Delaware, while LaRoy Morter played out his football days at the University of Maryland.

McKinnon graduated in 1946 and was drafted by the Boston Yanks of the NFL in the 29th round as an offensive lineman.

Back Joe Sullivan, another freshman on the 1945 team, went on to set numerous Dartmouth records. He was drafted as a running back in the fourth round as the 32nd overall pick of the NFL draft by the Detroit Lions. He was selected five spots ahead of future Pro Football Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin.

Then there was running back Charlie Holt, who was one of about a half-dozen Dartmouth members who was on the roster for both Notre Dame games. Holt made his name on the ice, however. A Dartmouth hockey captain, Holt eventually settled in as hockey coach at the University of New Hampshire, where he remained for 18 years, with a 347-232-18 record.

Truncellito finished his Dartmouth career as an Honorable Mention All-American lineman. He was selected to play in the Blue-Gray game and an all-star game against the New York Giants.

Highlights of his Big Green career included a 3-0 victory over Holy Cross in 1946, less than one year after the Crusaders played in the Orange Bowl. The 1948 and 1949 Big Green teams both finished with 6-2 records.

Following graduation in 1949, Truncellito returned for two years to work as an assistant line coach before being drafted into military service. Upon his discharge, Truncellito got into the life insurance business because he liked the idea of being his own boss. He and his wife, Barbara, have been living in Manchester since 1955.

Truncellito still follows football, makes regular trips to Hanover for Big Green games, and will be watching tomorrow night, when Notre Dame takes on Alabama for the BCS national title.

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Overall, the Fighting Irish played 11 times against Ivy League schools over the years. Since taking on Yale in 1914 — a game won by the Elis, 28-0 — Notre Dame has played Penn six times and Princeton twice. As you might expect from a BCS-type, independent power, Notre Dame holds a 9-1-1 mark over its Ivy foes, outscoring the opposition, 367-98.

Alabama has a much smaller Ivy grid resume — playing only once, beating Penn, 9-7, in 1922.

There is one other interesting Ivy connection for the Crimson Tide, however. In 1925, Bama earned its first national championship after beating Washington, 20-19, in the Rose Bowl. But it was a shared honor that year.

Shared with the undefeated Ivy champ, the school awarded the prestigious Rissman Trophy, emblematic of the national champion. Shared with the school that turned down a chance to play Washington in that 1925 Rose Bowl.

Shared, with none other than ... Dartmouth College.

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.