With the holidays approaching, the days are shorter, the weather is changing and we are all preparing for Christmas and the New Year. Around here, that means lots of college football; go– Bruins, Golden Bears, Wildcats, and Roll Tide! And a very Happy Thanksgiving to you all!
Many Westchester residents might be surprised to learn that not too long ago, around here, we were the center of our very own college football team; the Loyola Lions. In the 1930’s and later in the early 1950’s, Loyola University was a football powerhouse. But despite all of this history and bygone fierce rivalries with the likes of USC, UCLA and The University of Santa Clara, the word “football” is used exactly once on LMU’s Wikipedia page. Football is not mentioned at all on the LMU Lions Wiki sports page.
But once upon a time, the Lions roared.
Shortly after the University opened in 1929, on land donated by Fritz Burns, Harry Culver and their associates, the acting head coach of the 1929 champion Notre Dame Irish, Tom Lieb, began to build a new sports program at Loyola University. Between 1930 and 1939, Loyola was a dominant west coast football team. The wildly popular Lions played most of their home games at the now extinct Gilmore Stadium, but as their fan-base grew, a great many games had to be played at the Los Angeles Coliseum to accommodate the attendance. The teams practice field, Sullivan Field, located at 80th Street and Loyola Boulevard, is now the home of the school’s soccer program. Sullivan Field was used to film parts of Knute Rockne, All American, in 1940, starring Pat O’Brien and future United States President Ronald Reagan.
Gilmore Stadium was featured in a 1934 Three Stooges short featuring a football game titled Three Little Pigskins. The film was co-written by Domer (1926) Griffin Jay, father of local resident Mike Jay (my father-in-law), and featured Lucille Ball and many players from the Loyola varsity team. For the football game, Moe’s jersey number is H2O2 (the abbreviation for hydrogen peroxide), Larry’s is 1/2, and Curly’s is a question mark “?”.
But in real life, things was not so humorous, as the 1930’s were still an era of racial segregation and colleges were known as either all black or all white football teams. Jim Crow laws were in full force across America, and unjustifiable hardships impacted many collegiate and professional athletes.
Between 1932 and 1936 Los Angeles local All American, Al Duvall, led the Lions defense. During his three seasons as the defensive end of the Loyola University Football Team, they posted a record of 19-10-2, and produced 12 shutouts during the 1933, 1934 and 1935 seasons. The remarkable record alone is worthy of praise, but what even more significant, is that Al Duvall was an African-American.
Al Duvall was born in Texas and growing up in Los Angeles he excelled in sports. As a youth, he was statewide handball champion, and captain of the Jefferson High School football team. With no offers made by his choice of colleges, USC, Duvall was accepted at Loyola University where he shined academically and in sports; football, track and field. Unable to afford the streetcar fair to the area, Duvall often hitchhiked and walked his way to campus from his parent’s home near Exposition Park.
In October 1934, the Texas-Tech Red Raiders traveled to Los Angeles, and were defeated by the Lions, 12-6. This marked the first time in history when a Texas white college competed against an African-American player. The event went unnoticed by most of the major newspapers, and despite coach Tom Lieb’s worries, Duvall praised the Texans for their clean play and good sportsmanship.
Lieb’s concerns were valid. This was a time before the town of Westchester had even been named, and that the closest city to Loyola, Inglewood, CA, was home to a branch of the Triple Cities Klu Klux Klan (Inglewood, Torrance, San Pedro). The previous year, 1933, the Klan had held a major gathering at their established meeting hall on Border Street in Torrance, and was well known for terror raids in the area.
After graduating from Loyola, Duvall coached local high school teams and earned extra money acting, appearing in many films, including While Thousands Cheered (1940), and Go West, (1940), with the Marx Brothers. When WWII broke out, Duvall enlisted in the Army/AirCorps and served as a Commander with the famed Tuskegee Airmen. When he returned from the war, he married, purchased a home, started a family and was appointed varsity Line coach at Loyola.
But the glory days of the team fumbled when Tom Lieb resigned and moved to coach the Florida Gators. In February 1947, Loyola appointed former Lion (1930) Bill Sargent as head coach. But Sargent’s team posted an abysmal record, and on November 10, 1948, he resigned.
This is when the story of Al Duvall becomes truly remarkable.
Football historians have recorded that Willie Jeffries, became the first African-American head coach at a predominantly white school, Wichita State, in 1979. This is probably not true.
Upon receiving the 1948 resignation of Bill Sargent, Loyola’s Board of Control named two assistant coaches, Bob Shaw and Al Duvall, as co-head coaches.
This made Al Duvall the first African-American head coach of a white college in America, a full 31 years before Jeffries.
Look for part two of this amazing story in my next Examiner column.