For nine years, Wyoming had no official state football champions.
For nine years, teams postured, claimed, challenged and, occasionally, played.
For nine years, newspaper reporters debated, interviewed, intermediated and, eventually, chose.
For nine years, coaches proclaimed, skirted, complained and, sometimes, ignored.
For nine years, players played.
What is lost in nine years of mythical championships — nine years of saying “My team is better than your team” when, in many cases, the two teams had not played any similar opponents, let alone each other — is the contributions made by those players to what’s often called the “dead era” of Wyoming high school football.
I wrote about my desire to uncover the champions from the “dead era” a couple years ago. The champions in the years 1939-47 were no more or less worthy of recognition; they just happened to win the right games at the wrong time in Wyoming’s football timeline.
As a refresher, here are the champions from the “dead era” and how they won their respective titles:
1947: Rawlins. The Outlaws went 8-0-2 and were the Big Five champions; they refused all postseason game offers.
1946: Sheridan. The Big Five champions went 8-0-2 and beat Cody 20-19 in the first “Turkey Bowl,” the unofficial state championship game, played on Thanksgiving day in Casper. By the way, I think it was this particular game that really galvanized the effort for a state championship playoff system in later years….
1945: Cheyenne Central. Went 9-0, with victories over Torrington, Rawlins, Natrona, Laramie and five out-of-state foes.
1944: Cheyenne Central. Went 8-1, with the only loss to Alliance, Neb. Beat in-state foes Rock Springs, Torrington, Natrona, Rawlins and Laramie.
1943: Cheyenne Central. Went 8-0-1. First undefeated season in school history. Topped Rock Springs, Rawlins, Natrona and Laramie in in-state play. (A case could also be made for the team from the Heart Mountain Japanese internment camp, which went undefeated and un-scored upon. However, the Eagles were not allowed to fully participate in district play, and Powell — the team that eventually won the Northwest district — refused to schedule Heart Mountain. Powell beat Worland 19-13 in the district championship game on Thanksgiving.)
1942: Natrona — although the Mustangs needed some help. The Mustangs went 6-1-1, with the only loss a 20-14 Armistice Day defeat to Sheridan. That loss left the door open for unbeaten Green River to stake a claim to the title, but the Wolves lost their season finale on the same day, 13-7 to Rock Springs. No other large-school squads finished undefeated that season, so by default the mythical crown fell to the best one-loss team, that being Natrona.
1941: Cheyenne Central. Went 7-1-1, with the only loss to Fort Collins, Colo. Beat Rock Springs; Rapid City, S.D.; Natrona; Scottsbluff, Neb.; Torrington; Midwest; and Laramie, and tied Sheridan.
1940: Rock Springs and Sheridan split the claim to the title. Rock Springs went 10-0, shutting out its final eight opponents while giving up just 13 points for the season. Sheridan finished 7-0-1, the lone tie coming against Billings, Mont. The schools did not play each other, but had three common opponents in Cheyenne Central (Rock Springs 19-6; Sheridan 7-6), Laramie (Rock Springs 13-0; Sheridan 7-6) and Natrona (Rock Springs 13-0; Sheridan 7-0). (Powell, which lost to Sheridan in the opening week of the season but later claimed to have won the game by forfeit, also laid an unofficial claim to the state title.)
1939: Natrona. Went 8-1, with the lone loss to Billings, Mont.; beat previously unbeaten Sheridan on Armistice Day to win the unofficial title. NC also beat Midwest, Laramie, Cheyenne Central and five out-of-state opponents.
After much thought on the subject, I have decided to add these schools to my list of state champions. The list had long included both official and unofficial champions, and now I feel like these schools can earn the credit they deserve.
Of course, this wasn’t easy for me. It took a ton of time to consider the accomplishments of each team in each season, examining my own records and cross-checking them with the newspaper rankings and reports of the time. In each season, I have maintained the original “consensus” mythical champion, the one chosen by the most newspapers. In years like 1940 and 1942, that was difficult, but in most other years this was a straightforward, if somewhat time-consuming, process on my end.
Part of the confusion of the “dead era” recognition comes with the other championship “dead era” in Wyoming’s history, that from 1962-67 for all schools and from 1968-74 for all but the largest schools. Those years, teams were awarded mythical championships through a statewide poll, usually conducted by United Press International. The winner of that poll, taken after the final regular season game of the year, was generally regarded as the mythical state champion for that classification.
However, such a statewide poll did not exist between 1939 and 1947. Instead, newspaper reporters published their own rankings at the end of the season. Sometimes they agreed. Sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes, they bickered back and forth at each other in print.
Sports reporters stood in one of three camps: those who shouted loudly for a playoff; those who said the WHSAA should form a committee of sportswriters and coaches to pick a champion (a committee that, of course, would include that particular sports writer); and those who said the current system was fine, especially because schools couldn’t bear extra expenses for playoffs during wartime.
It didn’t help reporters that any coach could stake a claim to a state championship. At the end of the year, most teams that were undefeated claimed a mythical state title. For example, in 1947, teams claiming the state championship included both big-shot Rawlins (8-0-2) and tiny Manville (6-0). No fewer than six teams claimed the mythical championship in 1942.
For now, we can’t look to the WHSAA for clarification. the WHSAA Web site. The WHSAA mishmashes which mythical champions they list and which they don’t on the football champions listing on its Web site. Their list of champions includes two unofficial champions, 1939 (Casper) and 1940 (Rock Springs and Sheridan) as well as the mythical champs from 1962-67, but not those from 1941-47 nor the unofficial title-holders from small schools from 1968-74. The WHSAA’s decision to list the 1939 and 1940 champs doesn’t make much sense to me, as the 1939 and 1940 champions seem just as valid, at least as far as the WHSAA should be concerned, as those championships won from 1941-47. The champs from 1962-67, especially at the small-school level, also seem just as valid as those earned from 1968-74.
Nevertheless, all those mythical championships weren’t the WHSAA’s to award anyway. They were a newspaper brainchild. Deciding a champion helped sell newspapers — something many columnists admitted to during this era. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, deciding a mythical state title-holder would have been all but impossible without the help of the newspapers.
What underlines not recognizing the champions of these nine years is that it somewhat undercuts the contributions of the players who played during this era. Other years have three, four or even five champions listed; now, the players from this era can at least look back and point to one team as the best, even if it is “mythical.”