Mark Story: Centre legend Bo McMillin finally gets the call from the hall (of fame)

Quarterback Bo McMillin eluded two Harvard defenders on the way to scoring the only touchdown in Centre College's historic 1921 victory over Harvard, then a national football powerhouse.
Quarterback Bo McMillin eluded two Harvard defenders on the way to scoring the only touchdown in Centre College's historic 1921 victory over Harvard, then a national football powerhouse. Centre College

On Thursday night in Louisville, our state's sports community will right an historic oversight.

Alvin "Bo" McMillin was Kentucky's first college sports mega-star.

McMillin was the quarterback at Centre College (1917-21) during an era when the tiny Danville school was, improbably, a major-college football power. "Bo McMillin was Centre's Tim Tebow," said current Colonels football coach Andy Frye.

From 1917-21, Centre went 38-4 with wins over teams such as Indiana, West Virginia, Virginia and the school now known as the University of Kentucky.

On Oct. 29, 1921, McMillin scored a touchdown — against Harvard, of all people — that even now remains arguably the most significant TD ever registered by a Kentucky college football player.

As funny as this sounds, Harvard in 1921 was to college football what Alabama is now. The Crimson had not lost a game for five years. They had never lost to a team from outside the East.

That changed, however, after McMillin's dramatic 31-yard, cut-back TD run proved the only score in what became a 6-0 Centre win.

The victory by the Prayin' Colonels produced a wave of euphoria in Kentucky. A man named Edwin P. Morrow intoned that "I'd rather be Bo McMillin at this moment than the governor of Kentucky."

Giving that statement poignancy was the fact that, at the time, Edwin P. Morrow was the governor of Kentucky.

Fifty years after McMillin's heroics, The New York Times in 1971 proclaimed that Centre 6, Harvard 0 was "college football's upset of the century."

Yet, some how, the decades passed one after one and McMillin — a three-time Walter Camp All-American — was never enshrined in the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame. The coach of his Centre teams, Charles "Uncle Charley" Moran, was inducted in 1963.

But no Bo.

"As I understand it, it's been a misunderstanding," says Dick Gabriel, the Lexington sports broadcaster who is chairman of the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame nominating committee. "Everyone sort of assumed (McMillin) had been in much earlier. When it was called to our attention (that he wasn't), we sort of checked our rolls and realized, no, he was not in. We've sought to rectify that."

(In the interest of disclosure, my Herald-Leader colleague Jennifer Smith and I are among those who serve on the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame nominating committee).

On Thursday night, 61 years after Bo McMillin's 1952 death, 92 years since his touchdown did in Harvard, he will at last go into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.

"It's about time," said Fleurette Benckart.

A 90-year-old woman in Bloomington, Ind., Benckart carries a special interest in Bo McMillin's legacy, being that she is the Centre legend's oldest child.

Connection to history

As the story goes, Bo essentially supported himself at Centre by shooting craps. Benckart laughs when asked if that is true.

"If you read John Y. Brown Sr.'s book, The Legend of the Praying Colonels, it says Daddy pretty much broke every gambler in that area," she says. "I don't have any reason to think that's not true."

When McMillin and his first wife, the former Maude Marie Miers, had their only child, the doctor is said to have looked at the new-born little girl and then told the former football star, "You have a little Bo Peep, not a little Bo."

To this day, Benckart's nickname is "Bo Peep."

After his playing days at Centre were over, Bo McMillin stayed in football as a head coach. At Centenary (La.), Geneva (Pa.), Kansas State and Indiana, he combined to go 142-77-13 overall with a winning mark at all four schools.

Benckart's mom died in 1926. Her dad was remarried, to Kathryn Gillihan, in 1930. With his second wife, Bo had four more children.

At Indiana (1934-47), McMillin led the Hoosiers to an outright Big Ten football championship (1945) and remains the most recent IU football coach to compile an overall winning record (63-48-11) at the school.

Benckart has vivid memories of visiting Kentucky with her father. "Daddy didn't talk much about his days at Centre, at least not to me," she said. "But in Danville or even in Lexington, he could not walk down the streets without being recognized.

"One time we were in Lexington and ran into — what was that politician's name, Happy Chandler? We ran into Happy Chandler and he and Daddy had a big time. They were great buddies, great friends."

Today, Benckart has four children, five grandchildren and one great-grand child. Three of her siblings are still alive. She frets, however, that the memory of her dad's achievements is being lost.

"For most of my life, being Bo McMillin's daughter was a big deal. It impressed people," she said. "Now, he's been gone so long, if I say I'm Bo McMillin's daughter, I just get a lot of blank stares."

On Thursday night, the sports Hall of Fame in the state where being Bo McMillin was once better than being governor will, at long last, do its part to make sure McMillin's Centre exploits are not forgotten.

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