Today's Tidbit... When Air Force Football Reached New Heights
Now and then, a college team that has been an afterthought or moved up a level emerges and has success beyond expectations. James Madison is the latest example, as they went 11-2 and won the Sun Belt East Division this year after moving up from FCS the previous year. Another team that hit great heights was the 1959 Air Force Academy team, which made the Cotton Bowl during the school's fourth year of operation.
The Air Force was part of the Army from the early days of flight until 1947, when it separated into a distinct Armed Services branch.
Following the separation, former Army Air Fields became Air Force Bases, and Air Force personnel transitioned to wearing blue uniforms. While those changes occurred, they made plans for an Air Force Academy modeled after West Point and Annapolis.
The Air Force Academy enrolled its first class in 1955. Housed in temporary facilities at Lowry AFB outside of Denver, they remained there through the 1957-58 academic year as others built the campus in Colorado Springs. The situation meant the football team did not have a home stadium, so their home game locations came down to the location that made the most financial sense given the opponent.
Air Force had a freshman football team in their first year of operation and went 4-4, playing major college freshmen teams in the Rockies and Plains states.
Buck Shaw took over as coach in 1956, when they played the equivalent of a DII/FCS varsity schedule and went 6-2-1. Denver University's stadium was their home field.
They played a tougher schedule in 1957 but did not fare as well, beating or tying their lesser opponents and getting crushed by the better teams on their schedule.
Then came the magical 1958 season, the first under coach Ben Martin, a Navy graduate, who remained Air Force's head coach through 1977. Falcon Stadium would not open until 1962, so they continued playing home games at Denver.
Following a season-opening win over Detroit, the airmen remained in the Midwest to take on #8 Iowa on the first Saturday of October, where they came from behind to tie the Hawkeyes 13-13, a pattern that Falcons' fans would get used to in 1958.
The Falcons then ripped off eight straight wins, earning their first ranking after Utah nearly beat them in the last second. The following week, they beat Oklahoma State with 9 seconds left and earned a Top Ten spot after topping Denver with a field goal in the last two minutes. In their final regular-season game, they came from behind to take the lead over Colorado before stopping the Buffaloes on the 2-yard line with 16 seconds left. That left them at #8 in the polls.
Their season earned them a Cotton Bowl bid where they faced #10 TCU, a team that lost to Iowa the week before Air Force tied them. It was their first bowl game and their first game shown on television.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, neither they nor TCU soared in Dallas. On a cold day with light snow, the teams combined for fifteen fumbles and interceptions, five missed field goals, and five red zone opportunities inside that failed to score, as the magical carpet ride had a hard landing on New Year's Day.
Nevertheless, it was a remarkable feat by the Air Force Academy. For a program with challenging academic restrictions to move from playing freshmen football to playing in the Cotton Bowl three seasons later, without the benefit of a home stadium during that span and without a campus for the first three years, is quite an achievement.
Here's to the early flyboys at the Air Force Academy. May they forever reach great heights!
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