“W elcome, everyone, to the second quarter of today’s great game between the Bradley Braves and the Boll Weevils from Arkansas A&M. The Weevils have possession on their own 40-yard line. Uh oh . . . wait a minute, folks! All the Arkansas boys have suddenly turned around, and now they’ve got their backs to the other team. Here’s the snap . . . holy cow! The Weevil quarterback is running the wrong way with the ball — back towards his own goal line! He’s at the 30, the 20, the 10, and — he’s been tackled at the 5 — can you believe this, ladies and gentlemen — by his own players. Boy oh boy, they don’t call this nutty Arkansas team the ‘Marx Brothers of Football’ for nothing!”
M ore than half a century ago, Arkansas A&M College in Monticello put together a motley squad of football players that made headlines wherever they went — and they went just about everywhere. A Nevada newspaper called the Boll Weevils “the most unusual team playing football in the United States today,” and a Georgia reporter said a matchup with them “was like lightning striking a rainbow.” Fans jammed stadiums to see the Weevils play — not in hopes of seeing a victory, because there were only three of those during the entire 1939, 1940, and 1941 seasons. No — what they came to see were the bizarre antics and crazy formations of a football team that played the game for the sheer fun of it, and to catch a glimpse of the quiet little coach from South Dakota who brought the Weevils to life.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Stewart Ferguson wore many hats at Arkansas A&M College (now the University of Arkansas at Monticello, about a three-hour drive from Memphis). He was the school’s dean of men, athletic director, and instructor in physical education, psychology, biology and even medieval history. Back home in South Dakota, he had played and later coached football for Dakota Wesleyan University, becoming the winningest coach in the history of that school. After earning a master’s degree from Louisiana State University he was invited to Arkansas to coach the Boll Weevils.
His first season, in 1935, was a coach’s nightmare; he lost every game. The school annual that year, ever cheerful, actually pointed to a loss as a highlight of the season: “The Boll Weevils played their best game in the annual Thanksgiving Day classic with Magnolia by holding the Muleriders to a 7-6 victory.” At the end of the year, the school president asked local citizens if they wanted to keep the new football coach. The resounding reply was “NO!” according to a manuscript written by Ferguson and filed in the college archives.
“I was disgustingly through with football,” he wrote. “The game had given me . . . the most intense worry and discouragement of my life. Just thinking about football in the spring of 1935 bored me. That fall the sound of a kicked football gave me a headache, and the smell of pigskin was putrid.”
Ferguson was retained as a teacher and administrator at the school, and a new coach was hired, who didn’t fare much better. After heavy losses in the 1936, ’37, and ’38 seasons, Arkansas A&M decided to abolish the football program, rather than pour more funds into it. But Ferguson had a better idea. Hire me back as the coach, he told the school president, and I’ll get our program back on track. But I have three stipulations: 1) I will get no pay for coaching, 2) I can coach any way I wish, and 3) I’m not required to win a single game. They gave him the job.
“Tackling? We never teach it.”
T hat autumn, Ferguson posted a typed notice on bulletin boards around the campus: Anyone who wanted to travel from New York to California should join the football team. The advertisement attracted a 38-year-old Methodist minister (who earned the nickname “El Preacho”) and the town barber; gymnasts and acrobats also joined the team. But very few bona-fide football players from local high schools, wary of the Weevils’ earlier losses, signed up.
While such a lineup — or lack of one — might dismay other coaches, it didn’t faze Ferguson. A sportswriter for the Arkansas Democrat said posting that notice pretty much ended Ferguson’s coaching duties anyway, since “this quiet little upsetter of pigskin traditions doesn’t bother much with coaching.” That’s not quite true. He offered his squad handy tips, such as: “The best way in the world to block is to step on the other guy’s toes.” The rest of it was up to them; Ferguson told a reporter, “I have no confidence in my ability to tell my boys what to do on defense, and after all, it is their responsibility.”
Somehow, the national media picked up on the coach’s new game plan for his team. In a story for Collier’s magazine, Ferguson declared, “Tackling? We never teach it — it just makes them tackle-shy. Besides, it would spoil our jersey-tackling and arm-grabbing, which are something extraordinary.” Collier’s also noted, “On the theory that a running attack needs blockers and blockers are likely to get wounded, there is no running attack.”
To save money on uniforms, Ferguson gave his players salesmen’s samples, so it wasn’t unusual to find each player wearing a different color jersey — or even wearing the same colors as the opposing team, if they felt like it. A Philadelphia sportswriter covering one of the team’s rare practices during that spring of 1939 described it “as the likes of which I have not seen outside the recreation periods of the state insane asylum.” A Little Rock reporter didn’t even see that much activity: “The Boll Weevils conducted their spring practice by jumping on the college bus and riding around the campus. There were no casualties.”
“This never failed to produce a nifty loss.”
T he 1939 season began with a game against Louisiana Tech, which the Weevils promptly lost. This was simply a warm-up for things to come, as the “Wandering Weevils” quickly honed their peculiar style of play. One of their favorite formations was the “Swinging Gate.” At the snap of the ball, the entire line, standing shoulder to shoulder, would swing around, with the center acting as a pivot. “It almost never makes any yardage,” said Collier’s, “but they love it.”
That magazine reported that another popular formation was the “Whirlwind, which consisted of the team milling around the ball carrier in ever-widening circles until the whole outfit gets so dizzy they sit down. Net gain: nothing.”
During one game, the halfback jammed the ball between his knees and hopped down the field on his hands. In another game, one of the ends flipped a complete somersault after catching a forward pass. On still another occasion, one of the backs took a handoff and seemed to be heading for a touchdown (something Ferguson tried to avoid), when he suddenly flipped the ball to a nearby referee, telling him, “Here, you carry it a while. I’m tired.”
Still, something unexpected happened that first season. The Boll Weevils actually won two games, defeating the South Dakota School of Mines 26-7 and shutting out Northwest Mississippi College 28-0. “Something must have gone wrong,” team members complained to Collier’s. In future schedules, Ferguson refused to play those schools again; they were just too incompetent.
The Weevils wandered across America in a green-and-white bus they called the Green Dog. One year alone they traveled more than 10,000 miles and visited 17 states (but no, they never played in Memphis). Because of their non-stop schedule, most of the players missed school for weeks at a time, so Ferguson taught classes along the way and arranged “educational” outings. A list compiled by the school included “visiting more than 200 colleges and universities, passing through most of the states in the Union, visiting the New York World’s Fair, talking with movie star Betty Grable, touring most of the Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields, meeting Postmaster General James A. Farley, and eating dinner with the mayor of Cleveland.” And people fretted that the players weren’t getting an education!
By this time, the national media carried tales of the Boll Weevils across the country, and dozens of teams were eager to play them. After all, they were almost guaranteed a win and a packed stadium. For the 1940 season, Ferguson selected opponents in 10 states, and the Weevils further refined their zany act. One time, playing Bradley Tech in Peoria, Illinois, the players ran plays on bicycles. In another game, the Boll Weevils marched all the way to the 3-yard line, and then made up a complicated play that involved 19 laterals, most of them backwards. When it was over, they were pushed back to their own 3. One sportswriter noted, “This never failed to produce a nifty loss.”
Certain “star” players began to attract attention. An end named Lawrence “The Stork” Lavender would often come on the field dressed in tails, scarf, top hat, and white gloves. Another player, a fellow named Bix Stillwell, regularly wandered away from the action and could be found playing drums with the other team’s marching band — still in uniform.
Once, when the Weevils accidentally scored a touchdown and had a rare chance to kick for the extra point, the kicker raced toward the football, but instead booted the guy holding it, who cartwheeled into the end zone. The referee, apparently a stickler for rules, refused to give them a point for this. And in a muddy game somewhere in Missouri, the Weevils splashed onto the field wearing rubber flippers and called signals in the huddle by quacking.
During all this commotion, Coach Ferguson could usually be found sitting up in the stands munching peanuts. The New York Post believed that “every game finds the Weevils surprising Ferguson with plays he’s never seen before, even in nightmares.” The coach himself admitted, “Much of the time I just sit back and watch, and wonder what they are going to do next.”
“We’ll trade a laugh for a touchdown any day.”
C oach Ferguson declared the 1941 Boll Weevils “my worst team yet.” He had reason to be proud, because they went on to lose every game by rather convincing margins; the final score of the game against North Texas State was 67-0. By the end of the season, opponents had run up 493 points against the Weevils’ 18 — and the Weevils weren’t happy about those 18. In one game, the Weevils yanked one of their teammates off the field because he had the audacity to make a play against the other team. In another matchup, the Weevils played with just nine players — not that it really mattered — because two of them had wandered off to the press box to serenade the crowds with their creaky rendition of “You Are My Sunshine.”
The Weevils sometimes weren’t that much worse than the other teams they played; sometimes they had to make an effort to lose. “Just when we were on the brink of the enemy goal and about to score,” halfback John Scritchfield recalled for Sports Illustrated in 1971, “we’d go into our ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’ formation. That is, the whole team would fall flat, or one of the punters would whirl and kick the ball back downfield.” Another trick was to kick the ball into the stands.
The scores didn’t matter, anyway. “We’ll trade a laugh for a touchdown any day,” said Ferguson, and The New York Times declared, “If other coaches would follow Professor Ferguson’s coaching philosophy, football might be returned to the sanity of the early days.” Collier’s said the Boll Weevils “were one of the best attractions in football.”
Not everyone agreed. Plenty of coaches thought he was making a mockery of the game. And what was the joy of winning if the other team wasn’t really playing hard — and if the crowds kept cheering for those losers? But then, maybe the Weevils weren’t the losers; as Ferguson once told a reporter, “When you play for the fun in a game, how can you lose?”
“Boy, the times we had . . .”
T he Marx Brothers of Football stayed on the field just three years. World War II pulled most of the able-bodied players from campuses across the country, and many of those men never returned. Today, almost all of the “Wandering Weevils” have died. Coach Ferguson joined the Army in 1942. After the war, he didn’t return to the little college in Monticello. Instead, he went back home to South Dakota, where he got a job coaching football — for real this time — at Deadwood High School.
Ferguson died there in 1956; he was just 55 years old. In a story that he wrote for The Saturday Evening Post, he said, “When my players talk with their children, I want them to say, ‘That Coach Ferguson was sort of a damn fool — didn’t care much whether he won or lost.’ But, boy — the times we had and the things we saw!”
Michael Finger is a senior editor of Memphis magazine. A version of this story originally appeared in our October 1993 issue.