Though they may hold the nation’s top spot this year, the golden era of Mississippi State football came between 1939 -1942 when Hall of Fame coach Allyn McKeen led the Maroon (they did not become the Bulldogs until 1961) to a 34-5-2 record, four wins over rival Ole Miss, three top-20 finishes, one undefeated season, a victory in the Orange Bowl and the school’s only SEC Championship (1941).
McKeen came to Starkville in 1939 from West Tennessee State Normal School, what is now known as the University of Memphis. The former Tennessee player spent two years with the Tigers with his final team going undefeated. The MSU job became available after numerous players from the 1938 team told the school’s athletic director they would no longer play for coach Spike Nelson due to his heavy scrimmages and aloof attitude.
While McKeen also was a disciplinarian, he was highly respected by his players. He also assembled a great staff that included Bowden Wyatt, a future Hall of Fame coach, and Murray Warmath, who would go on to lead Minnesota to a national championship in 1960.
His first big win at Mississippi State was a 15-12 victory over LSU in 1939, the schools’ first win over the Tigers in 10 years. In 1940, the Maroon were tied by Auburn in the season’s third game and then ran off eight consecutive wins to complete a 10-0-1 season. Mississippi State blanked No. 11 Ole Miss 19-0 in what was the largest crowd ever to witness a football game in the state. Another shutout followed the following week when they knocked off No. 17 Alabama 13-0. Now ranked No. 9, Mississippi State was invited to the Orange Bowl to face No. 13 Georgetown. A blocked Hoya punt resulted in the game’s first score and when Billy Jefferson scored to open the second quarter, the Maroon had the game winner in a 14-7 victory.
The 1941 SEC champs had a 4-0-1 league mark with a 0-0 tie with LSU as the only conference blemish. Oddly, two of the biggest games of the season came against schools that are no longer thought of in today’s college football world. Mississippi State’s only loss came against an unbeaten Duquesne team and the season final game was a road win against San Francisco.
Kent Stephens is the curator and historian at the College Football Hall of Fame and Chick-fil-A Fan Experience. Kent has been a part of the Hall staff since 1990 when it was located in Kings Island, Ohio. He relocated with the Hall to South Bend, Ind., and moved to Atlanta in 2013, becoming the only member of the staff to serve at all three locations.