World War II affected all aspects of everyday life in the United States. College football certainly was not exempt. The most obvious change was on the quality of play, as many players left school to fulfill military obligations. Some schools lost so many players that they suspended the sport until the world-wide conflict was over.
A Navy training program called “V-12” was another initiative that had a great impact on rosters. The V-12 Navy College Training Program was designed to produce officers to supplement the officers created at Annapolis. The program was hosted at 131 colleges and universities all over the country.
Obviously, not every school had this program, so if a student had an interest in entering the program it is likely that he would be required to transfer to another school. The schools students were assigned to varied as to what type of training was offered. But for most students, the school you were assigned to was determined by what school you came from, and for some, where your name fell in the alphabet.
For example: Wisconsin did not have a program, so their players were sent to Michigan. The Wolverines received so many Wisconsin players due to V-12 that Hall of Famer Elroy Hirsch and his Wisconsin teammates were called, “The Lend-Lease Badgers.” The name came from the war-time Lend-Lease program of lending materials to the Allies in exchange for leases on foreign military bases once the war was over.
Another example: All Illini football players who wanted to pursue V-12 training would be assigned to either Purdue or Notre Dame. If your name fell in the first half of the alphabet like Hall of Famer Alex Agasee or All-America Tony Butkovich you became a Boilermaker. However, if it fell in the last half of the alphabet like halfback Julie Rykovich you became a member of the Fighting Irish.
In fact, many credit the Navy V-7 and V-12 programs with saving Notre Dame during World War II. Without the 1,800 Navy training students enrolled in 1943, the school may have had to close its doors. Those V-12 players helped lead ND to a national title in 1943 as well.
The effect on football was dramatic. If a school did not have the V-12 program they lost players. If the school hosted the training, they gained many players from rival schools. In 1942, Purdue was 1-8. With V-12 players on the roster, they were undefeated in 1943. Illinois had a 6-4 team in 1942, but with all their best players now at Purdue or Notre Dame they went 3-7 in 1943. Wisconsin finished 1942 as the nation’s #3 team, but with four or five starters at Michigan the next year they went 1-9 in 1943. The Badger-laden Wolverines in 1943 went 8-1 and beat what was left of the Badgers 27-0.
It also helped some previously unknowns enter the big time. Louisiana Lafayette (at the time Southwest Louisiana Institute) was far from a major school in the 1940’s but with Rice Hall of Famer Weldon Humble and LSU All-America and future major leaguer Alvin Dark on the team, they went 5-0-1 winning the Oil Bowl. Their opponent was Arkansas-Monticello (then Arkansas A&M). The Weevils entered the game 5-1-1 having beaten Arkansas, where in fact many of their players came from. Colorado College was another smaller school that went big due to the V-12 program. The undefeated Tigers beat Colorado twice, New Mexico and Utah.
Once the war was over, those players with eligibility remaining re-entered the school where they started their academic career as America and college football returned to post-war normalcy.