A two-game series in Cuba against local athletic clubs. Two days of rest in between. A shutout and then a game forfeited in controversy, resulting in the arrest of an American head football coach. An escape back to the United States aboard a steamship that branded the coach a possible fugitive.
Preparation for Florida’s 43rd bowl appearance — against Iowa in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 2 — is underway. But unless the bowl in Tampa ends with Jim McElwain under arrest, Florida’s postseason appearance in Havana 104 years ago will remain the strangest bowl in college football history.
A bowl, after the fact
The first game of Florida’s two-game series in Havana — against Vedado Tennis Club — is listed as the “Bacardi Bowl” in the team’s official records. In reality, it was simply an exhibition game.
“Sportswriters and university administrators in the United States introduced that designation for the games after the fact,” writes Michael T. Wood, “in part to augment their programs’ bowl legacies.”
Wood is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History and Geography at TCU, and also teaches sports-related courses at the University of Alabama’s Department of American Studies. His dissertation is “American Football and Cuba: An Analysis of International Gridiron Clashes Between the U.S. South and and Havana, 1907-1933.”
To prove his point about the Bacardi Bowl not being an actual bowl, there’s no mention of the games with that designation in the 1913 Seminole, the University of Florida’s yearbook.
If anyone is the nation’s pre-eminent expert on American-Cuban football games, it’s Wood. Last year, he wrote an article for the Florida Historical Quarterly titled “Gators Making Merry in Cuba: The University of Florida Football Team in Havana, December 1912.”
His article is not yet available online, but the Florida Historical Quarterly graciously sent a digital copy to SEC Country.
An international incident
Florida was the fourth American college football team to travel to Cuba for exhibition games. The first game was a 56-0 LSU win against the University of Havana on Christmas Day, 1907. Three years later, Tulane lost to the Cuban Athletic Club. On Jan. 1, 1912, Mississippi A&M (now Mississippi State) beat the Cuban Athletic Club, 12-0.
The following December, it was Florida’s turn. In 1911, the Gators went undefeated at 5-0-1, still the program’s only undefeated season. In 1912, Florida went from being an independent to joining the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which contained many of the schools that would eventually become the SEC. Head coach George E. Pyle (also the basketball coach) entered his fourth year in that position with a 19-2-2 overall record, including the undefeated mark in the previous season.
MORE FROM MICHAEL WOOD: LSU played college football’s first international postseason game in 1907
The team struggled somewhat in its first year in the SIAA, going 3-2-1. It lost to Auburn and Georgia Tech, winning games against South Carolina, College of Charleston and Stetson. The tie came against Mercer in Jacksonville in a scoreless regular season finale on Nov. 28.
Florida played a “nonconference” game against the Tampa Athletic Club (winning 44-0) and then left for Cuba by ship on Dec. 21. On Christmas Day, the Gators shut out the Vedado Tennis Club. The score was either 27-0 or 28-0 — there are discrepancies online. The 1913 Seminole lists it as a 27-0 win, but the most recent Florida media guide lists a 28-0 victory. On Dec. 28, the Gators were set for the final game of the series, against the Cuban Athletic Club of Havana.
The specifics of what happened during the game are vague, for the most part, but a dispatch from the New York Times describes the outcome as a “Football row in Havana.”
Wood’s account of what happened that led to that football row is much more specific:
“The ‘Gators’ coach spent most of the first period arguing with the referees over holding penalties called against his squad and their failure to call or fully enforce penalties against the home squad,” Wood writes. “The contentious situation reached a climax when the referees penalized the C.A.C. five yards instead of the mandatory 15 yards for illegally pushing or pulling the ball carrier on offense.”
A Tampa Bay Times article from 2006 says Pyle refused to continue play “citing excessive penalties against the team.”
The Florida Gators Football Vault by Norm Carlson says that Pyle discovered the referee in question was the former coach of the Cuban Athletic Club.
Cuban authorities arrested Pyle at the game for violating a Cuban law “forbidding the suspension of a game for which gate money has been charged.”
The fallout from Pyle’s dispute with the referees escalated quickly, writes Wood.
“From there the game devolved into a near riot, including a brief melee involving the two teams and some of the spectators. Cuban police restored order and arrested Pyle …,” Wood wrote.
Florida’s official athletic website, FloridaGators.com, says that Pyle was then “taken to a Cuban judge and ordered to take his team and get out of town before he put them in jail.”
In his article for the Florida Historical Quarterly, Wood says Pyle and his team “slipped back to the United States” after his release. He also explains the difference in how the event was covered by Cuban newspapers, saying La Lucha used a headline that “literally translates to “The Ducks Backed Out” but contained a word that is considered a slur in certain Latin American countries. Wood also explains that the same newspaper said the C.A.C. team “forced the visitors to quit and the opposing coach used the argument over rules as a pretext to end the game instead of suffering an inevitable defeat …”
Meanwhile, The 1913 Seminole offered a bit more light-hearted view of what went down:
“The game with the Cuban Athletic Club was unfortunately called to a close in the latter part of the second quarter on account of the lack of football knowledge on the part of the Cuban team officials, the score up to that time being 0 to 0.
“For further information about Cuba, see coach Pyle.”
Whether Pyle was officially deemed a fugitive by the Cuban government is certainly up for debate, but one thing that is true from the reporting is that the event did engender “much ill feeling” and it ALMOST ended the series.
An American team wouldn’t return for an exhibition game in Havana until 1921. That year, the Cuban Athletic Club got some revenge.
It beat Ole Miss, 12-0.
Pyle’s possible international fugitive status didn’t seem to dampen his career. He left Florida after the 1913 season with a 26-7-3 career record. He became the athletic director at West Virginia, a position he held until 1917.