HILL: Undefeated, untied and unscored-upon

A towel commemorating Duke's 1938 football season.

It was 84 years ago that a Duke University football team achieved what many considered absolutely impossible: an undefeated, untied and unscored-upon season. 

North Carolina Republicans can do the same thing in the upcoming 2023-24 legislative session. It is what Democrats did to Republicans for over a century before the 2010 GOP takeover of the NCGA. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida are getting all of the accolades for running the tables for Republicans in the 2022 election.  

North Carolina is a very close second. 

In a year when Republicans nationwide fell far short of the red tidal wave many consultants and strategists were anticipating ― some say a mini-Roe v. Wade Wave undermined such a tsunami ― North Carolina Republican campaign staff, caucus directors, pollsters and leadership should take a bow and be applauded. 

My father, Dan (Tiger) Hill Jr. was co-captain of that 1938 Iron Duke football team with Eric Tipton. Coach Wallace Wade came to Duke in 1931 after leading Alabama to three national titles in the previous decade. Wade set the high standard for the Crimson Tide football program which Bear Bryant followed in the ’60s and ’70s and Nick Saban follows today. 

Achieving perfection in anything makes it a hard act to follow. After a Friday night game at Jordan High School in Durham, Dad would ask: “Did you win?”  

“Yes, Dad, we won.” 

“Did the other team score?”  

“Yes, Dad, the other team scored. It was a basketball game.” 

“Well, if the other team never scores, you will never lose. Let me tell you about what we did in the 1938 season…” 

He had a point. If the other team never scores, the worst you can do is tie every game and end the season undefeated as well. Shutting the other team out is the best way to ensure victory. 

The 1938 Blue Devils had to stop the other team from ever scoring — their offense was horrible. They only scored 110 points in a nine-game regular season. Star halfback George McAfee, who went on to be one of the top four Chicago Bears running backs in history alongside Bronko Nagurski, Gale Sayers and Walter Payton, developed a staph infection on his foot before the season started and was sidelined until late in the year. 

After learning of McAfee’s infection, Wade told his team, all of whom played both offense and defense back in the day, “There goes 95% of our offense. If we are going to win, it will have to be with our defense.” 

Duke had a great defensive unit. And a great punter in Tipton. Duke punted the ball on first or second down many times to bottle up the opposition near their goal line and wait for them to make a mistake against the vaunted Blue Devils defense. When the Blue Devils played No. 1-ranked Pittsburgh at home on Nov. 26 in the snow with 50,000 people shivering in the cold, holding hot potatoes and drinking whiskey in flasks to stay warm, Tipton punted the ball 20 times with seven punts going out of bounds inside the Pitt 10-yard line and seven more between the 10- and 20-yard lines. Bolo Perdue blocked a Pitt punt in the end zone late in the game and fell on it to secure a 7-0 victory and a trip to the 1939 Rose Bowl for the Blue Devils. 

The Iron Dukes won by playing to their strengths and thinking strategically. 

So have North Carolina Republicans. After losing majority control of the state Supreme Court during the campaign debacle of 2018, Democrats on the high bench gained a 6-1 majority in 2019.  Democrat justices, prodded on by former Obama AG Eric Holder and campaign attorney Marc Elias, proceeded to vastly overstep constitutional boundaries in the state and ruled against common sense laws such as photo ID. Most egregiously, they interjected themselves into what has been the sole prerogative of state legislatures since the beginning of the Republic and redrew districts that favored Democrat candidates in state and federal redistricting. 

Many warned Democrats against such judicial radicalism and told them they would rue the day they did it in the future. Now with a new 5-2 Republican majority on the state Supreme Court; a full sweep of the most recent Court of Appeals judgeships; supermajority control of the NC Senate and a one-vote-shy-of-supermajority control of the NC House, North Carolina Republicans are on the verge of accomplishing what the Iron Duke Blue Devils did in 1938: hold the opposition scoreless during the 2023-24 session.  

The only word of caution to North Carolina Republicans would be this: As monumental, unbelievable and improbable of a feat as the Iron Dukes accomplished in 1938, the University of Tennessee Volunteers football team accomplished the same undefeated, unscored-on and untied season the very next season, 1939.  The Volunteers were later defeated by the USC Trojans 14-0 in the 1940 Rose Bowl just like the Iron Dukes before them were defeated by the same USC Trojans in the last 40 seconds in the 1939 Rose Bowl, 7-3. 

Things can change in a second in sports and in politics. Never take the past as prologue. The next Rose Bowl for Republicans not only in North Carolina but everywhere is in 2024. It is the one they cannot afford to blow as they did nationwide this election.