Erskine football photo

Erskine sells T-shirts to celebrate its 1948 football victory over Florida State (left) and its lack of football history. (Photo by Sarah Baroody)

The Florida State football team that boarded a bus for South Carolina was confident going into the second game of the season. Never mind that the Palmetto State host team was favored; the Seminoles were coming off a 30-0 victory in their season opener.

When Ken MacLean scored on a 2-yard run in the second quarter, Florida State had an early lead – and momentum.

But the Erskine College defense, as it would throughout the 1948 schedule, tightened up. An offense run by Harry Hipps was just too much for Florida State. The Flying Fleet went on to a 14-6 victory on Oct. 16.

The game wasn’t played on the Erskine campus in tiny Due West. The Flying Fleet traveled 30 miles northwest to win before a homecoming crowd of 3,500 at McCann Field in Anderson.

Nothing Florida State has done on the football field – not three national championship, Bobby Bowden’s glory years, 43 consensus All-Americans or three Heisman Trophy winners – can erase what happened 68 years ago against a school with a current enrollment of 600 students.

The 1948 score is perhaps the oddest line in the Seminoles’ record book.

Florida State is 20-9 against Clemson going into a Saturday night game against the No. 3-ranked Tigers in Tallahassee. Deion Sanders waved the Tigers down The Hill before he helped win the 1988 “Puntrooski Game” at Death Valley.

The Seminoles are 16-3 against South Carolina.

“I don’t know what it is,” Bowden once remarked about the Gamecocks. “We just always seem to beat those people.”

But long before Charlie Ward or Jameis Winston suited up for the Seminoles, Florida State went 1-1 against Erskine.

“It’s fun to talk about Florida State,” said 87-year-old Lawrence Southerland, who played in the game as a 5-8, 160-pound freshman halfback. “But the thing I get a bigger kick out of is when Erskine people say, ‘We haven’t lost a football game since 1951.’”

That’s because Erskine dropped football after the 1951 season.

The school celebrates its gridiron legacy with a pair of T-shirts sold in the campus bookstore: “Erskine Football – Undefeated since 1951” and another with the Florida State score.

“Oh, they play it up big,” said Zelda Oates, the Erskine homecoming queen in 1948.

Oates, 86, remembers being lifted up on the shoulders of Hipps and teammate Red Myers just after the game. She married another Erskine football player, Henry “Dusty” Oates, who died in 2015 after a long career as a high school coach and athletic director.

“I just remember we won,” Oates said. “Isn’t that something for a little school like us?”

Oates is as quick as any Florida State fan to note that the 1948 Seminoles were not top 25 material.

World War II vets

The Florida State College for Women changed its name to Florida State University in 1947 and 1948 marked the second season of Seminoles football.

“You can get some perspective,” Oates said, “by knowing what other Florida schools we played that same year: Tampa (now South Florida), Pensacola Naval Air Station, Rollins and Stetson.”

Erskine’s edge was quality experience. Many college football players in 1948 were veterans, some who switched colleges after serving in World War II. Erskine head coach Johnnie McMillian, who was head coach at South Carolina in 1945 and would later become head coach at The Citadel, was good at recruiting talented vets.

“Coach McMillian just had a way of getting those boys that had been in the Army to play together with some of the boys that hadn’t,” Oates said.

McMillian had a versatile quarterback and a speedy halfback, both war heroes. Hipps was a World War II Marine sergeant who served in the South Pacific. Clarence “Rabbit” Lowery won a Purple Heart while fighting in the Battle of Luzon in the Philippines.

“Harry was 200 pounds, really big for a quarterback back then,” Southerland said. “We had a tackle that was 170 and a guard that was 165. And Harry was a good passer.”

Hipps threw a touchdown pass to Lowery in the second quarter and Lowery scored on a 13-yard run in the third quarter. Bill Bryan added a pair of extra-point kicks.

That was all Erskine needed.

The Flying Fleet piled up 358 rushing yards but “superiority in the air” – a 62-32 edge – was the key to victory against Florida State, according to a Tallahassee Democrat game report.

“I was so small and I was a substitute so they sent me in as a decoy,” Southerland said. “They thought Florida State would ignore me. I was out there by myself lined up as a receiver over by the sideline. I caught a pass and we made a pretty good gain. I didn’t score but that play set up one of our touchdowns.”

Flying Fleet memories

You can say Florida State football turned the corner after the Erskine game. The Seminoles went 7-1 in 1948, losing only to Erskine a week after that season-opening 30-0 victory – over Cumberland.

Erskine went 6-4 in 1948.

Flying Fleet football was at its best between 1917 and 1921. Multi-sport star Dode Phillips led the team to wins over South Carolina (14-13 in 1917) and Clemson (13-0 in 1921). Overall, Erskine went 1-15 against the Gamecocks and 1-7 against Clemson.

The program decline came as veterans graduated after making use of the GI Bill and Erskine couldn’t afford conventional athletic scholarships.

Florida State beat Erskine, 26-7, in Tallassee in 1949 and the schools didn’t play again. Two years later, Erskine played its final football season.

Hipps became a head coach at Ridgeland High School before a long career with Exxon. He died in 2012 in Gainesville, Ga.

Lowery also dabbled in coaching before going to work for Mobil. He died in 2015 in Benton, Ill.

Myers, Erskine’s basketball coach and athletic director from 1958-1983 and a St. George native, died in 2012.

Henry and Zelda Oates settled in Due West, where Henry was the football coach at Dixie High School from 1956-1973 and athletic director for almost two decades after that. Dixie plays its football games at Henry C. Oates Athletic Stadium. 

Zelda Oates keeps busy in Due West keeping up with three children, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Southerland lives in Anderson, where he taught at Anderson College after working as a Baptist missionary and teacher in Japan. College football was a beautiful path for the son of an Easley textile mill worker who wasn’t able to make high school football games because they coincided with the second shift.

“I never would have gone to college if it hadn’t been for football,” said Southerland, one of nine children and the Erskine team captain in 1951. “That was my scholarship. My family couldn’t afford the tuition.”

The bonus was a victory over a Florida State program that would eventually beat Wofford in the 1950 Cigar Bowl, recruit Lee Corso and Burt Reynolds out of South Florida in the early 1950s, hire Bowden in 1976 and win 26 bowl games.

Erskine even has the T-shirt to prove it.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff