most famous Duke football team of all lost only one game—to the University
of Southern California in the 1939 Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Yet the
team accomplished a feat far more difficult and commendable: winning all nine,
regular-season games without ever being scored on.
It was after their fourth game of the season, a 6-0 victory over Georgia Tech,
that Duke was first referred to as the “Seven Iron Dukes,” by Bill
Cox, a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot. The name stuck, and the toughest defensive
team in university history eventually came to be known simply as “The
Iron Dukes.” Led by co-captains and All-Americans Dan Hill ’39
and Eric Tipton ’39, Duke recorded victories over Wake Forest, North
Carolina, Syracuse, and North Carolina State, earning a number-three ranking
as the team prepared for its final game of the regular season against Pittsburgh,
known for its high-scoring offense.
The game was held in Duke Stadium in snowy conditions before a crowd of more
than 45,000 fans. The teams were evenly matched, and there was still no score
by the end of the third quarter. The deadlocked game came down to one crucial
play in the fourth quarter, when Duke’s Willard “Bolo” Perdue ‘37
blocked a punt by Pitt’s John Chickerneo deep in Pitt territory. Perdue
recovered the ball and ran it into the end zone for a score. When “True-Toe” Tony
Ruffa ’41 converted the extra point, Duke took a 7-0 lead and held on
to it until the final horn sounded. The crowd stormed the snow-covered field
to celebrate the record-making victory. The Iron Dukes of 1938 had completed
a perfect season and became immortalized in college-football history.