Strange But True: The Story of Slippery Rock

Many sports fans spend their lives rooting for teams that never play on television and that people in other parts of the country have never heard of. Only one small-college team is famous nationwide: Slippery Rock

It all started in 1936. Every week the major news services picked the top ten college teams. But this season no one could decide which of the teams should be number one. Some thought it should be the University of Minnesota, others held out for the University of Pittsburgh. But one sportswriter thought the argument was foolish. To prove it, he wrote a story supporting Slippery Rock for number one. He wrote:

“The Slippery Rock Rockets defeated West Virginia. West Virginia defeated Duquesne, 2-0. Duquesne beat Pitt, 7-0. Pitt defeated Notre Dame, 26-6. Notre Dame beat Minnesota, 6-0. Therefore, Slippery Rock has to be the number-one college team in the ratings.”

The article was reprinted by newspapers all over the country, and got many laughs. Apparently readers enjoyed a story that poked fun at the big football schools and supported a small one. And they loved the name Slippery Rock. As a name for a typical small school it seemed almost too good to be true.

But there certainly was (and is) a college named Slippery Rock. It is a state college located in western Pennsylvania. According to legend, Slippery Rock got its name from a battle in 1779 between the Continental Army and the Seneca Indians.

The Senecas went on the warpath, raiding the towns and villages of the region. Then they attacked Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh). The troops were hopelessly outnumbered and had to flee. During their flight they came to a creek that had many large flat, smooth rocks at its bottom.

The soldiers, wearing heavy boots, were able to keep their footing and managed to splash across the stream. The Indians, wearing smooth moccasins, slipped and fell on the rocks, enabling the soldiers to escape. Thus the spot was named Slippery Rock.

But today, Slippery Rock means small-college football. The team never has qualified for the top ten and probably never will. But its victories and defeats are important to its local fans. Forty years after that first Slippery Rock story sportscasters dutifully announce its scores. Once, during a game at the football-crazy University of Texas, the public address announcer gave other scores during the half-time break.

When he finished, someone in the crowd shouted, “What’s the Slippery Rock score?” The cry was taken up at once. A hurried call was placed to Slippery Rock, and soon afterward came the news that the Rockets had won, which caused a mighty cheer.

In 1970, Texas announcer Wally Pryor gave the Slippery Rock score and suggested that the crowd might write to the small college and extend its congratulations over a winning season (Slippery Rock finished with a 6-3 record). Many people did write.

One letter, signed by 19 Texas students, read:

“We, the students of Texas at Austin, wish to congratulate you and your team on a successful season. We keep in touch with your progress each year and are always pleased with your success. As far as we are concerned, we would rather see Slippery Rock in the Cotton Bowl than Notre Dame!”

From The Giant Book of Strange But True Sports Stories by Howard Liss. Illustrations by Joe Mathieu.

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  1. In my admittedly brief research on the 1779 engagement between the Continental Army and the Seneca Nation, I was not able to find any account that corroborates the story above. Further, there appears to be no record of Fort Pitt needing to be evacuated during the course of the Revolutionary War. So, the use of the word “legend” is appropriate. However, I did find a number of references to a 1779 expedition by General Daniel Brodhead, in which he was ordered to terrorize and attack the local Senecas, and other tribes in the area. I managed to find a brief statement by the tribal archeologist of the Seneca Nation who stated that all their records point to the fact that the group of Senecas who were engaged by Brodhead’s force were a hunting party, not a war party, and had been surprised by the attack.

    Regarding the Slippery Rock football team, I do recall hearing their scores on occasion and always thought of this story.

    • What’s interesting about that link is that it seems to be an edited-down version of a story from SRU–and that story uses a few word-for-word passages from the Strange But True story, but there is no author associated with the SRU piece. I wonder if they lifted a bit from SBT and then expanded on it. They also tell a slightly different version of the origin story which does mention Brodhead going out to find Senecas to fight, but then being forced to retreat and escaping over the river with the slippery rocks.

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