Thursday, August 25, 2011
- by B.B. Branton
College Football: The Perfect Season
(Note: The first in a series of stories on teams and their players who recorded perfect seasons in college football.)
The perfect season is special. A select few have gone undefeated, untied.
Those who were September Contenders and avoided the dubious title of October Pretenders and Saturday to Saturday, deep into the fall they came away victorious.
Each Monday, for the next three plus months a look at some of the best teams to post that perfect season.
Recounting great seasons will include the usual cast of characters – Notre Dame, Alabama, USC, Oklahoma, Nebraska – plus other storied programs from the past; Sewanee’s Iron Men of 1889 (12-0 including five wins in six days, all by shutout, all on the road), West Point national champs in the 1940s, the perfect TCU Horned Frogs in the late 1930s, the point-a-minute team of Michigan in 1901 and more.
To start the series, a look West 60 years ago at the 9-0-0 San Francisco Dons of 1951.
Here is their story.
The Jesuit School overlooking the San Francisco Bay sported a roster the fall of 1951 consisting of eight future NFL players, including three who would make the pro football hall of fame (Ollie Matson, Gino Marchetti, Bob St. Clair)– no other school before or since can make that claim – a former Notre Dame All-American for a coach, and a fresh-out-of-college public relations man who would one day govern pro football, but despite the spotless mark the Dons didn’t play on New Year’s Day.
A respectable west coast program with five winning seasons out of the past eight with one, top-20 ranking leading up to the fall of 1951, had that special season – 9-0-0 – of which most young men can only dream.
A school known for basketball success – 1949 NIT champs – and one which, before the decade was out, would claim back-to-back NCAA crowns (1955-56) with future Boston Celtics Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, the guys on the gridiron did play mostly in the shadows of nearby powers Stanford and Cal-Berkeley, but drew national acclaim more than 60 falls ago.
USF beat all comers, including a critically important road win at Fordham in New York City, to go 9-0-0, climbed to No.14 in the final Associated Press poll.
Other victims included San Jose State (twice), College of the Pacific (who would lose to Texas Tech in the Sun Bowl) Idaho, Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount, and two service teams (Camp Pendleton Marines and San Diego Naval Training Center), but stayed home on New Year’s Day while teams of lesser talent filled the college bowl schedule. Stanford and Cal-Berkeley (lost in the Rose Bowl) used their smarts to not schedule the small, but dangerous school on the hill.
The Orange Bowl committee said the Dons could play.
But, there was a catch.
Burl Toler and Matson – the two black players on the team – had to stay home.
The excitement of showcasing the perfect season on New Year’s Day turned to sadness, frustration and anger in a fleeting moment.
How dare the Orange Bowl committee or any bowl panel expect the Dons to play two men short.
“There was never any discussion whether we would play without Matson and Toler.” said lineman Ralph Thomas, a senior in 1951, who would go on earn All-Army football honors while in the service and then play with the Washington Redskins in the National Football League.
“We were a strong unit that 1951 team and it was unthinkable to play without those two guys. More than just a good bunch of football players, we formed strong friendships that have lasted a lifetime.”
60th Team Reunion
Several teammates with those lifetime friendships will make their way back to campus this fall for a 60th anniversary team reunion Sat. Oct. 8.
Former players will attend the Father "Jim" Gambastiani/Joe Kuharich Memorial & Mass at 10 a.m. in the Loyola House Chapel followed by a brunch at 11 a.m. in the Handerly Dining Room.
Ironically, the team learned of the “no invitation to a bowl game” just hours after beating Loyola Marymount that afternoon in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Thus, they made it to the granddaddy of them all, but not when it counted.
“We were not use to that type of prejudice,” said St. Clair who played home games in high school (San Francisco Poly), college and the NFL at Kezar Stadium.
“For a bowl committee to suggest we leave a couple of guys at home was an insult to us. Burl and Ollie were our brothers.”
The snub by the bowls not only hurt the players emotionally, it also was a devastating blow to the program as a whole. For without the expected big payday from a marquee bowl, the already financially strapped program had to disband for good as a major college program.
The death penalty came to USF through no fault of its own.
Good Turn of Events
But good did come to college football as a whole as wiser heads eventually prevailed and schools with black players were soon invited to bowl games.
In 2008, the Fiesta Bowl brought in several members of the ’51 Dons to be honored at the game.
At the 2006 USF graduation ceremonies, members of the 1951 team was awarded honorary doctor of humane letters degrees.
“When we were introduced and given our diplomas, members of the graduating class of 2006 and others in the audience gave us a long, standing ovation for the stand we had taken for Ollie and Burl more than a half century before,” said Thomas. “The applause brought tears to my eyes.”
“For three thousand people to stand as one and by doing so saying they stood by out decision in 1951 was priceless,” said Dick Colombini who played next to Toler on both sides of the ball.
"I played outside linebacker and Burl played in the middle and he was everywhere on defense. He was outstanding.”
NFL scouts thought so as well and Cleveland Browns jumped ahead of the other teams by drafting him as a junior in the 1951 draft. But Toler sustained a career-ending knee injury in the 1952 Chicago Charities College All-Star Game against the Los Angeles Rams at Soldier Field (Rams won 10-7).
Ironically, the Browns lost another future NFL great before he ever took the field when a trade with Washington in December 1961 brought Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis to Cleveland for veteran Bobby Mitchell.
Davis died of leukemia in 1963 and never played a down in the NFL, while Mitchell flourished as a Redskin and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983.
The Don’s Cast of Characters
Reading through the roster, longtime football fans instantly recognize the names; The trio of halls of famers are Ollie Matson and Gino Marchetti (inducted together in 1972) and St. Clair, while Dons quarterback “Hollywood handsome” Ed Brown led the Chicago Bears to the NFL’s Western Conference title in 1956 and led the league in passing (1,667 yards).
Playing both ways, St. Clair and Marchetti anchored the line on defense and offense. Brown and Matson, who won silver and bronze medals in track in the 1952 Summer Olympic Games, were keys to the offense and solid in the defensive secondary.
Brown had 846 passing yards and 11 touchdowns and Matson led the nation in rushing (1,566 yards) and scoring (21 TDs, 126 points), yet curious to some made All-America as a defensive back.
But possibly the best player on the team never played in the NFL.
An injury to Toler in the College Football All-Star game in the summer of 1952 ended his playing career but he spent 25 years in the NFL as an official.
The others who later played on Sundays were Thomas, Red Stephens, Mike Mergen and Joe Scudero.
For a school with less than 1,500 males to send eight guys to the pros from 1951 (plus two others from 1950) was impressive, but also noteworthy was that at that time there were only 12 NFL teams with 30-man rosters.
The Coach and Loyalty
Forming this talented group into a winning unit was the job of head coach Joe Kuharich.
As Moses had done a few thousand years before, the old Notre Damer from the 1930s, an All-American and All-Pro, sent his men to the desert (Corning, Calif.) to see the light, understand discipline and true loyalty and be in the best condition of their lives.
When they returned to the city for the opener – 39-2 win against San Jose on Sept. 21 – they were ready to surprise the nation.
Kuharich’s loyalty permeated to the staff as well as the players as the team’s young p.r. guy – Pete Rozelle - would climb the NFL ladder of success to become the NFL Commissioner. In 1964 he hired Kuharich as the supervisor of officials and in 1965 he appointed Toler as the league’s first black official.
“He was a great coach and we did more than show up on Saturdays and win on talent alone,” stated St. Clair.
“Coach Kuharich’s methods of training and strategy were vital to our success.”
“He was tough, but fair and he instilled in us the intangibles that were key to our success,” said Bill Henneberry who was a backup quarterback to Brown and is a member of the San Francisco Prep Hall of Fame.
“The pre-season camps in the desert in Corning were unbearable and many of us wanted to quit but didn’t,” said Marchetti who fought in the later stages in the Battle of the Bulge, would go on to a pro football hall of fame career with the Baltimore Colts.
“But after I had a shower and dinner I was fine and decided not to quit.”
The nine fallen opponents in 1951 wished they had.
“Being in the Army taught me discipline that I never would have received anywhere else,” said Marchetti who later would anchor a great Baltimore Colts defense with the likes of Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb and hall of famer Art Donovan.
“I have carried that Army discipline all throughout my life,” he stated.
A testament to Kuharich’s strict training regiment was the fact that after playing 60 minutes (offense and defense) on Saturday’s, Marchetti would head north to his hometown of Antioch on Sunday and play in a semi-pro league.
“I played under an assumed Italian name and worried more about getting hurt than about getting caught.
“It wouldn’t have been any fun to face coach Kuharich on Monday having to explain a ‘Sunday afternoon’ injury.”
The statue of limitations ran out long ago so the perfect season is safe from any NCAA investigations whether it be semi-pro ball or Kuharich’s “no water’’ policy and being oblivious to heat index.
Some believe that west coast powers Stanford and California were not on the 1951 schedule having played against Matson, St. Clair, Marchetti and Brown the previous year and knew they would be a formidable foe.
Setting The Table For 1951
More than one hit wonders, the Dons were solid in 1949 and 1950. St. Clair, Joe Scudero and Colombini were on the 1949 undefeated freshman team while the varsity went 7-3 (1949) and 7-4 (1950).
Thomas and St. Clair noted a home-and-home series with Tulsa in 1949 and 1950 as a low and high point in those three years.
“Tulsa beat us (10-0) at their place in 1949, but worse than the loss was the way their players and fans treated Matson and Toler,” said Thomas who would become Toler’s godfather when Toler became a Catholic in college.
“The prejudice was so bad that Ollie and Toler couldn’t stay in our hotel nor eat with us on the trip since they were black and the school had to find other accommodations with local black families.”
So the return game in 1950 was payback time.
“We were in great shape and played Tulsa in the season opener under the lights in Kezar Stadium and wore them out,” said St. Clair who had led San Francisco Poly High to three straight city titles playing in that same stadium.
“That was payback for the way the treated Ollie and Burl,” stated St. Clair who ironically would transfer to Tulsa for his senior year in 1952 after USF dropped football.
“Several schools were interested in me playing for them after 1951, but I would have had to sit out a year. The Missouri Valley Conference did not have that rule so I transferred to Tulsa.”
Tulsa did recover from that early season loss in 1950 to go 9-1-1 and win the Missouri Valley Conference title.
Battling through the tough times of pre-season misery in the California desert and prejudice in several forms, the 1951 Dons banded together to form one of the great teams in college football history.
The 1951 Season … 9-0-0
Sept. 21 …USF 39, San Jose State 2
Sept. 29 … USF 28, Idaho 7 (away)
Oct. 7 … USF 26, Camp Pendleton 0
Oct. 12 … USF 42, San Jose State 7 away)
Oct. 20 … USF 32, Fordham 26 (away)
Oct. 26 … USF 26, San Diego Navy 0
Nov. 4 … USF 26, Santa Clara 7
Nov. 17 … USF 47, Pacific 14
Nov. 25 … USF 20, Loyola Marymount 2 (away)
Points Scored: 276 … Points Allowed 98
Hall fo Famers, Three .. Maybe Four
Dick Stanfel, a 1950 teammate of Marchetti, Matson and St. Clair, is up for election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012. If Stanfel receives the required 80% votes, the '50 Dons will surpass the '51 USF squad as the only team in college football history to have four members of the hall of fame,
USF Dons in the NFL
Ed Brown – as one writer put it, “Hollywood handsome” … led San Luis Obispo HS to the Southern California title in 1947 … The Tigers were 9-1 in 1947 with their only loss to Tulare who had two future track greats on its roster; Bob Mathias who won Olympic decathlon gold medals in 1948, 1952 … and Sam Iness who won the Olympic gold medal in the discus in 1952 … Brown played one year of junior college at Hartnell College ... decided to attend Dan Francisco when he heard St. Clair, Matson and Marchetti were also signed up … led the Chicago Bears to the 1956 Western Division title, but lost to the New York Giants in the title game.
Gino Marchetti … left high school in senior year to join the Army and fought in latter stages at Battle of the Bulge … credits the time in the Army for learning discipline that he used in football and other areas of his life … marksmanship medal … Played on the USF defensive line with Ralph Thomas and Bob St. Clair … played for a semi-pro team on Sundays in his hometown of Antioch in the fall of ’51 under an assumed Italian name … all three played in the NFL … Marchetti was All-Pro and Inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972 with USF teammate Ollie Matson.
Ollie Matson ... 1952 Olympic silver and bronze medals in track … In 1951, led college football in scoring (21 TDs, 126 points), rushing all-purpose rushing ... but was an All-American as a defensive back … George Washington HS in San Francisco ... One year at San Francisco City College ... 1951 All-America at San Francisco ... No.3 overall pick by Chicago Cardinals … 14-year pro career with teams including the L.A. Rams and Chicago Cardinals … 1952 NFL co-Rookie of the Year … Once traded to the Rams for nine players … trade was orchestrated by former USF p.r. man and then Rams general manager Pete Rozelle … Pro Football Hall of Fame … College Football HOF.
Mike Mergen … played in 1952 for the Chicago Cardinals and his college coach Kuharich … played at Ill. Wesleyan before transferring to USF.
Joe Scudero … attended Mission HS in the Bay area … played seven years in NFL, 1954-60 … and played for coach Kuharich with Redskins in mid-1950s.
Red Stephens – Guard … started for the Washington Redskins 1955-60 … 1st team All-Pro in 1956 … rookie on Redskins 8-4 season and runner-up in NFL Eastern Division … teammate with a handful of former Dons in ’55.
Bob St. Clair … stood 5-9 as a freshman in high school … 6-5 as a senior… 6-7 in college … 6-9 in the pros … his teams were undefeated in high school (all three years), USF freshman team in ’49 and varsity in ’51 ... field at Kezar Stadium is named for him … San Franciso Prep Hall of Fame … Pro Football Hall of Fame … key blocker on offense for the San Francicso 49ers “Million Dollar Backfield” in 1956 of Y.A. Title (QB) and running backs Joe “The Jet Perry”, John Henry Johnson and Hugh McElhenny … those four, plus teammates St. Clair and Leo Nomenilli are all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame … St. Clair is nicknamed the Geek and known for eating raw meat.
Ralph Thomas – Racine (Wisc.) HS … was in line for a junior college scholarship in Iowa, but that fell through which led to a coach contacting USF … played defensive end for the Dons at 5-11, 180 pounds … the godfather to teammate Burl Toler who became a Catholic while in college … Thomas was 2x All-Army team in 1953-54 before going to the NFL … played 1952 with Chicago Cardinals and 1955-56 with the Washington Redskins … Plans to attend the Redskins all-era reunion, Nov. 5-6.
NFL Assistant Coach
Merrill Peacock … assistant coach at Chicago Cardinals ni 1952 for head coach Kuharich … All-City halfback for San Francisco Poly HS in late 1940s … SF Prep Hall of Fame … wide receiver for ’51 Dons with 5 TD receptions …
Two Don players from 1950 who went to the NFL
Dick Stanfel … a senior and key member of the 1950 USF team … is on final ballot by Pro Football Hall of Fame Seniors Committee for 2012 Hall of Fame … needs 80% of the votes to be inducted … if elected, then the 1950 Dons will have four players in the HOF … Ollie Matson, Gino Marchetti and Bob St. Clair are already in … Stanfel was a senior guard and captain on the 1950 Dons that was 7-2-1 … All-Pro with the Detroit Lions and played on Lions back-to-back championship teams in 1952-53 … Detroit MVP in 1954 … also played with the Redskins … 5x All-Pro selection … named to the NFL 1950s All-Decade Team …
Roy Barni – Gallileo HS in the Bay area … a senior running back on 1950 USF team … played five seasons in the NFL with Chicago Cardinals, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins … had 11 career interceptions.
San Francisco Prep Connection
Coach Kuharich had a good blend of talented local players to go along with a few from other parts of the state (Ed Brown, San Luis Obispo) Gino Marchetti (Antioch) plus Ralph Thomas (Racine, Wisc.)
S.F. Area High School Players
Commerce – Dick Stanfel (1950 team) (NFL)
Gallileo – Roy Barni (1950 team) (NFL
George Washington – Ollie Matson (NFL)
Mission – Joe Scudero (NFL)
Sacred Heart – Bob Henneberry
San Francisco Poly – Bob St. Clair, Merrill Peacock (both in the NFL)
Peacock, St. Clair, Matson and Henneberry are in the S.F. Prep Hall of Fame
After leading the Dons in ’51, Brown guided Camp Pendleton to the All-Marine championship in 1952 ... In ’53, Fort Ord, led by Ollie Matson, beat Brown and company for the title.
Contact B.B. Branton at email@example.com