It was a season marked by extreme irony. Here was a football team from a basketball school finishing unbeaten and untied. And yet if it had lost every game, its season could not ultimately have been more disastrous. It is a team ignored by history, never mentioned among the legends—the Four Horsemen, the Seven Blocks of Granite, Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside. Still, it is possible that there never was a better college football team than the University of San Francisco Dons of 1951. Eight players stepped right into the NFL—it would have been nine, but one, perhaps the best of the bunch, was injured so severely in the 1952 College All-Star Game that he never played again. Because most of the Dons played both offense and defense, virtually the entire starting lineup moved en masse into the big time. And this was when competition for jobs in the NFL, with only 12 teams and smaller rosters, was much more fierce than it is today. But that's not all. Five of those eight players were selected during their careers to play in the Pro Bowl. And with the induction of Bob St. Clair last August, three of those five have made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the most ever from a single college team. The other two, Ollie Matson and Gino Marchetti, were inducted into the Hall in the same year—1972, their first year of eligibility—to become the only college teammates so honored by the pros.
But there's more. The player whose career was cut short by the All-Star Game injury still made it to the NFL; his last season was Burl Toler's 25th as a league official. The coach of that USF team, Joe Kuharich, though he never again approached the success of that singular season, still put in 11 years in the pros as head coach of three different teams. And the Dons' "athletic-news director," Pete Rozelle, who had been graduated from USF only the year before, also did pretty well for himself in the NFL. He retired a year ago after serving 29 years as the league's commissioner.
All of these stars stepped off a campus that in 1951 had a daytime all-male undergraduate enrollment of 1,276. This Jesuit institution was better known, then and now, for its basketball teams. The basketball team had won the National Invitational Tournament in Madison Square Garden in 1949, and the Bill Russell—K.C. Jones NCAA championship teams would come along in 1955 and '56. But football at USF had long been an afterthought. Making matters worse was the fact that Kuharich—34 in 1951, his fourth year as the USF football coach—was an indifferent recruiter who largely delegated that responsibility to his freshman coach, Brad Lynn. And Lynn had little to offer prospective players in the way of scholarship inducements beyond tuition, board and room (in an old ROTC barracks). Only a handful of players from that 1951 team had been considered blue-ribbon prospects in high school. Two of the team's best players, Toler and guard Louis (Red) Stephens, had not even played high school football. Future Hall of Famer Marchetti was a high school dropout who had played only sparingly when he was in school.
The USF job was Kuharich's first as a head coach. He was a Notre Dame man through and through, born in South Bend and a star guard for the Irish from 1935 through '37. He had played pro ball with the Chicago Cardinals before the war and had been an assistant to Jock Sutherland with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1946. Kuharich was a martinet on the practice field, a veritable fanatic about conditioning and fundamentals, but he was a shy, reticent and private man away from football. And despite the Notre Dame background, he was no Rockne as a halftime orator; his high-pitched, reedy voice was more likely to provoke chuckles than any urge to do or die. "He had no gift whatsoever for bull, no talent at all for salesmanship," says Stephens, who played for him at USF and, later, with the Washington Redskins. What Kuharich did have a gift for was instilling in his players an enduring sense of loyalty, both to him and to each other. And he returned that loyalty with all his heart. A Kuharich-coached team in the NFL could be counted on to have three or more USF alumni in the lineup. When he took a sabbatical from the league in 1959 to coach at his alma mater, he brought three former Dons-Stephens, halfback Joe (Scooter) Scudero and All-Pro Dick Stanfel from his 1950 squad—with him as assistants.
There was no sibling rivalry in the brotherhood Kuharich fathered. "We'd break our necks for each other," says Scudero. Largely ignored as collegians, the Dons clung together in fraternal bond for the remainder of their subsequently more illustrious careers. When Rozelle, their publicist, became general manager of the Los Angeles Rams in the late 1950s, he traded nine players to the Cardinals for one USF man, the great running back Ollie Matson. In 1964, as commissioner of the NFL, Rozelle hired Kuharich as his supervisor of officials, and in 1965 he made Toler the league's first black official. For a decade or more, it was a rare NFL game that didn't involve several USF alumni. Once, at halftime of a Colts-Packers game in Milwaukee, the Colts' Marchetti rushed up to rookie line judge Toler and held him in a warm embrace. Toler was touched by the gesture but was at the same time conscious of a possible breach in decorum. "Gino," he protested, "you can't do this. What will the Packers think?"
The year 1951 was a grand time to be young in San Francisco. The natural beauty of the harbor was still unobstructed by the skyscrapers that would soon rise to rival the hills. It was a place where eating, drinking and dressing-up were considered art forms. It was a theater town, a musical town. An enterprising college kid could find jazz joints—Bop City, the Longbar—that stayed open all night long.
The University of San Francisco looked serenely down upon all this commotion from Ignatian Heights, midway between the ocean and the Bay. The Jesuits, justly proud of their academic tradition, have historically been adept at keeping athletics in perspective at USF. The Reverend John LoSchiavo, S.J., was a philosophy instructor on campus in 1951 when football was, ever so briefly, king. As president of the university 32 years later, he would suspend the basketball program for three years when it was caught up in NCAA violations. No sport on such a campus is immune from sanctions.
And in 1951, football at USF was in deep financial difficulty. The sport was losing approximately $70,000 a year, a deficit the Jesuits could not long endure. Football had already become much too expensive a luxury at another Bay Area Catholic college. St. Mary's, whose teams had long been nationally famous, shocked the community by dropping football after the 1950 season. Attendance at its games in Kezar Stadium had declined by nearly 80% since the arrival there of the professional 49ers in 1946.
There was also the usual competition from the Bay Area's showcase universities, California and Stanford, then football powerhouses. Cal, under coach Pappy Waldorf, sent teams to the Rose Bowl in three consecutive years, 1949 to '51, and Stanford would make it to Pasadena for the '52 game. But Cal and Stanford, which had played and beaten the 1950 USF team, were not about to risk embarrassment with the considerably stronger '51 version. Kuharich was left to come up with a patchwork schedule that included two games with one school, San Jose State, and two more with service teams, the Camp Pendleton Marines and the San Diego Naval Training Center, neither of which, though stocked with former college and pro players, was much of a drawing card. Idaho wasn't exactly a name opponent, either. In fact, the only teams on USF's schedule that year with football reputations were Fordham, Santa Clara, College of the Pacific and Loyola of Los Angeles. Fordham and Loyola had gone 8-1 in 1950, and Pacific had well-publicized players in quarterback Doug Scovil and future Chicago Bear halfback Eddie Macon.
So in reality, the 1951 season was more of a public relations challenge for the 25-year-old Rozelle than a coaching challenge for Kuharich. The problem was not so much winning games as getting people to watch them. The red ink had to be turned black. Kuharich knew he had the horses to post his third straight winning season. He had been marveling at the talent he had on hand since 1949, when the team was first brought together, but no one could have predicted how good they would become.
Marchetti had quit high school in the northern California industrial town of Antioch in 1944, his senior year, to join the Army. As it turned out, he enlisted in time to see action in the Battle of the Bulge. He was discharged in 1946 and spent the next year "just bumming around" and playing some sandlot football. He then joined his brother, Angelo, at Modesto Junior College in the San Joaquin Valley. It was there that, for the first time, he found he actually enjoyed playing football, and at 225 pounds he was getting to be pretty good at it. In the off-season Lynn, Kuharich's bird dog, tracked Marchetti down in Antioch with a scholarship offer. Marchetti was tending bar in his father's tavern, he recalls, "a cigarette dangling from my lips," when Lynn approached him. But he was enthusiastic enough to ride his motorcycle west to San Francisco for an interview with the head coach. He was dressed to the nines, he thought, in greasy jeans and a black leather jacket "with 17 zippers." Kuharich took one look at this biker and inquired of Lynn, "Where on earth did you find this big hillbilly?"
Ollie Matson had moved to San Francisco from Texas with his mother, Gertrude, and twin sister, Ocie, when he was 13. Gertrude Matson, a schoolteacher, had made up her mind that her son should become a dentist. She was convinced he had a better chance of achieving that goal on the West Coast. But Ollie had his own ambition: "I wanted to be the best football player who ever lived." He never did become a dentist, but he didn't miss that other goal by much. In his senior year at San Francisco's Washington High he scored a record 17 touchdowns in seven games, and in track he set the national interscholastic record for the quarter mile (47.8) that same year. At City College of San Francisco in 1948 he set a national junior college record by scoring 19 touchdowns in 11 games. The next season, as a sophomore at USF, he had scoring runs of 92, 80, 62, 60, 42, 40 and 15 yards. He was injured much of his junior year but still gained 747 yards. All of this was preparation for what would come in '51.
Toler hadn't played a down of competitive football when he entered college in '48. He had been a water boy at Manassas High in his native Memphis. But playing center and linebacker at City College of San Francisco, Toler became a junior college All-America. What Matson was to the Dons' offense, the 6'2", 210-pound Toler was to the defense. "I still think the best football player we had was Burl Toler," Marchetti says today.
Ed Brown came to USF with a reputation as a playboy. He had been a sensational high school athlete in San Luis Obispo, and as a quarterback at Hartnell Junior College in 1948, he threw 22 touchdown passes and joined Matson and Toler on the J.C. All-America team. "He could throw the length of the field," says a USF teammate, end Ralph Thomas. "He could stand flat-footed and fire it 70 yards. He'd break your fingers on the short throws." In his junior year at USF, Brown averaged more than 20 yards a completion, and he had only one genuine deep threat as a receiver, end Merrill Peacock. But Brown, movie-star handsome, liked the nightlife; San Francisco was the perfect outlet for his adventurous spirit, and Kuharich despaired of bringing him into line.
Scudero and St. Clair were tough kids who were playing in their hometown. Scudero had been an all-city halfback at Mission High, but he weighed only 155 pounds, and his reputation for pugnacity—"I averaged two fights a day in high school," he says—and insolence (some of those fights were with teachers) made him suspect as a college prospect. At USF he fell under the benign influence of the Reverend Raymond T. Feeley, S.J., the vice-president for academics, and became a serious student of philosophy and theology. When LoSchiavo had the temerity to give him a C in a philosophy course, Scudero sharply rebuked him: "I am not a C student. But I know you're young [the university's future president was then in his mid-20's] and you're learning, and I'm sure you won't make that mistake again." As a sophomore scatback, kick returner and demon safety, Scudero was selected as a future All-America by the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice.
St. Clair started playing football at Polytechnic High as a 5'9", 160-pound scrub and finished as a 6'5", 215-pound tackle-end who exhibited an appalling gustatory preference for raw meat. His teammates called him Geek. As a junior at USF in 1951, he was 6'7" and 235 pounds, still growing and already showing the blocking skills that would make him an All-Pro tackle for the 49ers.
Kuharich and Rozelle saw the All-America potential in several players, but they also knew that there was seldom room on All-America squads of those days for more than one player from the Pacific Coast, and that the field in 1951 already included halfback Hugh McElhenny of Washington, halfback Frank Gifford of USC and linebacker Les Richter of Cal. So they decided to put all of USF's publicity eggs in Matson's basket. Kuharich called in the other stars to advise them of this public relations strategy. He got no argument. Matson was not only the Dons' most conspicuous talent, but he was also one of the most popular players on the team. "None of us really gave a damn about All-America anyway," says Scudero. "Neither did Ollie." Matson was also indisputably one of the best running backs in football, a big man for (he time at 205 to 210 pounds, and with a world-class sprinter's speed (he had also run a 9.6 100-yard dash). And he was as tough on defense as any of the Dons. When opponents taunted him with racial epithets, Matson replied only with bruising tackles. Through Mat-son, Rozelle hoped to reap the national publicity that would, with luck, lead to the lucrative bowl invitation that could save football at USF. Hadn't nearby Santa Clara prolonged its program by beating Kentucky in the Orange Bowl two years earlier? Maybe it was not too late for the Dons.
The inconsequential schedule aside, Kuharich worked his charges as if they were playing Notre Dame every week, which, as a matter of fact, they devoutly wished they were. "If I put together all the miles I ran that year," says Marchetti now, "I could have gone from San Francisco to New York and back again."
"Everything I've done since I played for that man has been easy," says guard Vince Tringali. By the opening game the Dons were mean and ready.
San Jose went down twice, 39-2 at Kezar and 42-7 in San Jose. Matson gained 232 yards in the 28-7 win over Idaho, and Camp Pendleton fell 26-0. Fordham was next, on Oct. 20, at Downing Stadium on Randalls Island in New York City. Rozelle dropped in on Matson before leaving early for the East Coast and some advance work with the New York press. Sitting on the edge of the player's bed, he said nervously, "Ollie, if you don't do well in New York, you can forget about being an All-America. Now is the time to show people back there we've got some football players out here."
Rozelle spent the week trying to convince New York sportswriters that Mat-son and the Dons were something special. He pulled out all the stops with the 71-year-old Rice, who was then writing a widely syndicated newspaper column. Rozelle even drove Rice to the game. But the publicist was worried. The team was still recovering from the 18-hour flight from San Francisco and could not expect to be as sharp as usual. His worst fears seemed to be realized when Matson dropped the opening kickoff. Mortified, the p.r. man glanced down press row to check Rice's reaction. But Matson retrieved the ball on the six-yard line and started upheld with a quarter-miler's strides. As Rozelle sank back in relief, Matson weaved his way through the entire Fordham team for a 94-yard touchdown return. It would take another 90-yard Matson kickoff" return in the fourth quarter and his three-yard touchdown run off a Brown rollout to pull out a 32-26 win over the Rams. Matson had gained 302 yards rushing and returning kicks. The next day, Harold Rosenthal wrote in the Herald Tribune that Rozelle should have "his stripes removed" for not telling the members of the fourth estate more about this extraordinary runner.
Matson piled up 249 yards rushing against San Diego Navy Training Center and 228 against Santa Clara in identically lopsided 26-7 wins. The word was now out that if the Dons could finish their season with decisive wins over College of the Pacific and Loyola, an Orange Bowl bid awaited them.
The little hilltop campus was buzzing with anticipation. The players were supremely confident. They beat Pacific 47-14, with Matson outgaining Macon 178 yards to 80. And in the final game of the season, played in the Rose Bowl, Loyola went under 20-2. The '51 team had become the first in USF football history to finish a season undefeated. The Dons had risen from obscurity to make a name for themselves. Their big line, anchored by Marchetti, St. Clair and 248-pound right tackle Mike Mergen (a future Chicago Cardinal), had held USF's opponents to a net rushing average of 51.6 yards per game over the nine-game season. Matson had led the nation with 1,566 yards rushing, four short of Texas Mines' (now UTEP) Fred Wendt's 1948 record for a single season, and with 21 touchdowns, one shy of the 1950 record that was shared by Nebraska's Bobby Reynolds and Arizona State's Wilford White. He had made touchdown runs of 94, 90, 68, 67, 54, 53, 46 and 45 yards.
The Dons boarded Southern Pacific's Daylight train home from Los Angeles on Monday morning after the Loyola win. They were convinced to a man that a bowl bid was awaiting them back home, so the party started the moment the train pulled out of the station. Tringali on ukulele and guard Dick Colombini on accordion played endless choruses of Up a Lazy River and the team's theme song, Good Night, Irene. "They ran out of beer in there by Santa Barbara," recalls backup quarterback Bill Henneberry, then USF student-body president, now the school's director of athletic development. Even the normally reserved Kuharich joined in the revelry, raising a glass to the greatest season he would ever have.
As the party wound down, Henneberry and Matson talked. "Ollie had such a quiet emotional attachment to those guys," Henneberry remembers. "He told me he'd had offers to go to schools all over the country. He had chosen USF because no place was friendlier, no place made him feel so wanted. It was like a speech after the last battle."
The train reached the Third and Townsend Street station in San Francisco at about six o'clock that evening. "We were expecting a big crowd to meet us, but there was only a handful of people on the platform," says Henneberry. "We wondered why there weren't more there to share in our jubilation." And then, as they stepped off the train, they heard the devastating news: Georgia Tech and Baylor' would be playing in the Orange Bowl. All of the major bowls, except the Rose and the Sun, in El Paso, would entertain Southern teams only. Pacific, trounced by the Dons, would go to the Sun Bowl. "You could've heard a pin drop in that station," says Matson.
The announced reason for rejecting USF was its soft schedule. But San Francisco sportscaster Ira Blue reported that he was told by Gator Bowl president Sam Wolfson that the Gator, Sugar and Orange Bowl committees had all decided to avoid teams with "Negro" players. There was an intimation that had the Dons been willing to play without Matson and Toler, they might have been extended a bid. That was out of the question. "What I think we should've done," says Scudero, "is send Ollie and Burl to one of those bowls and leave the rest of us home. Hell, the two of them could've beaten most of those Southern schools by themselves."
The season had ended in noble failure, but there was at least one compensation: Matson did make Grantland Rice's Look Magazine All-America team. He made it as a defensive back, a curious distinction for the nation's leading rusher and scorer.
In early December, Kuharich, sensing the inevitable, resigned to accept the head coaching job of the NFL Chicago Cardinals. On Dec. 30, the Reverend William J. Dunne, S.J., president of the university, issued the melancholy announcement: "It is my unpleasant task to inform you of the withdrawal of the University of San Francisco from participation in intercollegiate football.... The efficiency of academic processes is our primary obligation. Present world conditions have created an abnormal strain on the resources of private colleges and universities.... To maintain, therefore, an extracurricular activity such as football...under present conditions, would be financially imprudent...."
The school's best football team was to be its last. "Time did what no opponent could do," wrote editor Walt Johnson in the school newspaper, The Foghorn.
But this was hardly the end for the players. Matson, Marchetti and Toler were all invited to play in the 1952 College All-Star Game, against the NFL-champion Rams. Matson arrived for the game fresh from the Olympic Games in Helsinki, where he had won a silver medal, in the 1,600-meter relay and a bronze in the 400 meters. Toler, playing out of position at defensive end, was on his way to becoming the All-Star squad's Most Valuable Player when, in the fourth quarter, his right knee was shattered by a blind-side block. He had been drafted by the Browns, then acquired by the Cardinals in a trade engineered by Kuharich. But he never reported, deciding after an operation that he would play no more football. He went back to USF and got his teaching credentials and a master's degree in educational administration. He became San Francisco's first black secondary school principal and is now the director of services for the San Francisco Community College District, responsible for some 1,100 teachers and their administrators. And he kept his hand in football with weekend duties as an NFL official.
In 14 NFL seasons, only two of them with winning teams, Mat-son gained 12,844 all-purpose yards. He also earned his degree and teaching credentials, and after his retirement from the NFL, he coached and taught in Los Angeles public schools, serving for a time as head football coach at L.A. High and, later, as a backfield coach at San Diego State. For 10 years prior to his retirement in January 1989, he was event supervisor for the Los Angeles Coliseum. Marchetti, who played 13 mostly All-Pro seasons, made a small fortune in the fast-food restaurant business—with Gino's—then retired in 1983 and is living contentedly in Wayne, Pa.
Brown played 13 years in the NFL, eight with the Chicago Bears, who drafted him while he was serving in the Marine Corps in Korea. He led the NFL in passing in 1956 and was a Pro Bowl player in '56 and '57. The once wild and crazy guy recently moved to San Luis Obispo, after 10 years of living on a farm in the serenity of the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon.
Scudero played with the Toronto Argonauts in 1953, making the All-Canadian Football League as a running back. He played six more years in the NFL, five with the Washington Redskins, before a hamstring tear ended his career. He was voted into the 1956 Pro Bowl as a defensive back. In the off-season Scudero studied drama and acted both in television and in Off-Broadway plays. He finally abandoned the theater for another performing art, politics. He is now a special assistant to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp, another old football player. He never did lose his interest in philosophy and theology, and he spent all of 1986 in prayer and contemplation at Roman Catholic retreats in Italy and California.
St. Clair played 11 years with the 49ers as a 6'9", 265-pound offensive tackle. He went to the Pro Bowl five times and was considered one of the finest line blockers of his time. Like Scudero, St. Clair entered politics after his playing days, but on a local level. He was the mayor of Daly City, a San Francisco suburb, for six years and a member of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors for eight years.
Stephens played six years as a starting guard for the Redskins, winning Honorable Mention All-Pro status in each of those seasons. Thomas played three years in the NFL, all under Kuharich, with the Cardinals and Redskins. At 178 pounds, he played both offensive and defensive end. Mergen played only one year for Kuharich, with the Cardinals, and then went into police work. At least nine members of that 1951 team became educators and coaches in college and high school.
The university prospered without football. It now has 2,617 undergraduates on adjoining hilltop campuses; more than 57% of them are women.
Kuharich was never again as successful as he was in 1951. In 15 more years of coaching he had only two winning teams—none in four years (1959-62) at Notre Dame. But in 1964 he was awarded a 15-year contract worth $900,000 to become coach and general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles. The team was bought in 1969, however, by the mercurial Leonard Tose, and Kuharich was fired. His Eagle teams had gone 28-41-1.
In 1970, when he was 53, Kuharich was discovered to have multiple myeloma, a particularly virulent bone cancer. He was given 30 months to live. Kuharich was too tough to accept that death sentence. "When someone tells me things aren't going right and that a situation is very serious and can't be solved, I can't accept it," he said. He fought the disease with heavy medication, downing as many as 78 pills a day, and those 30 months became 10 years.
He never did lose his hold on his USF players. He lived to see Marchetti and Matson inducted into the Hall of Fame, and he made one last visit to San Francisco, on Nov. 20, 1970, for his own induction into the USF Hall of Fame. The school was fighting a losing battle to keep alive a Division II football program that had been started in 1965. Tringali, who had been an enormously successful high school coach in San Francisco, was then the head man at USF, tilting at windmills with some of the determination of his old coach. But his teams would eventually lose 22 games in a row, and football would be dropped again after the '71 season, this time, presumably, forever.
Tringali, who now owns an advertising specialty business, came to hear Kuharich that night nearly 20 years ago. "We all knew Joe had cancer," he says. "And it had been a long time since I'd seen him. I remembered him as such a virile man, so, for me, this was a sad occasion. But he touched me deeply that night because, in his speech, he took the time to urge everyone to get out and support my football program. It was supposed to be his night, not mine. He didn't have to do that. I couldn't believe he'd do such a generous thing. You know, in college, I was so afraid of that man, I couldn't even get up the nerve to say hello. I'd develop a stutter just trying to talk to him. But that night, I came up to him with tears in my eyes and gave him a big hug and kiss. I don't know what came over me, but I know it felt right."
Kuharich died of a massive heart attack at age 63 on Jan. 25, 1981, Super Bowl Sunday. The Eagles, his old team, would lose the game to the Oakland Raiders 27-10. Kuharich's name will never appear on any list of great football coaches. The crowning achievement of his career is now all but forgotten, no more than a footnote in he history of a school without a continuing football tradition. And yet he knew, and his players still know, that for one season he coached one of the best damn teams ever to play his game. Maybe, when all is said and done, the best.