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Sports Articles: Great Teams Part 2: 1951 USF Dons Undefeated Unmatched and Uninvited page 1

Great Teams Part 2: 1951 USF Dons Undefeated Unmatched and Uninvited
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Orange But No Black: The 1951 San Francisco Dons American Football Team

The USF Dons football team was never known for being a powerhouse of the sport, the college was much more focused on basketball, and it was always a struggle to find funds to recruit players, yet somehow, for just one glorious season, they created something magical, in more ways than one. USF was a minor college, it had only around 2,000 students at the time and was shedding money on a failing football program when former Chicago Cardinals player Joe Kuharich was appointed to his first head coach role in 1948.

He took over a team with no money, the arrival of the 49ers in San Francisco had seen attendances for the local college teams drop by 80%, and he had little real interest in the recruitment side of things anyway, so he delegated that difficult task to one of his coaches, a man named Brad Lynn. Lynn had a hell of a job on his hands recruiting talent, with little in the way of inducements to offer. All he could offer was tuition, board and a room in an old military cadets barracks. That left Lynn having to take a punt on players, a couple of them had never even played the game until junior college level.

Somehow Lynn managed to bring together a squad of 33 players who became arguably the best ever at that level. There was Gino Marchetti, the war veteran, who had quit high school in 1944, his senior year, to join the army and saw action at the Battle of the Bulge aged 17. He was discharged from the army in 1946 and in his own words, spent a year just bumming around before joining his brother Angelo at Modesto Junior College in the San Joaquin Valley. It was there he got into playing football and had the build for it at 225 pounds.

When Lynn found Marchetti to pitch him a scholarship offer he was tending bar in his dad's tavern, with long flowing hair, a cigarette dangling from his lips and a beer in his hand. Marchetti was convinced to have an interview with Kuharich, and the burly biker put on his greasy jeans and black leather jacket "with 17 zippers", hopped on his Harley and rode to San Francisco for his interview. Kuharich took one look at him and aske Lynn, "where on earth did you find the big hillbilly?" However, somehow Marchetti was persuaded to give up smoking, drinking and to cut his long hair short and become a Don at the age of 25.

Ollie Matson had moved to San Francisco from Texas with his mother and twin sister Ocie when he was 13. His mother, Gertrude, wanted him to be a dentist and thought he had a better chance of becoming one on the West Coast. Ollie just wanted to be the best football player who ever lived, and he very nearly succeeded in that aim. In his senior year at San Francisco's Washington High he scored a record 17 touchdowns in 7 games. He was also a natural athlete and he set a national interscholastic record for the quarter mile (47.8 seconds) on the track. At City College of San Francisco in 1948 he set a national junior college record with 19 touchdowns in 11 games. He was someone who did have other options, but he had chosen USF because it was friendly and welcoming.

Burl Toler was walking the halls of City College one day in 1948 when somebody told him he was late for football practice. Toler told him he was not on the team and the man looked him up and down and said he was so big that he should immediately join up with the squad. He had never played competitive football before then, he had been just a water boy at high school in his native Memphis.

Quarter back Ed Brown was a different thing, he had been a sensational high school athlete in San Luis Obispo. At Hartnell Junior College he threw 22 touchdown passes and made the 1948 junior college All-America team alongside Matson and Toler. USF end Ralph Thomas said of him: "He could throw the length of the field. He could stand flat-footed and fire it 70 yards. He'd break your fingers on the short throws." But Brown had movie star looks and liked to live like one too, being particularly fond of the night life and Kuharic despaired of bringing him into line.

Joe 'Scooter' Scudero was a local kid who had been an All-City half back at Mission High, but he only weighed 155 pounds and had a terrible reputation for fighting and insolence, which had made his college prospects suspect. Scudero said that he averaged two fights a day in high school and some of those fights were with teachers! Luckily he came under the influence of the vice-president for academics, Reverend Raymond T. Feeley S.J. who acted as a calming influence and created an interest in philosophy and theology. As a sophomore playing scatback, he was selected as a future All-America by legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice.

Another local kid was Bob St Clair, who started playing football at Polytechnic High as a 5 foot 9 inch tall, 160 pound scrub and grew like a bamboo, reaching 6 foot 5 inches and 215 pounds by the time he left. Maybe some of the growth was down to his propensity for eating raw meat? By the time he was a junior at USF he was 6 foot 7 inches and 235 pounds and still growing! Brad Lynn worked hard to put together a squad of 33 but it needed moulding into a team, let alone a winning team.

Kuharich was a martinet on the training field, he was absolutely fanatical about conditioning and fundamentals, gaining the nickname 'The Barracuda' due to being so fearsome. He liked to hold training camps in Corning, California, a small town 170 miles north of San Francisco which was known for its brutal heat. One afternoon prior to the season the players were training in temperatures reaching 112 degrees Fahrenheit. They huddled together beneath telephone poles for a sliver of shade, they found a pipe with a leak and sucked out droplets of water. The suffering helped bring them together as a team. Marchetti said later, "if I put together all the miles I ran that year, I could have gone from San Francisco to New York and back again." Guard Vince Tringali said, "everything I've done since I played for that man has been easy."

There was just one more member of the team that was integral to what happened, a man named Pete Rozelle, who had graduated USF the previous year, was appointed 'athletic news director', a PR man in essence whose job was to build up interest around the team in the hopes of getting a bowl invite. There were eight bowls played in those days, and each one came with a big money payout which could keep USF's football program going. Just two years earlier another college, Santa Clara, had saved their football program by getting an Orange Bowl invite. The first thing they needed to do was ensure they got an All-American for national publicity to get their name in the running for an invite to one of those bowls. They decided to put all their eggs into one basket with Ollie Matson and make all the press releases based around his achievements in the games. Kuharich called a team meeting and announced the plan. It is a measure of his standing within the team that there was not even a murmur of disagreement, Matson was not just a standout player but extremely popular with his team-mates.

"We'd break our necks for each other." - Joe 'Scooter' Scudero

Ahead of the season starting, Kuharich had another problem to resolve, trying to get games set up, as football powerhouses of the time Stanford and California refused to face them. They had nothing to gain by facing USF and risking being beat by such a minor college, there was no way they would be persuaded to face them, so Kuharich needed to find other opponents. He ended up by playing San Jose State twice and taking two matches against teams from the services - Camp Pendleton Marines and San Diego Naval Training Center. While both teams were mainly former professional and college players, they were not a big draw for spectators, so Rozelle would have his work cut out to get people to see how good this team really was.

They opened their season in September against San Jose State at their home field, the Kezar Stadium. It was an overwhelmingly dominant performance as San Jose failed to even gain a first down until the fourth quarter. The Dons overwhelmed them and ran out 39-2 winners. Next up was an away trip to Idaho, who were duly dispatched 28-7 with Matson gaining 232 yards during the game. Camp Pendleton was similarly crushed, 26-0, at Kezar Stadium, before a return match against San Jose State, at the Spartan Stadium in San Jose followed. They proved no tougher the second time around and a 42-27 win saw the Dons stretch their perfect record to 4 games, 4 wins, scored 135 while letting in just 16 points at the other end. Now it was time for Rozelle to earn his corn as a match against Fordham, a traditional footballing college, in New York, where most of the sports media of the time were based, was next.

Before leaving early to court the sportswriters of New York, Rozelle went in to see Matson in his room. He sat down on the edge of the bed and told Matson: "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." After that he travelled to the East Coast to convince the New York writers that Matson and the Dons were something special that they needed to go and see. Just to make sure that he attended, Rozelle personally drove Grantland Rice to the game himself.

There was one thing which had been bothering him though, always nagging at him in the back of his mind was the fear that the team might suffer due to the 18 hour flight to New York they would have to undergo without any time for recovery afterwards. An apprehensive Rozelle sat down a few seats from Rice to watch the game desperately hoping that no one would let him down. So when Matson did the unthinkable straight from kick off and dropped the ball, his heart sank as he glanced along the row to see what Rice was thinking. By the time he looked back Matson had retrieved the ball on the 6 yard line and proceeded to race upfield, weave past the entire Fordham team on his way to a 94 yard touchdown return! He also produced a 90 yard touchdown return from kick off in the fourth quarter before his 3 yard touchdown run off a Brown rollout gave Dons a 32-26 win, despite the flight. Fordham had also been unbeaten prior to facing the Dons. Matson had gained 302 yards in total and Rozelle actually found himself criticised in the Herald Tribune by a sportswriter called Harold Rosenthal for not talking up Matson enough.

Great Teams Part 2: 1951 USF Dons Undefeated Unmatched and Uninvited
Great Teams Part 2: 1951 USF Dons Undefeated Unmatched and Uninvited page 2

Written by Ed001 - August 31 2018 14:44:59