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

Great Teams Part 2: 1951 USF Dons Undefeated Unmatched and Uninvited
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Matson followed up that performance with 249 yards against San Diego Navy Training Center in a 26-7 win. Another 26-7 win followed, this time over Santa Clara, with Matson gaining 228 yards. They were now 7 wins out of 7 with just 2 games remaining and it was certain that two more wins would get them a bowl bid. A decisive 47-14 thrashing of College of the Pacific was next and they ended with a 20-2 win over Loyola to have a perfect 9 wins out of 9 record, the first USF team to go unbeaten. They had outscored their opponents 338 to 86 and their defence had held opponents to net rushing average of just 51.66 yards per game. Matson led the nation with 1,566 yards rushing (averaging more per game than the opposing teams as a whole managed), just 4 yards short of the single season record and his 21 touchdowns was just 1 short of the record.

The team boarded the train home from Los Angeles and began a celebration that lasted until the train arrived back in San Francisco. They were certain of an invite to a bowl game. However it was announced that, despite Matson making Grantland Rice's All-America team (oddly as a defensive back), the Orange Bowl would not be offering them a bid as their schedule was too weak to deserve one. This despite the Pacific team they had mauled getting a Sun Bowl invite, they would not be going to the bowl themselves. The writing was on the wall for the football program at USF and Kuharich resigned in December to take the head coaching role at the Chicago Cardinals in the NFL. A week later it was announced by the college that this was the end of football at USF and their team was disbanded, those that had not graduated would need to find other colleges to finish their time with.

And there it might well have been over, if it was not for one small detail I omitted. The two stars of the team, Matson and Toler were black and no Southern bowl game had ever had a black player, nor would they for a few years more. The Dons were not refused a bid for a soft schedule, they were ignored because they had refused to leave out the two black players. When a team meeting was called to tell them of the condition placed on them, Bob St Clair jumped to his feet and shouted, "what the hell are they talking about! We're a team. Everybody goes or nobody goes." The team voted unanimously not to go. It was never even questioned and no one made a big deal out of it as to them it was just doing the right thing.

As a team they were too close knit to let anything come between them. Even in the early days of the team being formed they had developed a bond, so much so that their first encounters with racism, something not really seen in San Francisco, saw them pull together. When the Dons traveled to Tulsa in the 1949 season, Matson and Toler were refused entry to the hotel the team were due to stay at. So a number of the other players refused to stay there and moved across to the hotel their two team-mates were in. When, on that same trip, restaurants refused to allow blacks in, they simply kept looking until they found one the whole team could sit together in. They never refused the Orange Bowl invite as a protest or to make a point, they simply did what they felt was right because it was the right thing to do.

"Our problem was that teams like Stanford and Cal knew how good we were but there was no advantage for them in playing us. The best team we played was College of the Pacific with Eddie LeBaron, and we won 47-14. But they went to the Sun Bowl and we didn't go anywhere. But if our 1951 team had been at Notre Dame, they would still be writing books about us." - Gino Marchetti

Because the Dons just got on with it and made no big fuss about what happened, it was not until a few years later that it emerged that the official report of a soft schedule being the reasoning behind their lack of Orange Bowl invite was false. A San Francisco sportscaster called Ira Blue reported that he was personally told by Gator Bowl president Sam Wolfson that the committees for the Gator, Sugar and Orange Bowls had got together and agreed to avoid teams with "negro players". Even now the Orange Bowl deny this or that any offer was ever extended to USF but back up quarter back Bill Henneberry said: "We told them to go to hell, if Ollie and Burl didn't go, none of us were going. We walked out and that was the end of it."

Three of the team did get invites for the 1952 College All-Star game against the reigning NFL champion Rams, Matson, Marchetti and Toler. It is an indication of just how good that team was that 8 of the 33 man squad played in the NFL, though 9 were drafted, five earned Pro Bowl selections and three became Hall of Famers, the most ever from a single class. This despite there being just 12 NFL teams then and teams having much smaller roster than modern days ones. Two of the players, Gino Marchetti and Ollie Matson, were inducted into the Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility to be the only college team-mates to be inducted in the same year. And it is almost certain that Toler, the 9th player drafted, would also have earned Pro Bowl and Hall of Fame honours, but life held a different twist for him.

It was not just the players that made it to the NFL though, in fact they were not even limited to players and coaching staff as Pete Rozelle also made it to the NFL. He spent some time as general manager of the LA Rams, where, in the late 1950s, he traded nine players to get Ollie Matson. He eventually rose to the post of NFL Commissioner, which he held on to for 29 years. While Commissioner he also appointed the NFL's first ever black official, a certain Burl Toler. The year before he had hired Kuharich to be his supervisor of those officials. The Dons stuck together all through their lives.

The 'Barracuda' himself, Joe Kuharich was just 34 in 1951 when he led the Dons to their unbeaten season, but his career never again reached such heights, despite holding a number of head coaching positions in the NFL. In 15 years of coaching, with Notre Dame, Chicago Cardinals, Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles he finished just twice more with a winning record. That was probably because he was a shy, private man with no talent at all for oratory or, as USF guard Louis 'Red' Stephens put it, "he had no gift whatsoever for bull, no talent at all for salesmanship." Not for him was the 'Any Given Sunday' speeches, his voice was high-pitched and reedy and more likely to provoke giggles than inspire. What he did was inspire devotion, which was probably why, despite his struggles after leaving USF, he was awarded a 15 year contract worth $900,000 to become coach and general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1964. However the team was bought in 1969 by the mercurial Leonard Tose and he was fired. However in 1970, at the age of just 53 multiple myeloma was discovered, a particularly virulent strain of bone cancer and he was given just 30 months to live. However Kuharich refused to just take it saying: "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 that." He fought the disease with heavy medication, taking as many as 78 pills a day and managed to survive 10 years, living to see Marchetti and Matson inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame and his own induction into the USF Hall of Fame. He passed away on Super Bowl Sunday 1981 of a massive heart attack.

The one the other players considered the best of them all, Burl Toler, played in the 1952 College All-Star game, out of position at defensive end, and was looking sure to be MVP when a blind sided block shattered his knee. The Cleveland Browns still took a chance and drafted him, before trading him to Chicago Cardinals, who just happened to be coached by Kuharich, but he never reported. Toler said, "I was in the hospital for 30 days with torn ligaments. When I got out, the doctor told me, 'you have a good knee, but if you get hurt again, I might not be able to fix it that well again.'" Instead Toler returned to USF to get a master's degree in educational administration, as well as becoming a line judge, the first black official in American professional sport and the first black official in the Super Bowl.

In his first season he was officiating at a game between Colts and Packers in Milwaukee when half-time saw Marchetti, who was playing for the Colts, rush up to the rookie line judge and embrace him warmly. Toler was touched but protested, "Gino! You can't do this. What will the Packers think?" Toler notched up another first when he became the first black principal of a San Francisco middle school, the school campus has a building named in his honour. However Marchetti feels he missed his true calling, saying, "Burl Toler was our best all-round player. But, after Burl hurt his knee in the College All-Star game, he never played again. For a tall guy, he was the best tackler I've ever seen. He would've been a great outside linebacker in the NFL."

Ollie Matson, the star of the team, was not just good at running with the ball, he was also world class at running without it, and was part of the USA's track and field team in the 1952 summer Olympics in Helsinki. He won the bronze medal in the 400m and a silver medal as part of the USA's 4X400m relay team before he joined the NFL. In his 14 seasons playing in the NFL he gained a total of 12,844 all-purpose yards, despite only two of the seasons were in teams with a winning record. He also earnt a degree and teaching credentials and went into education after his retirement, coaching and teaching in public schools in Los Angeles. Spent time as head football coach at LA High and then backfield coach at San Diego State before spending 10 years as event supervisor for the Los Angeles Coliseum before he retired in January 1989.

Marchetti spent 13 years in the NFL and made a small fortune with a fast food restaurant business called Gino's, before he retired in 1983. The playboy quarterback Ed Brown also spent 13 seasons playing in the NFL, eight of them with the Chicago Bears who drafted him while he was serving in the Korean War with the US Marines. He led the NFL in passing in 1956 and was in the Pro Bowl in 1956 and 1957, but he had changed a lot and his retirement saw him live in the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon on a farm for 10 years.

Joe Scudero played for the Toronto Argonauts in 1953 making the All-Canadian Football League as a running back before playing in the NFL for six seasons, five with the Washington Redskins before a hamstring tear ended his career. Went to the 1956 Pro Bowl as a defensive back. In the offseason Scudero studied drama and acted both on TV and in Broadway plays. Eventually abandoning the theatre for politics. Bob St Clair played for 11 seasons with the 49ers as an offensive tackle and was considered one of the finest line blockers of his time, going to five Pro Bowls during his time. After retirement he also entered politics, becoming mayor of a suburb of San Francisco called Daly City.

There were also NFL careers for Louis Stephens and Ralph Thomas, as well as Mike Mergen, who joined the police on his retirement. In fact Ralph Thomas summed up the strength of this Dons team well when he said: "If you look at the talent we had, you'd be hard-pressed to find another school in the country who could match it. Nowadays you see college teams with 100 players on their rosters. We had 33 players. So to have that percentage go to the NFL really is amazing." Nearly a third of players were chosen for the NFL, an NFL with just 12 teams, not the 32 it has now, from a minor college that had to close down their football program straight afterwards. It also created lifelong bonds, bonds that have seen the team meet up every year for an annual lunch and in 2005 the team was awarded an honorary doctorate.

"What I think we should have done, 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." - Joe Scudero

To read the previous episode in the Great Teams series click HERE to read Part 1- The Lisbon Lions.

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

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