Syracuse University Magazine

Team for the Ages

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The 1959 Orange football squad proved unstoppable, winning the national championship and forging a bond of camaraderie that endures 50 years later

By Scott Pitoniak

A half century has passed since Syracuse University’s football team went undefeated to capture the national championship. But listening to the men who made Orange sports history that autumn, you’d think those games had been played 50 minutes rather than 50 years ago. Time may have thickened waists and thinned hair, but it clearly hasn’t dulled memories. “I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning,’’ says 1959 team captain Gerhard Schwedes ’60, chuckling. “But I can recount every last detail from that season. Whether it was Ernie Davis breaking free on that long touchdown reception in the Cotton Bowl or Gene Grabosky stuffing Penn State on that two-point conversion attempt, I can still visualize it all.’’

Achieving sports perfection definitely makes an indelible impression.

Under the Carrier Dome, at the October 3 game between South Florida and the Orange, the ’59 squad was collectively honored by the University as a “Team of Distinction’’ during the annual “LetterWinners of Distinction’’ ceremonies. “We were thrilled they decided to do it that way because each and every one of us always considered ourselves as part of a team, not as individuals,” says Al Bemiller ’61, who was a center on the offensive and defensive lines that came to be known as the “Sizeable Seven.” “From the best guy on that team to the least talented guy on that team, we believed everybody, in some way, contributed to our total success.”

Coach Ben Schwartzwalder’s ’59 club featured an abundance of talent, led by Davis ’62, who would win the Heisman Trophy as America’s top college football player two years later; the versatile Schwedes, who paced the team with 16 touchdowns; and  a gang of huge, brutish linemen who wore down opponents on both sides of the football. But team members will tell you it took more than talent, superb coaching, and a lucky bounce here and there to string together an 11-0 record, capped by a convincing 23-14 victory against second-ranked Texas at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on New Year’s Day 1960. “I think one of our biggest assets was our camaraderie,” says Bob Yates ’60, a two-way tackle. “We did everything together, on and off the field. If five guys said they were going to the movies, before you knew it, there would be 20 guys going. And if 10 guys wanted to go to a restaurant, you’d wind up with 30 guys.’’

Even after they graduated and went separate ways, their bonds remained strong. To this day, they choose a Syracuse home game to watch together every fall. This year, most all the living members attended the special weekend, which included the LetterWinners of Distinction dinner emceed by sportscaster Bob Costas ’74. “No matter where life has taken them, they’ve kept in touch,” says Pat Stark ’54, who served as an assistant coach. “They keep tabs on one another via phone calls and e-mails. If any of them has a problem, they know they won’t have to handle it alone.”

In fall 1959, they became teammates for life. A nucleus of veteran players returned from a squad that went 8-2 the previous year. And that—along with the addition of such talented newcomers as Davis and tackle John Brown ’62, up from the unbeaten freshman team—convinced Schwartzwalder and his staff they would avenge a 21-6 loss against Oklahoma at the Orange Bowl on January 1, 1959. But before pre-season workouts that August, the team’s confidence was shaken when starting quarterback Bob Thomas ‘61 suffered a severe back injury while working a summer job. Although SU had a talented but inexperienced back-up quarterback in Dave Sarette ’62, Schwartzwalder opted to shift Schwedes, a halfback, to signal-caller for the season opener against highly touted Kansas. “When Ben called me with that shocker in the summer, I told him I wanted nothing to do with the position,” Schwedes says. “But he assured me it was only temporary, that he would put me back in my old position once Sarette was ready.” Sarette proved ready by the second half of the Orange’s 35-21 victory against Kansas at Archbold Stadium, and wound up having a solid season, as SU led the nation in touchdown passes with 21.

The Orangemen pummeled their next five opponents—Maryland, Navy, Holy Cross, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh—by an average score of 38-2, setting up a battle of unbeatens against Eastern archrival Penn State on the road in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions made things interesting by blocking a punt and returning a kickoff for touchdowns. They threatened to tie the game at 20 with about six minutes remaining, but Grabosky stuffed running back Roger Kauffman on a two-point conversion attempt. The victory and SU’s dream of an unbeaten season, though, remained in jeopardy, despite Grabosky’s heroics, because Davis stepped out of bounds at his own 7-yard line on the ensuing kickoff. “The momentum clearly had shifted Penn State’s way,” Schwedes says. “But we didn’t panic. We knew we had a great line, and we knew we could move the ball down the field and run out those final six minutes.”

And that’s what they did, exerting their will and methodically moving all the way to the Nittany Lions’ 1-yard line as time expired. “Ernie and I received a lot of the credit that season, but our line was the heart and soul of the team,” Schwedes says, referring to two-way linemen Fred Mautino ’61, Gerry Skonieczki ’60, Roger Davis ’63, Bruce Tarbox ’64, Maury Youmans ’60, Yates, and Bemiller. “And as good as those guys were, our second line was nearly as good.”

SU eviscerated its next two opponents, Colgate (71-0) and Boston University (46-0), then traveled cross country to Los Angeles and trounced UCLA, 36-8, in a game that convinced national pollsters Orange football was for real. After that game, one LA sportswriter voted SU No. 1 and No. 2 in The Associated Press’s final Top 25 poll, reasoning that the ’Cuse’s second unit also was better than any other team in the country. Syracuse topped college football in six significant statistical categories that season: total offense (451 yards per game); rushing offense (313 ypg); total defense (96 ypg); rushing defense (19 ypg); scoring (39 points per game); and TD passes.

In those days, the national champion was declared before the bowl games, but the SU players and coaches realized that distinction would ring hollow if they lost the Cotton Bowl showdown with second-ranked Texas. During the first day of pre-bowl workouts, Davis severely pulled a hamstring while fooling around kicking field goals. Stark says it was touch and go whether the running back who had succeeded the legendary Jim Brown ’57 in the Orange backfield would play against Texas. But Davis healed sufficiently, and even at less than 100 percent proved too much for the Longhorns to handle. On the third play of the game, Davis ran the wrong pass route, but Schwedes still connected with him on a halfback-option pass for an 87-yard touchdown. Davis later scored on a 1-yard run, ran for a 2-point conversion, and intercepted a pass to set up another touchdown as SU defeated Texas by nine points in a game marred by fights after several Longhorn players shouted racial epithets at SU African American players John Brown and Art Baker ‘61. “It was an unfortunate and ugly thing, but guys like Maury Youmans immediately came to their defense,’’ Stark says. “We were like a family and I think that made us even closer.’’

It’s a bond that appears only to have grown stronger with the passage of time.

Scott Pitoniak ’77 is an award-winning sports columnist and author of 10 books.

You can read him at scottpitoniak.com.





Remembering Archbold Stadium

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Archbold Stadium with Lawrinson Hall in the background

While taking prospective students on a campus tour at the start of his senior year, Gordon Brookes '09 came across a display of old postcards of Syracuse University landmarks. The collection included Archbold Stadium, the school's main athletic venue before the Carrier Dome took its place in 1980. "It piqued my interest in the old stadium," says Brookes, a television-radio-film major who minored in history. "It looked pretty cool, so I decided to do some research."

The more he learned, the more intrigued he became. And before you knew it, he and Erick Ferris G'09 decided to collaborate on a documentary. Archbold Stadium: The Story of '78 focuses on the last game ever played at the concrete bowl, which hosted its first event in 1907 and, at the time it was built, was the largest poured concrete structure in the world.

 Brookes and Ferris weave clips of SU's 20-17 victory against Navy from November 11, 1978, along with archival video and photographs, as well as interviews with former players and coaches, including quarterback Bill Hurley '80, running back Joe Morris '82, flanker Art Monk  '80, offensive guard Craig Wolfley '80, and assistant coach Tom Coughlin '68, G'69. There's also an interview with Floyd Little '67, the three-time All-American who was the guest speaker during halftime ceremonies at the final game.

The DVD also features footage shot from Lawrinson Hall by then student Bruce Bertrand '82. It shows fans tearing down the goal posts and scoreboard after a Navy receiver dropped what would have been the winning touchdown as time expired.

Brookes and Ferris currently are interning for film companies in New York and Los Angeles, respectively. While copyright restrictions prevent them from selling the DVD, they screened the documentary on campus during Orange Central Weekend. "Everyone we interviewed was extremely helpful," Brookes says. "You could tell how passionate they all were about Syracuse football." -Scott Pitoniak

Photos courtesy of SU Archives