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PIGSKIN AT PENN: A REAL-LIFE DRAMA
Joel Sayre
January 28, 1957
Wherein is told, for the first time, the full story of three agonizing football years at the University of Pennsylvania, how they came to be, and their happy ending
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January 28, 1957

Pigskin At Penn: A Real-life Drama

Wherein is told, for the first time, the full story of three agonizing football years at the University of Pennsylvania, how they came to be, and their happy ending

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In staccato, sportscaster fashion, Murray read a six-page speech. "Your petition was unfortunate," he told the players. "It left the impression that you're afraid of the 1953 schedule. We're here to help you, to try to get you off the hook in the impression you made on the general public." In the 15 years that Munger had now been head coach, nobody had ever said or written a word against any of his players without setting him ablaze. When Murray sat down, Munger sprang to his feet. "That was an unfair and unjust attack on a fine bunch of college athletes," he said. "The boys' courage shouldn't be questioned. 'Off the hook' could be applied more to our athletic authorities."

What was said at this harmony dinner was supposed to remain within the four walls, but a few days later a man who gave the name of " Jim Brown" phoned the Philadelphia offices of the Associated Press and the United Press and told them that copies of Murray's speech could be obtained at the reception desk of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. This turned out to be true, and the turmoil that followed shook the firmament over Pennsylvania. Somebody had run off a hundred copies of the speech on the mimeograph in Murray's office. Nobody ever found who did it or learned who " Jim Brown" was. Murray was fired in May; the remainder of his five-year contract was bought up. A week later Munger resigned, but then reconsidered and agreed to coach through the suicide schedule to give Penn time to recoup for the future. Nineteen-fifty-three was his first losing season in 16 years. Since his retirement he has been director of physical education, which at Penn is not a nexus of gut courses for football players but concerns itself chiefly with intramural sports. In his epitaph for Victory with Honor, Joe Williams wrote: "At no time has Murray been guilty of more than carrying messages for the boss.... As an educator Stassen will be remembered as the midwestern bull who wrecked Penn's football china shop and brought humiliation to two old campus heroes."

Professor Gaylord Harnwell, chairman of the physics department, succeeded Stassen as president of the university. A scientist of eminence, ruggedly built, handsome, poised, independently wealthy, he turned out to be an excellent administrator. He was one of the eight who signed the Ivy Group Presidents' Agreement of 1954, of which Article II reads: "The Group reaffirms the principle that in each institution the academic authorities should control athletics." Franny Murray, who had managed to get himself in trouble with both the Ivy League and the NCAA by campaigning for unrestricted televising of college football, was replaced as athletic director by Jeremiah Ford II. Besides playing football at Penn in the early 1930s, Ford had got straight A's in English and in his senior year had received the award for "that member of the class who most closely approaches the ideal Pennsylvania athlete." When summoned back to his university, he was in the Navy after having coached football and taught English at St. George's School, Newport, R.I.

The intercollegiate sports philosophy of Harnwell and Ford was completely opposite to what it had been under Stassen and Murray. But the dead hand of Victory with Honor still had a grip on Penn football: thanks to the big dreams of the previous administration, Notre Dame and Army had to be played twice and Duke once. Neither the 1954 nor the 1955 schedules were as lethal as the one Munger had had to play in 1953, but they both needed a powerhouse team to cope with them creditably, and Penn by now had simply run out of power. Its available material was shallow and mostly inexperienced. No major head coach in his senses would have staked his reputation on the job George Munger had left open; it was a rash undertaking even for an aspirant.

There are daredevils, though, in every calling. Steve Sebo, then backfield coach at Michigan State, that year's Rose Bowl winner over UCLA, signed up for the job. Sebo had helped to develop MSU's multiple offense, but his own prize development was its celebrated pony backfield—LeRoy Bolden, Evan Slonac, Tom Yewcic and Billy Wells (now with the Redskins)—which brought such pain to UCLA coach Red Sanders.

Sebo has seen and been connected with so much football at its very best that it virtually gives him physical pain to see it when it is bad—which is why so many candid snapshots taken of him during games at Franklin Field make him look as though he were having an acute bilious attack.

Athletic Director Jerry Ford had warned Sebo that in the Ivy group, with athletic scholarships barred and tougher academic standards imposed, he could never be sure of the material he would find available. As spring practice was still taboo, Sebo didn't even meet his 1954 players until they turned up that September at the training camp.

Sebo had about 200 multiple-offense plays in his repertoire; the squad at the training camp had been trained in Munger's single wing. There were just 23 days to get them ready for Duke. It wasn't enough days. Duke started Sebo off in his head-coaching career with that 52-0 walloping, and the 19-game losing streak commenced. During the whole of that wholly miserable experience, Steve Sebo never once whined, moaned, complained of his fate or tried to alibi, and he never mounted the stump to say, "How can I win with such material?"

Every Saturday during the 19-game losing streak, the womenfolk of the Penn coaches and players gathered in a group outside the training house to wait for their loved ones. These ladies got to be well acquainted with each other and would pass the time conversing over commonplaces, always carefully avoiding the mention of football in general and that afternoon's misery in particular. ("We're so worried about our canary. He won't touch his birdseed.") They were like neighborhood friends of the deceased's family at a wake, trying to think of something else to say that would at least not contribute to the common gloom.

But the sun finally did come out for the coaches' and players' wives, their husbands, Steve Sebo and Penn. The bulk of Penn's squad last year was made up of sophomores from the first group of football talent that Sebo had been able to recruit himself; there was power among them, but they lacked experience and finesse. In the season-opener Penn State's fast, clever, seasoned team faked Penn's green sophomores out of their hip pads and won 34-0 without getting up a sweat. A few days later a deputation of editors from the undergraduate Daily Pennsylvanian called on Jerry Ford and told him they were going to start an attack against Sebo. (In 1955 the D.P. had endorsed Sebo and sympathized with his problems.) Ford persuaded the editors to hold their thunder at least until after the Dartmouth game the following Saturday.

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