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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.