By Dr. Ken 


One of my favorite football personalities is Lee Corso. Many HELMET HUT readers, while certainly familiar with Corso as a college football analyst and integral part of the ESPN College Game Day programming, were first made aware that Lee Corso was an outstanding collegiate football player after they read the seasonal summaries of our Florida State helmet display [ see HELMET HUT http://www.helmethut.com/College/FloridaState/FSindex.html ]. Our staff had as much fun as the international audience watching Corso don his 1955 Florida State uniform which included the authentic reproduction of his helmet that was provided to him and ESPN by HELMET HUT [ see http://helmethut.com/College/FloridaState/Corso.html ] on Game Day.


Lee Corso stood out as a quarterback and on defense


The helmet of course was beautiful and reminded fans “in the know” that Corso had overcome a modest socioeconomic background to star as a multi-sport athlete at Miami’s Andrew Jackson High School and then as the quarterback and school interception record setting defensive back of Florida State. What was also new information to many was the fact that Lee was an innovative college football coach, both as an offensive assistant and head coach, one who was influential in opening up the passing game wherever he applied his skills. He was popular with his players and fans and if nothing else, brought tremendous enthusiasm to the profession. The “wild and crazy” nature that he often if not always demonstrates on the College Game Day set is nothing new and not a television construct. Corso’s motto, admittedly borrowed from Ralph Waldo Emerson, is “Nothing was ever achieved without enthusiasm” and he applied it immediately as a coach. He was an ace recruiter as well as something of an offensive genius.


After serving his time as an assistant at Maryland and the U.S. Naval Academy, he became the head coach at the University of Louisville in 1969. Though the news did not spread far from the Louisville area, naming Corso as the Cardinals head coach produced major local demonstrations. Protestors filled the city streets, calling upon the U of L administration to hire Paulie Miller, one of the most highly respected high school coaches in the state. Miller attained his status as the head football coach of Louisville’s Bishop Flaget High School, establishing the program as their inaugural coach in 1945, winning state championships in 1949, 1952, ’58, and 1961, and developing highly successful players, with Paul Hornung and Howard Schnellenberger perhaps the best known. He coached at Flaget through 1963 and was clearly the people’s choice and on February 19, 1969, his supporters took to the streets, loudly protesting the hiring of anyone but Miller.


Paulie Miller’s supporters filled the streets of Louisville, demanding that he be named the Cardinals new head coach



Corso was a thirty-three year old unknown while Miller was a local legend. The pressure was on Corso immediately, even at Louisville where the program was typically “middle of the road” with the addition of a few nine win seasons and a few one or two win seasons under head coach Frank Camp who had held the reins from 1946 through ’68. While there had been an occasional star, like the Chicago Bears linebacker Doug Buffone, there was never a lot to cheer about or make the stadium a definitive destination on a Fall Saturday afternoon. There was pressure too from the school administration with some believing that a lack of revenue and poor attendance could soon lead to the program either cutting back to “small college” level, or being dropped completely. The message was clear, “Win and fill the seats! Do it now.”


If nothing else, Corso was immediately fun and as Sports Illustrated noted during the 1970 season, Lee “was coaching at Louisville and making a name for himself by 1) coaching good and 2) having fun, a contradiction in terms by most accepted coaching tenets.” He did a lot of fourth down gambling, literally waved the white towel from the sideline against Memphis State in a 69 – 19 blowout loss, marched a turkey onto the field for the pre-game coin toss and captain’s meeting for a Thanksgiving day clash against Tulsa, and rode an elephant through the streets of the city. He recruited well, bringing in Tom Jackson from John Adams High School in Cleveland and quarterback John Madeya who would throw for more than 4500 yards before he graduated.



Louisville QB John Madeya became a record setter under Coach Corso



Corso’s 5-4-1 mark in ’69 jumped to 8-3-1 the following season and it was obvious that his team liked their head coach and was playing hard for him and the staff. He hosted “Italian Nights” at the training table, complete with checkered tablecloths, candles, and a menu that included pasta, garlic bread, and spumoni. They enjoyed their “hip” and modernized pre-game warm up routines, eye catching enough to have the Georgia Tech staff ask for advice. Of course, Corso quipped that he would have been happier if Tech had been interested in asking for his football plays. He solicited walk-ons and was rewarded with Scott Marcus, a bearded, long-haired hippie type who was given a full scholarship for his exceptional punting ability.





Behind the antics was a lot of very good coaching. Corso’s eye for talent where others did not see it held him in good stead. Tom Jackson was listed as 5’11” and 220 pounds but according to Corso, was closer to 5’8”, perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Still, Jackson was not highly sought by other collegiate programs because he was considered to be “too small,” but Corso saw a hitting machine, a player that “had fantastic quickness” and strength and most importantly, “He just never missed. He never missed a guy. Those guys at Ohio State, Gradishar, Cousineau, and some of those others at Michigan, they were good, but this guy (Jackson) was better than any of them.” At Louisville, Jackson was a three-time All Missouri Conference selection, two-time MVC Player Of The Year, and led the team in tackles in each of his three varsity seasons, eventually having his number retired. He went on to a highly successful fourteen year career with the Denver Broncos, winning All Pro honors four times and later became a popular ESPN football analyst and commentator.


Coach Corso greets star linebacker Tom Jackson as he leaves the field. The Cardinals wore an American flag decal during a period of time when flying the flag was not popular on many college campuses


Although riding an elephant and bringing a turkey onto the field for the coin toss can be seen as gimmicks designed to attract attention and fans, Corso’s coaching knowledge, teaching ability, and dedication to old fashioned values and the fundamentals of the game were real. He affixed American flag decals to both sides of the white helmet during a time of social strife, anti-war protests, and anti-government sentiment. While often burning the country’s flag on campus was viewed as an acceptable form of protected speech and anything staunchly supporting “The Establishment” was viewed as “square,” and unacceptable by college aged students, Corso had his team display the flag as part of the uniform “to symbolize what I have been trying to teach the kids: teamwork, unity, pride, dedication, and respect.”  Whatever values Corso taught, they were accepted by his squad. The 1969 team posted a 5-4-1 record with improvement to 8-3-1, the Missouri Valley Conference Championship in ’70 and a 24-24 tie with Long Beach State in the Pasadena Bowl. 1971 produced a solid 6-3-1 result and in Corso’s final season in ’72, they rolled to a 9-1 performance, losing only to Tulsa by a margin of 28-26.


The hard work that Corso put into the Cardinals program paid off not only on the field, but in the stands. From the day he arrived in Louisville, he accepted speaking engagements anywhere and everywhere within the borders of the Bluegrass State. He was an exceptionally entertaining and informative speaker, much as he is on television and he gave everyone in attendance his all. He humorously described one early morning, pre-7 AM talk to a booster group that drew a total of four individuals, and when asked he responded, “Not four hundred, four. One, two, three, four. Gave ‘em a hell of a speech too. The whole load.” This was typical Corso, enthused, pumped up, ready to go at 110 miles per hour and from 1969 through 1972, doing it for the Louisville football program.


At that point his record as a head coach was 28-11-3 and he finished ’72 with a national ranking of eighteen, and as is said in the music industry when a song is rocketing for the top, “with a bullet.” No one doubted that there were bright days ahead for Louisville football and what had been a program under consideration for termination saw attendance literally quadruple while Corso was in charge, and now had plans for a new football stadium. Not surprisingly, Lee Corso attracted the attention of other, larger programs and he became the head coach at the University of Indiana following the ’72 season, a post he would hold through 1982 before going on to the USFL, Northern Illinois, and ultimately becoming a college football icon on ESPN.


Lee Corso From a Personal Perspective:


As a high school football coach, I prided myself on going the “extra mile” when attempting to place young men into an appropriate college program. I was blessed with an arrangement where Co-Coach Joe Tuths, a former Columbia University center [ see HELMET HUT NEWS of August 2007 http://www.helmethut.com/Features/Dr.Ken46.html ]

and fellow Atlantic Coast Football League Westchester Bulls teammate, and I worked hand in hand at Malverne High School. Joe was a much better Xs and Os coach than I was and we both had very good rapport with the boys we coached. I was the point man with college recruiters and worked hard to make as many meaningful contacts as possible. At the time I contacted Coach Corso, I was no longer a full time teacher or coach but jumped in to assist one of the players Joe and I liked so much.



William “Bill” Jones was a 6’4”, 255 pound two-way tackle that also threw the shotput and ran high hurdles for our small school. It was not unusual for any of our athletes to participate in two or more sports but it was unusual to have a young man who could compete successfully in the hurdles at Bill’s size. Despite severe vision limitations, he was an excellent student and football player although as Alex Karras once described playing with his visual impairment, Bill also had to “play body Braille when tackling anyone.” We could not afford the proper corrective glasses or goggles leaving Bill to play high school football as he said, “almost blind.” This did not prevent Bill’s final college choices to come down to Iowa and Duke. Heeding our admonition to always get the best college education possible, especially with Joe as an Ivy League graduate, Bill chose Duke, politely thanking Iowa and the other twenty or so schools that had made scholarship offers or overtures to him.  A few weeks after the colleges had fielded their officially accepted offers and freshman rosters were completed, Bill visited the Duke campus and called my home, telling me how well his visit was going, how unlike his first group recruiting visit, he now had time to talk individually with faculty from the department of his projected major, and how nice the staff was. Unfortunately, I received another phone call from Bill at approximately 2 AM Sunday morning, explaining that he would not attend Duke because he had gone to dinner with one of the assistant coaches and while waiting for a table in a “nice” restaurant, he was taunted and ultimately engaged in a fistfight, along with the Duke assistant, because a group of men continued to direct racial epithets towards him. A knife was pulled, Bill and the Duke coach fought successfully in their own defense and thankfully he was uninjured but the real damage had been done.  Even though the Duke coach literally fought hard to defend Bill , and despite my explanation that he should not judge a university that would provide an absolutely wonderful education and football experience by the actions of a few moronic racists, he told me he would not ever return to “the South.”


At 6 AM that morning, a Sunday morning, I called the Indiana football office. In the days before answering machines, I was not certain what to expect but hoped to have a custodian answer the phone so I could leave a message for Coach Corso. I am sure that my shock and surprise were palpable as Coach Corso himself answered the phone. His energy was obvious as he explained that he was doing work before going to church and would be back in his office later in the day. I explained Bill’s situation, that I was quite sure that the Iowa scholarship had been given to another player, and that he was a deserving youngster. Coach Corso said that he had but one scholarship remaining only because another player had to give up football due to medical reasons. Having never met me, without knowing me as an individual or a coach, and without checking references, he said, and I can recall this as if the conversation occurred yesterday, “I’ll have a ticket waiting for him at JFK Airport on the first flight out here tomorrow. Put him on the plane with a few cans of film under his arm, we’ll evaluate him while we give him a tour of the campus, and see if we agree with your assessment.” Wow, what a break for this student-athlete who otherwise would not be able to attend college. In the mid-afternoon I received a phone call from Coach Corso, who said, “Hey Coach, thank you, thank you, thank you. We’re going to get him the proper eye glasses so he can see what he’s hitting on the field, although he did a great job without the glasses, we’re going to give him some speech remediation, we hooked him up with two professors in the area he wants to study, and we want him.” I asked, “Just like that?” Corso’s response was “Yeah, why not? He can play exactly as you said he could, he is just a great kid, his transcript is wonderful, his test scores are high, absolutely, he’s our kind of kid.”



Bill played for Indiana, graduated, and settled in the state while establishing his own business. I have in the decades since, dealt with literally hundreds if not thousands of coaches through my own work and because I have two sons coaching in the NFL and to this day, Lee Corso’s kindness and absolutely straight forward manner has remained one of my best memories.