By Dr. Ken


It should come as no surprise that while our HELMET HUT readers, fans, and followers are enthusiastic champions of “old school football,” that there are regional biases. Good friend Dan Martin, a retired Richmond (CA) Fire Department Captain spent his entire life growing up and living in the San Francisco Bay/Oakland area and thus always was an ardent fan of Cal football. He could and would regale me with tales of great games and great players from his extensive memory bank, details about the Big Game between Cal and rival Stanford, and call up names and events both well-known and obscure, even to those considered to have significant historical knowledge. Ben Oldham for many years was “The Dean Of Southeastern Conference Officials” and in fact served as an academic dean among other administrative positions at Kentucky’s Georgetown College. With forty years in the SEC and as a life-long resident of the central Kentucky area, Ben became one of the most highly respected replay officials in the nation once his weight trained body could no longer run stride for stride with the Bo Jackson’s of his beloved conference (and yes, the author has a photo of Ben running stride for stride with Bo on a lengthy touchdown run!). Ben had friends who played on the infamous “Thin Thirty” Kentucky team of 1962 and tremendous insights to Kentucky football in particular and the Southeastern Conference in general that money could never buy. Obviously influenced by the areas of the country and football history they grew up with, my friends were predictably if unduly affected in the most positive ways by the teams and players they had specific exposure to. 



Dan Martin can talk CAL football all day!


An advantage or disadvantage of growing up in the New York Metropolitan area was and remains the lack of a college football identity. We are saturated with professional sports but the Ivy League’s Princeton in New Jersey, or Columbia within the confines of Manhattan have not sparked a major college football following since Dick Kazmaier’s 1951 Heisman winning season. Rutgers enjoyed a few decent seasons in the early 2000s but stimulated little passion past the northern border of New Jersey. Syracuse isn’t close to New York City or Long Island leaving “all of Eastern Football” as “our region,” at least before the various conferences were gerrymandered into a miasmic mess of financial greed. Army, Navy, Penn State, Pitt, Syracuse, Boston College, and even Ohio State which had strong recruiting ties here were “our teams” through the 1950s and ‘60s, all easily adopted due to the absence of a singular strong football presence. Perhaps our area lacked the devotion that comes with living in Marcus, Iowa and having a singular focus on Iowa State football but we had the advantage of exposure to many excellent programs. One of course was the University Of Pittsburgh. They always featured solid squads with a few outstanding players under the leadership of head coach John Michelosen who led the Panthers from 1955 through the 1965 season. While most of the nation might have missed it, there was no doubt that their 1963 team was rather subtly one of the best in the nation and one of the best of the entire early ‘60’s era. 


Michelosen’s Pitt teams played basic, tough, solid football that reflected the character of the city


Oft-mentioned friend Richard Landsman and I had a fondness for Army and Pitt. Under Michelosen Pitt was the quintessential tough guy on the street that was Eastern Football and of course we were most impressed that until 1958, they were not even considered to be part of what was termed Eastern Football. Pitt, one of many independent teams without a conference affiliation, was considered to be one of the best of the Midwest Independent programs and would in any publication or ranking system, be considered as such. They consistently played a top-notch schedule against difficult teams. The 1957 Street And Smith Football issue noted that “Pitt, as usual, has a back-breaking schedule that includes an opener with Oklahoma and contests with Southern California, Army, Notre Dame, and Penn State.” It wasn’t until there was an unofficial but nation-wide agreement to consider them an “Eastern Independent,” joining the likes of Syracuse, Penn State, Army, and Navy, schools they played on an annual basis, that they were “moved.” From our 1950’s pre-teen perspective, Rich and I viewed Pitt more as a Big Ten team rather part of the group that many considered to be a relatively effete conglomeration. Army and Navy could still be considerable forces in any specific season but by the late 1950s and early ‘60s their World War Two era powerhouses were a thing of the past. Syracuse and Penn State were usually “good” or better than that but suffered the criticism of having soft schedules compared to the other major conferences. Even the undefeated 1959 National Championship squad that Syracuse gained so much fame for featured games against Holy Cross, Colgate, and Boston University. Pitt seemed to beat on people, win or lose and of course that appealed to us. Joe Schmidt, Joe Walton, Mike Ditka, and lesser known players like fullback Jim Cunningham were appreciated because they were good and they were hard guys. While running and tackling in pick-up games at Landsman’s backyard, while dodging swooping sea gulls at the high school field, or on the grass median that ran the length of the east-to-west main street in town, we would be Joe Schmidt as often as we would be Sam Huff and we would emulate Mike Ditka as we would Kyle Rote. 


In a great “helmet photo” from the early 1960s, Pitt Head Coach John Michelosen ponders the upcoming season


John Michelosen was probably the perfect coach for Pitt football. The Panthers record in the eleven year reign of Michelosen was 56 – 49 – 7 recruiting a specific talent-laden area that was subject to poaching by every conference and Independent in the nation. Even the Florida teams, then an under-populated swampland, filled their squads with the rough and tumble players from the Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania region. The usually tough schedules through his years of stewardship, with the great 1963 season including games against UCLA, Washington, Roger Staubach’s number two ranked Navy, Penn State, Notre Dame, Miami, and Cal being typical, was going to make undefeated and one loss seasons unlikely. He was a western Pennsylvania standout and leader of legendary coach Moe Rubenstein’s championship teams at Ambridge High School before becoming the quarterback for Pitt’s 1936 and ’37 National Championship squads led by Head Coach John “Jock” Sutherland. As the captain of the 1937 squad, he was a natural to become Sutherland’s assistant at Pitt after graduation, moving with his mentor to the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers for the 1940 and ’41 seasons. Both coaches entered the United States Navy and after their discharges Sutherland became the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers with Michelosen as his assistant. In April of 1948, Sutherland was on the road in Kentucky and local residents found him to be disoriented and confused. A diagnosis and unsuccessful attempt to remove a malignant brain tumor led to his death and Michelosen became the Steelers new head coach and the youngest head coach in the NFL. He remained through the 1951 season but in 1955 he returned to his alma mater and had immediate success with a number eleven national ranking and an invitation to play Georgia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. The build-up to the game was fraught with controversy as Georgia’s Governor Marvin Griffin, a virulent segregationist and described in the press as "a man of prodigious charm and wit and also one of the most corrupt public officials ever to hold office in Georgia" fought bitterly to remove Tech from the contest due to the presence of Pitt’s starting African American fullback/linebacker Bobby Grier.


Fullback and linebacker Bobby Grier was a star of the mid-1950s Pitt football squads and Grier broke an important cultural barrier


Griffin and others held to the law of the day that Georgia teams should not engage in athletic contests against opponents whose teams included African Americans and segregationists in host city New Orleans were incited to join the protest. Grier became the focus of the contest but due to stronger demonstrations and protests of the Georgia Tech student body, Tech head coach Bobby Dodd brought his team to play a clean contest against the Panthers [see HELMET NEWS/REFLECTIONS http://www.helmethut.com/Features/Dr.Ken169.html  ]. Georgia Tech won on a controversial pass interference penalty on Grier, coincidently made by a Pittsburgh area referee who had without malice, made the incorrect call. Even with the 7 – 0 bowl loss Michelosen had reestablished Pitt football on the national level. The ’56 team finished just out of the Top Ten and again lost a bowl game to Georgia Tech, this time in the Gator Bowl. In his eleven seasons as Pitt’s head coach, Michelosen finished in the Top Ten six times and produced a number of excellent players, professional players, and managed to galvanize the Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania region into a Pitt hotbed. 

Part II to follow