By Dr. Ken


[Author’s Note: Gratitude is extended to Mr. Joe Swan, Director Of Athletic Publications for West Virginia University for his continued insights to West Virginia football and its history] 


A comment in the media, far from “the fake news” of today, was both accurate and poignant while providing a summary of Pitt’s 1963 fortunes. “The assassination of President John F. Kennedy left an indelible mark on American history. On a smaller level, it also had a significant effect on the fortunes of the 1963 Pitt football team. Were it not for Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, Pitt would have played Penn State as scheduled on Nov. 23. Had Pitt beaten Penn State 22-21, like it did when the game was rescheduled two weeks later, the Panthers would have been 8-1 and shoo-ins for a major bowl as the season headed into its final week.” A great Pitt team, one of the nation’s best of the early 1960s, very much lost its place in history.


Dr. Edward Litchfield and his wife cheer on their Panthers

Following three seasons of mediocre football, with many fans considering the 3 – 7 mark of 1961 less than a rebuilding year than just a poor year of football, there was concern about Pitt football at the highest levels of the university. Certainly, when the Chancellor of the University, Dr. Edward H. Litchfield is concerned, that qualifies as “the highest levels!” Litchfield took the helm of the University in 1956 and brought significant changes to the campus during his ten years of leadership. He altered the organizational structure of the administration while increasing salaries and pensions. He improved what were already highly respected academic programs and admission procedures and led a major expansion of the campus and building construction. It was the latter that eventually led to his resignation in July of1965 when financial contributions and available monies did not meet the cost of the expansion projects but Litchfield was dedicated to Pitt and that included Pitt football. Immediately following the ’62 season, Dr. Litchfield met with Head Coach John Michelosen and Athletic Director Frank Carver and noted that “he might not know what it was like to be a football coach but he certainly knew what it was like to be a Pitt football fan: it was a bore. He said winning all the time, losing all the time and being dull were three things he found intolerable” and stated that while he “liked Michelosen fine… ‘like real estate, John needs redevelopment.’” The big boss expected better football relative to the talent that had been recruited to the campus, and a more enjoyable Saturday experience for fans and alumni. For a coach who had been a holdout for the single wing during his NFL stint, these were rather ground-breaking instructions. When all was said and done, Litchfield denied that he had actually called his head coach on the carpet but did state that “the consequences would be whatever they would be for anyone who doesn’t follow administration instructions.” 

Perhaps Dr. Litchfield knew what many of the Pitt players believed about the ’63 squad. Team sparkplug Fred Mazurek had earned the accolades that ranked him as perhaps the second best quarterback in the east behind Navy’s Roger Staubach, and years later noted that “We had a good team, we had a lot of good football players, a lot of guys recruited out of high school and going on visits to the schools I had gone to, Notre Dame, Duke, and Stanford. I knew we had a good team.” Powerful fullback Rick Leeson stated that the team seemed special. “We had a pretty seasoned group of people. When we came in as freshmen we had a great season, it just jelled together and we knew we were going to be good.” Despite the fact that the Western Pennsylvania region was such a verdant recruiting area for the Big Ten, SEC schools like Kentucky and Tennessee, the Florida Independents, Atlantic Coast Conference, and every large and small college program in the east and northeast, Pitt seemed to attract true student-athletes who had an edge of toughness to them. All but a handful of players from the ’63 team came from a fifty mile radius of Pittsburgh! Years later lineman John Maczuzak said, “Everybody was local, it won't happen again the way the game has evolved.” Because almost the entire team had played with or against each other during high school, often in multiple sports, the 1963 Pitt roster proved to be close knit. Team captain Al Grigaliunas pointed out that unlike most of the schools they played against they did not have a very large roster. “We didn't have a huge team in terms of numbers. I think the key factor was we really started the same eleven people for all ten games. In fact, two guys got hurt before we started the season and they never really worked themselves back in the starting lineup because the other guys were playing well.”

In a bit of a scheduling quirk, the Panthers began the ’63 season against three West Coast opponents, all with pre-season All American candidates and Washington in particular, with effective running back Junior Coffey expected to continue its competitive battles for Rose Bowl participation. UCLA had a number of star players but was still transitioning out of its Single Wing resulting in a poor year, with Pitt adding to their misery with a shutout loss in the season opener. Thus, with a “Murders’ Row” of difficult football ahead of them, Pitt entered their annual Backyard Brawl contest against West Virginia with a 3 – 0 mark.



The Pitt Panthers arrived by steamboat to a gala welcoming party


Adding intrigue to this duke-out between neighborhood rivals was the “Battle of The Brothers.” A major push was orchestrated to land this game on national television as the State of West Virginia was celebrating its Centennial anniversary and the “Hatfield – McCoy Feud” that was this yearly contest would be augmented by Pitt’s Paul Martha squaring off against the Mountaineers’ Richie Martha. The brother versus brother confrontation would encapsulate the essence of the Pitt – WVU rivalry and include a nodding honor to history as the Pitt team would arrive, as they did when the rivalry began before the turn of the Twentieth Century, by riverboat. The Panthers arrival would be greeted by West Virginia’s Governor William Wallace Barron, a brass band, and Richie Martha, the younger of the brother duo. This was no small footnote as brother Paul had been a highly recruited star while Richie, despite leading three of his Wilkinsburg (PA) High School sports teams to successful seasons as a senior and his inclusion to the Big 33 squad, much less so. The scrappy Richie, primarily a defensive back was clear that “a chance to play against Paul was a big reason I came to West Virginia and I’d tackle him even harder than anyone else if I got the chance. We have been very close all of our lives but I like to play football and I like to win.” Pitt, with games against top rated Navy and Syracuse to follow, faced a must-win situation.  


West Virginia’s Richie Martha vs. Pitt’s Paul Martha highlighted the 1963 annual “Backyard Brawl.” Both brothers were successful, Richie making it to the Dolphins camp, becoming an accountant, and founding a youth hockey league that eventually produced a number of pro players. Paul logged seven NFL seasons playing with the Steelers and Broncos before becoming a high profile attorney

As expected, the game was the typical hard fought fistfight that has always marked this series. Being ranked third in the nation with the number two offensive production was no confidence booster for Pitt as the Mountaineers had proved victorious in the 1961 and ’62 meetings and eight of the previous eleven games had been judged to be upsets. Behind 10 – 7 with 8:20 remaining in the fourth quarter, Pitt was in fact facing an upset loss but they recovered as Paul Martha righted his two first quarter fumbles and twelve yard rushing total to that point in the contest and Pitt began to drive. At the 7:40 mark, Martha took a reverse and sprinted around and through the West Virginia defense for a forty-six yard touchdown. The Mountaineers, reflective of this fierce rivalry that remains underrated on the national level, immediately moved down the field but the drive ended with a Pitt interception and the Panthers utilized the experience of their linemen, controlling the younger WVU front seven and ground down the final 4:19 to secure the 13 – 10 victory. Perhaps it was the emotionally draining game and closer than expected win over West Virginia, or the broken toe suffered against the Mountaineers by Fred Mazurek but the following week’s contest against Navy and Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach proved to be the only losing weekend of the season for Pitt and the 24 – 12 loss knocked them from a third place ranking to tenth among the national poll leaders. Losing to the squad with the Heisman winner and one that completed the season ranked number two in the nation was by no means a “bad loss” but the Panther players took it hard, believing they were fully capable of playing better. 3,000 Pitt fans viewed the away game on closed-circuit television in the Pitt campus field house, in part drawn to the contest by the play of Staubach as well as the two excellent and highly ranked squads. In later years Staubach noted that his team was exceptional, not only on the field but off, with seven teammates becoming Admirals in the U.S. Navy, and they believed they had an advantage due to an exacting scouting report from linebackers coach Steve Belichick. Despite the loss, both head coach Michelosen and the Panthers remained calm. The team had many very intelligent and serious students, used to maintaining focus and they reflected the attitude of their head coach. Mazurek had stated that Michelosen “was just an even-keeled guy. He didn’t yell and scream, he was focused, and that helped.” Captain Grigaliunas added that “John was a very modest leader and a very good person, a very calm person who knew what he was doing. He had a group of assistant coaches who were focused on making sure we knew what we were doing.”

Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach handed Pitt their only loss of 1963


The next three weeks brought Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Army and Pitt responded with three wins, the latter two against the Irish and Army by comfortable margins. Quarterback Mazurek stated, “Maybe that one loss (to Navy) helped us in the sense that we had a renewed focus.”  Facing Penn State next on November 23, the Panthers were ranked number four or five dependent upon the pollsters in the November 18th published rankings and another victory would yield an 8 – 1 record that guaranteed a major bowl bid. Tragically, the November 22nd assassination of President John Kennedy would cause the majority of teams and all of the ranked top five, to postpone their games to a later date. When full-time college football resumed on November 30 a trip to Miami resulted in a 31 – 20 victory with only the re-scheduled Penn State home game remaining to be played on December 7th.     

Part III to Follow