"Notes On Syracuse"





By Dr. Ken


The announcement for the production and release of the movie “THE EXPRESS” on the HELMET HUT website was met with great excitement by our staff as well as readers and helmet aficionados. Unlike so many other Hollywood movies that fell short in part because the equipment and action were inaccurate, the story of the late Ernie Davis is expected to deliver on its promise of excellence. As our special HELMET HUT report noted (http://helmethut.com/College/Syracuse/The%20Express.html)

every attempt was made to be as exacting as possible and the involved personnel made good use of HELMET HUT’s expertise.


Our staff has been excited to see an authentic “look” brought to the screen. During Ernie Davis’ Syracuse career, one that culminated with his acceptance of the Heisman Trophy at the conclusion of the 1961 season, Syracuse football was excellent and the level of play exhibited by many of the Eastern teams was on par with any other region of the country. There were those in the media with a preexisting bias against Eastern football as the once powerful Ivy League de-emphasized their athletic programs and the larger Eastern Independents like Syracuse, Pitt, and Penn State continued to feature Ivy schools on their annual football schedules. However, bowl appearances and intersectional play among those Eastern schools proved that they could in fact, take the field with anyone. “THE EXPRESS” features play between Syracuse and a variety of squads and it was a pleasure to view not only the helmets that are reflective of the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s, but the uniform jerseys and pants too. Long before jerseys morphed into advertising billboards and utilized space-aged materials, the collegiate uniforms were proud representations of school colors, school tradition, and school pride. The heavy Durene material jerseys reminded one of the statement made by revered Texas Longhorn coach Darrell Royal when he described the rather plain looking burnt orange jerseys his team wore as “work clothes.” The jerseys were durable, functional, and displayed classic styling with a limited number of attractive sleeve or shoulder stripe options.


That Davis played on the Syracuse varsity from 1959 through 1961 is fortunate as this was an exciting and memorable time in college football history. “The social revolution” had not yet struck college campuses and football was seen as the primary representative sport at almost every institution. It was in fact, the sport most interwoven with the social and cultural life of the campus. 1959 in particular was a very surprising season, adding to the usual level of interest and excitement. Auburn had been crowned the National Champion in 1957, a tough, hard-nosed team led by outstanding All American end Jim “Red” Phillips who later had a productive ten season NFL career with the Rams and Vikings, and an overpowering line that featured Zeke Smith and Jackie Burkett. The Deep South also provided 1958’s National Champion as Billy Cannon and the LSU “Chinese Bandits” became household words among sports fans. As the 1959 season approached, all eyes again turned towards the South with Auburn and LSU rated in everyone’s top ten and Ole Miss as the odds-on favorite to win it all. The only loss Mississippi suffered in ’58 was to the undefeated LSU Tigers. Army lost Heisman Trophy winner Pete Dawkins to Oxford and his Rhodes scholarship and military commitment but still had Bob Anderson in the backfield. A change in the substitution rules would dictate that almost every participant was a two-way performer but there would now be an opportunity to insure the safety of ones quarterback by removing him when the team went to defense or to allow for the use of a kicking specialist. Among the many outstanding players, some of the names were familiar across the nation, some were not: Don Meredith of SMU and Penn State’s Richie Lucas were top quarterbacks; Cannon and Anderson, Ohio State’s Bob White, Mel West of Missouri, Larry Wilson from far off Utah, Don Perkins from infrequently seen New Mexico, and Oklahoma’s barrier-breaking Prentice Gautt were the best of the backs; Carroll Dale of Virginia Tech, Curt Merz of Iowa, and the Iillini’s Rich Kreitling were the most visible ends; linemen of note included Lou Cordileone at Clemson, Don Floyd of TCU, Zeke Smith and Jackie Burkett of Auburn, Texas Tech’s E.J. Holub, and Vince Promuto of Holy Cross. Nowhere on the prognosticators’ lists did one see mention of the Syracuse Orangemen or any of their individual players.



Syracuse Head Coach Floyd “Ben” Schwartzwalder had taken his teams to two bowl games in three seasons and he was nobody’s fool. Although ranked behind Penn State, Army, and Navy among Eastern Independents, he knew he had a team that possessed a great deal of talent. In ’58, the Syracuse offense was second in the nation in scoring while ranking seventh in scoring defense and Coach Ben had twenty-six of his top thirty-three squad members returning. He also had a number of excellent sophomore candidates. Among his best was 6’2”, 205 pound Ernie Davis, a powerful and swift halfback who had starred for the undefeated freshmen squad, gaining over one-hundred yards in three of the four frosh outings. Backs Gerhard Schwedes and wrestling champion Art Baker would join Davis in a backfield that appeared to be well-suited to the unbalanced line Wing-T that Schwartzwalder was fond of. Up front, opposing coaches were aware of Roger Davis, Bruce Tarbox, and Maury Youmans but by the end of the season, the lesser-known Al Bemiller and Fred Mautino would be national figures. Of course, no one, and that included Coach Ben, would have predicted the undefeated and National Championship season that evolved.


The rise through the rankings did in fact, evolve, steadily. With defending National Champion LSU as the preseason number-one, the Orange opened the year at number twenty and were still at number twenty after two convincing victories. Beating number fifteen Navy 32-6 moved them up to the twelfth spot and the 42-6 drubbing of Holy Cross on October 17 finally landed Syracuse in the top ten with a number eight rank. The following week’s 44-0 blow out of West Virginia became the featured college football story in that week’s Sports Illustrated magazine but it was the 20-18 duel over highly respected and seventh ranked Penn State two weeks later that moved them to the top of the heap. That victory coincided with LSU’s 14-13 loss to Tennessee and Northwestern’s 24-19 defeat by Wisconsin. Although higher ranked Texas beat Baylor, their lackluster 13-12 win leapfrogged the Orange over the Longhorns. The undefeated season would conclude in the Cotton Bowl against Texas who finished the regular season as the nation’s fourth best squad and the 23-14 Syracuse win, a convincing win, kept them at number one. For the doubters who still looked down upon Eastern football, the team summaries said it all. Syracuse University, the relatively small private college in northwestern New York State, had the country’s best rushing offense and also finished first in both scoring and total offense. Their two-way players put the exclamation point on their ability by also finishing number one in both rushing defense and total defense. They gave up a paltry and almost unbelievable 193 total rushing yards for the entire season! They were a crowd favorite, not only for the yards and points they tallied, but because they truly were a team. While Davis was ranked number four in the country in average yards per carry and Schwedes was the number four scorer, only guard Roger Davis was named All American. This was a lunch-bucket crew that was easy to like and they did a lot to overcome the prejudice against Eastern football.


There was nothing shabby about 1960’s 7-2 mark, nor ‘61’s 8-3 which included a Liberty Bowl victory over Miami and Ernie Davis’s acceptance of the Heisman Trophy. It was however, the 1959 team that won not only the National Championship, but set a standard of excellence for Syracuse football that kept them in the national spotlight and very competitive until the end of the 1960’s.