"Oregon State's Jack O’Billovich"





By Dr. Ken 

It might seem quite unusual for a resident of the New York City metropolitan area to have had Oregon State University football players as an inspiration but Jack O’Billovich and Pete Pifer filled the role well. As an inveterate reader, I had a well rounded and perhaps extensive knowledge of some aspects of college and professional football due to a penchant for collecting the various football annuals and the issues of Sports Illustrated magazine that were published during the football season. Like many compulsive readers, if I began reading a book or magazine, I would, at least over time, read every word including the advertisements. Combined with a desire to know all I could that might allow me to improve my own athletic abilities, I also tried to learn what I could from and about any running back that seemed to have some physical attribute I could emulate, relate to, or utilize for my own purposes. Any weight trained football player from my era who received early inspiration for their own training will quickly note that it was the November 1959 issue of Strength And Health magazine that sparked them to either begin weight training, pursue it with greater passion, or come to the realization that “this kind of thing could be helpful.”

That issue also confirmed that there were at least a few weight trained football players who were excelling as the vast majority of coaches still feared that any type of barbell related activity would make their charges “muscle bound,” slow, or less coordinated. Strength And Health featured LSU great and 1959 Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon on the cover, and photos within of him training under the supervision of former United States Olympic Weightlifting Team trainer Alvin Roy in the latter’s Baton Rouge facility. In a similar way, the knowledge that Jim Taylor, Keith Lincoln, and Joe Don Looney for example, were all products of regular strength training activities, and that Charley Tolar appeared as if he should have been, provided tremendous inspiration for my own physical preparation.

Two other names I noted were Oregon State’s Pete Pifer and Jack O’Billovich. Pifer was a hard charging fullback as was O’Billovich. Pifer as a sophomore wasn’t even noted in the ’64 pre-season publications and did not hit the national consciousness until 1965, having played as the second stringer behind Booker Washington in the previous Rose Bowl contest. O’Billovich caught my attention because he was mentioned in the 1964 Street And Smith College Football Yearbook as a backup with the accompanying description of “…with another veteran, Jack O’Billovich, 190, in reserve,” but was a 225 pound All American linebacker by the conclusion of the 1964 season. Playing for an excellent Oregon State team that faced off against Michigan in the Rose Bowl, there was some national exposure but like most Northwest region teams, it was limited. In the very small and almost cult like world that was weightlifting and weight training in the early to mid-1960’s, any athlete that was an admitted product of strength training was a known commodity and  “the word” was that “Mad Dog” as Jack was popularly referred to, threw a lot of weights around all year long. Working hard enough to travel the gauntlet from a 5’11” 190 pound reserve fullback to a 225 pound All American linebacker indicated a lot of hard work and the photos clearly showed what was a strong, muscular appearance, even in his uniform. There was no doubt that Mad Dog fulfilled the qualifications of “my kind of player” and one I could learn from.

Jack “Mad Dog” O’Billovich posing with his 1964 season orange helmet (Photo Courtesy of Oregon State University Athletic Communications)

The exploits of O’Billovich made me dig deeper and I learned that his older brother Bob had played football and basketball at the University Of Montana and would eventually be elected as their Athlete Of The Decade for 1960 – 1970. Coincidentally I spoke with Bob O’Billovich in the early 2000’s when he was the General Manager of the British Columbia Lions. One of our trainees was a member of the team and this former college and CFL great quarterback reinforced the legacy of his brother Jack, noting how hard he worked to achieve the goals he had placed before himself. As was common in the 1963 through ’68 era, there were still many two-way players despite the rules changes that had begun to give exclusivity to those playing but one position. I assumed that Jack O’Billovich, listed as a fullback, was one of those two-way players who at 190 pounds, was a bit limited to crack the starting line up of a very good Beavers squad until he became stronger and perhaps faster. For him, the weight training was the difference and the ferocity with which he played, leading to the “Mad Dog” moniker, won my immediate attention, especially with OSU finishing with a number eight ranking for the 1964 season.

I was quite excited to see what O’Billovich would do in his final collegiate season and knew that I could only improve if I would attempt to keep pace with him. It was gratifying to see him featured on the cover of the 1965 NCAA Record Book, a singular honor and another source of motivation; I knew he was really good and now it seemed as if the entire college football establishment did also.

As a senior and team captain, O’Billovich was named as an All Pac-8 team player and appeared in a number of post-season all star games.  As an eleventh round draft choice of the Detroit Lions, his NFL career was brief, in part due to injury, and he put another year into the Hamilton Tiger Cats of the CFL. He was unfortunately not well known because his professional career wasn’t significant and perhaps because he played his collegiate football in a relatively isolated region not often swarmed by the national press, especially in the 1960’s. Yet O’Billovich’s hard work and the attitude that earned OSU Head Coach Tommy Prothro’s praise that “He was the toughest football player I have ever coached”  and the “Mad Dog” nickname, gave him a legacy in the Northwest. Many also did not now that Coach Prothro balanced his player’s fierce reputation with the additional statement that “…he was a fine human being to start with.” Later interviews with his teammates and articles always come back to his toughness and determination, certainly qualities I wanted to further develop. Beaver teammate, tackle Rockne Freitas said “They don’t come much tougher than Jack. He’d run straight on into a pickup truck if he had to.”  His toughness was attributed to growing up in what was termed “a tough environment” in Butte, Montana by his brother Bob and post-high school employment as a miner. He took this experience as a motivating factor, continuously built his strength and bodyweight up from his high school mark of 175, excelled at the junior college level, and won a football scholarship to Oregon State.

The 1965 Oregon State “Jack O’Billovich style” helmet
HELMET HUT BUILD YOUR OWN HELMET special complete with his distinctive two bar mask and U bar.

Known as a loyal Oregon State supporter until his untimely, early death at the age of fifty-three, Jack’s fame was carried forward by his son Tony who also played linebacker at OSU. The “O’Billovich style” Build Your Own Helmet I look at daily continues to be a source of motivation.