Another great Pitt Bio submitted this time by Justin. What a great memory and a wonderful way with words. Plus he thinks the POV is the best around and for that I thank him…
I was born in Donora, PA, a Mon Valley steel mill town founded in the early 1900’s and populated by many European immigrants to America and Southern blacks who moved up to northern industrial centers, nearly all of whom worked in the steel mills. Never numbering more than 13,000 residents, it still produced an amazing number of sports champions, the first generation of children of those hard-working steelworkers. The school’s colors were black and orange, the colors of the flames and smoke from the mills. (Consider the current powerhouse Clairton HS that has the same school colors.)
Donora, now pretty much a very rusty rust belt town and much smaller now, still calls itself the Home of Champions. Here are just some of them: Baseball Hall of Famers “Stan the Man” Musial and Ken “Junior” Griffey; Ken’s father Ken, Sr., a member of the Cincinnati Reds’ “Big Red Machine” ; Arnold “Pope” Galliffa, Army Football All-American quarterback and College Football Hall of Famer; “Deacon” Dan Towler, W & J Little All-American running back who played for the Los Angeles Rams and actually became a minister; and Lou “Bimbo” Cecconi, a Donora HS great, a State of Pennsylvania and a WPIAL Hall of Famer, and a Pitt QB and RB of note and also an assistant coach.
Except for the Griffeys, all these sports greats made their initial marks in the 1940’s when I was a child. Buddy Griffey, Junior’s grandfather and Senior’s father, played with Stan the Man on the Donora baseball team in 1939. As I grew up, I heard all about these greats, but Bimbo made the greatest impression on me, probably because of his unique nickname. That was how Bimbo’s Pitt first became It to me.
As I grew up in the 1950’s Pitt’s football teams had some real success by winning tough intersection games as an Eastern independent. Two major bowl games were achieved in the 1950’s, both against Georgia Tech, and both of them losses. Pitt had an African-American player, Bobby Grier, for the Sugar Bowl game, and controversy erupted when the segregationist Georgia governor called for both teams not to play each other.
Headlines made this controversy known nationwide. The game was eventually played, making it the first integrated major college football game played in the Deep South. Ironically, another problem came about when a controversial interference call in the game was made against Grier, setting Georgia Tech up on the one yard line for the game’s only score, 7-0. Pitt lost to Tech in the Gator Bowl the next year, 21-14. I never forgot those Tech games, and to this day, I hate it when Pitt can’t win the game against GT.
About this time, my beautiful first cousin Frances was on the cheering squad at Pitt. She fell in love with Charles “Corky” Cost, a star running back on the Pitt bowl teams in the 50’s. I remember seeing Fran’s picture in a Sunday Pittsburgh newspaper in her cheering outfit. They eventually married and still are together. He and his family’s construction business grew to great proportions, and Pitt received the family’s largesse through buildings on campus and donations. Although I was not close to the Cost family, I was still proud that through him and Fran Pitt benefited and was not forgotten by them.
About that same time, I remember watching on TV a Pitt game in 1958 against Notre Dame. Pitt won that game at Pitt Stadium, 29-26. I remember hearing announcers Lindsey Nelson and Red Grange tell a story about Pitt’s QB Bill Kaliden, who scored the winning TD and was a pre-med student. He had missed some football practices because he had lab classes at the same time as practice, but he still played in the game. To me that made Pitt’s win all the sweeter. To be fair, I think ND had some down years back then, before Ara Parseghian got there as the coach.
A Pitt All-American tackle visited my high school (Johnstown Central Catholic) in Johnstown, PA, where I later grew up. He attended our athletic banquet and spoke. His name was Eldred Kraemer and he really impressed me.
Pitt also had three running backs in the late 1950’s that were pretty special and made headlines because of the spelling of their last names. They were called “The Three C’s” in headlines because of their exploits for Pitt. They were Bob Clemens (North Braddock), Fred Cox (from Mon City, near Donora), and Jim Cunningham (Connellsville). All three went on to play pro football: Clemens to the Colts, Cox to the Vikings, and Cunningham to the Redskins. Pitt maybe did not win a lot of championships back then, but it was then, as it still is now, a great place to take off from for pro football.
Cox was a great placekicker too, making his mark long-term as a record-setting FG kicker for the Vikings. By the way, Fred invented the Nerf football while he was a Viking.
When I started at Pitt in 1959, the football team had stagnated a bit. Then 1963 happened. The seniors on that team were special. As freshmen, the rumor was that they outplayed the varsity players in daily scrimmages but were ineligible to play because of rules at the time. They got better and had that great 9-1 season that suffered a loss to the great Roger Staubach Navy team and the tragedy of the assassination of President Kennedy. The assassination caused the postponement for a week of a game that Pitt still had to play.
The major bowl committees chose not to select Pitt in case it lost its rescheduled last game against Penn State (which Pitt did win). At the time, Pitt was regarded as the best college football team not to have played in a bowl game, although it was somewhat reminiscent of the great Pitt 1938 team that turned down a Rose Bowl offer.
This was not the Same Old Pitt stuff that became a routine gripe by Pitt fans of a later generation; this was a tragic historical event interrupting a Pitt season, not a blunder by Pitt.
I played on an intermural basketball Team, Apartment C, that played a fraternity team for the Pitt intermural championship on the basketball court under Pitt Stadium. The referee was a Pitt basketball player who never called a foul on our opponents, just against us. There were football players on that fraternity team, and though we lost by a few points, we held our own against those hulks. I was 6-1 and 180 pounds back then and thought I could hold my own. I still remember doing a jump ball against a Pitt lineman who eventually played for the Giants. On the jump up to tip the ball he laid a forearm on my chin and sent me sprawling. No foul was called, of course. I scored 16 points with my girlfriend watching, and that lineman did shake my hand afterwards.
I loved my classes at Pitt. I was a liberal arts English writing major on my way to be a famous writer, if I could be one, or an English teacher, if I couldn’t. Pitt had a famous writing program back then, and I wanted to excel that way if I could. I had a scholarship and eventually a fellowship to grad school. I had magna cum laude grades and a smart beautiful girl friend from Cincinnati.
She called me her Johnny Shaunessy, the hero of the novel Raintree County who was a lover of literature and all that was good and upright. We dated right through the Cuban missile crisis when all kinds of hell could have befallen the U.S. and the world. But it didn’t happen, and the girl moved on, and so did I. She later had a novel published, and I achieved a bit of anonymous notoriety by appearing as a character in the story as her first of many lovers that she wrote about. Whatever.
I faithfully attended Pitt football games, during and after my years on the Pitt campus. I remember a game against Syracuse when during the same game the sun shone, the rains came, and snow followed with thunder as an occasional accompaniment. First time I ever experienced thunder snow. Hard fought game, many guys carried off the field.
I remember one game against Army watching Pitt’s middle linebacker Marty Schottenheimer incredibly pumped up and running all over the field making tackles. Tom Blanda, the Army kicker, tried a field goal and it hit an upright for a miss. I still remember how the goal posts shook from the impact. I was in the end zone section to see it up close.
I still remember how cool I thought those Pitt players were off the field. Always terrifically well dressed, Paul Martha especially looked the part of an All- American, nice build but not hulking size, handsome, and impeccably dressed. A working class kid like me could only dream of cutting an appearance like that, but whenever I could I bought stuff in the University Shop to step up my appearance game. I probably shouldn’t admit it, but I naively wanted to emulate those guys, at least in the way they looked.
But Pitt players weren’t always well-groomed. I was there when curfew hour rang and we all said good night and smooched our girl friends for the last time. This was in the Schenley Towers, the old ones before the new ones were completely built. I remember seeing two Pitt players being carried in by other players, both in suits but out cold and drunk. I won’t identify them, but one of them much later went to jail for non-football reasons.
I saw the 36-35 Pitt comeback win over powerful WVU in 1970 and thought Coach DePasqua would make better things happen. He didn’t. I saw routs by PSU and ND and Oklahoma over Pitt at the Stadium. Rumor had it that Joe Pa and Ara agreed to let the clock run in the second half to ease Pitt’s suffering, but I don’t think such a mercy rule would have been allowed back then. Coach Dave Hart had miserable seasons at Pitt, but he had great WPIAL teams at Johnstown High and great charisma that unfortunately didn’t transfer from HS to big time college.
While at my teaching and administrative job in the Euclid suburb of Cleveland, I met the occasional Pitt assistant coach who would stop by to check on our players. One was John Harbaugh who was a tight ends coach and quite charming. Another was Paul Rhodes the defensive coordinator who also was a charming guy. One time I was invited into Mike Gottfried’s team locker room after a Pitt game and was struck by this unusual fact: all the white kids had lockers together on one side of the room and all the black kids on the other side. This was similar to the way I saw kids sit together in the cafeteria in the interracial high school where I worked. Nobody forced such a grouping. It just seemed to happen.
By the way, for a historical fact, Jimmy Joe Robinson was Pitt’s first black player on the 1945 team. He was a kick return specialist who scored a number of long touchdown returns and allegedly was the first black player to score a touchdown against Notre Dame on a kickoff. Herb Douglas, the Pitt Olympian, played on the 1948 team and allegedly was the second black player to score a touchdown against Notre Dame, on a kick return. Why didn’t Pitt have black players earlier? They had black track performers in the 1930’s, including John Woodruff, the Olympic champion.
Paul Hackett called me at school to inquire about the possibility of recruiting Robert Smith, a 5-star RB, who was destined to go to Ohio State. I told Hackett that Pitt was not going to be It for Robert.
I met Johnny Majors at a sports banquet in Cleveland, and he was very gracious to me as a Pitt guy and shook my hand.
I met and had my picture taken with a bunch of big time head coaches who came to my school to recruit some of our 4 and 5-star players. They included John Cooper (OSU), Dennis Erickson (Miami), a USC head coach whose name I forget, Bo Schembechler (Michigan), and Joe Paterno (PSU). No Pitt head coach ever showed up at my school in my 34 years there. Pitt did get one of our kids, a big lineman, who was there to block for Tony D.
Pitt paraphernalia showed up among my school’s athletic boosters. Our colors were navy blue and gold, like Pitt’s traditional colors. And the panther was the school’s mascot. I asked the boosters if they would be interested in buying a nice blue and gold panther tie from the Pitt Store. The demand was there so I ordered a bunch and we sold out each year. The only trouble was that my school’s mascot was a black panther and Pitt’s is a golden one. That didn’t matter to my school’s boosters since to them the colors were right and a panther was a panther.
Pitt’s football history turned out to be very important to me since I love the education that Pitt provided to me, and Pitt football was a big part of that educational experience for me. I even got married in the Heinz Chapel, to a beautiful Dormont girl who graduated from Penn State. We are still happily married 51 years later.
I usually relive Pitt experiences each year at the homecoming game, but in the past year I have developed some balance problems and a drop-foot problem, necessitating my use of a cane and some therapy. Walking long distances, especially in the middle of a big jostling crowd, is just about too much for me anymore. Depth perception on stairs, from glaucoma, is also a problem. My mind is still good. Whatever.
I read POV last every morning. I save the best for last. Tribune Review Sports is first, then Pitt Blather, then Pittsburgh Sports Now, then the POV. Commenters on the POV seem to know each other well, sometimes ripping into each other like frat guys, kind of intimidating to me since it is hard sometimes to know whether it is all in fun or if feelings are being hurt. This is so especially to an outsider like me. I came to the POV after the Blather just two years ago, by accident. I am still caught up in the content of Pitt football. Never bores me.
I hope that my references to African-American stuff does not rub readers the wrong way. I was the editor of the Johnstown College student newspaper while I was there for two years before transferring to the main campus. Civil rights issues, murders, intimidation ran wild down South. This was especially true with regard to the enrollment of black students in colleges and high schools. I was moved by the civil rights movement and the courage shown by people, including white people like me, who tried to make things right. I never considered that stuff as politics. I saw it as right or wrong. To this day, I still cannot watch those great Southern college athletic teams that are loaded with talented black players without noting the irony that 50 years ago their institutions would not even enroll one. Winning is the great leveler, I guess.
I still miss the great hamburgers at Cicero’s on Forbes and the late meals after a grad class at Gustine’s, also on Forbes. There was a wonderful small Italian restaurant in Bloomfield that we had to walk around back to get into, but I can’t remember the name. My future wife and I loved that place. We also loved Weinstein’s in Squirrel Hill, but I heard it burned down. We would pass some old numbers guys upon entering it, and the hot turkey sandwich was to die for. I loved the pizza on Potomac Avenue in Dormont, Dom Campiti’s, where as a good Catholic boy I would have a meatless Friday meal before meeting up with my Dormont sweetheart when I came in from Cleveland.
I wandered down memory lane in this piece, but as a retiree for the past 14 years I don’t get a chance to chat much anymore. And when I do, I have to be careful not to repeat myself. It’s bad enough getting old (almost 78 now) without getting on people’s nerves. I consulted a Pitt hard cover reference book that I own for many of the facts I have recounted; it is entitled Hail to Pitt, Editor Jim O’Brien, 1982.
My brother John, my sister Marian, and her husband Kevin all love Pitt and have gone to many Pitt games with me. They are not graduates of Pitt, but like me they live and die with Pitt’s fortunes. (Their children are Pitt graduates.) I could not be luckier to have them by me as surrogate alumni. As you can probably tell, I will never get tired of singing the Pitt alma mater (the tune is of the German national anthem, by the way), nor will I ever tire of saying, Hail to Pitt.
Pitt 1963, B.A. English; Pitt 1965, M. A. Education