1965 Pitt Football - The End of an Era

September 18th could not come soon enough for me. In 1965, I was an 18 year-old Pitt freshman from Bergenfield, New Jersey. While I already knew I'd love spending the next four years on campus, the first pangs of homesickness had already begun. But Saturday, September 18th was the opening game of the football season, a most welcome distraction from the rigors of classes and study.

I'd only attended four college football games prior to coming to Pitt. Two were at Columbia's old Baker Field in the early 50's with my dad and his boss, a Columbia graduate. The other two were bus excursions to Princeton's ancient Palmer Stadium in the late 50's with school groups. I was looking forward with great anticipation to my first visit to Pitt Stadium and the opportunity to cheer for my own school.

The head coach of the 1965 Panthers was John Michelosen, starting his 11th year at the helm. Michelosen, from Ambridge, came to Pitt as a freshman in 1934. He was the starting quarterback from 1935-7, under the legendary coach John Bain (Jock) Sutherland. Michelosen was the captain of the 1937 team, and during his three years as the starting quarterback, the Panthers suffered only two losses and shut out the Washington Huskies 21-0 in the 1937 Rose Bowl. Michelosen stayed on at Pitt as an assistant under Sutherland for the 1938 season. He then rejoined Sutherland's staff for the 1940 and 1941 seasons with the NFL's Brooklyn Dodgers. Michelosen was in the Navy from 1942-45, then again rejoined Sutherland in 1946 as an assistant coach with the Steelers.

After Sutherland's death in 1948, Michelosen took over as the Steelers' head coach, the youngest in the NFL at the time. He returned to his alma mater in 1952 as an assistant under Red Dawson. Dawson resigned due to ill health during the 1954 season, and was replaced for the remainder of the year by Athletic Director Dr. Tom Hamilton, who had coached the Panthers in 1951. Michelosen was handed the reins for the 1955 season.

During Michelosen's first ten years, the Panthers sported a 53-42-7 record. His first team in 1955 went 7-3 and was invited to the Sugar Bowl, where they lost a controversial 7-0 decision to Bobby Dodd's Georgia Tech Yellowjackets. The 1956 Panthers did even better, going 7-2-1 but again lost to Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl by a 21-14 score. The following six seasons resulted in only modest success, with three winning years (5-4-1 in 1958, 6-4 in 1959, and 4-3-3 in 1960). Rebounding from a 3-7 record in 1961, the 1962 team finished at 5-5, setting the stage for Michelosen's finest team, the 9-1 1963 Panthers.

Pitt was one of the best teams in the country that year. Their only loss was to Navy, 24-12, on the road. The Middies, led by QB Roger Staubach, went on to play Texas in the Cotton Bowl. The Longhorns prevailed, winning the mythical National Championship. The 9-1 Panthers failed to receive a bowl invitation. Because their final game against Penn St. was postponed for one week due to the assassination of President Kennedy, the other major bowls did not want to risk inviting Pitt in case they lost to Penn St. That concern was nearly justified when the Panthers barely defeated the Nittany Lions, 22-21. By that time, however, the top bowl slots had been filled and the team voted not to accept any lesser bowl bids.

The following year, the Panthers struggled to a 3-5-2 mark. There were two close losses (17-12 to UCLA, 17-15 to Notre Dame) and two ties, with Miami (Fla.) 20-20 and Navy, the previous year's nemesis, 14-14. With a chance to achieve at least a .500 record, the season ended on an ominous note with a 28-0 drubbing by Penn State.

Michelosen's staff in 1965 consisted of Offensive Guard and Center Coach Walt Cummins, Offensive Tackle Coach Richard Mills, Offensive Backfield Coach Lou "Bimbo" Cecconi, Offensive End Coach Bob Rosborough, Defensive Line Coach John Stiegman, and Defensive Backfield Coach (and future Panther Head Coach) Carl DePasqua. Steve Petro was the Freshman Coach. Nobody was quite sure what to expect as the season began. Would Pitt return to the heights of 1963, or would the downward spiral of the previous year continue?

Walking up Cardiac Hill on September 18th was more difficult than usual. The day was both hot and humid, with the temperatures hitting the mid-90's by the 1:30 kickoff. Our opponents were the Oregon Ducks, who had defeated us in Eugene 22-13 the previous year. Oregon was coached by Len Casanova, who ironically had led the Panthers to a 1-8 record in 1950, his only year as Pitt's Head Coach.

The 1965 Panthers were quarterbacked by senior Kenny Lucas, the younger brother of Richie, who had started For Penn St. several years earlier. Lucas was assigned to the room next to mine on the 18th Floor of Tower A, but in name only. He was married and lived in an off-campus apartment, and I rarely saw him. His "roommate", a reserve offensive tackle named George Macko, had the room pretty much to himself. In the backfield with Lucas were senior fullback Barry McKnight, senior halfback/flanker Eric Crabtree, and junior halfback Bob Dyer. The ends were senior Mitch Zalnasky and junior Mike Rosborough. The offensive line was manned by senior tackles Tom Raymond and Jim Jones, sophomore guard Dick Miale, junior guard Tom Qualey, and senior center Fred Hoaglin.

On defense, the ends were seniors Phil Dahar and Ed Assid. Dahar was also the Team Captain. Senior Bob Guzinsky and junior Al Keiser were the tackles. When the Panthers used a five-man front, sophomore Dave Drake played middle guard (as it was referred to at the time). Senior Josh Novogratz and (for the most part) sophomore Tom Mitrakos were the starting outside linebackers, with junior Jim Flanigan in the middle. Senior Dale Stewart was the top player in the secondary, along with junior Joe "Tippy" Pohl, and sophomore Mickey Dep. A number of other Panthers saw action in the defensive backfield also.

I don't remember much about the Oregon game, other than seeing a number of people pass out from the extreme heat (and maybe a few too many drinks). We lost, 17-15. I do recall that we blew several good opportunities to pull the game out. The following week, we managed to defeat the Oklahoma Sooners at Pitt Stadium by a 13-9 score.

Then followed a three-game losing streak on the road. The first was a bizarre 63-48 loss to West Virginia. I remember listening to the game on the radio in my dorm room with a few friends. High scoring games like that were very rare in those days. The Mountaineers were led by running back Dick Leftridge, who later became a noted bust as the Steelers' 1st Round draft choice. WVU ran up over 600 yards of offense (304 rushing and 320 passing). That defeat was followed by two tough losses to Duke (21-13) and Navy (12-0).

The Panthers returned to Pitt Stadium and pulled a 28-14 upset over the Miami Hurricanes, but any hopes that this win would turn around the season were quickly dashed. A trip to Archbold Stadium turned into a nightmare. Floyd Little ran for four TD's, including a 95-yard scamper as the Orangemen coasted to a 51-13 victory. Larry Csonka and a guy named Tom Coughlin were also stalwarts in the Orangemen's backfield. Pitt limped home to face powerhouse Notre Dame and our worst fears were realized as the Fighting Irish, under Ara Parseghian, opened up a 35-0 lead en route to a 69-13 romp, ruining Homecoming Day. The following week, the Panthers flew across the country to tangle with a strong U.S.C. team. The result was somewhat more respectable, though still a 28-0 defeat.

The mood on campus was growing increasingly edgy. Students who had been around for the glorious 1963 season were questioning how the wheels had fallen off so quickly. During the week before the final game, a home contest vs. the hated Nittany Lions, things got really ugly. During a pep rally, a group of students hung Michelosen in effigy and called for his ouster.

That Penn St. game on November 20th was easily the most exciting game of the year. Rip Engle was coaching his final game at Penn St., though that wasn't known at the time. Penn State came into the game with a 5-4 record and was a solid favorite. The game went back and forth all day, with the Panthers getting the ball at their 40 yard line late in the game with the score tied at 27. The Panthers drove to Penn State's 1 yard line with seconds left. Frank Clark, a seldom-used 5'7" junior placekicker, was sent out to attempt the game-winning kick. I recall that an eerie silence fell over Pitt Stadium as Clark lined up to kick. When he punched the ball through the uprights, all hell broke loose. There were still 3 seconds left, but we stopped Penn State's kick off return and the final gun sounded. I was a pledge with Phi Kappa Theta fraternity and all of my fellow pledges and brothers raced down the aisle to join a huge and jubilant throng on the field. Both goal posts were torn down, and I vividly recall helping to carry a fairly large section back through the growing darkness to the fraternity house on Bayard St.

However, the stirring victory over our biggest rival didn't save John Michelosen's job. In December, Athletic Director Frank Carver announced that he had hired Dave Hart to replace "Johnny Mike". Hart, a native of Connellsville and a St. Vincent alumnus, had been an assistant coach at Navy for the previous two years. An energetic Penn St. assistant coach named Joe Paterno was selected to replace the retired Rip Engle. The football fortunes of the two bitter rivals would move in diametrically opposite directions for nearly a decade.

Coaches like Engle and especially Michelosen were becoming a dying breed. Michelosen was a true disciple of Jock Sutherland. He stressed the fundamentals of blocking and tackling. He was a dour man of few words and a stern disciplinarian. He didn't believe much in recruiting players. He believed that the best local players should want to play for their local university if they were good enough. His final recruiting class was small and produced few starters during the next three years. Michelosen also attracted very few black players, though that situation was hardly unique to Pitt at that time. Of the 66 or so upperclassmen on the 1965 team, I believe the only black players were Eric Crabtree, Dewey Chester, and Jim Jones. More than anything, these two factors caused the downfall of Pitt football under Michelosen.

Although the 1965 Panthers finished with a 3-7 record, a number of seniors from that team were drafted by the N.F.L. and/or A.F.L. and several went on to have solid careers. The best were Eric Crabtree, who played for a number of years with Denver and Cincinnati, and Fred Hoaglin. Mitch Zalnasky played tight end for several years with the Redskins. Ken Lucas, Dale Stewart, and Josh Novogratz all had shots in the N.F.L., but I don't believe any of them made a team. There may have been one or two others also.

Changes were coming to more than just college football. During my final three years at Pitt, there were no more protests over the lack of success on the gridiron, Despite achieving only one victory in each of his three years at Pitt, Dave Hart was never hung in effigy. Interest and enthusiasm for the team continued to wane. There were many protests on campus, but they mainly concerned civil and student rights and a rapidly escalating war in a far-off country called Vietnam. A new era was dawning, not only on the Pitt campus but all over America.

Pitt football was headed toward nearly certain oblivion after Dave Hart's three-year run as head coach. Then, after Hart's successor Carl DePasqua at least kept the ship from sinking, we somehow lured a bright young head coach named Johnny Majors from Iowa State. A new and glorious chapter in Pitt football history was about to begin.

Miscellany from the 1965 Season

Average Attendance
(5 home games)

Largest Crowd 57,160 (Homecoming vs. Notre Dame)
Smallest Crowd 24,651 (vs. Oklahoma)

Barry McKnight – 406 yards on 124 attempts for an average of 3.3 yards

Eric Crabtree – 45 catches for 724 yards and 4 TD's

Kenny Lucas – 144 for 268 for 1,921 yards and 10 TD's with 15 interceptions
Punting Andy McGraw – 52 for an average of 40.3 yards
INT's Mickey Depp and Tippy Pohl – 3 each

Ticket Prices - Sideline $4.00 ($5. 00 for Oklahoma, Notre Dame, & Penn St.)

Ticket Prices -
End Zone
$2.50 for Oregon & Miami, $3.00 for Oklahoma & Penn St., and $5.00 for Notre Dame
Ticket Prices -
Box Seats
$5.50 for Oregon & Miami, $6.00 for Oklahoma, Notre Dame, & Penn St.

Concession Prices

Coffee and Soda (pop) – small $.15, large $.25,
Hot chocolate $.25, Hot dog $.30, Peanuts $.15,
Popcorn $.25

Editor's Note:
1965 Pitt Football - The End of an Era
was written by Bob Freschi. Bob graduated from Pitt in 1969 with a major in History. He was a staff member of the campus radio station all four years and served as Sports Director during his junior and senior years. The campus radio station was the only broadcasting source of Pitt basketball at the time, and also broadcasted a number of freshman football games.

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