Vincenti: "Just Shot-Put The Ball, Herb!"

With the highly-touted Trojans coming to town this week, trying to avenge painful, humiliating losses to Stanford in four of the past five years (including an historic upset, a cruelty-laden beat-down, a squeaker, and a triple-OT miracle) we take this opportunity to look back 85 years and recall one of the greatest games in the storied north-south football rivalry, the famous 13-13 tie of 1927!

"Just Shot-Put The Ball, Herb!"

 

In September of 2010, I was honored with a unique opportunity to sit down with Stanford University Professor Emeritus Walter G. Vincenti '38 (general engineering/mechanical engineering). Professor Vincenti's close ties to the University go back a long, long way. Born in Baltimore, Maryland on April 20, 1917, he fatefully moved to Pasadena, Calif. when he was just five years old. His father, who at that point had become quite successful in the business world, contributed heavily to the building of the Rose Bowl stadium. As a result, the Vincentis had access to excellent reserved tickets, creating an annual New Year's Day treat for the sports-crazed boys in the family.

After graduating from Pasadena High, Walter decided that attending Cal Tech, which was only three blocks from home, would be less attractive than following in his older brother Louie's footsteps and heading north to pastoral Palo Alto. Walter arrived on the Farm as a 17-year-old in 1934 and would graduate in 1938, picking up a second engineering degree in 1940, eventually joining the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and being welcomed into the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society.

In addition to being a serious student, Walter was a very fine athlete. He played for
Jimmy "Rabbit" Bradshaw on the Stanford freshman basketball team, known as the "Papooses", during his first year on the Farm and earned a coveted "Block S", but his presence was totally upstaged by a fellow Italian, a supremely talented newcomer from Galileo High School in San Francisco. That freshman phenom was an amazing natural talent by the name of Angelo "Hank" Luisetti, who would go on to revolutionize the college game with his uncanny dribbling and pioneering one-handed shot. Therefore, as a freshman, Walter was in effect second-string, behind Luisetti.

 

Recalling that situation 76 years later, Vincenti recalled,

 

"I could see there was no future in that!"

 

[Nothing to be ashamed of, of course. Luisetti was after all named the "second-best player of the mid-century" behind (George Mikan) by an Associated Press poll of sportswriters and broadcasters in 1950].

Quickly viewing the writing on the Old Pavilion wall, Vincenti opted out of playing basketball, but later signed on to assist head hoops coach
John W. Bunn as the team's Senior Basketball Manager for the 1936-37 Pacific Coast Championship-winning season, which took place during his and Luisetti's junior year.

As Senior Manager, Walter's myriad duties included seeing to it that the uniforms were clean and making the team's travel arrangements, which included organizing and overseeing the famous trip the Stanford team made to the East Coast, highlighted by a stunning 45-31 victory by the "Crimson Giants" over national powerhouse Long Island University on December 30, 1936. The 1936-37 team was in fact the first West Coast five to travel across the country and, among other things, play before a packed house at Madison Square Garden. It was a landmark game in which the then Indians "scalped" the LIU…a team that had won 43 games in a row and was the toast of New York City. But that's a tale for another day....

 

After completing his graduate degree in engineering in 1940, Walter worked for the predecessor of NASA at Moffett Field-based Ames Research Center (ARC). Named after Joseph Sweetman Ames and founded on December 20, 1939 as the second National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) laboratory, ARC eventually became part of NASA in 1958 as part of the turnover from the dissolution of NACA). In 1956, sixteen years after he had finished grad school, Vincenti was appointed a Stanford professor where he would co-found the University's Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. In October of 1957, everything changed…the Soviets launched "Sputnik" and the space race was seriously on. The Stanford Aero and Astro Department soon became one of the largest in the nation thanks, in part, to the largesse of the Federal Government during the Cold War.

"I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time!" recalls Prof. Vincenti modestly.

 

But back to our story. It happens that Walter's older brother by a decade, Louis Rudolph Vincenti '28, known as "Louie" in college, played sports. Louie had proved to be remarkably versatile athlete, earning three letters as an outstanding end for legendary coach Glenn S. "Pop" Warner on Stanford's varsity football team and adding three more as a forward and team captain on the basketball team. In his spare time, Vincenti served as Student Manager of the A.S.S.U, at one point working alongside his football teammate, A.S.S.U. President Stanford "Steinie" Steinbeck, and as ex officio member of the Publications Council, which oversaw Stanford's three principal student publications, the Stanford Daily, the Chaparral magazine and the Quad yearbook. Vincenti was also a member of the renowned "Breakers" eating club (where his younger brother Walter would join a decade later and be elected second-term president of the club). Louie was also a member of the Men's Council, the Rally Committee and the Quadrangle Club and was Secretary-Treasurer of "Skull and Snakes", a rather mysterious men's honor society.

The football game for which Louie was most famous, certainly in the eyes of his admiring younger brother, Walter, was the famed match-up between Stanford and USC on
October 15, 1927. The highly anticipated clash took place at six-year-old Stanford Stadium in front of a standing room-only crowd in excess of 60,000 highly charged fans. The stadium seating capacity was in the process of being expanded to more than 85,000 at the time, but at the time of the game, there were far more interested parties than could be accommodated. Confident USC fans were hoping to "scramble the championship hopes of Stanford" (some things really never change, do they?)

Louie Vincenti, a veteran senior, had been anointed by Coach Warner to call signals even though he was playing end. In those days players called all of the plays themselves, with no direct communication from the bench. They would call the plays in the huddle. It should also be noted that the forward pass was just coming into vogue.

 

Ten year-old Walter and his dad traveled from their home in Pasadena to Palo Alto watch this match between two of the Conference's top teams, Stanford's "Big Red Machine" and USC, the "Pride of the South". Southern Cal was slightly favored following a Stanford loss to Saint Mary's and the Trojans were led by All-American Morley "The Muffin Man" Drury (OK, that wasn't really his nickname, but it should have been!). The face-off between the most prominent pigskin powers in California was a struggle from The Opening kickoff. Drury drove his Trojans to the Stanford 15, but the home team's defense held strong. A fumble on Stanford's initial possession by end Frank Starr Wilton was picked up by USC's Russ Sanders and returned 31 yards to the end zone, giving the visiting Trojans a 7-0 lead after Drury made good on the conversion.

Stanford immediately countered with a drive deep into the Trojan red-zone, but turned the ball over on downs. The Stanford defense held and quarterback
Clifford "Biff" Hoffman (whose LSJU alumnus grandson John "Boff" Hoffman tailgates with The Bootleg in the Chuck Taylor Grove every fall) found Frank Wilton who effectively eluded Saunders and completes a 74-yard "catch & run" that tied the score at 7-7 and it stayed that way at the half. Nervous fans headed out for popcorn, fairly certain that the fiercely-fought contest between West Coast rivals would come down to the final moments.

Scrappy little
"Tricky Dick" Hyland, a future Bay Area sportswriter and author of Diary of a Linesmasher , ran the second-half kick-off back to near mid-field, but the home team was immediately stymied. USC's next drive was halted and the Trojans' Morley punted into the end zone. But wait, a questionable holding penalty, a rather dubious decision by an obviously payroll-pocketing official ruled that an alleged infraction had occurred at the Stanford nine-yard line and had taken place before the ball crossed into the end zone, gifting the ball back to USC at the Stanford nine. Drury scored two plays later, to the utter disgust of the grumbling home crowd. Fortunately for Stanford, Hyland burst straight up the middle and blocked the PAT attempt and the score stood at 13-7.

With USC still ahead 13 to 7 and the fourth quarter winding down, Wilton recovered a Drury fumble and the home team set out to capitalize on its final opportunity, passing deep into Trojan territory with just two minutes left. With the ball on their own 30-yard line, "Pop" sent in a second-string sophomore fullback who was destined to make a memorable mark in Stanford Football history.

 

His name…Herbert Fleishacker, Jr. "Herb", later a member of the Stanford's mysterious Skull and Snakes honor society (whose faculty members included Coach Warner along with his top assistant, Claude E. "Tiny" Thornhill). Fleishacker was the son of a very wealthy San Francisco banker and philanthropist. The San Francisco Zoo was originally the "Fleishacker Zoo". In addition to being somewhat of a brute as a fullback, Herb was a shot-putter on the Stanford varsity track team, an attribute that would prove particularly helpful near the end of the '27 game.


Warner's strategy during that final drive was to pound the rock time and again, using Fleishacker to run power thrust after power thrust (in a foretelling preview of Stanford successful run-game strategy of 2008-2012).

Young Fleishacker, fairly unaccustomed to being on the field, ran in and reported to the referee

 

"Fleishacker for Hoffman, throw the pass to Vincenti!"

 

A bemused official stared at the young man with amazement, sensing an unmitigated disaster about to happen.

The idea was to get the ball to Herb on every play and let him hit the line for four or five yards at a crack. The coach's decision worked like a charm until the Redshirts found themselves down near the SC 10-yard line. Three downs later, Stanford was only at the five. Facing a do-or-die fourth down, Louie Vincenti then had an inspiration. He decided to try little something different and try to surprise the Trojans, who were naturally expecting yet another straightforward attack at the center of their defense.

In the huddle, knowing USC would be expecting yet another plunge up the middle, Louie called for a pass…in spite of the fact that "Herb" had never attempted a single pass in a college game. Not to worry.

To Walter's recollection of the story as told to him by his big brother, Louie said something to the effect of...

 

"Herb, take the ball and start toward the line…then stop and shot-put the ball 10 yards over everyone's head…I'll be there!"

With just 20 seconds left in the game, Fleishhacker, who according to Stanford's then-Director of Sports Publicity
Donald E. Liebendorfer, "couldn't throw a better forward pass than your aunt Jessica", drew on his shot-putting background and "put" the ball two-and-a-half yards (some argue it was ten yards) to the 155-pound Vincenti, who was standing all alone, and he corralled the ball for the tying score. Up in the stands, little brother Walter was in hog heaven!

 

"I was out of my mind to see my brother catching the ball that tied the game!"

Pandemonium engulfed the stadium. That is when Stanford's gridiron good fortune ran dry. In the confusion, an exceedingly excited Fleishacker stayed in the game as the holder for the conversion attempt by kicker
Mike Murphy, a responsibility normally handled by sure-handed quarterback Lawrence "Spud" Lewis. Fleishacker had no experience in the role as holder and when the snap came, again according to Liebendorfer's account,

 

"Herb jammed the pigskin into the turf and held it in such a death grip that Mike barely got the ball off the ground!"

According to Murphy,

 

"The only way that kick I could have been made that PAT would have been to kick the ball AND Herb Fleishacker over the crossbar!"

Sure enough, the come-back Cardinal had avoided the upset and despite missing an extra point that would have won the game, came through with a memorable 13-13 tie. Each team would finish 4-0-1 in the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC), but there was no automatic berth at the time. Stanford was appointed by Tournament of Roses "bigwig" Les Henry to represent the West in Rose Bowl game, delightfully upsetting legions of frustrated USC fans. In fact, there would be thousands of empty seats at the recently expanded Rose Bowl stadium that year as the New Year's Day game largely would be boycotted by disappointed Trojan athletic supporters in Southern California.

The 1927 tie was historically significant in that it deferred for one more year the emergence of the Southern Cal juggernaut under determined coach
Howard H. Jones. The balance of power on the West Coast was in the process of changing and USC soon would begin to dominate the PCC for many years to come, interrupted by Stanford famous "Vow Boys" from 1933-35. The '27 score was reminiscent of the close-fought 13-12 Stanford victory over the Trojans the previous year, which had paved the way for Stanford's mythical 1926 national championship, the only recognized football national title in the school's proud gridiron history.

LSJU was rewarded with a berth in the 1928 Rose Bowl, Pop Warner's victorious Cardinal went on to Pasadena, where a 10-year-old Walter Vincenti hoped to watch his hero, his own brother Louie, play in the Rose Bowl against the University of Pittsburgh on January 2, 1928. The result was a 7-6 win for Stanford, a particularly significant and personally satisfying outcome for Warner against the Panthers, his former team. Pitt was coached by Warner's one-time pupil and friend
John B. "Jock" Sutherland. The postseason victory was Stanford's very first bowl win in four previous tries. The game ball from that '28 Rose Bowl win now resides in the Stanford Athletic Hall of Fame Room, deaccessioned a couple of years ago from the Helms Athletic Foundation. (Yes, I just really, really wanted to use that word!)

The Path to Pasadena™ has long gone through Troy. Other than in 1902 and 1924, when the two teams did not meet, the 13-13 tie in 1927 remains the only time Stanford has made it to a Rose Bowl without beating the University of Southern California. And just to make that important point one more time - Stanford has never made it to the Rose Bowl after losing to USC.


Unfortunately, there is bit of a disappointing chapter to this otherwise uplifting story. Louie Vincenti, a much-heralded hero of the '27 SC game, would be present, but would not participate in the 1928 Rose Bowl against Pitt. Despite being healthy and suited up, he was never sent into the game. Apparently, Coach Warner had directed his players not to participate in any non-football sporting activity before the Rose Bowl, presumably out of a desire to avoid injuries. Louie didn't realize that the prohibition applied to him, a dedicated regular member of Stanford's varsity basketball team. In December, he participated in a couple of routine basketball practices. Word got around to Warner, and the news apparently irked the old ball coach, who was a famously absolute disciplinarian. A very tough life lesson was meted out by a stubborn old coach.

Walter recalls the bitter disappointment that followed,

 

"My brother was absolutely distraught. Here he wasn't playing in front of his home town fans, not only his father and brother, but other people as well. I remember seeing him down on his knees on the sidelines, begging Warner to relent and put him in the game. But no.... It was something that he regretted for the rest of his life."


Life went on, however, and went on very well indeed. Following graduation, Louis went to Stanford Law School and then practiced law in Pasadena. Ironically, after being held out of the 1928 Rose Bowl (fortunately, as a junior, Vincenti had played against Alabama in the 1927 Rose Bowl), he would later become President of the Tournament of Roses!

Louis Vincenti passed away in 1985. His son,
Louis R. Vincenti, Jr. graduated from Stanford in '54 (a classmate of my own father) and got his MBA from Stanford's Graduate School of Business in 1958. Today Walter and his wife, Joyce, live at The Hamilton near downtown Palo Alto. Walter continues to meet with Stanford colleagues on a regular basis and keeps up with Cardinal sports, particularly Stanford Football and Men's Basketball.

Editor's Note This article was "commissioned" by
Bill Busse '52, who was the high bidder at a Palo Alto Rotary Club Auction in 2010. Took a while to complete the necessary research and we all agreed the story should be released the week of the 2012 USC game. The Bootleg is always willing to consider publishing content in support of charitable fundraising activity, especially if it directly benefits Stanford Athletics. Our thanks to Rotarian extraordinaire Steve Player, a former Stanford lineman and senior member of the University's Office of Development staff, for making all of the arrangements and introductions. Originally intending to do a simple interview, we ended up conducting a comprehensive oral history with Professor Vincenti, a first-hand account and recording Stanford fans will be able to enjoy for generations to come. The audio of the interview has been provided to the Stanford Historical Society's Oral History Program.

The author gratefully credits
The Color of Life is Red by Don Liebendorfer, Time Tunnel by Archie Prescott, the Stanford Quad and the Stanford Athletics Archives.


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