The Deal: How WVU Stole Pitt’s Signals in '75

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It’s been 40 years, but Bob Antion tells the story like it could have been yesterday, yesterdaaaaay. In a discreet plan dubbed “The Deal” by then-defensive coordinator Chuck Klausing, West Virginia’s staff went into Pitt’s own house, stole their signals, then used them in a 17-14 upset that ranks among the greatest of wins in school history.

It was 1975. Rubik’s cubes, pet rocks, bell bottoms and leisure suits abound. The Captain was still with Tennille, and Jaws and SNL made their premieres. Antion, then a graduate assistant with head coach Bobby Bowden’s Mountaineers, was in charge of the advance scouting, meaning he worked one game ahead. Antion’s brother, Tom, was a backup offensive lineman on a team which had gone into Berkeley and beaten Cal 28-10 and the Cotton Bowl in Dallas to dash SMU 28-22 in a 4-0 start.

West Virginia split the next four, leaving WVU at 6-2 entering the Backyard Brawl against Johnny Majors’ No. 20 Panthers. Meanwhile, Klausing had sent Antion ahead two weeks previously when Pitt played host to Navy at old Pitt Stadium.

“What happened was Klausing is actually from Pittsburgh, and he knows everybody in Pittsburgh,” Antion said. “Somehow, he finagled a 16mm camera from WTAE channel 4, the flagship station for Pitt. He tells them something to the effect that he wanted to film a family reunion picnic, and they actually loaned him a camera.”

Which Klausing promptly gave to his son, Tommy, then a WVU student and spotter for play-by-play voice Jack Fleming who would go on to postgraduate education at Carnegie Mellon before a long career in government administration in the Washington, D.C. area. Tommy secured a field pass for the Navy-Pitt game, toting the 16mm camera along. Antion is in the press box, charting plays, situations, downs and distances, personnel…and one more key Chuck Klausing had requested.

“Watch the signals,” Antion recalls him saying. “He referred to the whole thing as ‘The Deal.’ Everything back then was shot with an over-the-shoulder 16mm. How in the world he got a field pass – on the field! – for Tommy I’m not sure.”

Pitt was among the few teams in the nation signaling plays in the mid-70s; instead, most ran them in with the change of personnel. The Panthers had just one coach, offensive coordinator George Haffner, signaling, so the focus was easy. While Tommy Klausing recorded the action, including the signals, Antion was in the booth filling in all the columns for his scouting report, including an open one.

“I left a few spaces for me to draw stick figures (of the signals),” Antion said. “I drew them with the signals the offensive coordinator was giving. Tommy would film the signals and the scoreboard, so we’d know when in the game it was. Between the film and the scoreboard, we could document my notes with down and distance and other details, and have the signals and the stick figure drawings line up.

“At halftime, (Pitt play-by-play announcer) Bill Hillgrove comes over, and they want to interview me,” Antion said. “They come over, and I have all these stick figure drawings, so I scramble to cover them up, because what the hell are they gonna think? Tommy and I come back, compare notes and it doesn’t take us but a few hours and we both have the signals broken down. The only people who know about this are me and Tommy and Tommy’s dad and (assistant coach) Greg Williams.”

The foursome stayed after some lead-up practices and worked on the signals, recognition from the opposing sideline, best sightlines and other aspects. There were questions from fellow coaches, like why was this group, made of two defensive coaches, a graduate assistant, and a coach’s kid, staying so late?

“They started to get nervous because we would stay late and be hush hush until George Henshaw and others would leave,” Antion said. “Donnie Young would look at us funny. Klausing just made something up and we would wait them out and go practice and I proved to them that I knew the signals.”

Henshaw, from Richmond, Va., played at WVU from 1967-69, then served as a graduate assistant and the junior varsity coach before being named the defensive line assistant. He would work with Bowden in his next stop at Florida State before embarking on a long NFL career that’s still going as a tight ends coach with the Tennessee Titans. Young became a fixture at West Virginia as an assistant and recruiting coordinator under Bowden, Frank Cignetti and Don Nehlen, all of whom are in the College Football Hall of Fame.

“It’s game day, and still and nobody knows except us four,” Antion said. “Klausing goes to (offensive coordinator) Frank Cignetti, and tells Frank, and he’s like a kid at Christmas. His eyes light up, he thinks it’s great, and we decide to go in and tell coach Bowden. We walk in with Cignetti and Klausing says ‘Ok, Bob, tell them.’ I said ‘Coach, I know their signals. I know Pitt’s signals, I’ve seen them in the game and I know the plays before they run them.”

Now Cignetti, along with several players interviewed, seem to float around the subject, preferring to say they don’t quite recall such an episode, or that, like with placekicker Bill McKenzie and quarterback Dan Kendra, they were unaware because, well, the coaching staff never told the players.

“I’ve heard about that,” said McKenzie, whose 38-yard field goal won the game as time expired. “As a kicker, you just sort of stand there waiting. I won’t say we were the first ones to do that, or that it was the only time anybody ever did that.”

Bowden expressed concern with the sign stealing, saying it wasn’t ethical, and instructing his staff not to do it, Antion said, unless the Mountaineers really needed it.

“Bobby looked at Frank, and asked if we really needed this,” Antion said. “And Frank said ‘Yes, we do.’ Bobby said he didn’t know if it was the right thing, but if we really need it, go ahead. But this is Pitt, let’s be real. We walked out of the office, I looked at coach Klausing and he nodded.”

Antion was in the box, alongside Williams, with Tommy Klausing on the field, all with headsets. Antion and Klausing would confer on the signals – WVU placed them in opposite spots in case one viewpoint was blocked – and relay Pitt’s play to Williams, who would confer with Chuck Klausing on the call. Plays at that time were typically 30-plus seconds apart.

“There’s no way you could do it in today’s game,” Antion said. “And even then, the players were complaining we weren’t getting the calls in fast enough. But they had no idea all game. They just thought the coaches were really smart. I missed two calls. One, they ran a play in with (tailback) Elliott Walker, and another time I called draw, and they went to more signals, and I tried to change it. We were in position for the draw, and they hit Gordon Jones for a touchdown.”

Pitt went three and out on four of its initial five drives, and turned the ball over on its last two possessions of the first half. The Panthers managed just 86 yards on 24 plays with a fumble and interception in a scoreless game. WVU clogged the middle, taking away the dive within the veer scheme and forcing Matt Cavanaugh to the outside, where it became basic option football without an exceptionally mobile quarterback.

Chuck Klausing noted West Virginia switched its 5-2-4 alignment to a 5-3-2-1 set, allowing the nose guard, two tackles and a linebacker to handle the dive, with the safeties in run support. Ends Jack Eastwood and Andy Peters would take Dorsett, along with Ray Marshall, an undersized but quick linebacker who was converted from safety early in his career. Klausing’s hope was that WVU’s defenders could run four yards as fast as Dorsett could run eight.

The All-American finished with 107 yards on 22 carries and no scores, and Pitt essentially began the second half where it ended the first, with a fumble and three and out before touchdowns on their next two possessions. West Virginia kept pace with touchdowns of its own, and the game was tied 14-14 late in the fourth when Pitt regained possession off a fumble inside the red zone with 57 seconds left. WVU had all three timeouts, however, and was aided by a tackle for loss and pass to the sideline. The series burned just 39 seconds off the clock before Pitt punted.

With the ball at the Pitt 48-yard line, Kendra hit Randy Swinson on a wheel route that put the ball at the 22 with four seconds left. That lined up McKenzie’s kick, and it sailed through as the clock hit zero.

“We were hitting curl, hitting curl, and the sucker bit on a curl, and Swinson ran a wheel route,” said Kendra, who will be back in Morgantown for the first time in 38 years this weekend for the team’s 40th anniversary and Bowden’s induction into the WVU Sports Hall of Fame. “We were getting lucky; they were giving us a curl, and again because we did fake draw, that draw fake held the linebackers a bit and allowed guys to get open in a hook area.

“Back then, it’s not like it is today, with every college game on TV every week. This was the ABC Game of the Week with Keith Jackson. They had their A team covering. And that atmosphere at the old stadium where people were sitting right on you. It seemed like the loudest crowd by far.”

And as far as the signal stealing?

“You talk to guys from Pitt, and it’s sour grapes about that,” Kendra said. “I don’t think it takes away anything. They still had to stop them, and they ran downhill and were aggressive. The defense played a heck of a game. That’s Bill Belichick-type stuff. The winning side, it’s fine. The losing side, it’s sour grapes. It was a physical game, and I think our guys were more physical. I thought between Artie Owens and Tony Dorsett, Owens got the best of him that game.”

Owens finished with 101 yards on 17 carries, a 5.9 average. He also scored once. Kendra completed 7-of-12 passes for 96 yards, the longest his 26-yarder to Swinson. WVU outgained Pitt 385-281 and was plus-two in turnover margin with 10 more minutes of possession back when that mattered.

“Klausing, to his credit, has always said ‘Yeah we stole the signals, we put the kids in the best defense, but the kids won the game,’” Antion said. “He’s reluctant to take any credit away from the players, and I understand that. During the game no one knew we had the signals. They’re just playing their ass off and thinking the coaches were smart. Everybody hates Bill Belichick for what a ‘lousy cheater’ he was, but shoot, we did that years ago. Hey, we tried to do it again the next week at Syracuse, but the guy signaling the plays in was an old Navy guy, and he used Navy flags. Once the saw what we were doing, they covered them up.

“After the game, we could never get out of the press box with all the fans. It was difficult to get over to the locker room. There were women jumping on us and kissing us. My younger brother was on the team as a back-up, and my mom and dad were at the game. They tried to drive through Sunnyside with PA plates on, and there were people beating on dad’s already beat-up 69 Chevy until my mother pulled out of a bunch of blue and gold stuff. Then instead, they ushered my mom and dad through the crowd to get out of town. We basically couldn’t go anywhere. We kinda hung out in the locker room for about half an hour to let things cool off.”

McKenzie still has the ball from the kick, though much like some memories and people involved, the signatures have started to fade.

“Back at the time I had everybody sign it,” McKenzie said. “But they didn’t invent Sharpies yet. We used ball point pens. And as you can imagine, after 40 years you can barely make it out. It always amazes me, everybody says they were there. There must have been 100,000 at that game.”

Which turned out to be the last at Mountaineer Field for Bowden, who will be one of six new members inducted into the WVU Sports Hall of Fame at noon on Saturday. The ceremony will be held inside the Caperton Indoor Practice Facility adjacent to Milan Puskar Stadium and Mountaineer Field. West Virginia then plays Maryland at 3 p.m., and the school will honor Bowden and the members of the 1975 Peach Bowl team that went 9-3, beating Lou Holtz’s NC State squad 13-10 to finish ranked 20th. There are expected to be 50-plus members of the team in town for the 40th anniversary of the season, and that Nov. 8 defeat of Pitt.

Bowden has called the game his greatest of collegiate memories, and it’s been paired with the 1970 defeat at Pitt as his most dreaded. Remarkable, really, that a coach with two national titles, and one who made his hay as the program builder at Florida State – at one point a lowly collegiate doormat – would call the bookends of thrills and spills contained within the Brawl as his zenith and rock bottom.

“The greatest high was that ’75 game, when we beat Pitt on that last-second kick by Bill McKenzie,” said Bowden, who even to this day can recall such intricate details as the student managers which served decades ago. “The worst was the 1970 game at Pitt. We were ahead 35-8 and Pitt had no intention of trying to win. They just started running it, trying to keep us from running up the score, and started going for every fourth down. They were bigger, and they started making it and I sat on the ball. I’ll never do that again. That was the last time I sat on the ball. People accused us of running up the scores at Florida State. Well, I always coached from then on.”

Including using a bit of extra help from Antion and Klausing.

“Anything that’s part of one of the five greatest wins in school history is kinda special,” Antion said. “The inscription on the inside of my ring from the Peach Bowl says ‘Sign Stealer.’ When I die, my kids will have something to remember that. I still wear that ring most every day.”

Note: This is part of a larger piece running in the print edition of the Blue and Gold News. Call 304-291-2242 to subscribe.

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