By Bob Smizik
Where do you start with the
1963 Pitt football team? How do you explain a different time when the game was
the same -- blocking and tackling -- but also radically different from what we
see today. How do you bring back a time when football was king, but not King.
When the NFL was the dream of a small percentage of the players and graduate
school a goal for just as many.
The 1963 Pitt football team
that is being honored at Saturday's game is special in so many ways. They were
student-athletes in the truest sense long before that phrase was coined. They
were 9-1 -- yes, once upon a time teams played only 10 games a season -- and
uninvited to a bowl game, but walked away from the disappointment without
acting like their lives had been shattered. The student body didn't protest, it
simply went on with its academic and social life. It was another era. Football
was important, just not that important.
Let's begin with how football
was so different back then. Yes, it was blocking and tackling and, yes, speed,
size and a tight spiral still mattered. But for a brief period of time, the
people in charge believed the young men who played the college game should be
football players in the truest sense; that they should be throwbacks to a bygone
era. And so it was, for a brief period of time, one-platoon football was
instituted. Rules were put in place so a team could not make wholesale
substitutions when the ball changes hands.
Which meant there was no
position of defensive end, just end (the terms wide receiver and tight end had
not yet been invented). There were no nose tackles, just tackles. No
cornerbacks, just halfbacks. When the ball changed sides, 22 men did not leave
the field. Almost all of them stayed and assumed different roles. There were
loopholes. One player could be replaced and that would be the quarterback. The
rest, regardless of an obvious strength on one side of the ball, mostly played
That's not to say they played
60 minutes. They didn't. There was a second 11-man unit that replaced them and
those, too, for the most part, stayed on the field after the ball had been
Here's another way to explain
how different that game was compared to today's. Pitt's two starting tackles in
1963, Ernie Borghetti and John Maczuzak, were just about the biggest men on the
team. Both weighed 235 pounds. That's not a typo -- they weighed 235, not 335.
Injuries thwarted Borghetti's NFL career. He enrolled in the Pitt dental school
and went back home to his native Youngstown, Ohio area to practice his
profession. After a brief fling with the Kansas City Chiefs, Maczuzak became a
captain of industry -- CEO of National Steel.
All-America running back Paul
Martha was a first-round draft choice of the Steelers. He later became a lawyer.
Starting fullback Rick Leeson became a dentist. Dazzling quarterback Fred
Mazurek an attorney. End Bob Long a minister. Team captain -- there was only one
-- Al Grigaliunas went into business. I could go on and on about the off-the
field success of this team and if you detect a touch of pride in my words it's
because these men were my classmates, in the truest sense of that word, at
But on to that special season.
Not much was expected from Coach John Michelosen's 1963 Panthers. They had been
3-7 in 1961 and 5-5 in 1962.
Pitt opened at UCLA, always a
strong team, and came away from the Los Angeles Coliseum with an impressive
20-0 win. Bruins coach Bill Barnes liked what he saw. "Pitt's a real fine team,"
Barnes said. "One of the best in the United States. And what speed they have.
That Martha and [Eric] Crabtree can really fly."
Crabtree, a sophomore, was a
second-team halfback and -- in perhaps the greatest change over the eras -- one
of two African-Americans on the team.
Something was in the works, but
no one quite analyzed college football the way it is today. There was no ESPN,
no 24-hour sports talk and, in fact, no sports talk. Most news was conveyed by
what is today the dying institution known as newspapers.
Back home at Pitt Stadium, the
Panthers continued to feast on West Coast opponents, beating Washington, 13-6,
and California, quarterbacked by Craig Morton, 35-15.
The California coach, Marv
Levy, today enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said, in
reference to Crabtree, "Pitt is so deep that their best back is on the second
team." Even then, Levy had an eye for pro-caliber talent. Crabtree went on
to play six seasons in the NFL.
West Virginia, not
surprisingly, did not fall so easily. The Mountaineers outplayed Pitt but
Martha, with his brother Richie, on the other team, ran 45-yards for the
game-winning touchdown in a 13-10 victory.
And, then, the game. Pitt vs.
Navy, two nationally ranked teams, at Annapolis. Pitt had the superb backfield
depth of Mazurek, Martha, Leeson, Crabtree and Bill Bodle. Navy had
legend-in-the-making Roger Staubach. In a game that would have far-reaching
implications at the end of the season, Staubach completed 14-of-19 passes,
dazzled and befuddled Pitt with his elusiveness, and led the Midshipmen to a
The postseason stage had been
set. As far as the East was concerned, Navy was No. 1, Pitt No. 2. Both teams
stayed that way the remainder of the season as neither lost.
The traditional season-ending
game against Penn State was delayed a week because of the assassination of
President John F. Kennedy and that, too, would affect the bowl picture.
Finally, on a Saturday that the late Beano Cook would call the greatest day in
Pitt sports history, the Panthers beat Penn State, 22-21, in the afternoon and
Duquesne, then a fierce archrival, 69-67, that night in basketball to win the
Steel Bowl championship.
The basketball team would eventually
be invited to the NCAA Tournament. There was no postseason for the football
team, despite a 9-1 record and a No. 3 ranking in the nation.
Everything about a bowl
invitation seemed to break against Pitt but nothing larger than the
assassination of the President. If the game had been played on its
original date, and Pitt won, there would have been an invitation for the
Panthers. But the bowls were far more selective in those days. There were only
a handful, not dozens. They could not wait for the outcome of the Penn State
game. If Pitt lost -- imagine this -- the bowls did not want an 8-2 team from the
There were last-minute rumors
of a Sun Bowl bid, but it went to Oregon, which had lost to two teams Pitt beat,
Washington and Penn State. In yet another sign of a different time, athletic
director Frank Carver said, "It is doubtful if we would have accepted if a bid
Disappointment shook the Pitt campus -- for about 12 hours. Then life went on. It was another time. Football was important, just not as important as it is today.
Bob Smizik is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and former sports editor of The Pitt News who covered the 1963 Panthers. He enjoyed a long career with the Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette and now writes the online sports column "Smizik on Sports" for post-gazette.com.