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Remembering the 1963 Panthers

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1963 team (cropped).jpg


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 both ways.

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 punted.

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 Pitt.

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 24-12 win.

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 East.

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 was offered."

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.  

 

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