Jesuit Mission USF history

History of Athletics: Football and Values in 1951

The United States was still a largely segregated society in 1951, 175 years after the Declaration of Independence boldly proclaimed to the world that “all men are created equal.” Neighborhoods, restaurants, public and private accommodations, and schools at every level across the nation were segregated by law and custom. The supreme law of the land, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, permitted separate public schools for white and black children. The famous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education declaring segregated schools to be “inherently unequal” was still three years down the legal road.

1951 football in action

The USF football team on offense during the 1951 season. Carrying the ball is halfback Roy Barni, who later played for the Chicago Cardinals and the Philadelphia Eagles professional teams.

In the South, segregation was virtually absolute everywhere and was upheld by city ordinances, state laws, and violence. In the North, segregation was also widespread and buttressed by social mores and on occasion by force. In July 1951, while the local police stood by and watched, a white mob of more than 2,000 people violently prevented a black couple from moving into an all-white neighborhood in Cicero, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Change, however, was slowly coming to the nation.

In 1947, Jackie Robinson signed a contract with Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to become the first African American baseball player in the major leagues in 61 years, and the next year, President Harry Truman officially integrated the armed forces by executive order. A small minority of institutions and areas of the nation were also ahead of most of the country in racial integration. Jackie Robinson, for example, attended integrated public schools in Southern California and played varsity baseball and football for integrated teams at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

The University of San Francisco was also decades ahead of most of the nation and fielded its first integrated football team in 1930. The 1951 football team, with its shoulder-to-shoulder African American and white players, was relatively rare by contemporary 1951 intercollegiate standards, but reflected a long-term values system on the hilltop campus. The finale to the 1951 football season revealed just how unique that values system was in the United States. 

The USF football team of 1951 was arguably the best intercollegiate team ever. The team, coached by Joe Kuharich, compiled a perfect record of nine wins, with no losses or ties. The team saw nine of its starting players drafted directly into the National Football League, five of whom went on to play in the NFL Pro Bowl, with three of those eventually inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. No other collegiate team ever had this many of its players so honored.

Ollie Matson All-American

Ollie Matson was fullback for the undefeated USF football team of 1951. He was the nation’s leading intercollegiate rusher and scorer in football during that season, was selected to be a member of Look Magazine’s All-American team, won silver and bronze medals in track at the 1952 Olympics, had a spectacular career in professional football, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Ollie Matson, one of the two African American players on the team, won silver and bronze medals in the 1952 Olympics before launching his spectacular career in professional football, culminating in his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Burl Toler, the other African American on the team, was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, but was prevented from playing professional football by a knee injury. Instead, he became the first African American to become an NFL game official. Toler later obtained a master’s degree in educational administration from USF and in 1968 became the first African American junior high school principal in San Francisco’s history when he was named principal of Benjamin Franklin Junior High, after having taught at that school for several years. In addition to Ollie Matson, Gino Marchetti and Bob St. Clair had great NFL careers and were voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Several other players from the team also played in the NFL: quarterback Ed Brown, halfbacks Joe Scudero and Roy Barni, and linemen Lou Stephens, Ralph Thomas, Merrill Peacock, Dick Stanfel, and Mike Mergen. Bill Henneberry, the backup quarterback for the team, later became director of athletic development at USF. Pete Rozelle, the team’s sports information director, eventually became the commissioner of the National Football League. 

Despite the Dons’ perfect football record in 1951, the team was not invited to any post-season bowl games, which should have been a given for a team with USF’s spectacular season. The College of the Pacific, for example, which the Dons had beaten 47 to 14, was invited to the Sun Bowl. Other teams with inferior records also went to bowl games. The reason the USF team was not invited soon became clear: racism. In the benighted days of 1951, teams with black athletes simply were not invited to play in post-season bowl games. Finally, the organizers of the Orange Bowl did express an interest in having the Dons play, but only if they left their two black players behind. The team players adamantly refused this offer and became known as the team that was “undefeated, untied, and uninvited.” The University of San Francisco ended its football program after the 1951 season. The program had been losing approximately $70,000 per year, and the president of the institution,William Dunne, S.J., reluctantly announced the termination of the football program after the 1951 season for financial reasons. 

On September 29, 2001, the 1951 USF football team was honored at a dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of its famed season. That night, the team players, their families and friends, and more than 400 others came together to acknowledge its record on the football field and to applaud the moral values represented by the team. The current president of USF, Stephen Privett, S.J., captured the essence of the team’s legacy during his dinner speech: “These men exemplified the values that remain at the core of our identity as a Jesuit Catholic university. I refer to dedication to a common good, rather than the interests of any one individual, respect for the dignity and worth of every human being, and an unwavering commitment to excellence on the field, in the classroom, and in their personal and professional lives. The men who we celebrate this evening paid a price for their integrity. They refused a bowl bid rather than compromise their values. They sacrificed glory for honor and character.”

1951 Football offense

The USF football team of 1951 was undefeated on the gridiron and had nine of its players drafted by the National Football League. Three of those players (Ollie Matson, Gino Marchetti, and Bob St. Clair) were eventually inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Despite fielding perhaps the best collegiate football team of all time, the Dons were not invited to play in any postseason bowl games unless they left their African American players (Ollie Matson and Burl Toler) at home. The team refused, stood on principle, and transcended the segregated and racist temper of the times.

From Legacy and Promise: 150 Years of Jesuit Education at the University of San Francisco by Alan Ziajka. more info »