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Jim O’Brien: When Duquesne, Pitt and Carnegie Tech Were in Bowl Games

January 2, 2012
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When Duquesne, Pitt and Carnegie Tech Were in Bowl Games:

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

There was a time when Duquesne, Carnegie Tech and Pitt all played in college football bowl games, and were among the nation’s outstanding teams.  Even then Pittsburgh could lay claim to the title of “City of Champions.”

          This was back in the late ‘30s, before I was on the beat, before I was even born (1942), so I had to look up most of the scant information remaining from those halcyon days.

          Carnegie Tech, now known as Carnegie Mellon University, was so good once upon a time that they defeated Notre Dame 19-0 at Forbes Field,  Notre Dame’s legendary coach Knute Rockne had so little regard for Tech that he wasn’t even on the sideline that day.  He instead was scouting a future opponent, thought to be a much better ballclub than the Tartans.

          That occurred on November 27, 1926 and I knew about that upset because my mother, then a 19-year-old Mary Burns, was at the game and had a program to prove it.  I wish I still had that program.  It would be worth something.  That Tech victory has been rated the fourth greatest upset in college football history by ESPN.

          This column can serve as a history lesson for most Pittsburgh football fans.  Some people dismiss talk of the past, saying it was before their time.  But the Civil War was before my time and I still find it fascinating to read the stories of our country’s deadliest war.

          Tech’s teams in 1938 and 1939 were nationally ranked.  Following the 1938 season, the Tartans played in the Sugar Bowl where they lost to the No. 1 rated Texas Christian University or TCU team by the score of 15-7.  Tech was ranked as high as No. 6 in 1938.

          Their star player was quarterback Howard Harpster.  I met him at a Curbstone Coaches Luncheon at the Roosevelt Hotel during my student days at Pitt in the early ‘60s.  I know his son-in-law Dick Swanson, one of Pitt’s most ardent athletic boosters.

          Pitt’s 1936 team went 8-1-1 and defeated Washington, 21-0, in the Rose Bowl.   Pitt’s 1937 team posted a 9-0-1 record, with the third consecutive scoreless tie with Fordham the only blemish on their schedule.   Those were the days of Marshall Goldberg and “The Dream Backfield.”

          This is the 75th anniversary of Duquesne’s appearance in the 1937 Orange Bowl, where they defeated Mississippi State, 13-12. This anniversary was pointed out to me by Marilyn Schiavoni, the managing editor and publisher of The Valley Mirror

Her uncle or whatever played for the Dukes in those days.  (Marilyn: Add whatever else is relevant, like where he came from and what position he played.)

Duquesne won on a last-ditch pass from Boyd Brumbaugh to Ernie Hefferle.  It was a 72-yard touchdown strike and it was reported that the pass was in the air for 69 of those yards.

That same Duquesne team defeated the Rose Bowl-bound Pitt team by 7-0 during that 1936 season.  Clipper Smith was the coach of the Dukes and their center Mike Basrak was the first Duquesne player to be a first-team All-American.  Basrak played for the Steelers in 1937 and 1938.

I know I was introduced to Boyd Brumbaugh at a Curbstone Coaches Football Luncheon where I also met Howard Harpster.  Brumbaugh’s daughter bought a book from me at South Hills Village about ten or twelve years ago and told me some stories of her dad’s sports exploits.

I have a personal history with Hefferle, who caught Brumbaugh’s bomb for the game-winner.  Brumbaugh, by the way, was a halfback on that Dukes’ team.

Hefferle hailed from Herminie, Pa., near Irwin.  He coached the ends when I was at Pitt, and they included some great ones such as Mike Ditka of Aliquippa, Joe Walton of Beaver Falls and Mean John Paluck of Swoyersville who all went on to star in the NFL.

When I went to Miami in 1969 to cover the Miami Dolphins in their final season in the AFL, writing for The Miami News, I was reunited with Hefferle, who was the Dolphins’ offensive line coach.  He was a decent and fair fellow and had attributes I later associated with Chuck Noll when he coached the Steelers.  In short, he was a class act.  Hefferle helped me crack the ice with the coaching staff of the Dolphins, headed by George Wilson.                      

          Notice that Carnegie Tech played in the Sugar Bowl, Pitt in the Rose Bowl and Duquesne in the Orange Bowl.  Those were elite bowls for years and especially in the late ‘30s when there were only five or six bowl games.

          There were 35 bowl games this season.  It seems like there is a bowl game on TV every day.  West Virginia and Penn State have already played in bowl games, and Pitt will be playing in one this coming Saturday.

          The Panthers are matched with Southern Methodist University or SMU in the Compass Bowl.  It’s the second straight year Pitt has played in this post-season bowl game in Birmingham, Alabama.

          Somehow the Compass Bowl doesn’t have the same ring as the Rose Bowl, the Cotton Bowl or the Orange Bowl.

          But it could be worse.  Among the 35 bowl games on this year’s schedule were the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, the TicketCity Bowl, the Go-Daddy.Com Bowl, the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl and Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, and the infamous Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

          Yes, there are too many bowl games these days, with whatever names money can buy, and it permits teams such as Pitt to get in with mediocre 6-6 records.  When I was a senior at Pitt in 1963, the Panthers posted a 9-1 record and did not get into a bowl game.

          Back in the late ‘30s, college football ruled in Pittsburgh.  The sports pages were dominated by Duquesne, Pitt and Carnegie Tech, and the Steelers were dealt with in a few paragraphs.

          The best example of the difference between the status of the collegians and the pros in those days comes in the case of Aldo “Buff” Donelli, a football and soccer star out of Morgan, Pa., in Bridgeville’s backyard.

          In 1941, Donelli was the head coach simultaneously of Duquesne University and the Steelers.  Elmer Layden was the NFL commissioner at the time.  He had been a member of the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame in his playing days and had coached at Duquesne before moving on to Notre Dame as the coach.

          He told Donelli he had to make a choice.  He could coach at Duquesne or with the Steelers, but he couldn’t do both.  Donelli chose to stay with Duquesne.  Of course, the Steelers were in the midst of a 1-9-1 record in 1941.

          I learned something else about Carnegie Tech that I didn’t know before when I was doing research for this column.

          In 1954, Tech went undefeated except for one tie.  They were invited to play in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas when bowl participation was truly for elite teams.  The players on that Tech team voted to play in the post-season game, but the school administration ruled against it, saying it wanted to uphold its academic reputation.  Playing in a bowl game was beneath the dignity of the Tech hierarchy.

          Tech and Duquesne both gave up big-time football in the ‘40s because they could not afford the financial outlay necessary to compete on a national basis and, again in Tech’s case, they thought it better to maintain its academic reputation.

          How about that, sports fans?

           Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien will be signing his books this weekend as a featured attraction at the Pittsburgh Remodeling Show at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center from Friday through Sunday.

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