The 1948 college football season brought a seemingly non-stop whirlwind of national headlines, records, recognition and scandal to the Nevada Wolf Pack.
There has never been heart-stopping, thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride of a football season up on North Virginia Street quite like it before or since. The Pack finished 9-2 despite playing just two home games all season long. A 6-0 start made the Wolf Pack the No. 10 team in the nation in the Associated Press poll and firmly in the driver’s seat to go to the prestigious Sugar Bowl. A game at Tulsa saw Nevada’s Sherman Howard and Alva Tabor become the first black players to ever participate in a major college football game in the state of Oklahoma.
The Pack played six games in California in 1948 as well as one in Hawaii, Kansas and Oklahoma. The Pack offense was the best in the entire nation and helped transform the sport forever. Quarterback Stan Heath turned in the best passing season in college football history and ended the year as an Associated Press First Team All American, fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting and a first-round NFL draft pick by the Green Bay Packers after the season.
The Biggest Little City in the World owned arguably the Best Little College Football Team in the country. And, by the way, a New York-based weekly sports magazine also reported to the nation that Nevada created one of the dirtiest programs in the country.
Yes, 1948 had a little bit of everything for the Nevada Wolf Pack, a school with an enrollment of 1,700 students in a state of roughly 150,000 people.
The exploits of Heath, Howard, Tabor, Tommy Kalmanir and the Wolf Pack’s explosive air show in 1948 have been well documented. But the shocking gambling accusations made by Sports-Week, which threatened to destroy the sport up on North Virginia Street, appeared and disappeared with all of the fury, suddenness and explosion of a Heath-to-Kalmanir 50-yard strike.
The threat of sports betting and gambling, the silver and blue elephant that was always seated in the corner of the Wolf Pack’s room in the 1930s and 40s when Reno was the country’s legalized gambling Mecca, captured the nation’s attention in the fall of 1948.
“The players work in the gambling joints, if you can call it work,” a Reno cab driver told Russ G. Lynch of the Milwaukee Journal in 1948. “One kid told me he simply had to walk in and walk out of one of the joints and he got $160 a month.”
Lynch came to Northern Nevada in late October before the Wolf Pack was to play Oklahoma City at Mackay Field on Oct. 30, 1948. The Wolf Pack was 5-0 at the time, ranked No. 15 in the nation and setting the world on fire on offense. But the main reason a reporter from Milwaukee was interested in the little independent football team from Reno was Heath, who grew up in Wisconsin and played for the University of Wisconsin as a freshman in 1946.
Lynch’s focus, though, quickly shifted from Heath to the surprising little undefeated football team in a town known more for slot machines and quickie divorces.
“This reporter went around town and asked, ‘How did a little school like Nevada get a football team like this?’” wrote Lynch.
Lynch was told that gambling was subsidizing Wolf Pack football, a concept that shocked the rest of the post-World War II country.
A waiter in a casino told Lynch, “Look around. There’s plenty of money in all these joints for football or anything else they want to give it to.”
Lynch’s story was distributed throughout the country by the North American Newspaper Alliance in early November.
“The men active in building up Nevada football make no secret of the help which comes from gambling but they resent bitterly any intimation that gamblers run Nevada football,” Lynch reported.
Lynch was aided in his report by Harry Frost, the chairman of the Nevada Board of Control and George Southworth, the head of the Wolf Pack’s Downtown Boosters Club. Frost and Southworth were honest about where the money that funded Wolf Pack sports came from and who provided it.
“The result was the best concentrated Nevada football publicity and recognition ever to appear in an outside newspaper,” wrote Bill Friel of the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Frost was so proud of the Milwaukee reporter’s story that he delivered it to the Gazette-Journal’s offices himself.
“He details how much gambling clubs give to the athletic scholarship fund, what players work in the clubs and how much money they get for what they do,” Friel wrote. “And he manages to point out the local attitude (in Northern Nevada) that gambling is as legal and as little to be remarked upon as selling groceries. He’s patently fair in his treatment of the whole thing.”
Gambling’s connection to college sports might have been as shocking as buying a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk in Northern Nevada in 1948 but to middle America and the rest of the country it was scandalous.
“Gambling, the largest industry in Nevada, relieved visitors of about $40 million last year, so it is understandable the University of Nevada football team, the most spectacular forward passing outfit in intercollegiate football today, should be a by-product of slot machines, roulette and craps,” Lynch’s story reported.
Lynch was told by Frost and Southworth that the Wolf Pack’s Downtown Boosters raised $28,000 for the Wolf Pack in 1947 and half of that money came from gambling houses. Each of the 1,700 Nevada students (1,100 were male) paid $14 each toward athletics (and each received a free pass to all events) while the state of Nevada provided no money to the university in 1948 for intercollegiate athletics.
“So it is that the new intercollegiate forward passing record (which Heath set in 1948 at 2,005 yards and 22 touchdowns) was made possible by employees of gambling casinos,” Lynch reported.
Lynch also reported that Heath, Dan Orlich and Duke Lindeman were employed as bouncers at Harold’s Club, “the world’s largest gambling joint.” Heath also worked as a “motor stair” guard at Harold’s near the escalators. Scott Beasley was a bouncer at Harrah’s. Kalmanir and Jack Davis were roving slot machine cashiers at Harold’s. Fred Leon was a guard in a money cage at Harrah’s and Tom Reinhardt worked in the horse racing casino (sports book) at Harold’s. A former Wolf Pack player, Tinnas Carlson, left school after 1947 but kept his job as a craps dealer at Harold’s.
“This would be a scandal anywhere else in the country,” Lynch wrote, “but in Nevada gambling is legal and gamblers are leading citizens.”
A job in a casino is a big reason why Heath came to Nevada, he said. “The work isn’t hard and the pay is good,” said Heath, who was married with a six-month-old son during the 1948 football season. “They run all night so they can give you a shift to fit your hours. Harold’s Club is good about it. All the players could get jobs there if they want it.”
The Pack’s touchdowns were clearly funded by slot machines, roulette wheels and poker games.
A Harold’s craps dealer told Lynch, “A lot of money comes across these tables and it wouldn’t take much of it to put over a football team.”
The jobs at the casinos were a big reason why the Wolf Pack was able to recruit talented players from all over the country. Just four of the 35 Pack players on the varsity and five of the 25 on the freshman team in 1948 were from Nevada.
All but two of the Wolf Pack’s varsity players received some sort of financial help from the Downtown Boosters, a group formed as the 1930s came to a close. Most of the players got roughly $100 a month to cover the expenses of tuition, room, board, books and fees.
The total contribution by the Downtown Boosters ($28,000), Pack football coach Joe Sheeketski pointed out, wasn’t a large figure in college sports, even in 1948.
“Anyone in college athletics knows $28,000 is an insignificant amount for the promotion of athletics on a major scale,” Sheeketski told Lynch.
Yes, but that $28,000 came mainly from the casinos.
The Wolf Pack, as Friel reported, was happy for the publicity that Lynch’s stories generated. Those stories, after all, were a tremendous recruiting tool for the Pack because players from all over the country now knew they could play football, get a free education and get a job handing out quarters or guarding escalators in the Nevada desert.
And it was all legal. The NCAA existed (barely) in 1948 but it had no real authority over college sports. The NCAA didn’t even get its first full-time administrator (and president) until 1951. Athletes could hold jobs at legal businesses in 1948 and gambling, after all, was legal in Nevada.
Lynch watched the Wolf Pack destroy Oklahoma City 79-13 at Mackay to move to 6-0 overall and No. 10 in the nation. Heath broke Davey O’Brien’s single-season record of 1,457 yards (in 1938) in the win.
The Pack, which played in its first bowl game in the Salad Bowl after the 1947 season, was now one of the hottest stories in college football.
“From the Salad Bowl to the Sugar Bowl May Be The 1948 Story of Nevada’s Captivating Football Team,” a headline over a late October United Press story read.
Heath, who flunked out of Wisconsin after one semester, was capturing the imagination of an entire country.
“Stan Heath, the former Shorewood High School (Milwaukee) star who was not good enough for Wisconsin (the Badgers would finish 2-7 and last in the Big Nine in 1948), looked like another Sammy Baugh as he busted the collegiate passing record,” Lynch wrote.
A representative from the Sugar Bowl told Lynch during the Oklahoma City game that Nevada was its top choice to play in its New Orleans game on Jan. 1, 1949.
The Wolf Pack then headed west to Sacramento’s Hughes Stadium to play the Santa Clara Broncos. A crowd of over 20,000 was expected. Pack fans even drove to Sacramento the Tuesday before the game to purchase the final 3,000 bleacher tickets.
The Wolf Pack was a three-touchdown favorite though Santa Clara was 5-2 and had beaten Oklahoma, Stanford, Fresno State and Loyola Marymount.
The Wolf Pack was 6-0, had the best passer in the history of college football and one of the best offenses. The Pack was averaging 51 points a game and allowing just 10.
“Nevada University is getting more national publicity (thanks to Heath’s records and Lynch’s stories) this fall than its gambling casinos and its divorce courts,” the Minneapolis Star wrote on Nov. 3, 1948. “But can any team playing Nevada’s schedule be entitled to be rated alongside the great teams of the country? We can’t see it. To herald it as one of the great teams of the year is carrying a bet too far.”
A Hughes Stadium record-crowd of 24,876 showed up on a windy Sunday afternoon to watch one of the most anticipated games on the west coast in 1948. Fans broke through a makeshift barrier in the southwest corner of the stadium and watched the game for free. The Sacramento Bee reported that 12,000 hotdogs were sold and 52 fans showed up with tickets for seats that didn’t exist. Both Governors, California’s Earl Warren and Nevada’s Vail Pittman, were in the stands.
Santa Clara ambushed the Wolf Pack, winning 14-0.
“Just wait,” Governor Pittman said at halftime when Santa Clara led 14-0. “It’s not over yet.”
It was the first time the Pack did not score since a 40-0 loss at Tulsa on Oct. 20, 1945. Heath, who couldn’t throw long because of the wind, was just 16-of-38 through the air for just 113 yards. He did not complete a pass until the final two minutes of the second quarter.
Bill Osborne picked off a Santa Clara pass in the first minute of the game, giving the Pack the ball 30 yards from the end zone. Sherman Howard ran for a yard on first down, Dick Trachok picked up six on second down but Heath then tossed two incomplete passes with one dropped in the end zone. Carl Robinson recovered a Santa Clara fumble near midfield in the second half but the Pack couldn’t move the ball. Trachok would later lose a fumble and Heath would toss three incomplete passes from the 13-yard line.
Goodby Heisman. The Sacramento Bee wrote, “Heath is not the best forward passer the world has ever seen — not by a long shot.”
“We have no alibis,” Sheeketski said after the game.
The Wolf Pack’s fairytale journey from the Salad Bowl in 1947 to the Sugar Bowl in 1948 got blown off course in Sacramento.
“We sent a man to Sacramento to talk to Joe Sheeketski if Nevada had won,” a Sugar Bowl official told the Atlanta Constitution newspaper three days after the game. “And we would have enjoyed adding Stan Heath to the list of great passers who have performed in the Sugar Bowl. But Nevada muffed a near certain chance to receive a Sugar Bowl invitation.”
The Sacramento Bee quickly brought the aspect of gambling into the Pack loss.
“Reno Gambling Clubs Take Heavy Losses,” a Bee headline screamed the day after the game. “The bigger clubs lost $25,000 each while one lost $5,000. The game was a costly one for Nevada and its gambler backers.”
“We just weren’t right today,” lineman Frank Sanches said. “I don’t know what was the matter.”
The Reno newspapers blamed the shutout and Heath’s off day on the wind. St. Mary’s coach Joe Verducci was at the game and told the Bee, “It was Santa Clara’s rushing of the passer which caused Heath all his trouble. It wasn’t the wind. Santa Clara is one of the most underrated clubs in the country.”
Santa Clara would beat Kentucky in the Orange Bowl after the 1949 season.
“The Broncos’ line played Nevada off its feet,” said Verducci, whose Gaels lost 48-20 to Nevada at home earlier in 1948.
The Wolf Pack’s loss to Santa Clara caught the attention of a magazine editor named Marty Berg. Berg, whose Sports-Week publication was based in New York, had just read Lynch’s stories about Nevada’s gambling connection.
A stunning upset loss by a team that is funded by gambling? Berg couldn’t resist drawing his own conclusions.
Berg and reporter Don Freeberg deduced two weeks later in Sports-Week that Nevada’s loss to Santa Clara was not entirely decided on the field. The magazine’s story quickly hit the national news wires in the middle of November.
“Nevada Denies Throwing Game to Santa Clara,” a Sacramento Bee headline said on Nov. 20, 1948.
“Nevada Coach Denies Gaming Coup Charge,” a New York Daily News headline said.
The Sports-Week story used facts and figures from Lynch’s stories to draw its own conclusions.
“Nevada’s 14-0 loss to Santa Clara on Nov. 7 saddened everyone in Reno except an exclusive group of bookies who were on the ‘in’ and a few dozen assorted Nevada football players who were on their payroll,” Sports-Week reported. The story also pointed out that Heath, likely the most famous quarterback in college football in 1948, “drew weekly paychecks from gambling clubs for working in the casinos.”
Wolf Pack fans refused to believe their beloved team deliberately lost to Santa Clara.
“The idea that there was anything to (Sports-Week’s) charges that Nevada threw the game was generally pooh-poohed,” the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Bill Friel wrote.
The Wolf Pack quickly threatened legal action against Sports-Week as the Pack headed to Wichita State for a Nov. 25 game.
“If Nevada’s Board of Athletic Control gets around to filing a libel suit against Sports-Week, it may have to stand in line,” Friel reported. “Max Yeargen a Wichita boxing promoter, has filed a $100,000 suit against the publication for charging he was staging fixed fights.”
The Sports Editor of the Wichita Beacon told Friel that Sports-Week had tried to smear his paper with the charge that it was helping to keep (professional) baseball out of Wichita in an effort to make the city’s amateur tournaments (mainly the National Baseball Congress World Series) even stronger.
“He (the Wichita editor) indicated he naturally wasn’t impressed with any story Sports-Week might have on Nevada.”
The University of Nevada’s student paper, The Sagebrush, urged the Wolf Pack to get even with Sports-Week.
“If the (Nevada) athletic board sits back and allows this incident to pass unnoticed many will reason it’s true,” the Sagebrush wrote. “It is time to start making a few people eat their insidious remarks.”
The Wolf Pack wrote a letter to Sports-Week denying the Santa Clara game was fixed and wanted the letter published in Sports-Week.
The letter stated that Sports-Week “made infamous and malicious attacks on the Nevada team without adequate investigation and with no proof to sustain them.
“Specifically your article charged that there was a well-laid plot for Nevada to throw the Santa Clara game for the specific benefit of Nevada gamblers.”
The Wolf Pack announced it had hired William Woodburn of the law firm Thatcher, Woodburn and Forman to look into a possible lawsuit against Sports-Week.
“A local attorney is now in New York checking the case,” reported the Gazette-Journal on Dec. 1, 1948.
The Wolf Pack had no shortage of legal help on the matter. Sports-Week, after all, made the mistake of attacking the one business (gambling) in Northern Nevada that could afford legal help.
“A score of attorneys incensed over the charges already have volunteered to help with possible suits,” an Associated Press story reported. “They include Pat McCarran, former Senator, and former Governor Edward Carville and former Governor Morley Griswold.”
The Pack clearly wasn’t about to sit back and let the matter pass unnoticed. “The charges in your article are infamous, untrue and damaging to Nevada athletics, to members of the athletic department and to the boys on Nevada’s squad,” the Wolf Pack stated in its letter to Sports-Week. “Nevada’s continued good relations with its long established traditional opponents as well as prospective opponents are jeopardized by your unwarranted charges.”
Even Lynch, the Milwaukee reporter whose story Sports-Week used as the basis of its claims against the Wolf Pack, was upset.
“The word today is that Russ G. Lynch of the Milwaukee Journal is thinking of a suit, too,” the Gazette-Journal reported in late November. “The Sports-Week piece on supposed gambling influence in Nevada’s loss to Santa Cara made free use of information Lynch had printed but made an entirely different thing of it. The general reaction in Reno is that a series of stories by R.G. Lynch of the Milwaukee Journal was rewritten in an exaggerated and sensational style without regard to facts.”
Few readers in Reno actually saw the Sports-Week stories. “It was reliably reported in Reno that the company which distributes the magazine had issued orders to news dealers to take all remaining copies off their stands,” the Gazette-Journal wrote.
The Wolf Pack also invited Sports-Week to send a reporter to Reno.
“We didn’t have to send a representative to Reno to make first-hand inquiry into conditions there,” Berg said. “That was done by R.G. Lynch.”
Berg and Sports-Week, despite the threat of a lawsuit, never fully backed down from its original story. The magazine printed the Wolf Pack’s letter in December (as it did all letters to the editor) but did not print a retraction.
“Were the University of Nevada subject to NCAA jurisdiction I have every reason to believe the NCAA would have long ago declared ineligible every member of the Nevada squad,” Berg told the Associated Press.
“The publication of the story in Sports-Week was not done with malicious intent or carelessness. We published the story in the interest of clean sports in this country which is especially needed now so far as college football is concerned.
“We commend the Nevada situation to the Governor of that state because we believe it warrants his inspection if Nevada is to occupy any wholesome position in college athletics in this country.”
The Wolf Pack said it certainly had no financial incentive to deliberately lose to Santa Clara.
“Nevada had an undefeated record to protect,” a national wire story said in late November 1948. “The squad, its coach and its athletic department had everything to gain by a victory over Santa Clara, including a likely invitation to play in one of the major postseason bowl games.”
The Gazette-Journal also pointed out that just one Reno casino in 1948 officially took bets on Wolf Pack games.
“Most of them decided that horses were a safer bet and more profitable,” the Gazette-Journal reported.
There were, however, plenty of private bookmakers around Reno who would take a bet on most anything.
“There are several other small clubs and bars that act as stakeholders for individual bettors but (claim) they take no part in the operation themselves,” the Gazette-Journal reported.
The Wolf Pack coaches and players also denied the gambling accusations.
“What’s so unusual about a favorite getting licked these days?” Heath told the Milwaukee Sentinel in late November 1948. “Santa Clara beat Oklahoma, Missouri beat SMU and Pittsburgh upset Penn State. Nobody even hinted at any scandal after any of those games. It just wasn’t one of our better days and the conditions weren’t to our liking.”
“Nobody associated with gambling in Reno at any time has ever asked me to predict the outcome of any game,” Sheeketski said in a late December 1948 wire story. “People I know personally, who are engaged in the gambling business, purposely avoid talking about sports while in conversation with me.”
The entire matter lasted only about two weeks and then all but disappeared. It was never reported whether or not any official lawsuit against Sports-Week was filed and if there was legal action, the result or settlement was never revealed.
Sports-Week and Berg, which continued to publish controversial stories well into the early 1950s, never followed up on its accusations involving the Wolf Pack.
The 1948 season was clearly the last year of the Wolf Pack’s football success in the 1940s. At one point the Pack won 28-of-33 games from the middle of the 1945 season to just before its Harbor Bowl loss to Villanova at the end of the 1948 season.
The Pack then went 5-5 in 1949, 1-9 in 1950, dropped the sport in 1951 because of a lack of finances and brought it back as a non-scholarship sport in 1952.
Whether the gambling accusations in Sports-Week frightened anyone at the university is not known and was certainly never reported. All that is known is that the Wolf Pack money from the Downtown Boosters and casinos dried up almost immediately after the stories. The football program, because of a lack of finances, changed dramatically after 1948 as the Pack stopped securing players from all over the country and fell into a sea of mediocrity for two-plus decades.
College athletics changed dramatically in the early 1950s. The NCAA hired a staff and started to take a closer look at how schools were conducting business. The evils of gambling were never strongly attached to the Pack again.
The issue, though, did come up in 1991 after the Wolf Pack’s 55-49 miracle comeback victory over Weber State at Mackay Stadium. The Pack was down 49-14 in the third quarter before staging the biggest comeback in NCAA history. Three days after the game Weber State coach Dave Arslanian admitted he didn’t believe in Wolf Pack miracles as much as some questionable decisions by the officials.
“I know this,” Arslanian said at a press conference with the other college football coaches in the state of Utah. “If I were a young writer I wouldn’t mind digging into an investigative story on that. It happens too often in Reno.”
The phrase, “it happens too often in Reno,” understandably opened up everyone’s eyes. Arslanian’s comments were a whole lot milder than the Sports-Week accusations. He, after all, merely called upon reporters and not the governor of Nevada to look into the strange happenings in Reno. And he never mentioned gambling or the casinos. The Pack also didn’t threaten a lawsuit and simply (at least publicly) laughed off Arslanian’s comments as simply the ramblings of an embarrassed coach who had just blown a 35-point second-half lead.
But Arslanian’s comments, made four decades after the Sports-Week story, proved once again that the silver and blue gambling elephant is always present in the Wolf Pack football room.