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A year without football at Mackay? It’s happened before

After success in the 1940s, University of Nevada dropped the sport in 1951

By Joe Santoro For the Nevada Appeal
Nevada takes the field before a game against New Mexico at Mackay Stadium on Nov. 2.
Tom R. Smedes/AP

Try to imagine a fall season without Nevada Wolf Pack football.

No tailgate parties. No Homecoming game. No Mackay Stadium standing ovations. No cheerleaders. No treks across Virginia Street to the Little Waldorf Saloon before and after the game. No cannon blasts after every Wolf Pack touchdown. No Pride of the Sierra marching band. No chance of getting the Fremont Cannon back from UNLV. No reason to hate Boise State.

As things stand now there is a very real chance that the 2020 Wolf Pack football season will vanish because of the coronavirus outbreak. But if the unthinkable happens – a beautiful Northern Nevada fall season without Wolf Pack football – it will not be yet another example of the unprecedented times we find ourselves in right now.

That is because it has happened before.

The last time Northern Nevada was without Wolf Pack football was in the fall of 1951. The circumstances and reasons for wiping out Wolf Pack football were totally different in 1951 than they would be this fall. But the end result – no Pack football – would be the same.

The Wolf Pack had just completed its greatest decade of football in school history in the 1940s. The Pack went to two bowl games, set numerous NCAA records, finished four or more games over .500 four times, had two nine-win seasons and just one losing season from 1940-49.

Coaches Jim Aiken and Joe Sheeketski led the Wolf Pack to a record of 56-31-4 in the 1940s and thrilled Mackay Stadium crowds with unforgettable players such as Marion Motley, Stan Heath, Tommy Kalmanir, Scott Beasley, Buster McClure, Ken Sinofsky, Horace Gillom, Sherman Howard, Bill Mackrides, Don Talcott, Dan Orlich and Dick Trachok.

But the arrival of the 1950s also signaled the birth of major changes in college athletics that would affect the Wolf Pack for the coming decades.

The 1940s, especially at the end of World War II in 1945, were an era of unchecked recruiting and an avoidance of what little rules the NCAA had in place at the time. College programs literally purchased players, luring them to campus with the promise of a free education, room and board and a steady income. The Wolf Pack was no different, collecting players from all over the country. But then the Wolf Pack, like a lot of small to mid-level collegiate athletic programs in the 1940s that grew too fast too soon, reached a point almost overnight when it simply could not compete financially with the larger, richer schools.

A Jan. 19, 1950 national wire story in the Nevada State Journal outlined college football’s challenges as a new decade arrived.

“In 1930 was born the ‘bought’ football player who came to college not for an education but for a job, the job of playing football,” the story said.

Another wire story in February 1950 reported that “small colleges are now emphasizing basketball because of the cost of football players. In football a college must buy 50 players if it wants a good club.”

Portland, which lost to the Wolf Pack in 1947 and 1949, dropped football after the 1949 season, leaving an open date on the Pack schedule for 1950. Canisius and St. Louis dropped football after 1948. Other schools that dropped football since 1930 included Loyola of Chicago, Saint Joseph’s, Gonzaga, Providence, Loyola of New Orleans, Creighton, St. Joseph’s and DePaul. That number would grow steadily from 1950 through the mid-1990s as regular Pack opponents before 1950 like Santa Clara, St. Mary’s, San Francisco, Chico State, San Francisco State, Loyola Marymount, Wichita State, Pacific, Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, Pepperdine and others all dropped the sport because of the rising cost of doing business.

As the 1950 season approached the Wolf Pack simply had to finally admit it could not compete financially for players with other larger west coast schools.

“Nevada’s efforts to recruit grid prospects haven’t been able to compete with money-for-play offers made by larger, richer colleges,” Pack football coach and athletic director Joe Sheeketski told the Nevada State Journal in late February 1950.

Sheeketski said numerous recruits also told him after the 1949 season that “they could do better elsewhere.”

But the Pack, of course, did make offers. Those offers, which were competitive in the 1940s because of NFL-quality players from all over the country, were no longer lucrative enough. One of the players Sheeketski went after, a player so talented that he would have likely changed Pack football history dramatically in the 1950s, was San Francisco prep star Ollie Matson. 

Matson would end up at the University of San Francisco, win two gold medals in the Olympics as a sprinter, play 15 years in the NFL and eventually get elected to the NFL Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame.

Sports editor Bud Spencer of the (now defunct) San Francisco News told Ty Cobb of the Nevada State Journal in February 1950, “Ollie Matson is supposed to have told friends that Nevada was willing to guarantee him the fantastic income of $1,000 a month. The money was to come from Reno businessmen.”

The Reno businessmen were officially called the Downtown Boosters, a group of community business leaders who had been supporting the football program in various ways throughout the 1940s.

The local newspapers reported that each of the 1,750 Nevada students paid $14 toward the athletes’ aid. The Nevada Regents, the report said, gave just $2,500 to the football program, helping to cover the costs of equipment, travel and coaching salaries. The rest – mainly the purchase of players – came from the Downtown Boosters.

The Downtown Boosters raised $148,083 from Aug. 11, 1940 to Feb. 15, 1950 and provided financial assistance to 35-45 athletes at any one time throughout the decade. By late February 1950, however, the Downtown Boosters seemed to run out of money. The Pack finished just 5-5 in 1949 as most of the great players of the 1940s were now gone.

The first public signal that Wolf Pack football was in financial distress came in the Feb. 21, 1950 Nevada State Journal. The headline read, “Big-time football here up to people of Nevada.” The report was a cry for help from the Wolf Pack athletic department.
The university’s Board of Regents, the story said, wanted the Downtown Boosters to pay $10,000 of a $45,000 bill that they owed the school for feeding and housing players. The school enrollment at the time was just 1,750 students and the population of the entire state of Nevada was 160,000 (Reno was at 32,000).

The Wolf Pack was praised by the Reno newspapers for being honest and forthright about what it now cost to run a competitive football program.

“It just happens that the one school in the country which has come out into the open about its program is the one right here in our hometown,” wrote Ty Cobb of the Nevada State Journal. “The details of a college athletic program have never been made public before.”

The Wolf Pack wasn’t the only school losing money in football in the late 1940s. The San Francisco Examiner reported in February 1950 that Saint Mary’s had lost money in each of the past three seasons, Pacific lost $100,000 for the past two years and Santa Clara (a west coast football power in the first half of last century) would also be in the red if not for its appearance in the (1949) Orange Bowl. Fresno State also faced financial problems and then created a so-called buck-a-month donation program for its community and raised enough money for 65 football scholarships at $500 each.

The University of Idaho, which for years played USC, Cal, Stanford and UCLA since the 1920s, canceled two games on its schedule against Cal in 1950 and USC in 1951 because of the now-popular two-platoon system. Schools like Idaho and Nevada in 1950 were still requiring players to play on both offense and defense. Big-time schools, which could afford to hoard players, now had separate players for offense and defense. 

“Small schools are no longer able to compete on even terms with large schools in football because of the deplorable platoon system,” Idaho President J.E. Buchanan said in a wire story in January 1950. “University presidents across the nation have long deplored the ever-increasing emphasis on football and have tried to maintain it as a game within reasonable academic proportions.”

That was the rapidly changing atmosphere in the college football world that greeted the Wolf Pack and head coach Sheeketski as it opened spring football practice in early March 1950.

Interim Nevada President Gilbert Parker reported in early 1950 that the Pack football program made a profit of $4,981 in 1947 and $42,045 in 1948 but suffered a loss of $16,848 in 1949. And there was still the matter of the $45,000 the Downtown Boosters owed the university.

But at least the Pack would have football in 1950 though the university regents, in a meeting on April 15, 1950 in a classroom at the Mackay Hall of Science, reported that the football program was now going to be placed on a cash basis. The regents would absorb the $45,000 owed by the Downtown Boosters but that starting April 22 the program’s debts would not be allowed to grow larger.

The Wolf Pack’s annual spring football game took place on May 21, 1950 with the Blues beating the Whites, 33-19. Season tickets for the upcoming three-game Mackay schedule went on sale at $9 each.

Sheeketski took his players to Logan, Utah by bus for the 1950 season opener against Utah State on Sept. 16. The Wolf Pack had breakfast in Lovelock, lunch in Elko and dinner in Salt Lake with a couple stops in Winnemucca and Wells to stretch their legs. A crowd of 5,000 for the 8 p.m. kickoff saw Utah State nip the Pack, 7-6, just the second season-opening loss (besides 1946) for Nevada since 1935.

The next week saw the Pack take on Texas A&M at Sacramento’s Hughes Stadium. The Pack, in an effort to draw more fans to the larger Hughes Stadium to help pay the bills, was also going to play Santa Clara on Oct. 22 in Sacramento. 

The game, which was promoted by the Sacramento Valley Texas Aggie Club, attracted 10,000 fans, almost three times the average crowd at Mackay. But it was a disaster on the field as Texas A&M, which had 7,000 male students (four times the total enrollment at Nevada) and twice as many football players as the Pack (60-30), strolled to an easy 48-18 win. The rematch was to take place at Texas A&M in 1951.

The third game of the season saw the Pack head to Kezar Stadium in San Francisco to take on Ollie Matson and San Francisco. Matson ran for 65 of USF’s 350 rushing yards as the Pack fell 66-6 in front of 11,000 fans.

“We’re not that good and Nevada was not that bad,” USF coach Joe Kuharich said after the game. The Pack was now 2-12-1 against USF since 1927.

The Pack fell to 0-4 for the first time since 1928 after a 43-7 loss to Pacific in front of 6,500 fans at Mackay Stadium. The Pack highlight was an 83-yard punt by Pat Brady. It was the Pack’s first loss at home since a 19-2 loss to Fleet City on Nov. 11, 1944, snapping a streak of 20 home wins in a row.

The following week saw the Pack fall 55-0 against Santa Clara in front of 6,000 fans, again in Sacramento. The Pack then dropped to 0-6 after a 34-7 Homecoming loss at home to Loyola Marymount. Again, Brady was the Pack highlight, delivering a NCAA-record 99-yard punt. That very same morning Sheeketski himself was seen painting the lines on the field for the afternoon’s game.

Also, that very same week in early November, a Sport Magazine article appeared by writer Al Stump. The article, titled, “The Football College That Turned Pro,” detailed the Pack’s financial challenges and was prompted by the university’s public plea for help back in February.

“Hypocrisy has flown out the window, replacing the grand old game of smiling sanctimoniously while dealing off the bottom of the deck,” wrote Stump, who would later author a famous biography of baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb (no relation to the Reno newspaperman). “Nevada U. sanctions an open cards-on-the-table program of buying the best team available.”

Stump, though, also reported that the Pack simply didn’t have the money now to outbid other schools for top talent.

“Thus the fantastic paradox of the college that is openly “pro” yet can’t meet the market condition imposed by the nation’s “pure schools,” the article stated. “Nevada has had player after player snatched away through undercover cash offers.”

Sheeketski told Stump that he recruited 75 junior college players after the 1949 season but, “Most of them were interested until they got to shopping around. None came to Nevada and almost all are now playing for major schools around the country. Draw your own conclusions.”

The conclusion? The money the Pack offered top players in the 1940s was no longer enough as the 1950s began.

Just 6,276 fans showed up at Kezar Stadium to see the Pack lose to St. Mary’s 25-14 on Nov. 5. St. Mary’s also was in decline, entering the game at 1-4-1. The Pack, though, was now 0-7 for the first time in school history.

The only Pack win of the 1950 season took place Nov. 11 at Mackay Stadium, 19-14 over Montana in front of a crowd of 3,200. Nobody knew it then but it would be the last Pack home game for almost two years.

The season came to a merciful end with a pair of losses. The first was 34-21 at North Texas in Denton on Nov. 18. The Pack, which flew to Texas, then took a 400-mile bus ride up to Wichita, Kansas to meet Wichita State on Thanksgiving Day five days later. Neil Garrett tossed three touchdown passes for the Pack but Wichita took an easy 37-19 decision. The Pack, its season over at 1-9, took a plane home from Wichita. The nine losses were a school record.

When April 1951 rolled around, though, the Wolf Pack still had a football program. Spring practice was about to begin and freshmen would now be eligible to play on the varsity. Just 33 players (the freshmen weren’t on campus yet) showed up for the first spring practice on April 2.

The Blue-White scrimmage game on May 6 went off as scheduled, with the Blues winning 25-6 as Myron Leavitt, from Las Vegas, scored on a 64-yard run. Pat Brady had an interception and also boomed a 58-yard punt.

The Wolf Pack also announced it had finalized a fourth home game against the San Diego Marines for the 1951 schedule to go along with Mackay games against San Jose State, Utah State and South Dakota. The Pack was also scheduled to play at USF, Santa Clara and Pacific in 1951. The Nov. 11 game against Santa Clara was to be played in the Grape Bowl in Lodi, Calif.

In early July, the Tidewater Associated Oil Company announced its national college football radio schedule for the 1951 season. The first game to be broadcasted was going to be the Camp Pendleton (San Diego) Marines at Nevada’s Mackay Stadium. By late July, however, the radio network needed a new opening game. It seemed like there would not be college football at Mackay in 1951.

The headline across the front page of the Nevada State Journal on July 23, 1951, less than two months from the start of the Wolf Pack football season, caught Northern Nevada off guard.

“U. of N. Regents Drop Football.” 

For the first time since World War I in 1918, the university up on the hill would not have a football season.

“There wasn’t enough warning that the move was just around the corner,” wrote Ty Cobb. “The man on the street is still stunned by the complete cancellation of the 1951 schedule and the sidelining of the sport indefinitely.”

Despite all of the warning signs and all of the public financial cries for help, Northern Nevada still could barely believe there would be no Pack football in 1951.

Cobb wrote in early August that, “It’s incredible that the only collegiate institution in a lively, lusty western state will not be represented (in college football) at all. Even in the bleakest days of the last war when there were less than 100 male students who were either military physical rejects or under 18 years of age, Nevada fielded a football team that played manfully against stronger foes.”

The Regents also announced that Sheeketski’s $12,000-a-year job in 1951 (which would increase to $12,500 in 1952 and 1953), as football coach and athletic director, would be terminated by Sept. 1. 

The Northern Nevada community apparently had mixed feelings about who to blame for the lack of Pack football. There were those obviously disappointed that the season was canceled but there was also strong sentiment that blamed the players for being greedy and labeled them “semi-pro.”

That prompted Cobb, who routinely defended the university and its athletes and is now a member of the university’s Hall of Fame, to scold the community.

“A respectable percentage of football players have been awarded their diplomas over the past several years,” wrote Cobb. “Quite a number of these are among our outstanding citizens now. You won’t have to look far to final local businessmen who used to play football on the hill. The other day we heard one prominent merchant mention something about the old days when players played just for fun. We reminded him that even in the old days he got a little aid in meeting his collegiate expenses.”

Cobb also reminded the community that Nevada was not alone in the 1940s with its practice of aiding athletes financially.

“The little $750 board-room scholarships here certainly don’t compare to the fabulous deals reported at some of the big football factories,” Cobb wrote. “Things like new convertibles for quarterbacks, fancy apartments for the ends, seven-day clock winding jobs, etc. The Wolf Pack football players certainly don’t deserve that semi-professional tag.”

The public, it seems, now wanted an all-local Pack football team. Cobb didn’t buy it.

“To be coldly practical about it, this local attraction theory hasn’t held up at the box office,” Cobb wrote. “Let’s look at the (coach) Doug Dashiell period, for example. Those were probably the largest number of home state products on the football team then (1936-38), more than in the past quarter-century. Recall the crowds? You could sail a boomerang through Mackay Stadium most any Saturday and avoid any casualties.

“Jim Aiken’s teams (1939-46) didn’t have the fans beating down the doors either until a few drawing cards such as Marion Motley (from Canton, Ohio and a transfer from South Carolina State) and Tommy Kalmanir (like Dick Trachok, from Pennsylvania and a transfer from Pitt). The best at drawing crowds in (Pack) history was Joe Sheeketski’s 1948 club on which a native Nevadan was a rarity.

“Last year (1950) the Wolf Pack had the most local products that a Nevada squad could number in many a year. But it lost nine games out of 10 and the gate receipts shrank like a wool sock in a washing machine.”

By the middle of August Sheeketski joined the New York Yankees of the NFL as a backfield coach. 

When NCAA football practices began on Sept. 1, the west coast was now without two (Nevada and St. Mary’s) of its more prominent football programs who abandoned the sport after the 1950 season.

Many of the Pack players from 1950 scattered all over the country. Pat Brady and Dick Nightingale joined Bradley. Joe Lash, Don Logue and Ron Einstoss joined the Navy. Ray Suchy and Ed Holoka joined the Paris Island Marines. Dean Westergaard and Buddy Brooks were now playing for the Camp Pendleton Marines. Bob Martin moved to Trinity University in San Antonio.

Football was now an intramural sport at Nevada and Homecoming weekend was now without a football game.

By late September, however, that problem was solved. A Reno town team, made up of former Wolf Pack players living in Northern Nevada in 1951, suggested an exhibition game at Mackay Stadium against university students.

The former players called themselves the “Eleven Old Men,” taking their name from a Reno town team from the 1930s. The former players, though, weren’t old at all. It wasn’t like Rabbitt Bradshaw from the Pack in the 1920s was going to play. Most were still in their mid to late 20s and featured some of the greatest names in Pack history such as Max Dodge, Mike Mirabelli, Scott Beasley, Gino Quilici, Don Talcott, Dick Trachok, Bob Corley, Carmel Caruso, Buster McClure and Alf Sorensen.

Mackay Stadium was going to be fairly busy in 1951 even without the Wolf Pack. Reno High, coached by Trachok and equally as popular and important to the community as the Wolf Pack, had a new school but had yet to build its football field. So the Huskies announced in early September they would play the 1951 home schedule at Mackay.

The university students (any undergraduate student was eligible) started practicing in the middle of September for the Homecoming game against the alumni players. Jake Lawlor, a former Pack football assistant (and men’s head basketball and baseball coach), was now athletic director and would coach the students.

Lawlor’s student team was surprisingly competent with quite a few players from the 1950 Wolf Pack roster. Among the returning players now getting ready to face the alumni were Ray Gonsalves, John Gonda and Jerry Wyness. Mert Baxter, a Wolf Pack basketball player from Carson City, also was going to play for the students along with Proctor Hug of Sparks, Bill Ireland of McGill and Rollan Melton of Fallon. 

The game took place on Oct. 27. The night before, however, the usual Homecoming celebrations went on as planned even though the school no longer had football.

A total of 13 Homecoming floats took part in a parade down Virginia Street to celebrate the university’s 30th annual Homecoming week. The theme of the parade was, “We want football back.” One of the floats, by the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, featured a tombstone that read, “Football — 1895-1951.” The evening ended with a Homecoming dance at the Mapes Hotel.

The following afternoon at Mackay a crowd of 3,200 witnessed the Eleven Old Men and the Students battle to a 0-0 tie. No points, no winner and no hard feelings.

The 1951 calendar year ended, however, with football at the university still in mothballs. But that all changed a week after New Year’s Day when new university president, Dr. Malcolm Love, held a press conference.

Love, who would leave Nevada for San Diego State in April 1952, announced that the university was seriously looking into bringing back the sport of football for 1952.

By the middle of February, however, a story broke out of Idaho that said Idaho State had Nevada on its schedule for Oct. 25, 1952.

The report out of Idaho State spoiled the Wolf Pack’s surprise. And that was how Northern Nevada knew for sure that football was returning at the university in 1952.

The day after the Idaho State story broke the night of Feb. 12, the Wolf Pack quickly announced that it would play a four-game schedule in 1952, with home games against the California Aggies (UC Davis) on Oct. 4 and Fresno State on Nov. 8 with road games at Chico State on Oct. 14 and Idaho State on Oct. 25.

“We are going into football gradually,” Lawlor told the media in February 1952. “We will play four games this fall and maybe six next year. I don’t think we will ever schedule more than eight a season.”

Lawlor, who coached Pack football from 1952-54, would have the Pack playing nine games by 1957 and 10 by 1964. 

“We discovered last fall (1951) that students missed football,” Lawlor said. “A campus is dead without the sport of football in the fall. Football does a great deal for the morale of the students.”

Lawlor continued by warning everyone that the sport of football in 1952 and moving forward at Nevada would look quite a bit different than the football Pack fans remembered at the peak of the sport in the 1940s.

“I doubt if we will ever go over our heads (financially) as was the case in the past,” Lawlor said. “We hope to benefit from the sport and not suffer from it.”

The most important announcement, though, was that the program was coming back without a single scholarship dollar available.

“They (the students) all have a good chance to play for their own state school now,” said Lawlor, who was basically a one-man athletic department in 1952.

Lawlor’s first practice as football head coach attracted roughly 50 prospective players. At Reno High 150 players showed up for the first day of practice in late August hoping for a chance to play on the Huskies’ new Herb Foster Field.
Wolf Pack ticket prices were announced at $2 each for reserved seats and $1.50 for general admission. A season ticket for the two-game home schedule was $4.

Mackay Stadium was now also surrounded by lights that would be used for the first night home game in school history on Oct. 4 against UC Davis. The Kerak Temple of the Shrine, which staged a circus at Mackay Stadium every year, began installing lights at Mackay in 1948. The last bank of lights was installed in August 1952, giving Mackay six banks of lights and enough brightness (for 1952 standards) to play football.

Freshmen made up almost half (25 of 53) the 1952 roster. Almost all of the players (43) came from Nevada. Reno and Sparks claimed 19 while Carson City had five (Mert Baxter, Giles Altenburg, Jerry Longero, Robert Quinlan and Ed Barrington).

The community, starved for college football, supported the almost all-local team. A total of 6,000 fans squeezed into Mackay’s 4,500 bleacher seats to witness a 26-13 Pack victory over UC Davis on Oct. 4 under the lights. Ray Gonsalves tossed a pair of touchdown passes to Carson City natives Baxter and Altenburg.

The first night game (the players used a ball that was painted white at the ends) was a huge success. Lawlor announced the following week that the Pack would play another night game in 1953.
“Student morale was at a new high as a result of Saturday night’s 26-13 season-opening win over the California Aggies,” wrote Ty Cobb.

All was right in the Wolf Pack world once again. Football was back. The Wolf Pack would go 2-2 in 1952, losing to Idaho State (33-13) and Fresno State (59-32 in front of another 6,000 fans at Mackay, just four days after Dwight Eisenhower was elected president of the United States). The Pack beat Davis and Chico State (34-2). 

Heading into the season finale against Fresno State, the Nevada State Journal wrote, “Mackay Stadium should be crammed with townspeople, old grads and students who don’t give a darn if their team is an underdog or not, just as long as football is back.”

Until 2020?