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TGS MAC RETROSPECTIVE...AND A CALL TO ACTION IN THE MIDWEST!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


We see them sometimes in Las Vegas, the new breed of college football “experts” who follow the Mid-American Conference closely. And since the MAC’s games have been listed on most of the “big boards” since 1985, it’s no surprise that the league would have some devoted followers at the sports books.

For the most part, however, the idea of MAC football tradition for these modern-day aficionados is limited to which teams qualified for recent Little Caesar’s or GoDaddy.Com Bowl appearances. Or expertise in knowing the locales of the directional Michigan schools. To those sorts, ancient history in MAC football might extend to Ben Roethlisberger’s days at Miami-Ohio. A few might also be aware of the “Cradle of Coaches” label that has been affixed to Miami for decades, though among that handful, we wonder how many would likely be able to identify as much as one legendary coach with connections to the Oxford campus.

Not many of these new-wave MAC followers might also be aware that before assuming the more politically-correct nickname of RedHawks, Miami’s teams were long known as the Redskins. Or that Eastern Michigan, before adopting the inoffensive nickname of Eagles, was known as the Hurons.

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What we are most sure, however, is that a very, very select few of these present-day MAC experts have any clue that the most-successful player in conference history is also the winningest player in college football history.

Winningest, that is, by percentage...and it’s hard to beat 100%.

Further, this fellow’s teams were undefeated in his high school career, too. And, for good measure, won a pro football championship in his rookie year.

Don’t worry, modern-day MAC experts, you’re not alone. We suspect that most of today’s college football fans, in addition to the modern college football media, especially those of the Erin Andrews generation, have no idea who we’re talking about.

But if you want to call yourself a MAC expert, remember the name Chuck Ealey. And don’t forget it.

And if you want to take about the great winning QBs in college football, spare us mention of recent Alabama signal-callers like Greg McElroy or A.J. McCarron, or any other recent national title-winning QB.

Trust us, for accomplishments in college football, none could compare to Toledo's Ealey. And while most of the Rockets games were off of the pointspread board in those days, we at TGS recall Ealey fondly and rank him among the top college football difference-makers in our publishing history which dates to 1957.

We’re going to make you well aware of Ealey and his accomplishments while also championing a cause for which we believe a great injustice is currently being done to the former Toledo QB. For if any college football player belongs in its Hall of Fame, it is Ealey.

In just a moment, we’ll tell you why Ealey’s nomination continues to be blocked by the National Football Foundation, whose rule book is apparently so rigid that nothing outside of a challenge from the Supreme Court could change it.

Ealey’s story began from a broken home living with his mother in Portsmouth, Ohio, an old rust-bucket iron town in the foothills of the Appalachians and just across the Ohio River from Kentucky. With few, if any resources, Chuck's only entertainment was playing with the local kids who were older and bigger. But young Chuck had a good arm and was soon always picked to play quarterback in neighborhood pick-up games.

Much as Syracuse’s one-time All-American RB Ernie Davis would chase trains to gauge his speed as a youth, young Ealey used trains for practice, too, sharpening his throwing accuracy by hitting moving targets, picking spots on lumbering freight cars and flinging stones at them.

Ealey’s arm gained notice in Portsmouth, however, and he was recruited to play for a high school on the "good side" of town instead of the local one he was supposed to attend. Ealey seized the opportunity, literally walking across the train tracks from the “wrong" side of town to the better side each day for school.

On the field, Ealey played QB and was a dazzling 18-0 as a starter at Notre Dame High School, leading the team to its first-ever state championship in 1967. While on the varsity, he played on teams that won 30 straight games. Ealey was recruited by a few notable colleges, but mostly as a defensive back as few schools at the time were interested in a black quarterback.

One soon-to-be famous coach, however, saw the fire in the young Ealey and offered him a scholarship to come on as a defensive back or third-string quarterback with only the faintest prospect of becoming a starter. That coach was Bo Schembechler, a product of the Miami “cradle” before moving to Michigan.

But Chuck, who had his heart set on playing QB in college, balked at the offer.

It wasn't until another MAC official pressured then-Toledo HC Frank X. Lauterbur to speak at a dinner in Portsmouth, that Ealey would fly across the Rockets’ radar. At the dinner, Frank X. was asked rather bluntly by Chuck's high school coach why he wasn't recruiting the best quarterback he'd ever seen.

Intrigued, Lauterbur sent an assistant to Notre Dame High to find out more about Ealey and watch him play in a basketball state tournament game where his athleticism impressed him as well as his hustle and determination.

The assistant called Lauterbur back and told him what everyone said about him and then remarked, "I know what I've heard, but I just saw him sink a 30 foot shot to win a basketball game, and I think he's a winner."

Soon, Chuck Ealey signed with the University of Toledo.

The Rocket coaches were still putting pressure on Ealey to play defensive back at the start of his sophomore season, when Chuck’s varsity career would commence (remember, those were the days when freshmen still weren’t eligible for varsity competition). But when the projected first-string quarterback went down with a kidney ailment in fall camp, Chuck stepped into the starting role and any accompanying controversies that came with a black QB in the late ‘60s. Remember, by that time only a few had been featured at major colleges in the decade (Sandy Stephens at Minnesota, Jimmy Raye at Michigan State, for a few games Gene Washington at Stanford in 1966 and Bill Bolden at UCLA in 1968, and another soph, Southern Cal’s Jimmy Jones, in 1969), and even some enlightened observers had their reservations.

Style-wise, to say Ealey was exciting would be an understatement. Though normal-sized at 6'1 and 195 pounds, Ealey was as athletic as they came, able to scramble out of trouble and throw on the run. Not to mention doing a pretty good impersonation of an NFL pocket passer when the mood struck. And with Ealey as ringmaster, what followed at Toledo was one of the greatest winning binges in college football history. The Rockets, with Ealey at QB, began to win and win and win some more.

In fact, that’s all they did for the next three seasons. Although the Glass Bowl in Toledo was far off the beaten track for most of the college football media of the day.

Perhaps the fact the candlepower at the Glass Bowl was so low that the place was more suitable for Halloween parties (rather than nighttime home games for the Rockets) kept inquiring minds from elsewhere to a minimum. But it was here where the Ealey show was on display for three years. Ealey flitted in and out of the shadows to elude tacklers, then would invariably zing the ball right on target to one of his receivers, all of whom apparently able to see in the dark like owls. To a man, Ealey’s teammates had an almost mystical belief in their QB’s ability to get them out of any jam.

And why not; in 65 games of varsity football in high school and college (the last 53 of those as the starting QB), Ealey's teams would never lose!

(Technically, however, an Ealey team did lose, as the Rocket freshmen dropped a game to the Michigan frosh in 1968, although Chuck left that game with an injury in the 2nd half. Ealey’s varsity records, however, remain spotless for eternity.)

Like many winning athletes, Ealey was devoted to the power of positive thinking, and would credit his habit of projecting mental movies for himself as one reason for his success. He would visualize something sublime, like an on-target TD pass thrown over a defender, and somehow games usually turned out just the way he pictured them.

Indeed, with this sort of magic in his arm and legs, Ealey had become the biggest hero in Toledo since Commodore Perry won that big naval battle in Lake Erie.

Pulling games out of the fire was an Ealey specialty. In 1969, in Ealey's fourth varsity game, Toledo trailed by two points at Bowling Green but had possession of the ball on its own 32 with 49 seconds left. Somehow Ealey ran off seven plays in 47 seconds and got his team to the Falcon 21. With two seconds remaining on the clock and strong winds blowing through the stadium, Rocket PK Ken Crots kicked the game-winning field goal. Toledo would win the MAC and finish the regular season at 10-0 before burying Davidson, 56-33, in the Tangerine Bowl. Toledo had even climbed into the top 20 in the polls late in the season.

As a junior in 1970, Ealey and the Rockets endured another white-knuckler vs. always scrappy Miami-Ohio, as Toledo trailed by six points with less than three minutes to play. Cool as a cucumber, however, Ealey led a last-minute drive, hitting four straight passes before bootlegging around left end for the winning TD in a 14-13 Toledo thriller. The Rockets would win the MAC again and finish the regular season 11-0 before being invited back to the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, where a William & Mary team, coached by none other than Lou Holtz, was destroyed, 40-12. Pollsters took further notice, slotting the Rockets at number 12 in the final rankings.

Ealey’s magic act continued into his senior season of 1971. In the opener against a Villanova team that used to play top-level football, Toledo found itself tied at 7-7 with 29 seconds left to play and the ball on its own 29-yard line. Ealey, seeing downfield dimly through the poorly-lit Glass Bowl, then combined with his roommate, Glyn Smith, on a 56-yard pass play that set up a game-winning 30-yard field goal.

By 1971, Lauterbur, who had suffered through four losing years before getting the Rockets to blast off when Ealey arrived, had been hired away by Iowa (where, without a QB like Ealey, Lauterbur was run out of Iowa City after just three seasons, the last an 0-11 train wreck in 1973, before continuing his football career as an NFL assistant and scout). Lauterbur's successor was a former assistant, Jack Murphy, of whom nothing much was expected except to win every game (including another Tangerine Bowl) and thus lengthen the streak to 35.

Which, behind Ealey, the Rockets did, winning another MAC crown and another Tangerine Bowl, this time over Richmond, 28-3. Pollsters placed the Rockets at number 13 in the final tally after the bowl games in which eventual national champ Nebraska was the only other unbeaten team.

Let it not be said that Toledo was a one-man team, however. Murphy did inherit some good athletes besides Ealey--lots of northwestern Ohio boys who somehow had been overlooked or spurned by Ohio State's Woody Hayes and other Big Ten coaches, a longtime fact of life in the region that contributed to a lot of good MAC football through the decades. Along with Ealey’s considerable exploits, Toledo would also lead the nation in total defense in 1969 and ‘70.

Stats from different eras must be viewed in context, so comparing Ealey’s numbers from four decades ago to those of QBs today is an apples and oranges exercise. Still, in Ealey’s final two years of varsity competition, he passed for a combined 3715 yards and 31 TDs, while running for another 631 yards and 10 TDs, all highly impressive by any measurement for that era.

Mostly, however, Ealey won like no other QB in college history. In three years of varsity competition, Ealey’s teams won all 35 of their games. Ealey was also MAC MVP three years in a row. Combined with his high school exploits, Ealey’s teams had won a remarkable 53 straight games with him as the starting QB, and 65 games in a row overall. To this day, Ealey remains the only unbeaten and untied three-or-more-year starting QB in college football history.

But in what looked to be a wide-open Heisman race in 1971 in which an Ivy League RB, Cornell’s Ed Marinaro, was one of the top contenders, Ealey could do no better than 8th in the final balloting that was headed by Auburn QB Pat Sullivan. Chuck, however, made sure to graduate from Toledo in 1972 with a degree in Business Administration and Business Economics.

The next question would be if the NFL would be willing to gamble on Ealey as a QB in the 1972 Draft. Although the modern color line had been broken at QB by the Broncos’ Marlin Briscoe in 1968, there was still plenty of resistance in the NFL to a black QB. By 1972, Briscoe had long since moved to a wide receiver spot; Buffalo’s James Harris was the only black QB on NFL rosters at the time.

But a list of QBs taken in the 1972 Draft, which consisted of 17 rounds in those days, did not include Ealey. Taken instead of Ealey that season were the following, with draft position noted: Jerry Tagge (11), John Reaves (15), Pat Sullivan (Heisman winner-- 40), Jack Mildren (46, converted to DB after selected by the Baltimore Colts), Jim Fassel (167--yes, that Jim Fassel), Dean Carlson (179), Van Brownson (204), Craig Curry (207), Mike Franks (250), Joe Gilliam (273), Don Bunce (307), James Hamilton (314), Brian Sipe (330), Eric Guthrie (356), Rusty Lachaussee (372), Brian Linstrom (391), Gary Wichard (412 and a future sports agent of note), Neil Graff (414), Gordon Longmire (416), and Kelly Cochrane (421).

Of this collection, only San Diego State’s Sipe had a decent career at the next level. True, Gilliam was a backup QB on a couple of Super Bowl winning teams, but the tragedy with his career in Pittsburgh is a separate story.

While it would not be wholly accurate to say that the NFL would not draft a black QB in 1972 (since Tennessee State’s Gilliam and Minnesota’s Craig Curry were selected), Ealey was nonetheless overlooked. Not that the NFL had no interest--Kansas City and Denver inquired about Ealey’s interest in becoming a DB--but as he did out of high school, Ealey preferred to play QB, even if his opportunity had to come north of the border. So off went Ealey to the CFL and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1972.

If switching countries was what it was going to take to play quarterback, Ealey was prepared to make that adjustment.

Ealey never skipped a beat as a rookie with the Ti-Cats in 1972, either. After competing with holdover Wally Gabler for the QB job, Ealey became the starter by midseason and once again began to win and win...ten straight games to close the regular season to win the Eastern Conference! A two-legged East playoff with the Ottawa Rough Riders would follow, and Ealey's Hamilton was required to make up a 12-point deficit from the first leg, but won the return match 23-8. Which advanced the Ti-Cats to the Grey Cup final played at their home Ivor Wynne Stadium against the West champion Saskatchewan Roughriders, featuring CFL legends QB Ron Lancaster and RB George Reed.

Saskatchewan was a formidable foe, and into the final two minutes the game was deadlocked at 10-10. With the ball on its own 15-yard line, Hamilton, as did the Toledo Rockets in the previous three years, looked to Ealey to provide more late-game magic. And, as he did with the Rockets, Ealey delivered, hitting three clutch completions to ex-Syracuse TE Tony Gabriel and scrambling for more yardage to set up a last-second FG try by 19-year-old PK Ian Sunter, who converted from 34 yards out on the final play of regulation to give the Ti-Cats a 13-10 and the CFL title. The Grey Cup MVP award went to Ealey, who had completed 18 of 29 passes for 291 yards and a TD.

Ealey was also a clear choice for the CFL’s Rookie of the Year honor as he completed 59% of his passes for 2573 yards and 22 TD passes, compared to just 8 picks.

Thus, following Ealey’s successes in high school at Portsmouth and in college at Toledo when his teams would never lose a game, all he did was lead the Ti-Cats to the Grey Cup title as a pro football rookie!

Ealey also set the stage for more black QBs to make their mark north of the border; until that point, only five had ever played in the CFL, and only one, the aforementioned Sandy Stephens (who passed for 2,800 yards in two seasons before going to the NFL as a FB), had even a hint of success. Ealey would nonetheless become a trailblazer of sorts in the CFL, as several black QBs would follow.

In 1973, the Montreal Alouettes would sign the aforementioned Jimmy Jones, who had famously been a groundbreaker at USC, and who had led the Trojans to a Rose Bowl win in his soph season of 1969. Jones would split duties with Sonny Wade, play in two Grey Cups and over seven seasons toss for 12,405 yards. The sublime Condredge Holloway, mentioned in our Bill Battle feature in the SEC Retrospective, had broken barriers by being the first black starting quarterback at an SEC school when he took over at the University of Tennessee, also couldn’t get a look in the NFL. So he came north to the Ottawa Rough Riders, joining another top rookie in Tom Clements, out of Notre Dame, in an outstanding 1-2 punch. He would throw for more than 25,000 yards, win two Grey Cups and make the CFL Hall of Fame. Cornelius Greene, Matthew Reed, Karl Douglass were other black QBs of note who all crossed the border in the 1970s.

But it was Ealey, with his background and record, his rookie-of-the-year award and his Grey Cup MVP right away, who really set the pace.

Injuries began to impact Ealey’s career, though he continued to be a force in the CFL, eventually moving to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Toronto Argonauts before his career ended due to a punctured lung in 1978. Ealey would pass for 13,326 yards and 82 touchdowns in his CFL career.

Ealey stayed north of the border in retirement, settling in the Toronto area and suburb of Brampton. He and his wife of nearly 40 years, Sherri, have three children. Ealey worked for John Deere until 1987 and then moved on to what he does today, being a financial analyst and planner. Ealey has also been an involved community citizen and a successful regional director for Investors Group in Mississauga, Ontario, as well as an in-demand motivational speaker and radio host for an investment-strategy program. He is loved throughout the area and is a benefactor and helper in many charitable organizations and community programs.

Now, why isn’t Ealey in the College Football Hall of Fame?

Perhaps it has something to do with Hall's criteria, which states that a player must have received first team All-America recognition by a selector committee recognized by the NCAA and utilized to comprise their consensus All-America teams.

To this point, that’s what has kept Ealey out of the HOF. This is a recent change as well, specifically the part about All-America selector committees. Ealey was a first team All-America choice by the Football News (CFN) in 1971 when it was not a "recognized selector" in those days. But CFN would be eventually recognized by the NCAA as an All-America selector. If they grandfathered in all those players and got rid of the consensus All-America caveat, the issue regarding the Ealey injustice would be solved.

Unfortunately the dividing line continues to be pulled away from Ealey and others. Unless this rule changes, Ealey remains left out of the Hall. His last chance may come in a veterans committee, which looks at players whose last year of competition was at least 50 years ago.

Thus, Ealey can't get on the ballot for election to the College Hall of Fame because of a rule implemented long after he finished his college playing days. In a July 2010 piece in the Toledo Blade reported by Matt Markey entitled "Undefeated Quarterback Still Denied Final Victory", Markey quoted Steve Hatchell, President & Chief Executive Officer of the National Football Foundation and the College Football Hall of Fame.

Hatchell offered this observation for Markey's article: “I understand he (Ealey) was a terrific player...I was in college at the time...but these lines (rules) have been drawn up, and we have to be faithful to them.”

Except they have been altered before. Meanwhile, many voices have been heard on working out a fix for Ealey and others excluded from the College HOF. "If they can't fix that, it's a shame," former Purdue University Head Coach and Toledo native Joe Tiller offered in Markey's article.

(Interestingly, Toledo's teams from the Ealey era are still represented in the HOF in the form of DE Mel Long, who did earn first-team All-America mention and would play three years in the NFL with the Browns.)

Indeed, a dream list of quarterbacks besides Ealey who can't crack the college Hall of Fame because of the first-team All-American status rule includes Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Eli Manning, Bernie Kosar, and Drew Brees.

Ealey, however, maintains that his records are not heroic and that education is the key to success. To which he is living proof.

We find it more than a bit sad that true examples of greatness like Chuck Ealey, on and off the field, are too often overlooked in the modern sports and society culture that makes a bigger deal out of reailty TV, tattoos, shaved heads, and the Kardashians and their sports-related love interests. Not to mention the many adult punks (including many in the modern NFL) who are revered by today’s sports enthusiasts and idolized by the often extremely shallow sports media of today, and big shots in the age of Twitter and Facebook.

We just thought you’d like to hear about a real guy worthy of respect and any honors that would come his way. And a perfect role model, too.

That’s Chuck Ealey. Now, let's get him into the College HOF where he belongs! (Go to a website devoted to this cause, www.inductchuck.com, for more info.)


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