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TGS MOUNTAIN WEST RETROSPECTIVE...A DEBUT FOR THE AGES AT AIR FORCE!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Much like expansion teams in pro sports, fledgling college football programs rarely make a splash on the national scene. The “learning curve” is usually several years long. Indeed, we have been watching a couple of such scenarios unfold in recent years, including the births of new programs at UTSA, under former Miami Hurricanes HC Larry Coker, and Georgia State, and a re-launch at Old Dominion, which kick started its long-dormant program in 2009 and will compete in Conference USA (along with UTSA) this season.

Imagine, however, one of those sides being good enough to compete in a major bowl game this season?

Consider the fact we have seen it happen before as a byproduct of our 57 publishing years. And it was at the outset of our existence at TGS that we witnessed the sort of college football debut that a Hollywood script writer probably wouldn’t even touch.

Indeed, we have never witnessed anything remotely comparable to Air Force’s college football debut in the late 1950s. In fact, it was a debut, period; the Academy itself didn’t exist until it was first authorized by President Eisenhower on April of 1954. When the first class of cadets enrolled the following year, the Academy's permanent site, in the shadow of Pikes Peak and the Rockies on the northern edge of Colorado Springs and close to Monument, had not yet been completed, so the 306 cadets from the Class of 1959 were sworn in at a temporary site at Lowry Air Force Base, in Denver on July 11, 1955...just six days before a place called Disneyland would open in Anaheim, California.

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While at Lowry, the cadets were housed in renovated World War II barracks. There were no upper class cadets to train the new cadets, so the Air Force appointed a cadre of "Air Training Officers" (ATOs) to conduct training. The ATOs were junior officers, many of whom were graduates of West Point, Annapolis and The Citadel. They acted as surrogate upper class cadets until the upper classes could be populated over the next several years. The Academy's dedication ceremony took place on that first day and was broadcast live on national television, with Walter Cronkite covering the event for CBS.

Among other things, that first class of cadets at AFA was able to select the Academy’s mascot, choosing “Falcons” as the name for all future AFA teams.

If the mere creation of another major service academy was an audacious undertaking, so was the desire to make it a competitive major college football program right off of the bat. Starting from scratch, the newly-christened Falcons were born into an era when fellow academies at Annapolis and West Point were still significant players on the national stage (Army, in fact, would feature the 1958 Heisman winner, Pete Dawkins, along with the famous “lonesome end” Bill Carpenter in another powerhouse outfit). Plans for an on-campus Air Force stadium were still several years from completion; Falcon Stadium would not open its doors until 1962. At the outset of the football program, its home games would bounce across the state of Colorado, mostly at the DU Stadium in Denver, but also at sites in Pueblo, Colorado Springs (both Penrose Stadium, which was the site of the annual Pikes Peak Rodeo, and Colorado College’s Washburn Field), and at CU’s home Folsom Field in Boulder.

Add that to the improbable tale of Air Force football in the late 1950s; it didn’t even have a home field of its own!

Still, many were anticipating the Falcons to quickly begin attracting athletes at least of the caliber of those at Annapolis and West Point, for Air Force would be the preferred destination of would-be pilots, a glamour job if there was one in the military. Those considering Army and Navy now had another desirable alternative if picking among service academies.

Moreover, the Falcons would look good on the field, with uniforms of fancy design featuring a lightning bolt on each side of the helmet, and bright blue jerseys not to be confused with the darker hues of West Point or Annapolis.

Without a tradition, Air Force was developing its own full-blown version, via an all-smashing football team and a cadre of jet-pilot air training officers who have been dragooned into serving as synthetic upperclassmen for the cadets to teach them how to make life miserable for next year's and each succeeding year's classes.

No matter the high hopes for the future, the task of getting a football program up to speed was a daunting one. In the fall of 1955, the gridiron wing of the first class of Air Force cadets would compete with a freshman schedule of games, before varsity competition would commence in 1956. For the first season, Colonel Robert V. “Bullet Bob” Whitlow, a former football star at West Point and decorated World War II bomber pilot, wore the dual hats of football coach (for the frosh) and athletic director, the latter a job he would hold for the duration of his three-year military assignment at the Academy (Whitlow would eventually go on to an administrative job with the Chicago Cubs in 1963). Tutoring the team and advising Whitlow would be the decorated Buck Shaw, who played under Knute Rockne at Notre Dame, and had achieved notoriety as Santa Clara’s coach between 1936-42, leading the Broncos to back-to-back Sugar Bowl wins over LSU (really!) in the process, before taking over the San Francisco 49ers of the new AAFC and stewarding the franchise into the NFL, along with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts, in 1950.

The Falcons did not operate in a vacuum at their inception. Quite the contrary. Indeed, while future dreams of Sugar and Cotton bowls danced in the minds of administrators and new fans, a respectable audience of 17,785 turned out at DU Stadium on October 8, 1955 to watch the birth of Air Force football...with the opponent being the DU Frosh. Whitlow’s Falcons did not disappoint, winning 34-18.

The fact it was more than a frosh game, that it was indeed a rendezvous with history, did not escape the natives. Rhapsodized the Denver Post before the game: "It will be an historic Hour...forget the game, forget the score. Be there to tell your grandchildren that you witnessed the first game played by the school which in years to come will many times be national champion." Not to be outdone, the Rocky Mountain News murmured dreamily: "It's going to be a day and a game which will be referred to for centuries to come..."

Well, not quite. But a taste for things to come had been on display.

The scene was all set for the auspicious debut everyone expected. The cadets had marched in, 300 of them, in letter-perfect formation and had sped to their seats on the double, chanting "Beat D.U." in cadence.. The academy had fielded a hand-picked team--all-state high school stars from the fertile football fields of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, sprinting stars from the West Coast, and lanky, sure-handed tacklers and pass-receivers from Texas and Dixie. It was a collection of football heroes which had left a string of anguished, apoplectic home-town football coaches from sea to shining sea screaming hoarsely at the academy recruiters. It was probably the only freshman football team in history to have an ex-professional football coach as tutor--the aforementioned Shaw, whom the 49ers of 1955 might have wished they had back. Fifty-five superb young athletes, the Falcons--restricted to base constantly--were in perfect physical condition, ideally suited for the single-platoon game of the era, and had practiced until nightfall for weeks before the game. In the press box they had not one but two spotters shouting up-to-the-minute intelligence reports on what the enemy was up to.

Make no mistake, from the outset, the Academy considered a nationally famous football team as top-priority procurement. Some military, or even lay, purists of the day winced at the notion of building an elite corps around a football team, but academy brass, which made much of the fact a boy must be "motivated" towards aviation in these days when a pilot is frequently an oxygen-sucking pressure-suited captive of an airborne instrument panel, pointed out that it has been done by other institutions for less worthy motives...i.e., gate receipts. If winning football teams were required to lure the kind of young men the country needs to guard its old frontiers and fly into new ones, the new Air Force Academy figured it might as well join the crowd.

Would it work? Shaw, an iron-eyed practitioner in football matters of fact and not military expediency, thought the timetable of a major bowl in quick order was unrealistic. "The kids have a lot of spirit," conceded the scholarly Shaw, "but the normal progression for a football team is to move freshmen up and leaven them with seasoned players. This team is going to move up into a vacuum. They're going to have to find out everything for themselves."

The project, which saw the Falcons playing junior colleges the following year (1956), Skyline Conference foes the next (1957) and a "representative" schedule (Iowa, Stanford, etc.) in 1958, was daring, though AD Whitlow saw nothing impossible or even impractical about it. In fact, the optimist "Bullet Bob" planned to beat Army (not scheduled until 1959) and Navy (not slated until 1960) the first year he played them and every year after that.

In case the flak got heavier than Bullet Bob anticipated or the enemy showed up in faster and more maneuverable craft, the Academy, like any good combat pilot, had an optional strategy which it felt would swing the advantage. The altitude at Colorado Springs, where the Academy was building its campus and its football stadium was to be located, is at some 6,200 feet elevation (the elevation would rise higher, almost to 9000 feet, at the Farish Recreation Area), and a person arriving at that altitude from sea level would undergo some internal rearrangement until his blood stream could supply enough red corpuscles to take up the oxygen slack.

"These teams that come here are going to have to beat us in the first or second quarter," chortled the P.I.O., Lieut. John Colbrunn. "By the second half, their flaps are going to be down and they'll be buying the farm [washing out]." The Air Force, felt Colbrunn, would thus be applying the sound aerial tactic of luring the enemy into an operational ceiling where his engine functions poorest. At home, at least, the words of the academy song, "Nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force," rang true for the ground-level Kaydets or sea-level Middies.

Whitlow won four of the eight scheduled games vs. frosh squads that included those from Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma (all victorious by large margins over the Falcs) before Shaw took over the first varsity team, playing a junior college schedule, in 1956. Shaw proved a good fit, posting a 6-2-1 mark in '56 against a slate filled with the likes of Colorado College, Colorado Mines, Western State, and Eastern New Mexico. The Force was even appealing enough to attract an invitation to the Junior Rose Bowl in Pasadena, although AD Whitlow, on a directive from Academy superintendent Major General James Briggs, turned down the invitation.

Shaw lasted another year with the Falcs in 1957 before being lured back to the NFL by the Philadelphia Eagles, eventually to win the league title with Norm Van Brocklin at QB in 1960.

The Falcons were finally ready for major college competition, with their first senior class, by 1958, but would have a new coach, Navy grad Ben Martin, and extremely modest expectations after a 3-6-1 mark in 1957. The upgraded schedule in 1958 would also feature a trip to Big Ten powerhouse Iowa, as well as dates vs. Stanford, Utah, Oklahoma State, Wyoming, and Colorado as the Falcs would be facing major college opposition for the first time. Understandably, there was no mention of the Air Force Academy in any of the 1958 preseason polls, which had familiar names such as Ohio State, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Army, Navy, plus early October foe Iowa, in the top tier of the rankings..

What transpired thereafter remains one of the remarkable stories of our nearly six decades of publishing at TGS. And certainly the greatest debut season in major college football annals.

Two things would strike about the 1958 Falcons. First, their size, looking more like a high school team than the behemoths they would face from Iowa and other locales. Second, on the field, there was a remarkable, cheerful courage that marked their play. An abiding faith animated not only the football team, but the entire cadet corps. In the stands, very natty in blue overcoats, the fledgling aviators stood throughout the game and cheered the team thunderously, and they would sweep onto the field in a howling mob when the game ended and carried the team into the dressing rooms. They sang "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder..." when the Falcons moved on the field; the night before the game, they cheered the team into buses bound for Denver and a relatively peaceful hotel. This was a young school and a young cadet corps and ia young team, too, and the corps and the team were imbued with the boundless enthusiasm and courage of youth.

New coach Ben Martin had a few different ideas than Shaw regarding the football team, too. His first assignment was to convince what would become a key member of the ‘58 team to simply play football at all.

That key member was QB Rich Mayo. But if Mayo had followed his emotions after an unhappy first year at Air Force in 1957, one of college football's most inspirational stories may have never been told.

Mayo had come to the Air Force, only its third year of existence, from Northern California. He had turned down a pre-med scholarship at Stanford and found his way to Lowry Air Force base in Denver, where the recently-born Academy had taken residence. But his football hopes were dashed when coach Shaw moved him from quarterback to halfback.

"I was so disenchanted after my freshman year that I wasn't going to go out for football again and was seriously thinking about leaving the academy," recalled Mayo in a Denver Post story from a few years ago. But then Martin was hired to replace Shaw as Air Force looked ahead to the 1958 season and the final year of the Academy's first senior class. "I was adamant," Mayo said. "I wasn't even going to talk to the new coaches. They sent Jim Conboy, our trainer, to talk to me. Jim told me that the new coaches were fair and they promised to give me every opportunity to play quarterback."

Good move by Martin.

On Martin’s staff was also a young assistant named Pepper Rodgers (left), a former Georgia Tech star and creative offensive mind who would go on to a decorated coaching career at Kansas, UCLA, and his alma mater. Mayo would fondly remembers his first meeting with Martin and Rodgers.

"I think I was Ben Martin's kind of quarterback," Mayo said. "Our game plans were magnificent and one of the big reasons for our success. Pepper Rodgers had us prepared for every game. Ben Martin was a genius."

The Martin offense would use the "I" formation as its base, while also utilizing a spread, full-house backfield that put men in motion. Progressive stuff indeed in the late '50s.

Things would get interesting quite quickly in the 1958 season, when the Falcs finally had a senior class to put on the field, and for the first time playing a "real” schedule. After romping past a slowish Detroit, 37-6, in the opener, the Falcons were expected to play roadkill for a powerhouse and 8th-ranked Iowa side at Iowa City in the next game. Outweighed more than 25 pounds per man across the lines, the Falcs would prove surprisingly robust, flustering the favored Hawkeyes and their All-American halfback, Bob Jeter, who would go on to fame with the Green Bay Packers. After falling behind 7-0, the Falcs would level matters before the end of the 1st Q on halfback Mike Quinlan’s 23-yard run before Mayo would put the Falcs on top by a 13-7 count with a 10-yard TD pass to halfback George Pupich in the 2nd Q. Air Force had a chance to further the lead in the 3rd Q before a heroic Hawkeye goal-line stand preceeded a 99-yard Iowa TD drive that would result in FB John Nocera’s 3-yard TD blast that leveled the score at 13 apiece. Importantly, however, Falcon G Howard Bronson blocked the PAT to keep the score level, and when Iowa PK Bob Prescott barely missed a 31-yard FG try with 9 seconds to play, the teams would split the spoils.

Underdog Air Force had earned quite a level of respect from the effort, although its Falcon mascot, Mach One, would fly out of Iowa Stadium (more than a decade before it would be renamed for Hawkeye 1939 Heisman winner Nile Kinnick, who died in World War II) in the middle of a precision-flying demonstration. Coach Martin was also not satisfied with the tie, and brought out the old saw after the game. "A tie is just like kissing your sister--no thrill," said the coach.

The 13-13 draw at Iowa, however, would resonate, and it validated the Falcons as a team to watch. The Hawkeyes would climb as high as second in the polls before a late season loss to ranked Ohio State, and would win the Big Ten and eventually crush Cal, 38-12, in the Rose Bowl. That draw in Iowa City began to look better and better as the season progressed.

As for Mayo, he proved a good fit for the cleverly-designed, aggressive, Martin offense, tossing 11 TDs and completing better than 56% of his passes, both very impressive numbers for the era. A stable of quick-hitting backs led by the aforementioned Mike Quinlan and Steve Galios handled the infantry chores, with All-American tackle Brock Strom anchoring the lines.

The wins continued to pile up. Many believed Stanford, off an upset win over Washington, would slow down the Falcons in mid-October at Denver, but the then-called Indians could not even get on the scoreboard. Aforementioned Air Force HB George Pupich, who also doubled as the place-kicker, sailed each of his kickoffs out of the end zone, one of those after an early 4th Q FG had put the Falcons up 10-0. Mayo would then put the game away later in the 4th Q with a 16-yard swing pass TD to Galios for the final points in a 16-0 whitewash.

Incredibly, the nascent Force gridders would crack the national rankings for the first time the next week when slotted 14th in the AP poll!

Challenges, however, would await. Traveling to Stillwater to face a 5-1 Oklahoma State team on November 1, the Falcs would fall behind 15-0 before rallying to assume an 18-15 lead, only to see the Cowpokes roar back behind HC Duane Wood and QB Dick Soergel to forge a 29-18 advantage in the final stanza. Mayo, however, proceeded to pick the OSU defense apart with a succession of short and medium-range passes in an 80-yard TD drive capped by an 11-yard scoring pass to HB Phil Lane to cut the lead to 29-25. Now in a race against the clock, the Force "D" held, and the offense regained possession deep in the 4th Q to set up a last sortie. With no room for error, Mayo thus went to work one more time, and with time running out, he sparked a desperate 72-yard march to beat the clock, complete with a couple of 4th down pass completions, and a grandstand finish was in store. In pulsating fashion, Mayo coolly tossed a dramatic 13-yard TD pass to end Bob Brickey with just 9 seconds to play. The final score was 33-29 in the Falcs’ favor, as the heroic airman Mayo had passed the ball an astounding (for 1958) 48 times, completing 28 of his throws for 214 yards.

The Force would then crack the top ten in the following week’s polls!

By the time the regular season was about to conclude, Air Force would win over Denver, Wyoming, and New Mexico to improve to 8-0-1 and a startling 8th ranking in the country. The small, young, but immensely optimistic Force then pinpointed a final regular-season mission with its customary efficiency at Boulder, with the immediate tactical target a rugged and functional University of Colorado side, with the long-range strategic objective an undefeated season for the Falcon football team and a bowl bid.

The final test would be a rugged one against a physical Colorado side, with another future Green Bay Packer like Iowa’s Bob Jeter, Boyd Dowler (then better known as a QB), as a featured performer. A win vs. the Buffs would likely land the Force in a New Year’s Day bowl. The eager cadets from the Academy trekked to Boulder (left) to cheer on the Flyboys.

Colorado, however, was bigger and stronger and just as fast as the Air Force, and did all the things that you would expect a team to do with so marked a physical advantage. The Buffs piled through the small Falcon line with considerable ease. (In explaining the Colorado strategy, an assistant coach said, "From our scouting reports, we figured we could go just about anywhere we wanted to.") The Colorado defense harried Mayo so relentlessly that he had the worst afternoon of his brief career. Colorado gained 420 yards to the Falcons' 160 and had 26 first downs to five.

But the Falcons won, and the victory could be marked up to the indefatigable optimism of the Air Force youngsters, who never considered themselves outmanned for a minute, combined with an amazing ability to shoot down loose footballs. The enthusiastic tackling of the young Falcons, who usually arrived on target in squadrons of three, brought about 10 Colorado fumbles, and the Falcons recovered seven of them. When a Colorado linebacker overshifted on one play, Quinlan, the Falcon halfback, zoomed through the small opening and ran 60 yards to a touchdown in the 3rd quarter. This touchdown still left the Falcons behind 14-12, but a little while later the fierce Falcon tackling popped the ball out of the arms of a Colorado back and Falcon Halfback Mike Rawlins picked it off in full flight and ran 20 yards for the touchdown which put the Falcons ahead to stay, 20-14.

But not before some more anxious moments, including the last minute of the game when the Buffaloes stopped fumbling to uncork yet another drive, threatening to score the winning touchdown as the clock wound down to zero. CU had the ball on the 2-yard line, but defensive end Sam Hardage came to the rescue with 8 seconds to play.

"Sam slashed straight down the line of scrimmage, met the ball carrier and caused a fumble," Mayo said. "We recovered and it made our unbeaten season. How could you end a regular season any better than playing your state rival, who may even have been embarrassed to be playing us?"

The Colorado offense exploited its edge in brute strength very well, and the Buff defense was never fooled, except for the one long run by Quinlan. But Colorado had no luck and the Air Force did. When asked after the game if the thought of Colorado winning had ever crossed his mind, a Falcon halfback refused to consider the possibility "No, sir. They came out in the first half mean and bushy-tailed and strong, but I figured we would slow them down in the second half. You see, sir, we met strength with strength. It never occurred to me that we would lose."

As for coach Ben Martin, he couldn’t help but look a bit bewildered in the Falcon dressing room after the game. "It's been like this all year," he said. "These kids keep doing impossible things. I never saw a school like this or a bunch of kids like these." He looked around at the players, some of whom were acting out scenes of happiness for photographers to show their excitement about the Cotton Bowl bid. He took off his trademark hat, a neat brown fedora with a gaudy feather in the band, and ran his hand through his black, curly hair. "It doesn't seem real," he said, dazedly. "But it is."

To receive the bid to the Cotton Bowl, the 9-0-1 Falcons had to receive a special waiver from the NCAA, as the Academy had yet to graduate a senior class. But the bid arrived and was accepted to face Southwest Conference champ and 10th-ranked TCU, whose roster included future pro stars such as Hall of Famer DT Bob Lilly, plus NFL DE Joe Robb and soon-to-be AFL stalwarts HB Jack Spikes, T Don Floyd, and LB-G Sherrill Headrick.

The payout for the game was a cool $175,000, which the Force, an independent entry in those days, was able to keep, though it spent nearly half of that bringing the cadet corps and the entire Academy contingent to Dallas. Expected to be more than a bit outnumbered in Big D, the Falcs would at least have their small but very vocal support base with them.

The game was no artistic masterpiece in Dallas. Perhaps because the field was covered by tarpaulin during a snowfall earlier in the week, it was damp and contributed to the uneasy handling of the ball. The Frogs fumbled eight times, losing three, and Air Force lost three bobbles as well. One of TCU’s fumbles came at the Force 8-yard line in the 4th Q after an 86-yard march, only to have Falcon LT Dave Phillips strip the ball from Frog QB Hunter Enis, a future AFL QB and assistant coach. TCU also punted nine times and Air Force seven. The defensive performances were outstanding, as the stop units stiffened in the red zone, forcing five field goal attempts...none converted by either Air Force’s Pupich or TCU’s Spikes.

With Mayo completing 9-of-19 passes for 91 yards, the Falcons matched the Horned Frogs yard for yard. When it was over, Air Force had the yardage edge 231-227. But the Cotton Bowl scoreboard would read 0-0 the entire afternoon. It remains, now and apparently for eternity with overtime games subsequently part of the landscape, as the last-ever scoreless matchup between top ten opponents. Still, the Falcs’ 9-0-2 record, and 6th ranking in the final polls, continues to inspire wonder and awe among college football aficionados.

"One thing that a lot of people didn't know about that team was that we had a vicious defensive unit," Mayo said. "It was a real key to our success. They just kept the other team from scoring while our offense just kind of muddled through."

The heroics of the 1958 team have remained a standard for the 55 Falc teams that have followed. Martin's teams stayed mostly competitive and would have a couple of more bowl editions, and reached the Sugar Bowl with a dyanmic and explosive squad in 1970 featuring homerun WR Ernie Jennings, but the escalation of the Vietnam war made the academies a tougher sell into the early '70s, and the Force's fortunes faded. The Falcons would eventually enlist in the WAC in 1980, and Martin would be replaced in 1978 by none other than Bill Parcells, hired off of the Texas Tech staff. But Parcells lasted only one year before being lured to the NFL as an assistant, and Ken Hatfield, off of Doug Dickey's Florida staff, arrived in Colorado Springs to begin a new era of Force football and forever change the Academy gridiron template by introducing the wishbone offense, which proved a near-perfect fit for the type of recruits Air Fiorce could lure. There has been a coaching lineage since, with Hatfield eventually succeeded by assistant Fisher DeBerry, who after a long run was then succeeded by a former Falc player and assistant, Troy Calhoun, who remains as head coach today.

The Hatfield turnaround resulted in a consistent stream of Falcon bowl teams over the past three-plus decades, although the program has regressed the past two years under Calhoun (more on that in our 2014 MWC preview). Before he left for alma mater Arkansas in 1984, Hatfiield had some outstanding teams in the early '80s, and DeBerry had several thereafter in a decorated 23-season run, twice within sight of another unbeaten season, but 12-1 records in 1985 and 1998 were the closest the Falcons could get. To this day, Ben Martin's remarkable 1958 team remains the Force's only unbeaten football side.

And as far as big-time football debut seasons go, it will take some doing to top Air Force in 1958!


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