Early Professional Football in Pittsburgh

Pitt 1916 team

From a football standpoint, Pittsburgh started to stir on an organised basis about 1889. William Denniston, a student at Western University of Pennsylvania formed a team and challenged Shady Side Academy to a game. Mr. Denniston, who's still living at Timber Trails, Connecticut doesn't remember the outcome, but does remember ordering the uniforms for the first team.

Duquesne (the Holy Ghost College) took the field in 1892 with a student, Dan Barr, acting as coach and captain. Carnegie Tech didn't get into the act until 1906.

Pitt's first intercollegiate foe was Washington and Jefferson in 1890. The series was to continue until 1935, and for a long time was Pitt's big game.

The early-day Panthers stumbled along going nowhere until Tex Mosse, a Kansas graduate and a disciple of Fielding Yost (coach of the Michigan Wolverines football team from 1901 through 1923), arrived in 1904. Joe Thompson, later "Colonel Joe" of World War I fame, was the big gun as the WUPs swept to 10 victories, scoring 406 points to the opposition's five.

Pitt's 1910 team was one of those rarities: undefeated, untied and unscored upon. Major victories were registered over Georgetown, West Virginia, W. & J., Tech and Penn State. Joe Thompson was the coach and fullback Tex Richards the star.

In 1914, Joe Duff set the stage for the advent of Pop Warner with an 8-1 season, the only defeat a 13 -10 squeaker by W. & J.'s greatest team. But in '15 Warner arrived and Pitt began its longest winning streak. Opening with a 14-0 win over Tech in 1914 and ending with a 24-3 defeat at the hands of Syracuse in the third game of the 1919 season, Pitt won 34 in a row.

The horrendous 32-0 lacing of Georgia Tech in 1918 attracted nationwide attention, for everyone was talking about John Heisman's famous shift. Pitt jammed the shift, Tommy Davies ran wild, and that was that.

Jock Sutherland 1916The 1913-1919 era at Pitt produced some of its greatest stars: Hube Wagner, Red Carlson, Pat Herron, Tiny Thornhill, Pud Seidel, Dale Seis, Jock Sutherland, Randall Soppitt, Bob Peck, Chalky Williamson, Andy Hastings, Jimmy De Hart, George McLaren, Lou Mervis, Len Hilty, Davies, and many others.

The closing years of the Warner regime were not as successful but there were some good football players, among them Tiny Hewitt, Jack Sack and Zonar Wissinger.

In '24, Sutherland came back to Pitt as a coach, fresh from success at Lafayette. His first team was so-so, but in '25 he had a fine year, with Andy Gustafson as the big wheel. In '27, his team went undefeated, losing only to Stanford, 7-6, in the Rose Bowl. All-American Gibby Welch was the big backfield threat.

Another bowl bid came to the great '29 team, featuring Joe Donchess, Ray Montgomery, Pug Parkinson, Toby Uansa and many others, but Southern California inflicted a 47-14 shocker.

Sutherland's 15-year record showed 111 wins, 20 defeats and 12 ties. Perhaps the most satisfying string of victories was registered over Notre Dame. Pitt took five of six played between 1932 and 1937.

Heroes of this period were legion: Eddie Baker, Eddie Hirshberg, Jim MacMurdo, Mike Milligan, Jess Quatse, Frank Souchak, Doc Hartwig, Kenny Ormiston, George Shotwell, Ralph Daugherty, Warren Heller, Paul Reider, Howie Odell, Mike Nicksick, Ave Daniel, Bobby LaRue, Frank Wal­ton, Izzy Weinstock, Bill Daddio, Tony Matisi, Johnny Michelosen, and of course, the "Dream Backfield," Johnny Chickerneo, Curly Stebbins, Dick Cassiano and Marshall Goldberg.

Following the 1938 season, de-emphasis set in at Pitt. Sutherland left and was succeeded by Charley Bowser, Clark Shaughnessy, Wes Fesler, Mike Milligan, Len Casanova, Tom Hamilton, Red Dawson, Tom Hamilton again and John Michelosen, an average tenure of 2.22 years per coach. With Michelosen in '55, the Panthers headed for the national heights and participation in bowls.

Carnegie Tech's ascendancy took place with the advent of Wally Steffen in 1914. Before long the Tartans were playing major schedules, but it was not until W. & J. was beaten in 1920 that the Tartans were regarded as a big-time power. In 1923, Jimmy Robertson and Co. finally beat Pitt, and from then on, nobody took Tech lightly.

Well, almost nobody. The two top teams in the nation during 1926 were Army and Navy, scheduled to lock horns in Chicago. Notre Dame's master strategist, Knute Rockne, announced he would take in the game and send the Irish to Pittsburgh in charge of an assistant.

The psychological situation was just what Steffen wanted. Sparked by a great sophomore, Howard Harpster, the Tartans took Notre Dame apart, 19-0. Two years later, they repeated the performance at South Bend, Harpster again starring. The season ended on a sour note, though, as Chick Meehan's great NYU club beat Tech at Forbes Field, 27-13, a game that turned out to be a duel between Harpster and Ken Strong.

Bill Kern gave Tech some of its most memorable afternoons with his 1938 team that wound up in the Sugar Bowl. Most applauded of all Tech victories was the '38 team's 20-10 success against Pitt. George Muha and Merlyn Condit were Tech's top backs.

Tech still plays football, but for fun. Under their coach, Dr. Eddie Baker, they generally win more than they lose, but those 60,000 crowds for the game with Pitt are a thing of the past.

Duquesne jumped in and out of football three times. They came into prominence when Elmer Layden of Notre Dame's Four Horsemen took over as head coach in 1927. The next year they knocked over a good W. & J. team and they were off.

Layden's best was the 1933 club which won all save one, a 7-0 loss to Pitt. The '33 crowd wound up in the Festival of Palms game at Miami, now the Orange Bowl game, and won easily over the University of Miami, 33-7.

After Layden moved to Notre Dame, Joe Bach took over and was succeeded by Christy Flanagan and Clipper Smith. Clipper's '36 team was a lulu, featuring a halfback named Boyd Brumbaugh and a center, Mike Basrak, who was just as good a center as anyone could ask for. The team won a big one from the Pitt Rose Bowl team, then went to the Orange Bowl where it won, 13-12, over Mis­sissippi State.

Buff Donelli, one of Duquesne's all-time greats, bossed the team for three seasons, 1939 through '41, and had two unbeaten seasons. His biggest stars were Al Demao, a fine center, and John Rokisky, a rugged end. Following World War II, the Night Riders tried to make a comeback in football but the attempt failed. They left a rich legacy in the sport.

Professional football got its start in these parts during the early nineties. Chief among the more powerful district teams was the Duquesne Country and Athletic Club, known even to this day as "DC&AC." This team imported such stars as Charley Gelbert of Penn and Doggie Trenchard of Princeton (when he wasn't busy coaching either W. U. P. or West Virginia) and they met the best of the district's semi-professional and pro clubs. The Thanksgiving Day game with the Greensburg A. A. at old Exposition Park drew 15,000 people, three times the draw of district colleges during the same period.

Byron White1937 PiratesIn the early thirties, Art Rooney sponsored a team known as the "James P. Rooneys," and from this team, in 1933, grew the Pittsburgh Pirates, now the Steelers. They entered the NFL in that year, under the coaching aegis of Jap Douds, an old W. & J. hero. Some of the stars of the early days included Warren Heller, Wilbur Sortet, Art Struts, Bo Clark, Angel Brovelli and Mose Kelsch.

After some years of floundering (but not without a few laughs, provided principally by Johnny Blood, one of pro football's all-time greats) Rooney came up with a daisy in 1939 in Byron (Whizzer) White (pictured left), one of football's all-time greats. This Colorado alumnus was a Phi Beta Kappa, a Rhodes Scholar and although he played only one year here, he'll never be forgotten.

Jock Sutherland took over the coaching reins in 1946 and with mediocre talent (save for Bill Dudley, a great if there ever was one) put the Steelers in contention.

Following his death, however, they languished, and it was not until Buddy Parker assumed the reins that life was breathed back. This year, with Bobby Layne running the show, they are once again in contention.

Article and images taken from the Official Bicentennial Souvenir programme for the 1959 Steelers,
except for the cover from the 1937 Pirates programme.

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