Clairton grad Gombar recalls Duke-Pitt games from mid-70s
Coming out of Clairton High School in 1972, Greg Gombar didn't dream of playing football at Duke. He was a two-way star at Clairton, although he really wanted to play baseball. He probably would have rather attended Pitt.
Duke, however, was interested in him as a football player, and Duke's academic structure suited Gombar better than anyone else's.
“I had about four or five full scholarships, and Pitt wasn't one of them,” he said. “I tried to contact them. My first love is baseball. I wanted to really play baseball. But I did what I had to do, being a steelworker's son and having a dad who said, ‘You will go to college or I'll kill you.' He couldn't go, and it wasn't an option for us.”
Gombar majored in finance accounting at Duke and currently is chief financial officer for Charlotte, N.C.-based Carolinas HealthCare System, which operates 40 hospitals in North Carolina and South Carolina and generates $8 billion annually.
“I didn't want to go to Duke and play football,” Gombar said. “I wanted to play baseball. Duke told me when they recruited me that I could play baseball in the spring. Enos Slaughter was the coach.”
In baseball, Gombar was a pitcher. He played linebacker in football for the Blue Devils. Of course, he said, he wanted to do well in the classroom.
“Greg and I are two different personalities,” said Gombar's college roommate, Elmer “Emo” Gilson, a former Duke football player from Shenango. “Our backgrounds were very similar, but Greg was more of a student. He was very serious about his education. I was just trying to tread water. He didn't play as a freshman. I did. I had to get used to going to class.”
The weight of playing two sports and maintaining his grades was too much for Gombar. He quit the baseball team and focused solely on football, where he occasionally battled injuries.
Gombar and Gilson were seniors at Duke in 1975 and played in a 14-0 loss to the Pantherst at Pitt Stadium. They were part of a Blue Devils defense that claimed a subtle consolation prize by helping to hold junior running back Tony Dorsett to just 84 yards rushing a year before the Hopewell native won a Heisman Trophy and the Panthers claimed a national championship.
As Pitt and Duke prepared to renew their football rivalry on Saturday at Heinz Field, Gombar was recalling a different era.
“In spring practice (in 1975), about a week before we were to have pictures taken, I got a concussion,” he said. “There was a black mark from blood draining down into my cheek. I had some swelling on the brain.”
Gombar was injured in practice when he collided with running back Tony Benjamin, the Monessen product who went on to play with the Seattle Seahawks.
“I also had a huge contusion on my arm,” Gombar said. “We were getting ready for the spring game, and we were going to draft two teams. The coaches pushed really hard for me to play, but I said, ‘No way.' I said I'm not playing. God was looking after me. That could have been the end of my life or I could have had brain damage.
“Look at Tony Dorsett. He's been hit so many times. He was such a hard runner. I've read where, because of all the concussions, he has problems finding his house.”
Gombar sat out that spring game at Duke, but he began the year as a starter on defense. It didn't last long. He suffered a neck injury at Southern California, led by running back Ricky Bell, and struggled to get back into the lineup.
By the time the Pitt game rolled around, Gombar was a special teams player.
“I got in for a couple of plays on defense,” he said.
Pitt leads the series with Duke, 10-8, including last year's wild 58-55 victory in Durham, N.C. But before that, they hadn't faced each other since 1976.
Jerry McGee played and coached football at Duke, and the memories are great. He marvels over Mike Ditka, “the stud,” and Dorsett, who “was like a cat.”
McGee was Duke's defensive coordinator in the 1970s alongside his twin brother and head coach Mike McGee, an Outland Trophy winner as the nation's best interior lineman at Duke in 1959. Jerry McGee said Dorsett was simply “unbelievable.”
In back-to-back games, Pitt beat Duke in 1975 at Pitt Stadium and again 44-31 in 1976 in Durham.
Dorsett, indeed, had a rough time in the '75 game, ending with a rare total of fewer than 100 yards rushing. He got 129 yards in the '76 victory.
“In the summer, we were assigned different people to scout,” Jerry McGee said. “When it came time to play Pitt, everybody on the defensive staff, along with the head coach, were assigned to scout Dorsett. We found out there was no magic formula to stop him because if you went one way, he went the other. It really just came down to playing good defense. You had to be solid. If you got to running around, you just got embarrassed.”
Pitt Stadium is gone, but Gombar clearly remembers the iconic field. He also recalls the WQED-owned tower that overlooked the stadium.
“It was a courtesy from the home team to always give the visiting team Friday afternoon for two to three hours to hold practice and get familiar with the field,” Gombar said. “Everyone was supposed to clear out of the stadium. One of our coaches pulled us over and said to do all these different schemes.”
Duke spotted a visitor lurking.
“There was a guy from Pitt at the very top of this tower filming our practice,” Gombar said. “Our coaches were smart enough to notice. I think it's interesting how we use computers today to track everything. Everybody is always trying to get the edge. But you know, it hasn't changed a bit. It was just that nobody used computers back then. But that's the only team that we saw that did that.”
Former Duke assistant John Gutekunst explained how Carmen Falcone, a physical education professor at Duke, studied films of Dorsett and was able to determine tendencies by the Pitt linemen.
“If the heels are flat,” Gutekunst said, “they're going to sit back for pass protection. If they're up on their toes, they're coming off the ball.
“What good was it? We still lost the game. Dorsett was a great back.”
Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.