50 years later, West Virginia returns to wildly different Liberty Bowl
On Dec. 19, 1964, as West Virginia played Utah in the Liberty Bowl inside Atlantic City Convention Hall, the world's first multipurpose domed stadium neared completion in Houston. Taking an outdoor sport behind closed doors still seemed odd.
“It was just unusual being indoors playing a football game,” said Ed Pastilong, a backup quarterback for WVU.
“It was a unique game,” defensive lineman Donnie Young said.
Utah won the first indoor major college bowl game 32-6. On Monday, WVU will return to the Liberty Bowl — now in Memphis, Tenn. — for the first time in 50 years to play Texas A&M.
A half-century ago, one of the stars for Utah was Roy Jefferson, who played receiver, outside linebacker and kicked two field goals before getting hurt. The next season, Jefferson wore a Steelers uniform.
The end zones in Convention Hall were 8 yards deep instead of the normal 10. No one got hurt. One set of goal posts was mounted at the base of a stage. Bob Dunlevy, who played tight end for WVU, said the locker room was too small and the field too hard. Previous games had flattened the 4-inch high grass, trucked in and out, to about 2 inches. Dunlevy said “it was like playing on concrete.”
The fans “were right on top of the field,” said Young, who went on to a long career as a WVU assistant coach. Pastilong recalled it was bitterly cold — outside Convention Hall. The team had to walk several blocks from the hotel. Inside it was 60 degrees.
ABC televised the game nationally, hanging a camera from the ceiling, 137 feet above the field. An All-Star broadcast crew, Curt Gowdy, Paul Christman and Jim McKay, described the action. It was one of nine bowl games, compared with 38 today. Each team got $60,000.
The man responsible for all this was former Villanova athletic director Ambrose F. “Bud” Dudley, an inveterate promoter who loved college football. He envisioned a hometown bowl game that topped all others and poured countless hours and his own money into the effort.
But miserable weather and dwindling crowds at vast Philadelphia Municipal Stadium hampered the first five Liberty Bowl games. In 1964, Dudley looked to the east, 60 miles away.
Smacked by the WAC
Atlantic City, the famed but fading New Jersey seaside resort, always quieted down after Labor Day (casinos were 14 years away). Unaffected by the seasons was the 35-year-old Convention Hall, lodged on the boardwalk with its 13,000 seats, curved aluminum ceiling and “the largest pipe organ ever constructed,” according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Among thousands of events, it has staged the Miss America Pageant, the state high school basketball tournament and in August 1964, the Democratic National Convention. Starting in 1930, the first of about 120 high school, semipro and college games were played, including the small-college Boardwalk Bowl. It was no Astrodome, but it would suffice.
Only 6,059 showed up. Dudley, a former Notre Dame halfback and B-24 bombardier during World War II, nevertheless said the next day, “We'll go here next year.”
In October 1965, claiming he had lost $50,000 as the Liberty Bowl's executive director, Dudley moved the game to Memphis. It has remained ever since. Coached by Gene Corum, Southern Conference champion WVU went 7-3 in 1964 despite giving up more points than it scored. The Mountaineers capped their season with a stunning upset of Sugar Bowl-bound Syracuse. Eastern college football still was big and 8-2 Utah, from the Western Athletic Conference, went largely overlooked. That was a mistake.
“We had some film on them, but we didn't know how good they were,” Dunlevy said.
“Man, we were dominating defensively,” Jefferson said. “We dominated people.”
Utah outgained WVU, 466-228. The Redskins' Ron Coleman ran for 154 yards on 15 carries.
“For them to be so good, it probably caught us off-guard,” said Pastilong, who served as WVU athletic director from 1989 to 2010.
“They were fast,” Dunlevy said. “Very fast.”
Sad note: Allen McCune, the Mountaineers' quarterback, died in a car crash at the age of 30. Pokey Allen, the Utah quarterback and later the coach at Portland State and Boise State, died of cancer at 53.
Jefferson scuffled throughout with defensive back Richie Martha, whose brother, Paul, starred at Pitt.
“We ran so much, I'm blocking him every time,” Jefferson said. “He might have got ticked off about that.”
At the end of the first half, Jefferson dove for a pass while being hit by Martha “and knocked my shoulder out of place.” He did not return.
In early December, during the AFL-NFL conflict, the Chargers and Steelers had picked Jefferson 14th and 18th overall in their respective drafts. He signed with the Steelers and put up some good numbers, but ran afoul of Chuck Noll, who became coach in 1969. The Steelers traded the admittedly outspoken Jefferson to Baltimore in 1970, where he clashed with the owner and played one season, earning a Super Bowl ring.
Jefferson contributed to the Redskins' resurgence under George Allen but perhaps is best known for losing 13 yards on an end-around in a playoff game against the 49ers on a play reportedly recommended to Allen by his friend, President Richard Nixon.
After the Liberty Bowl, Jefferson stood in the end zone in his uniform waiting for the team bus. At his side was a San Diego coach “babysitting” him, a common practice in both leagues to keep rivals away. It was Chargers assistant Chuck Noll.
Bob Cohn is a staff writer at Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.