EDITOR'S NOTE - The Columbia football team had lost 36
EDITOR'S NOTE - The Columbia football team had lost 36
Oct. 24, 1987
EDITOR'S NOTE - The Columbia football team had lost 36 consecutive games going into this week's contest at Bucknell - a major college record. But 40 years ago, Columbia was on the other side, ending Army's string of 32 games without a defeat. The writer was among 35,000 spectators at Columbia's Baker Field that day.
Undated (AP) _ By O.C. DOELLING Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK (AP) - Four decades later, Col. Earl (Red) Blaik still insists that one of the touchdowns in Columbia's stunning 21-20 upset of Army that snapped his team's 32-game unbeaten streak should have been disallowed.
''There's no question in my mind,'' the former Army coach, now 90, said crisply when asked if Bill Swiacki, Columbia's All-America end, had trapped the ball in the end zone early in the fourth quarter.
The score was the first of two fourth-period touchdowns that brought Columbia back from a 20-7 deficit and gave Army it's first defeat in four years.
Lou Kusserow, a hard-running back who scored twice for Columbia on that sun-splashed afternoon Oct. 25, 1947, says Swiacki had tears in his eyes after the catch.
''I'm not sure if he also thought he had trapped it or was crying tears of joy because he caught the ball,'' said Kusserow, 60, a former producer for NBC Sports, from his home in Palm Desert, Calif.
Gene Rossides, the scrappy Lion quarterback who threw the pass and now works for a Washington law firm, has no doubts about the catch.
''Our film confirmed it to us,'' Rossides said, arguing the case with the conviction of a well-briefed attorney.
Army went into the game undefeated and unscored on in the first four games of the 1947 campaign. Columbia was 2-2.
Blaik said in a recent telephone interview from his Colorado home that his Black Knights had underrated Columbia and were ''not ready to meet as good a team as they were.''
Sensing this on the eve of the game, Blaik told his assistant coaches, ''We're going to get licked if we don't change our attitude very greatly.''
Ventan Yablonski, the Lion fullback who kicked the game-winning extra point and is now an insurance executive in Illinois, believes that Army was looking ahead to its game against Notre Dame and ''wasn't paying much attention to Columbia.''
Joe Karas, Columbia's left guard and now a physician in Rhode Island, remembers the confidence of the Army team.
''They were very cocky,'' Karas said. ''They thought they were going to run over us. They were very mouthy, making wise cracks on the line - things like, 'We're going to get you on this play' - and making funny noises.''
Yet, even as Army was dominating the first half, Karas and other members of the keyed-up Lions became increasingly convinced that ''we were the better team.''
That wasn't the feeling in the wooden stands of Baker Field as Army marched 55 yards to score on its first possession. The game seemed to be taking its inevitable course.
Army went ahead 14-0 in the second quarter following a 61-yard drive. But, then, Rossides, a protege of the great Sid Luckman, began to click with his passing attack, which advanced Columbia 53 yards. At the six, Kusserow sliced through the right side to score.
In the thrilling closing minutes of the half, Columbia defender George Kisiday pounced on a fumble by Cadet quarterback Arnold Galiffa at Army's four yard line. Kusserow bucked to the one, only to have the referee bring the ball back, ruling that it had not been blown back into play.
After three more unsuccessful tries at the goal, Yablonski missed on a field goal from the 13.
Army took over on their own 20, and following a penalty, the Cadet's fleet Rip Rowan slanted off tackle and scampered down the sidelines for an 84-yard score, leaving a tumbling litter of would-be tacklers in his wake.
It didn't seem to matter at the time that Army's Jack Mackmull missed the extra point.
At the half, the Cadets had a comfortable 20-7 lead.
Instead of being dispirited by the lost scoring chance and the Rowan romp, the Lions were seething at halftime.
''Everybody was mad ... that the bums had scored that third touchdown,'' said Rossides.
''The coaches didn't say a word,'' Rossides related. ''We were all yelling at each other, 'We can do it 3/8' Then we went out and pushed them around the third quarter without scoring.''
''A lot of what we did in the first half and practically everything we did in the second half clicked offensively,'' said Rossides, whose 18 completions combined with two successful Kusserow aerials to break the school mark of 18 set by Luckman a decade earlier. Nine of Rossides passes were caught by Swiacki, whom Red Smith described as a ''gyrating genius.''
Columbia's right halfback, Billy Olson, got that ''everything's coming up roses'' feeling when he went to block a big Army end towards the outside. But the end cut back to prevent a hole from developing off tackle. ''So,'' Olson recalled, ''I pushed him in the direction he was going and the whole line collapsed,'' enabling Kusserow to score one of his two touchdowns.
Swiacki seemed to levitate, his body nearly horizontal to the ground, when he made the spectacular endzone catch early in the fourth quarter.
Less than four minutes later, Swiacki set up the game-tying touchdown.
''Down and out to the flagpole,'' Rossides told Swiacki in the huddle. As the end was making his cut, Rossides loafted a 26-yard ''floater'' that he said turned out to be ''the best pass of the game.''
Rossides went down under a hard-charging lineman and couldn't see Swiacki's diving catch on the three. But he heard the roar from the Lion cheering section. Two plays later, Kusserow crashed through from the two.
The outcome of the game now rested on the broad shoulders of Yablonski. At 25, the Air Corps vet was one of the oldest players on the field.
To him the Cadets were ''another bunch of rookies'' and his kicking chore ''just a routine extra point.''
Rossides, the ball holder, said he was ''not thinking, 'This is the game breaker.''' The big Western Union clock at the end of the field told him there were more than seven minutes left - time enough for Army to regain the lead.
''The ball came, I put it down and, boom, Yabo put it right through the uprights,'' Rossides remembered.
Columbia led 21-20 and managed to hold the one-point edge, finishing the game deep inside Army territory.
The intervening years have taken their toll. Rowan and Galiffa, who accounted for all of Army's touchdowns on that distant October day are dead.
Swiacki and end Bruce Gehrke, Columbia's last three-letter man, died within three months of each other in 1976.
''We had a great team and great teammates'' is what Rossides wants to remember on the 40th anniversary of Columbia's greatest triumph since the 1934 Rose Bowl.