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Soo Tech had a short, but colorful football past
Dec. 16, 2005
By LINDA BOUVET, Sports Information Director
Those t-shirts that you see a few kids wearing around campus are a bit misleading.
"Lake Superior State football, undefeated since 1946"
The statement implies that LSSU, which was founded in 1946 as the Soo Tech branch of Michigan Technological University, has never lost a football game because it has never competed in a football game. But, to many people's surprise, the university did have a football program for three short years - from 1948 to 1950.
LSSU has been known as a hockey school for four decades, but history could have taken a much different turn during the school's early years. In the spring of 1948, a real estate agent, Clifford Everett, rallied the local Kiwanis Club to garner enough support to finance a college gridiron team.
Under the guidance of the late Jim Myers, who was Soo Tech's first athletic director, and coaches John Goodyear and Louis Skubic, the Hornets made their football debut on Sept. 25, 1948. They played a local team, the Soo Rockets, in front of 2,000 fans at the Sault High Athletic Field.
"Soo Tech unveiled a rifleman, halfback Bud Cooper," wrote the Soo Evening News. Cooper passed for one touchdown, ran for another and kicked an extra point in the Hornets' 20-6 inaugural victory.
Soo Tech lost its next three games, 25-6 to the Northern Michigan College of Education, 13-6 to the Western Michigan College freshman team and 14-0 to Port Huron Junior College. The Hornets ended the season with four straight wins to post a winning record during their first season.
They were 1-7 in 1949 and 1-4-1 in 1950.
"I had fun both years, that's all I know," said Fred Eaton, a former lineman who played on the Hornets' first two teams. "I used to babysit for Coach Goodyear. My first year, there were a lot of former GIs on the team, and I used to babysit for them too."
At that time, many World War II veterans were going back to school on the GI bill, so Soo Tech had a mature group of rookies with which to start its program. The factors that worked against program's staying power were the climate's affect on home-game attendance, the fact that Soo Tech was only a two-year school and had to rebuild its program every year, and the difficulty of finding opponents that would travel to Sault Ste. Marie to compete.
"Back then, teams didn't start football until school started," said Cooper, who went on to become the school's men's basketball coach from 1954-60 and athletic director from 1957-86. "We practiced on the old parade grounds. We had to maintain the area, which meant we had to plow off the field."
"That was frozen ground," remembers Dave Bush, who was a sophomore end for the Hornets in 1950. "When you were tackled, you didn't sink in. You bounced. It left you with some scratches and abrasions."
Shouldice Library now covers part of the practice field, which had yard markers for scrimmage purposes, but no goal posts. The team dressed in the Fletcher Center, which was the athletic department's fieldhouse at the time.
In 1948, Soo Tech's winning streak started with a 7-0 victory at Ferris Institute in Big Rapids, Mich. Myers filled in for Goodyear, who missed the game due to illness. Cooper, who did most of the passing for a team that ran its offense out of a single-wing, completed a 10-yard pass to Robert Cook for the winning touchdown.
The Hornets were 20-point underdogs going into the game.
"That was a big upset," Cooper said. "They had an awfully-good team."
"My wife hitchhiked from Lansing to Big Rapids to see that game," Eaton said. "And we never connected. She said she looked right at me, but I never saw her. But she still married me."
The Hornets followed with a 19-13 victory over the Central Michigan College of Education reserves. They intercepted four CMU passes in that contest. William "Red" Waters returned one of those interceptions 20 yards for a touchdown, and Cooper led a 68-yard game-winning TD drive.
"I transferred to Central Michigan," said Cooper, who was a sophomore in 1948. "I had to play against the Soo the next year. I had real mixed emotions in that game."
The Hornets defeated the Rockets 41-0 in a rematch. The locals, coached by A.J. VanCitters, had several of Sault Ste. Marie's finest athletes on their roster, including Tony Gerrish, Charles Autore, Paul DesJardins, Don Tavern and Phil Cole.
"I remember at halftime they brought out a couple kegs of beer," Eaton said of the Rockets. "They had refreshments, and it wasn't Gatorade."
The Hornets closed out their season on Nov. 13 at home against Olivet. Sault Mayor Maurice Hunt, who was hoping to promote attendance for the game, declared "Tech Day" on that date and put the following proclamation in the Evening News: "Whereas every loyal citizen of this Sault Community should demonstrate that he or she is heart and soul behind this grand team as it completes its first season representing our college..."
Not even the mayor could get more than a few hundred fans out to the Athletic Field on a cold, wet and snowy day. The Hornets defeated Olivet, which lost three of 10 fumbles and threw one interception for the day. Other highlights included a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by halfback Art Reinhold and a 2-yard TD run by quarterback William "Jesse" James, who skated across the goal line in the slush.
Cooper said that Reinhold's return wound up being a reverse that worked because all of the defenders were going one direction and it was too slippery to adjust.
"The Soo field was uneven and the low spots were filled with slush," Cooper said. "I intercepted a pass and thought I was in the end zone, but I was standing on the sideline."
Eaton remembers being soaking wet and having to walk from the Athletic Field to campus. He said that by the time he got into the shower, even the cold water stung his skin.
Sports writers of the day helped to make legends of the local athletes by writing anecdotes like "William James was as graceful as a wild horse in a china shop," in reference to his ball carrying abilities on an icy field. The Evening News also described James as the "hardest blocker in the Soo," and Reinhold as a 147-pound "keg of explosives."
Cooper, James, Abie Swart, Hubbard and Jack Brosco were the locals on the Soo Tech squad. Charles Lavender was from Newberry and considered one of the best players in the Upper Peninsula, but he was injured during part of the 1948 season.
Sault natives Mervin Beadle, Len Staley, Don Ferguson and Jack Sibbald played on the 1949 squad, and a large contingent of locals played in 1950. Newberry's Tom Foley also played in 1949.
At that time, many local players, particularly those who were seeking education degrees, played college football at Northern Michigan. Some of the best Soo Tech players finished their careers at Michigan Tech.
"I played at Houghton also," Bush said. "I didn't play very much my junior year. Transfers were at a disadvantage because the coaches didn't know us. It was hard for us to prove ourselves against the starters. We were on what we called the hamburger squad."
Life was much different for the college football players of that era - no faceguards, no mouthguards, no athletic scholarships, very little meal money and a limited travel budget. In those days, they were pretty content to have a uniform that fit properly.
"When we went to Port Huron, we did it all in one day," Bush said. "My folks brought me a bushel of apples, and they were gone by the time we got back to the Sault. We ate a lot of bread and ketchup."
The one bonus that Soo Tech players had, even if they didn't appreciate it at the time, was outstanding coaching. Goodyear was an All-American at Marquette University, and spent the 1942 season with the Washington Redskins before joining the war effort.
"I'm sure he brought in some pro experience," Bush said. "He was a thin man with a lot of muscle. He'd play halfback and we'd try to tackle him. I can remember getting dinged by him a couple times."
"(Being coached by a former pro) didn't mean that much to me at the time, because I didn't know anything about the NFL," Eaton said. "But now I think it's really a treat when I look back on it."
What was most-interesting about talking to the former Hornet players was that very few could remember which teams they beat or game particulars. They remember juggling their love for football with three or four jobs and classes. The GIs often had children to raise and support.
"I don't remember those things," Eaton said of the scores and stats. "I used to tell the grandkids that we were great in high school, then I looked at our annual realized that we were terrible. But (playing football) was a fun period in my life."
College football came and went quickly at Soo Tech/LSSU, and was forgotten by just about everyone except the former players.
"Cost was an issue, even back then," said Bush as he thought about what was most-likely the program's demise. "And people were becoming more aware of liability issues then. It was hard to recruit because the school wasn't offering any scholarships. The guys who played sports did so because they wanted to."
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