Most of Pitt’s football success has happened in two distinct periods. Of the Panthers’ nine claimed national championships, eight happened before World War II, in the days of Marshall Goldberg, Jock Sutherland and Pop Warner.
The second wave of Pitt’s football success came in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with another national title and five wins in New Year’s Day bowls under Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill.
In between, there was one Pitt team that stood out from the pack. The 1963 Pitt Panthers won nine games and while that might not seem like a big deal, consider that was the first time they’d achieved that since 1937 and it didn’t happen again until the 1976 Pitt national championship team under late Johnny Majors.
Blawnox native Jim Dodaro, now 76, was a running back on the 1963 Pitt football team.
“That ’63 team was a unique team,” Dodaro told Pittsburgh Sports Now. “I think the biggest player on the team was John Maczuak, who was a tackle with Ernie [Borghetti] and they may have been 245. They played both ways, in those days, you had to play both ways. They used to substitute units, meaning you would play both offense and defense and then they’d put a B Unit in for offense and defense so you had to play both. I think the only position that didn’t was safety, which was the quarterback, who you could substitute for.”
“That was one of the last seasons where we had redshirts. You couldn’t play until your sophomore season and as a freshman, you’d play a freshman schedule. That team had Ernie Borghetti, who was an All-American, Paul Martha, who was an All-American, John Maczuak, Marty Schottenheimer, Freddy Mazurek was our quarterback, Rick Leeson was our fullback.”
These days, college teams get invited to play in a bowl game with as few as 6 wins. Because of the one of the biggest events in the history of the United States, Dodaro explained why Pitt didn’t attend a bowl game and were denied playing for what would’ve been the 10th national championship in the long history of Pitt football.
“That season we were 9-1 and were No. 3 in the country. No. 1 was Texas, No. 2 was Navy. The only game we lost to was Navy and Roger Staubach,” said Dodaro. “Back then, their were only five major bowls (Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Orange and Gator). At the end of of the season, the major bowls a lot of them were conference commitments, so we were limited on where we could go to. We had an offer to go to the Gator Bowl.
“November 22, 1963 was the day before we were scheduled to play Penn State our last game. President Kennedy was assassinated. As a result, they delayed our Penn State game and they also delayed the Army/Navy game. The story was that Navy wasn’t going to accept a bid to the bowl game because of Kennedy’s assassination. So our athletic director turned down the Gator Bowl bid. We ended up beating Penn State, Navy beat Army and Navy ended up accepting the bid to play Texas in the Cotton Bowl for the National Championship. We were 9-1, No. 3 in the country and didn’t go to a bowl game because there were no bowls available after we turned down the Gator Bowl. We could’ve gone there had we accepted initially before President Kennedy was assassinated but they ended up taking another team. All the bowls were committed to and we didn’t have one to go to. If Navy would’ve declined (like they were rumored to) we would’ve played Texas for the national championship.”
“In a strange way, that 1963 nine-win Panther team got more recognition for not going to a bowl game than had they played in the Gator Bowl. In hindsight, instead of winning the national championship, we have gotten more notoriety for not going to a bowl. Because of that, our Chancellor Edward Litchfield, who was a pretty prominent guy, threw a big banquet for us and had Hardy and Hayes make these watches for us that I still have. It says ‘9-1 Uninvited Pitt’ with our names on the back and the year.”
Despite having a 9-1 record, Dodaro admits that wasn’t one of the most talented Pitt teams but they could compete against any Pitt team in one area: smarts and that’s one of the reasons they were so successful on and off the field.
“It was a talented team that was very intelligent and it was a cohesive unit,” Dodaro recalled. “To be honest with you, the competition isn’t what it is today. You didn’t have the talent level that you have today. You had individuals but you look at the guys today and my God, they’re just physical specimens. But anyways, it was a great team and we had good individual ability on that team. Another interesting thing is that we had no major injuries that year. Our starting lineup, we didn’t have one weightlifter. Back then, if a guy lifted weights, we would joke with him and would call him spinach or popeye.”
“That ’63 team had so many dentists, doctors, lawyers on it, their were quite a few. Did you know that Mike Ditka went to Pitt because he wanted to be a dentist? Their were so many dentists coming out of the football program,” said Dodaro. “Back then, when you went to play football at Pitt, you didn’t go there to look to become a pro football player.
“I always tell the story, I grew up in Blawnox, and the Workhouse was a prison it was in our town. A good friend of mine was the coach of the football team and I’d go their to workout with their football team before we went to camp. There was a guard at the Workhouse named Leo Elder, who was the starting fullback for the Washington Redskins. He didn’t make enough money with Washington so in the off-season, he had to work at the Workhouse. Now that obviously doesn’t exist today.
”Back then, you had a whole different attitude towards college athletics, it was academics first followed by athletics because you couldn’t make the money in sports. I think Richie Lucas, who was an All-American at Penn State, he drafted when the AFL first started, I think he was drafted No. 1 by the Buffalo Bills and by a NFL team No. 1. I think his bonus was $5,000.”
Football today and back in the 60’s is obviously a lot different and Dodaro reflected on two areas that stood out to him.
“It was just entirely different,” he said. “When I went to Pitt, we didn’t have the black athlete and that was a shame. In 1957, Pitt went to the Sugar Bowl and played in New Orleans, they had one black player on the team, Bobby Greer. The unfortunate thing is that Pitt never recruited another black athlete until my freshman year. They brought in Eric Crabtree who was from Monessen, a great running back that played with the Denver Broncos. They also brought in a lineman from Eastern Pennsylvania by the name of Jimmy Jones. They were the first two African-Americans to come in since 1957. Our starting lineup back then had one black athlete (Crabtree) and that has obviously all changed.”
“In off-season, you were pretty much on your own, we’d maybe go up to the Field House and work out, but as a team it started in spring practice,” said Dodaro. “You then went away for the summer and then came back for fall camp in August. We used to go to Allegheny College in Meadville. Spent two weeks up there and the season started.”
“The other thing that was different, the whole thing with football practice was punish, punish, punish. You were in pads right away. We’d be at fall camp and it would be 97 degrees and you couldn’t even spit and if it was really hot, they might give you a water break. They’d have water in a bucket and it would be like piss. They’d have a scooper and you’d get a scoop of water. At the end of practice, you’d be sweating, you’d put your uniform and pads in the lawn so the sun could dry it out. At Meadville, the dorms were about a mile and a half from where we ate and we’d have to walk it. We weren’t allowed to ride.
“This is a funny story, Porky Chedwick, was a friend of mine, used to come up to our fall camp, we’d drive us back to the dorm. Ha ha. Today it was no where near the physical grind during practice and camp as it was back then.”
The engaging Dodaro wrapped things up with an interesting recruiting story involving Penn State assistant coach Joe Paterno and how he eventually ended up at Pitt.
“My recruiting was great. Back then, I took like seven recruiting visits/trips, you weren’t limited back then,” said Dodaro. “Guys were taking 10-15 recruiting trips for God sakes. I only took seven because I played basketball too. What you could do back then was you spent a weekend at the college and they’d assign you to a freshman football player and they’d wine and dine you that weekend.”
“My Penn State story was funny. Rip Engel was the head coach, Joe Paterno was the assistant. Danny Radakovich, who just passed, was the linebackers coach. I went to North Catholic and another who went with me was a great lineman Bob Viney, went on to play at Michigan State, was on the national championship team with Bubba Smith. Bob was at one end, Bubba at the other. We go up to Penn State and we ended up going to and spending the night at a fraternity party and came back the next morning because we were supposed to meet Rad at 8 a.m.”
“We walked around the whole campus and were ready to go meet with Rip Engle and Paterno. Rad said how did you like Penn State and we said he really liked it and he said well you’re not coming here. He said you’re nothing but two hot dogs from Pittsburgh and were here just to have a good time. Last week you were in Washington, just so you could see the World’s Fair in Seattle, which we did. Viney said, ‘What did you say, you can call me a hot dog from the North Side but don’t call my man here a hot dog.’ They were then ready to start fighting and I almost had to break things up.
“We then went to Engle’s house and Joe took me aside and said, ‘We want you but we don’t want Viney.’ They came out and told Viney and he told them, ‘Rip, Joe wherever I go, and we play Penn State, I’m going to make you eat those words.’
“Sure as hell, his senior year, the first game, Michigan State vs. Penn State at Beaver Stadium, it’s the national championship team, Michigan State beat Penn State. He ended up making 15 unassisted tackles and everytime he made a tackle, he ran over to the Penn State bench and screamed ‘Remember me Rip? I’m the hot dog from Pittsburgh.’
The funny thing was that everytime I ran into Joe Paterno, he’d say ‘How’s Viney?'”
In the end, Dodaro decided to stay home and committed to Pitt over Penn State and Virginia. He admits that it was not only the right decision athletically but also personally and professionally because he ended up meeting his wife of 50 years Carol, had three children and practiced law in Pittsburgh.