Today, when the 1959 Penn football team gathers for its 40th anniversary reunion, the former players will be celebrating more than just Penn's first Ivy League championship. They will be celebrating their membership on a team that came together and, for nine games in one glorious autumn, made the nation take Penn football seriously one last time. The 1950s were rough for Penn football. The Quakers had been a national powerhouse in the '40s but struggled in the following decade while making the transition to the newly formed Ivy League. After holding their own with the likes of Michigan, Penn State, Army and Navy while leading the nation in attendance in the 1940s, Penn dropped to 14-39 between 1953 and '58, the first six years under new Ivy League restrictions. But for one magical season in 1959 everything came together on the gridiron for the Red and Blue. In the years after, Penn struggled mightily; the Quakers went 32-63-1 in the 1960s and did not win another Ivy title until 1982. For the members of the '59 team, and the fans who saw them play at Franklin Field, there was something truly special about that one winning season. "I remember just tremendous spirit and knowing I was with a group of tremendous athletes," back Peter Schantz said. Even before the season began, the team knew that 1959 just might be the year Penn football turned the corner. "Going into the season, we thought we had a good shot," quarterback Larry Purdy said. "We had done pretty well the year before [at 4-5]. When we came in as freshmen, there was the 19-game losing streak, and we finally won a couple of games then [in '58]." Penn did have one huge advantage in 1959 -- a season-opener against Lafayette, and not Penn State, as had been the case for the previous three years. "Penn had been one of the top teams in the country [in the '40s, when scheduling commitments were made], so they were playing all the big-time schools," quarterback George Koval said. "You'd play Penn State, and by the time you'd recuperate from that, you'd play Navy, and that would get you the injury report the rest of the season." But with Lafayette set to open the schedule at Franklin Field, the Quakers saw an opportunity to excel. When Penn showed up for preseason training in Hershey, Pa., many of the players were already in shape, thanks to a preseason letter drafted by end Barney Berlinger. "It said [that] we've got to be in shape when we get to Hershey, not try to get in shape at Hershey, because we've got to get the jump on the whole season if we're going to win the Ivy League championship," Berlinger said. "We had to come out of the chute real hard to beat Lafayette, Dartmouth and Princeton in quick succession to get us on our way, so I just urged them to workout heavy in July and August so that we could go whole-hog once we got going with the year." The letter worked, as a stronger Penn squad crushed Lafayette in the season opener, 26-0. The next week, Dartmouth paid a visit to Franklin Field and left with a similar result. Penn pounded the Indians, 13-0. "Dartmouth was the key game because Dartmouth was a tough team and had traditionally been a tough opponent," Schantz said. An even tougher opponent lurked at Old Nassau one week later. Penn had not beaten Princeton since 1952, when George Munger was still the coach of the Quakers. In a nationally televised game, Penn throttled the Tigers, 18-0. "One of the greatest thrills [for me] was getting a chance to play in that Princeton game, and scoring two touchdowns and intercepting a pass," Schantz said. "That's one of the highlights for me." It was one of the highlights for Penn as well. The Quakers would not win at Princeton again until 1973. Still, the '59 players knew they had a great opportunity on their hands after the triumph, sitting on a 3-0 record in mid-October. "The first couple of games, we shut people out," Koval said. "But Princeton, at Princeton, on national television, I think it sort of made all of us say, 'Hey, we've got something special.'" After whipping Brown at Franklin Field, 36-9, Penn -- two decades before the existence of I-AA football -- faced Navy, the fourth-ranked team in Division I, on a muddy day at Franklin Field. Penn shocked the Midshipmen by racing out to a 19-8 lead. Not to be denied, Navy clawed its way back, taking a 22-19 lead late in the second half. But Penn drove down the field in the fourth quarter and Ed Shaw booted a 24-yard field goal to tie the game. Navy came back down the field but Schantz picked off a pass to wrap up the surprising 22-22 tie for Penn. "That was an exciting game," Penn back David Coffin said. "It was high-scoring, back and forth, and we realized that we could play on a par with them." Maybe Penn was flying too high. Riding their best start since 1948, the Quakers came into their game against Harvard feeling invincible. "[Tying Navy] actually caused some problems because we thought we'd be able to handle Harvard fairly easily," Purdy said. "We wound up in the mud making a lot of mistakes. We weren't up for the game mentally or physically and we made a lot of mistakes, and it cost us." Still undefeated, the Quakers may have underestimated Harvard the following week. "We were flat [against Harvard] after the big [Navy] game," Coffin said. "Coach [Steve] Sebo said, 'You guys have got to get up because Harvard has come to play.' And we just couldn't seem to get out of first gear." Penn's problems that Saturday started when Koval suffered a concussion in the first half, and ended in a lackluster 12-0 Quakers loss to the Crimson. "I can't remember much about the Harvard game," Koval said. "Somewhere along the line I got a concussion, and I don't recall the game, don't recall anything that happened. All I remember is looking up at the clock, and saying to the trainer while sitting on the bench, 'That can't be the score.' I saw 12-0 up there and said, 'That can't be the score because we're undefeated.' Other than that, I really have no recollection of the Harvard game." Even those Quakers without concussions had no problem putting the Harvard game behind them, though. Sebo and his staff rallied the troops in the practices that followed, making sure that Penn would be ready for a visit from Yale the following week. The Quakers' senior leadership also helped a great deal in the week that followed. "We felt we were upset by a team we should have beaten," Schantz said. "We had some tremendous leaders. Guys like Barney Berlinger, Jon Greenawalt, Jack Hanlon. Everyone wanted to play really hard for Steve Sebo, and we came back the next week, beat Yale, and we were back on track." Coming into their November 7 matchup, the Elis had allowed just 12 points for the entire season and had lost only to Dartmouth. Penn changed all that, destroying Yale 28-12 at Franklin Field. Penn could have had another letdown game the next week at Columbia, but the Quakers had learned from their mistakes, and thrashed the Lions 24-6. This left Penn in a first-place tie with Dartmouth. After losing the early season game to the Quakers, the Indians had not lost again in the Ancient Eight. A scoreless tie with Brown gave Dartmouth a 5-1-1 record when they wrapped up their schedule on November 21. To win the Ivy League title, 5-1 Penn would have to beat Cornell at Franklin Field on Thanksgiving Day. Entering the season, Sebo had compiled an 11-34 record, and 1959 was the last year of his contract. Many of the Quakers believed that his job could be saved with an Ivy title, and now Penn had a chance to achieve just that. More than just a championship seemed to be on the line, although it appeared that Sebo's job may have already been saved by the strong season -- a season whose results had already resulted in multiple goal posts being tossed into the Schuylkill River. "People were tearing down goal posts after every victory," Koval said. "They were wooden goal posts so people would just snap them off, carry them over and throw them in the Schuylkill." The question was whether the Quakers would provide an opportunity for the Franklin Field faithful to tear down the goal posts one more time. With two minutes to play in the third quarter and Penn trailing Cornell 13-0, it looked like the answer would be no. But Koval threw a quick touchdown pass, and the Quakers had visions of an Ivy title dancing in their eyes again. "On the scoreboard, it didn't look too great for us," Schantz said. "But I anticipated we were going to come back." Just as soon as hope had sprung again, it looked like the party would be quashed once more for Penn, as the Quakers faced fourth-and-16 at the Cornell 25, down by six in the fourth quarter. The Red and Blue needed a miracle. They got exactly that. Under pressure, Koval lofted a desperation pass toward the end zone. "Koval threw me a pass in the end zone," Berlinger said. "I jumped as high as I could in the air and caught the pass and came down. The thing I remember was the cannon going off [for a Penn touchdown] because I had tried to keep my feet in bounds. I read the account of George Koval and he said that he was getting rushed real heavy, and he just threw the ball in my general direction, and he never saw me catch the ball, all he heard was the cannon. So the cannon put us up 14-13. After that second touchdown, all the wind came out of Cornell's sails." Crushed, Cornell raised the white flag and allowed two more touchdowns before time expired, giving Penn one of the hardest-fought 28-13 victories ever. "The key to the comeback was George and his passing," Purdy said. "He was able to complete some key passes. He brought us back." Forty years later, Koval can only joke about one of his greatest days on the field. "I guess I had a half-decent day," Koval said. "Cornell was one of my favorite teams and for some odd reason, I did well against them. That was a pretty good game. I didn't have a good first half, but [Sebo] stuck with me, and we came back and won." Fortunes were not as good for Sebo. It turned out that the Penn administration had made a final decision to fire the coach before the season had started, and there was no way to save his job. Despite a squad loaded with returning lettermen in 1960, new head coach John Stiegman could only pilot Penn to a 3-6 record. It would be nine years before Penn finished as high as third in the standings and 23 seasons and four coaches before the Quakers won their next title, under Jerry Berndt, in 1982. The players who battled so valiantly in 1959 for Steve Sebo provided a bridge between Penn's years of big-time football and its Ivy League years, a last appearance in the national spotlight and the beginning of what eventually would become a tradition of winning for Penn in the Ivies. They have more than earned the right to celebrate together today, and their magical season will remain one to celebrate well into the future.Comments powered by Disqus
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