Year Of The Pigskin
As scattered snowflakes drifted lazily to the ground late on the morning of Monday, November 18, 1968, more than 1,000 students buzzed with anticipation in front of Strong Hall. The cause of the assembly’s eagerness rested in the fate of the University’s 1968 gridiron squad, which is perhaps curious on Mt. Oread where football has generally served as something akin to a warm up for basketball season. However, on that mid-November morning towards the end of a tumultuous decade that had turned many a societal norm on its ear, it was perhaps appropriate that the football Jayhawks seemed bowl bound.
The crowd had gathered in front of Strong Hall to discover for sure (rumors were already circulating) whether or not the Orange Bowl had extended the school an invitation. The oranges in the hands of some of those milling around outside Strong Hall made evident the extent to which the KU faithful hoped their beloved Jayhawks would play in Miami on New Years Day 1969. It was an Orange Bowl dream that University supporters had begun fostering more than a month earlier, and one that the eager fans would soon find fulfilled.
Although his Jayhawks had been picked to finish fourth in the Big Eight Conference at the beginning of the 1968 season, Coach “Pepper” Rodgers had led the squad to the top of the conference and to national prominence in only his second season in Lawrence. Two years earlier, during its 1966 campaign, the Jayhawk football team had gone winless in conference play and had managed only two wins for the second year in a row. It was this squad that Rodgers had inherited in 1967.
After losing all three non-conference games of his inaugural season as KU’s head football coach, Rodgers had coached his team to a 5-2 record in the Big Eight (including an 10-0 upset of eighth-ranked Nebraska in Lawrence’s Memorial Stadium) that catapulted the Jayhawks to a second-place conference finish. The new coach had orchestrated, as the Jayhawker Yearbook pointed out, “the greatest one-year improvement in the 60-year history of the league.”
As the 1968 campaign got underway, no one knew whether or not the promising results of 1967 season had been a fluke. Cynics would soon discover that it had been no such thing. Led by two All-American seniors (Bobby Douglass, quarterback and John Zook, defensive end), the Jayhawks opened the season by smacking Illinois 46-7. The team then proceeded to stomp nationally-ranked Indiana 38-20 before taking New Mexico out behind the woodshed for a 68-7 thrashing in which KU’s “football express” rolled up 541 yards of offense despite inserting its second- and third-string players in the first half. The impressiveness of those victories propelled KU to sixth in the AP rankings and set up a showdown of top-10 teams in the Jayhawks’ conference opener – a visit to Lincoln, Nebraska to take on the hated Cornhuskers.
Nebraska fans turned out in record numbers (67,119) in the hope of watching their beloved football team exact its pound of flesh from the KU squad for having had the gumption to upset the Cornhuskers in Lawrence a year earlier. Although the revenge-minded ‘Huskers would nearly redeem their 1967 loss, they fumbled it away during the game’s final moments. Nebraska had led until fewer than five minutes remained in the fourth quarter when KU exploded for two touchdowns to win by a deceptively large final margin of 23-13.
As KU’s Douglass rambled in for the clinching touchdown, the delirious cheers of the 5,500 or so KU supporters who had made the trek to Lincoln echoed in Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium while “the Big Red boosters watched silently.” After the game, while “the scoreboard operator quickly removed the result, an optimistic KU band member changed the sign on the chartered bus from “Charter” to “Miami.” The new destination belyied the hope that the Jayhawks’ victory over the ‘Huskers had kindled – that the KU squad would represent the Big Eight in the Orange Bowl.
Kansas rolled to three more conference victories before being tripped up by Oklahoma in Memorial Stadium when the Jayhawks allowed the Sooners to quiet the more than 51,000 fans on hand with a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. The four-point loss dampened talk of an Orange Bowl bid atop Mt. Oread and plunged the squad into something of a defensive funk that persisted through the two rivalry games with K-State and Missouri that closed out the regular 1968 season.
Nonetheless, the feet of senior tailback Donnie Shanklin and sophomore fullback John Riggins (along with Douglass’s arm) provided sufficient firepower to outscore the squad’s intra-state rival in Manhattan the following week 38-29. (Riggins showed flashes of the sort of running Washington Redskins fans would come to expect of him in later years as he bulled his way for 189 yards on 19 carries, including 83-yard touchdown scamper.) Since bowl match ups were decided before the end of the season at that time, KU’s post-season fate would be decided before the Missouri game.
With a record of 8-1 and a showdown in Columbia, Missouri a week away, Coach Rodgers’ squad returned to Lawrence to await word of their bowl bid, which was to come a mere two days later. The entire town of Lawrence seemed anxious as the announcement date approached, cautiously hopeful that the Orange Bowl committee would select the men from KU. On Monday morning, loud speakers on the steps of Strong Hall boomed out Coach Rodgers’ voice as he phoned in from a press conference in Kansas City and delivered the news that KU was Miami bound.
The Jayhawk squad’s subsequent victory over its “Border War” rival in front of “the largest Missouri crowd ever to watch a sporting event” proved satisfying, as the team sealed up a share of the conference championship. (Oklahoma could also claim to be co-champions). Ultimately, however, the game was anti-climactic since KU was already set to square off against perennial power Penn State in the 35th Orange Bowl Classic.
Thus ended the Jayhawks’ best regular season since 1908. More than a month remained until the bowl game, allowing plenty of time for excitement to build over the Jayhawk squad and its trip to Miami. During the next few weeks, more than 12,000 Kansas fans finalized their plans to attend the game – some with groups such as the All-Student Council (ASC), Student Union Activities (SUA) and Alumni Association, others on their own. The University Daily Kansan and Lawrence Journal-World ran articles on KU’s opponent that covered everything from Penn State’s history to the origin of its mascot. Most of the coverage centered on the quality of its gridiron squad, which was led by third-year Head Coach Joe Paterno.
Although journalists rightly credited Paterno for his coaching prowess, the man who would in time come to be more associated with Penn State football than any other figure was merely continuing the Nittany Lions’ impressive legacy. By 1968, Penn State had not suffered a losing season in 30 years. Astute reporters contrasted PSU’s victorious tradition against KU’s, where winning might be described as a “happening” rather than a regular event.
Fortunately for the Jayhawks, the Orange Bowl would not be decided on the basis of the schools’ respective football pedigrees. Even so, the Lawrence squad would have its hands full battling a very good Penn State team, which had not lost a football match up the last 18 times it had taken the field and sat perched in the AP rankings at third.
The men from State College were led by two All-Americans in linebacker Dennis Onkotz and tight end Ted Kwalick, and they did not “appear to be particularly weak in any [position], either on defense or offense.” However, as good as the Penn State squad was, the men from Mt. Oread were capable of matching it. Indeed, the Las Vegas odds-makers made the line about even, and at game time, PSU was merely a one-half point favorite. The game would demonstrate just how accurate these estimates were.
Roughly a month after its game against Missouri, the football Jayhawks boarded a plane headed for southern Florida. Hopeful and devoted students, alumni and fans followed a few days later and crowded into the hotels along Miami Beach. The various KU alumni get togethers could well have been tracked with a Who’s Who guide from Kansas.
Governor Robert Docking and his family had made the trek along with Topeka Mayor Charles Wright, KU Chancellor W. Clark Wescoe and several members of the Board of Regents. KU greats like Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers (who was recovering from a knee injury) and star miler Jim Ryun were spotted in Miami, as was a Jayhawk legend turned Kansas City banker by the name of Ray Evans. (Evans had been the University’s first All-American football star and had led the 1947 Jayhawkers to the school’s first bowl appearance – the 1948 Orange Bowl – where they had lost a heartbreaker to Georgia Tech on a controversial fumble call as the crimson and blue was going into the end zone for the go-ahead score.)
Others, like KU sophomore Earl Watkins, were less well known and went to seize the rare opportunity to watch KU play in a bowl game with national championship implications. (Although the second-ranked USC Trojans, led by Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson, were to take on the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl, an impressive victory by the undefeated Penn State team had the potential to catapult the Nittany Lions to the national crown.) Like many University students, Watkins was from Kansas and had traveled little, never having been south of Oklahoma, and the trip to warmer climes would enable him to both broaden his experience and lend his voice to the contingent of KU supporters.
While the Jayhawk faithful played in the sand and the surf, toured the “Seaquarium,” or made their way to see Flip Wilson, Connie Francis, Tiny Tim or The Fifth Dimension as their musical or comedic tastes dictated, Kansas newspapers proudly announced the Alumni Association’s plan for an “invasion by sea.” More than 1,000 Jayhawk supporters would take five chartered cruise ships on a two-hour journey from Miami Beach’s Haulover Dock “across Biscayne Bay to the freight docks of the Miami Daily News and the Miami Herald.” The KU marching band and a complement of “pompon girls” would meet the water-borne Jayhawk supporters, and along with a police escort, lead a four-block procession to the stadium. It was to be, the Alumni Magazine proclaimed, “one of the most exciting events in Orange Bowl history.”
As New Year’s Day game approached, most KU and Penn State fans appeared to be in good spirits. Even the opposing coaches conducted their news conferences as if they were old friends. Paterno, for example, began the final pre-game press conference with a reference to the festivities surrounding the Orange Bowl, joking that he had “sore feet from the [coronation] ball” of the previous night. “You were the star,” Rodgers teasingly added. “Oh you’re only saying that,” Paterno quickly replied, “because I was.” Rodgers closed out the playful banter by quipping, “I thought Joe did a fabulous job. He danced with everybody and when we brought him over to the Kansas side, they all thought he was real cute.” When the talk returned to the upcoming game, both coaches acknowledged that it would likely be an offensive shootout, although Paterno added that these things could be hard to predict and that he had seen games that were supposed to be high-scoring affairs become defensive showdowns.
The pre-game festivities culminated on New Year’s Eve as the Orange Bowl parade wound through the streets of Miami. Since, the 90-minute parade was nationally broadcast, those KU fans that hadn’t made the trip to Miami could watch as the KU Marching Band “played their hearts out.” According to the Lawrence Journal-World the KU band members were “resplendent in brand new royal blue uniforms.” They “marched briskly and played with a verve and a sharpness that won accolades” from nearly 600,000 or so spectators that lined Miami’s curbs. Penn State, by contrast, “also had a band. It was a good average college band.” Having watched Kansas “win” the imaginary “battle of the bands” (and hoping that this victory would bode well for the Jayhawks the following day), KU supporters dispersed to various gatherings to usher in the New Year.
The KU Alumni Association hosted two parties, one at the Marco Polo Hotel, the other at the Cadillac Hotel, both of which seemed to go off without a hitch. The student contingent of Jayhawk supporters predictably welcomed the arrival of 1969 somewhat more raucously. Police canine units were called out to break up “a crowd of merrymaking KU students” outside the Biscayne Terrace Hotel (where the SUA group was staying) around 1:00 in the morning. The students were apparently stopping cars on Biscayne Boulevard (“a main Miami route,” the Kansas City Star informed its readers), and demanding “to know from motorists whether they were for K.U. or Penn State.”
The KU fans were lustily cheered and allowed to move on, while the rest of the traffic was held back until the manager of the hotel (perhaps with the civil disturbances of the previous year still fresh in his mind) summoned the police “with reports that a riot was in progress.” Although the crowd was broken up without incident, within a few hours rumors circulated that several students had been attacked by the dogs and were suffering from rabies.
While the rumor was not credible, the students staying at the Biscayne Terrace Hotel were inclined to believe it since their stay had been close to disastrous. Half of the 320 students on the SUA trip had arrived at the hotel six hour after the first group, thanks to a delay on the second flight. When they finally checked in, they found themselves in uncomfortably warm accommodations that the hotel was unwilling to rectify by turning on the air conditioning. When the students complained, the Biscayne Terrace sent up an “engineer” to look at the air conditioning. He patronizingly claimed that he would fix the problem, and then proceeded to open windows in the rooms.
If this wasn’t bad enough, some students found dirty towels in their bathrooms and showers that belched rust. And shortly after the incident on Biscayne Boulevard, one of the hotel’s elevators broke, stranding about 25 people for approximately 20 minutes. While these misfortunes were not sufficient to ruin the trip for students, they proved irritating enough to merit coverage in the Lawrence papers.
As the evening drew near on the first day of 1969, those KU alumni leading the “invasion by sea” made their way to the Miami Beach docks where they would experience their own share of hard luck. As the flotilla set out for the stadium, “a stiff northerly wind made Miami Bay too rough for the cruise ships.” Thus the vessels had to head to the stadium via inland water routes, encountering numerous drawbridge-related delays.
By the time the five ships arrived at the appropriate dock, the delay had been such that “the band and the pompon girls [had been] reloaded onto the buses and returned to the stadium.” With no band to meet them, the “Kansans straggled along the four blocks down the middle of the street, dodging cars, until a police escort finally caught up with them.” Despite the planning that had gone into preparing “one of the most exciting events in Orange Bowl history,” the “invasion by sea” had gone awry. It remained to be seen whether the hopes of the Jayhawk faithful would be similarly dashed.
Perhaps the lights of Miami were too bright or the atmosphere too relaxing. Maybe it took Rodgers awhile to adjust to Paterno’s game plan or maybe the Jayhawks were simply unnerved by the pressure of playing in front of nearly 78,000 fans in the stadium and hundreds of thousands more who were watching from their homes on television. Whatever the reason, the men from Lawrence started the game by playing sluggishly (particularly on offense) and were lucky to find themselves in a tie ball game as the teams made their way to the locker rooms at the half.
The predicted offensive shootout predicted had failed to materialize. KU hadn’t gotten untracked while Penn State had repeatedly thwarted its own efforts by giving the ball back to the Jayhawks. KU’s vaunted offense, which had racked up a lofty 442 yards and 38 points per game during the regular season, allowed Penn State to double its first-half yardage and first down totals. Only by forcing four Lions’ turnovers had KU managed to escape the first half having held their opponents to seven points. Most of those watching the game realized that the men from Lawrence were fortunate not to be trailing by at least 14 points. Indeed even the single touchdown KU had scored in the first half had been set up by an interception.
On the opening possession of the third quarter, the Jayhawks went three-and-out. After the punt, the Nittany Lions took over at their own 33-yard line and began to march down the field. As the team from State College chewed up yardage, a Penn State touchdown looked inevitable. However, with Penn State staring at a first and goal at the five-yard line, Kansas began its finest defensive stand of the season. On first down, a Penn State back bulled his way for three yards. Although KU allowed a PSU fullback to gain a yard on second down, the squad managed to keep Penn State out of the end zone on third down. Opting to go for the touchdown on fourth down from the ½ yard line, Paterno’s team paid a stiff price as Jayhawk linebacker Emery Hicks burst through the Penn State line to cut down Penn State’s star running back, Charlie Pittman, for a loss of two. The inspired play of the Jayhawk defense in making this goal-line stand carried over to the other side of the ball where KU's offense finally awakened from its slump.
On the ensuing possession, Rodger’s squad drove to Penn State’s 25-yard line but missed a 42-yard field goal attempt that would have given them the lead. Nonetheless, the offense had regained its confidence and the defense had been revitalized. Early in the fourth quarter, with the game still knotted at seven, the Jayhawk defense forced Penn State to punt the ball away from its own 14. KU’s Donnie Shanklin fielded the punt and made a spectacular return (complete with the help of some timely blocking and fancy spinning) that brought him inside the PSU 10 before he was finally dragged down from behind.
Two plays later, with 12:38 left in the game, John Riggins burst into the end zone to give KU the lead. Penn State, however, still had plenty of time to score, but KU’s defense appeared to be up to the task of shutting Penn State’s offense down. Indeed, five minutes later, the offense having once again driven down the field and facing a fourth and one situation at the Nittany Lion’s five-yard line, Rodgers felt confident enough in his defense to go for the first down instead of settling for a field goal that would put his team up by ten points. Since Penn State stopped the 4th down attempt short of the first-down marker, it was a decision that would be second-guessed by Jayhawk fans in barbershops and restaurants in the days and weeks to come.
Nonetheless, KU’s defense held its own, even forcing the Nittany Lions to punt the ball away with 2:04 left in the game. If the Jayhawks’ offense could have managed even one first down on that possession, they could have run out the clock and returned to Mt. Oread victorious. Unfortunately for the KU supporters cheering their team on, Penn State’s defense rather than Kansas’ offense rose to the occasion, sacking Bobby Douglass twice and forcing the men from Lawrence to punt the ball away with 1:16 left in the contest. Hoping to pin PSU deep in its own territory, KU attempted to punt the ball away, only to have it partially blocked by Lion’s safety Neil Smith. The ball rolled dead at midfield. What happened next became the stuff of legends and broke the hearts of Jayhawk fans everywhere.
On first down, Penn State completed a 47-yard pass to halfback Bob Campbell over the arms of KU safety Tommy Anderson who tried to intercept the ball rather than knock it down. With the ball on the three-yard line, the Jayhawks held the Lions on first and second down, but allowed quarterback Chuck Burkhart to ramble around left end for a touchdown with just 15 seconds remaining. JoePa decided to go for the win rather than the tie and so opted to go for a two-point conversion. Rolling to his right, Burkhart tried to hit Campbell for the win but Anderson (assisted by teammate Dave Morgan) atoned for his earlier mistake by swatting the ball away.
Delirious KU fans began their celebration, cheering wildly and congratulating each other. In all of the excitement, most University supporters had not noticed a flag down on the field. Kansas had been called for illegal procedure; somehow, the squad had 12 men on the field and Penn State was going to get another shot. The Nittany Lions capitalized on their second chance as Campbell swept around left end for two points and sealed a Penn State victory. The fact that KU’s Shanklin was voted the game’s MVP was little consolation to the men from Lawrence or their supporters.
KU fans sat in stunned silence as the final gun sounded ending the contest. Governor Docking, who had begun making his way to the Jayhawks’ sideline with a little over two minutes remaining in the game to congratulate Rodgers on what looked like a sure victory muttered exasperatedly, “They can’t do it to us again like they did in 1948. They just can’t do it.” But they had. The referees again made a call that determined the outcome of an Orange Bowl involving KU and had snatched victory away from the Jayhawks.
In fairness to the referees (and in contrast to the 1948 Orange Bowl where there is considerable doubt as to whether or not the officials made the correct call), there was nothing controversial about the penalty for having 12 men on the field. The tears welling in the eyes of the governor as he made his way back to his family had little to do with the fact that he had lost his bet with Pennsylvania’s governor and now owed him a buffalo. They had much to do with the shock of losing when victory seemed so in hand.
The frustration of the KU supporters was palpable and for those who had arrived via ship the disappointment was augmented by a return trip to their hotels that was as slow returning as it had been arriving. In the locker room, the disenchantment of Jayhawk players could hardly be contained. “Tears ran down many cheeks and some [of the players] cursed.” Even scattered fisticuffs broke out between team members, who desperately wanted to lash out in their disappointment. Even so, the players sought to protect their teammate and so refused to identify the “12th man.” (Later that evening he would divulge his own identity to a Miami sportswriter. He was Rick Abernathy, a fifth-year senior linebacker, who would see his photograph in numerous newspapers above a caption reading “The 12th Man.”)
The pain of the loss, of course, would fade in time, but it would not be forgotten. In the summer of 2002, Earl Watkins, who had been seated in an end zone corner seat (nearer the field than many KU supporters), remembered with clarity the surreal, slow motion throwing of the penalty flag that led to the fatal play. “The flag,” he recalled, “seemed to take five minutes to hit the ground.” Nevertheless, sportswriters would remind their readers that despite the loss in the Orange Bowl, 1968 had been the “year of the pigskin” on Mt. Oread.
Bill Mayer, writing for the Lawrence Journal-World chastised KU fans for getting so down about the loss and asserted, “When you’ve been behind the barn door in football as often as KU has been, you can’t get so prosperous so suddenly that you forget that over-all it was a great season. Let’s don’t get that picky until we’ve had a lot more co-championships and bowl trips. Let’s be sorry a little but glad a lot about how far we’ve come up in the world.” Numerous others would echo this sentiment over the next few weeks.
And indeed it had been a great year for KU. The football Jayhawks had won a share of the conference title – a feat they would not repeat for the remainder of the 20th century – and had posted a record they would not improve upon for more than a quarter century. Likewise, the University had never before seen another football team finish a season with an AP ranking as high as the 1968-69 squad’s seventh. Further, the team had played in what would be remembered as one of the most compelling Orange Bowls ever. Only the 2007 edition of Kansas Football surpassed the 1968 squad's achievement of reaching the Orange Bowl when they beat Virginia Tech on January 3, 2008, to become the first KU team to win this prestigious game. The 2007 squad also finished the season with an AP ranking of seven and a record of 12-1.
Although Jayhawk supporters prognosticated future greatness for the Kansas football program under Rodgers (and the University had agreed by giving him a contract extension, a substantial raise, and a bonus in the weeks leading up to the New Year’s Day game), the Orange Bowl would mark the zenith of Rodgers’ career in Lawrence. The following season his squad would reverse its regular season record, posting only one win against nine losses. After leading the football Jayhawks to a 5-6 record in 1970, he left the University to become the head coach at UCLA.
Nonetheless, and to Rodgers’ credit, the head coach shouldered the responsibility for the loss, even as he defended his decision not to kick the field goal that would have sealed a victory for KU. Considering the fact none of KU’s subsequent post-season appearances has been in as prestigious a venue as the Orange Bowl except for the 2007 team , perhaps his decision to go for the first down and even his failure to get the 12th man off the field are small things to gripe about.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas