Big Plays by the Bay No. 7: The San Francisco Dons' Wistful Undefeated Season
College football has been played in the Bay Area for 133 years with numerous great players and games – plus some remarkable stories that have been forgotten. Bay Area Blitz contributor Mark Purdy has picked the 10 best stories and will count them down in the monthly newsletter leading up to January’s College Football Playoff National Championship at Levi’s Stadium.
In the rich history of Northern California football, the University of San Francisco has not been rich. It has been more of a scuffling-to-get-by cousin for most of its existence. It has not even played the sport since 1982.
But in 1951, the Dons were as wealthy in terms of football excellence as any team around. They finished the regular season with a 9-0 record, including a road victory over then-powerful Fordham in New York City. Back in the Bay Area, nationally-ranked USF played San Jose State twice and outscored the Spartans by a combined 81-9.
The Dons’ roster featured three future Pro Football Hall of Fame players—running back Ollie Matson, lineman Bob St. Clair and end Geno Marchetti. Five others also had NFL careers. They were all coached by Joe Kuharich. He would go on to become head coach at Notre Dame, as well as with three NFL teams.
Such a team was certainly deserving of a postseason bowl bid. Bay Area college squads were usually hot commodities in that department. Santa Clara had gone to the Orange Bowl after the 1949 season. Cal had played in the 1951 Rose Bowl Game. Yet in a wistful and bitter development, the Dons would stay home after their perfect season for a reason that had nothing to do with football and everything to do with skin color.
In that era, most of the eight bowl games in existence were staged in southern cities such as New Orleans and Dallas and Miami, where segregation still ruled. Game organizers preferred to invite teams with all-white rosters, either by official policy or unofficial principle. San Francisco had two African-American players. One was Matson. The other was Burl Toler, a linebacker who would go on to become the NFL’s first black game official.
According to USF lore, the Orange Bowl planned to invite the Dons to Florida, anyway, as long as Matson and Toler stayed home. But in a locker room vote, their teammates voted to not accept any bowl bids unless their two black teammates could join them. Thus, the best USF team ever, played no postseason game on moral grounds.
The decision is applauded today. But back then, it had wide-ranging ramifications. The USF football program was in deep debt and could have used the large Orange Bowl paycheck to stay afloat. Instead, school officials voted to fold the program before the 1952 season. A decade later, the Dons revived football at the Division II level but it also failed to survive. But for that one unmatched season, USF did everything right, both in terms of football and making an honorable decision.