By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
June 22, 2005
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A.F. “Bud” Dudley, the man responsible for creating the Liberty Bowl in Philadelphia in 1959 and then keeping the game on life support for five years at massive JFK Stadium, was about at the end of the line.
His 1963 game between Mississippi State and North Carolina State drew less than 10,000 fans and it absorbed a loss in excess of $40,000. The Liberty Bowl’s best game was its first in 1959, when 38,000 showed up to watch Penn State beat Alabama, 7-0.
Because it was the only bowl game played in the Northeast, clever writers began referring to it as the “Deep Freeze Bowl,” the “Masochist Bowl” or the “You’re-Out-Of-Your-Mind Bowl.”
By the summer of 1963 Dudley, a former Villanova athletic director, was willing to listen to just about any offer. The most persuasive one came from a group of businessmen from Atlantic City, N.J., desperate to do anything to try and turn around the city’s lagging economy.
Atlantic City was once a popular destination for the wealthy in the 1920s and often served as a pre-Broadway stop for the rich and the famous making their way up the coast on the theatre route. The Miss America Pageant originated in Atlantic City in 1921 and became an annual event on Labor Day, but the city declined dramatically after World War II when jet travel made vacations to Florida, the Caribbean and Europe much easier.
Attracting a bowl game was just one of their ideas. The city was also able to land the 1964 Democratic National Convention mainly by default. According to Theodore White’s book “The Making of the President, 1964,” the Democrats picked Atlantic City after going through several different options. The choice finally came down to Atlantic City and Miami but President John F. Kennedy chose Atlantic City because there were a large number of Cuban refugees living in South Florida and he was fearful that there would be protests so soon after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.
New Jersey Democrats came up with $625,000 and the Democrats nominated Lyndon B. Johnson at the 12,000-seat Atlantic City Convention Center in the summer of 1964. Newsmen covering the convention endured less than ideal hotel accommodations and frequently had to work around crashing hotel switchboards and other irregularities. Perhaps even more damnably, the newsmen claimed the food on the boardwalk was awful.
In the meantime, Atlantic City had finally convinced Dudley to move his game from Philadelphia to Atlantic City for 1964. To sweeten the pot they promised Dudley a $25,000 guarantee.
“It was unusual,” Dudley told the Salt Lake Tribune a few years ago. “No one had ever done it. It got a lot of publicity.”
There were several issues that had to be worked out with the game site. Seating was one problem though Dudley rationalized that away by saying he had “90,000 less headaches” than he had at 100,000-seat JFK Stadium.
Perhaps the game’s biggest obstacle was the playing surface. Astro-Turf was still in its developmental stages and was unavailable for the facility to use. So it was equipped with a four-inch thick grass surface with two inches of burlap underneath it (as padding) on top of cement. To keep the grass growing, artificial lighting was installed and kept on 24 hours a day. The entire process cost about $16,000.
Wrote The New York World Telegram’s Phil Pepe: “If the game is dull you can just sit there and watch the grass grow.”
There had to be justification for the expense of growing live grass inside the Convention Center, so the facility played host to about 10 high school and small-college games leading up to the Liberty Bowl, wearing the four-inch sod right down to the cement.
“There was a burlap sack underneath the sod and that was all the padding that you had,” said Donnie Young, a starting guard on WVU’s 1964 team and later a longtime Mountaineer assistant coach. “It was hard as a rock.”
The two teams had to walk up on the stage to their dressing rooms; one team exiting to the right and the other to their left.
"You had to walk up on the stage and there were really no locker rooms," recalled wide receiver Bob Dunlevy, the hero of the Syracuse game. "There was no place to even hang your clothes."
Because the end zones were only eight yards long instead of 10, Young remembers getting the impression that the fans were right on top of the players.
“It was a unique thing,” he said. “As you got closer to the end zone you were literally looking up into the crowd. You were right underneath them.”
The game also overcame some mild resistance from the Miss America Pageant people. The facility had just undergone a lighting upgrade following the political convention and the pageant folks were concerned that flying footballs were going to knock out all of their lights.
Football purists viewed it as a novelty and were quick to criticize the game. Wrote columnist Sandy Grady: “Architects are advised to keep their hats on their heads, not in the stadium.”
And Atlantic City isn’t exactly the most appealing outdoor destination in December. Despite deceptive brochures and press releases produced by the Liberty Bowl referring to Atlantic City as a “lively spot” no one was buying it.
“The liveliest thing I saw that weekend,” wrote Morgantown Dominion-News sports editor Mickey Furfari, “was the gale-force winds blowing in from the Atlantic.”
“You couldn’t go outside up there,” said Ed Pastilong, a backup quarterback on that team and now WVU’s director of athletics. “You were on the ocean in the dead of winter.”
“We spent all of our time indoors,” added Young.
Undeterred, Dudley plowed ahead with the nation’s first indoor bowl game. He was able to convince ABC to televise the event nationally on 210 stations at a record expense for the time. A total of seven cameras were used for the broadcast and its top college football crew of Curt Gowdy, Paul Christman and Jim McKay were flown in to announce the game. For his part, Gowdy was so interested in the contest that he forgot his glasses at the hotel.
Retired Wheeling Intelligencer sports editor Doug Huff, then working as a student for sports information director Eddie Barrett and also covering the game for the school newspaper, had the task of being Gowdy’s West Virginia player spotter for the telecast.
“Gowdy was literally blind,” Huff said. “He had to have his glasses to even see the monitor. So I was recruited to go back to his hotel room two hours before the game to find his glasses. They had his room torn upside down before they eventually found them. I don’t think he could have broadcast the game without his glasses.”
The 1964 Liberty Bowl was one of the first instances when network television dictated the terms of a college football bowl game even to the point of determining the teams making up the contest.
West Virginia, coming off a surprising 28-27 upset victory over Sugar Bowl-bound Syracuse, was the Liberty Bowl’s first choice. The bowl made it official on Dec. 3, just 16 days before the game on Dec. 19. According to one published report, the Liberty Bowl committee voted 6-1 to accept Villanova as West Virginia’s opponent, but ABC stepped in and refused to televise a West Virginia-Villanova game.
The network was more interested in having Western Conference champion Utah, which won eight of 10 games in 1964 and had an All-American end in Roy Jefferson. In addition to its great Syracuse win, Coach Gene Corum’s Mountaineers also beat Kentucky and Virginia Tech and had a blossoming star in quarterback Allen McCune and an eventual first-round draft pick in fullback Dick Leftridge. But even that wasn’t enough to capture the fancy of New York writers required to cover the game.
“It is McCune against Jefferson and both of them against grass. The grass is a three-point favorite,” wrote Pepe.
Yet despite being such a novelty, both schools were thrilled about being invited to the Liberty Bowl.
“We were very excited to go to Atlantic City,” noted Young. “Being from West Virginia and being a country boy kind of guy I had always heard about Atlantic City but I was never able to go there. I think most of the team was like that.”
“It was a whole new experience for all of us,” said Pastilong. “We were excited to play in it and we didn’t know what to expect.”
"We were excited about the fact that we were playing another game and it was going to be on national television," said Dunlevy. "We were rarely on national TV back then."
West Virginia was making just its fourth bowl appearance ever and its first in 10 years since being beaten soundly by Georgia Tech in the 1954 Sugar Bowl. Utah’s bowl history was similar, having last gone to a post-season football game 18 years earlier.
For Utah, the Liberty Bowl was a chance to travel to the East Coast and get national exposure on ABC. West Virginia realized the same benefits with one additional caveat: it could make a little money.
Cash has always been an issue at West Virginia University and in 1964, it was THE issue. A year earlier, athletic director Red Brown, perhaps caught up in the hullabaloo of the state’s 100-year anniversary, or just sick of sitting in an antiquated press box, opened up the check book and spent $160,000 to construct a brand new press facility at Mountaineer Field.
Brown justified the expense by convincing CBS to televise the West Virginia-Pitt game nationally and sealed the deal when he brought up the fact that the Martha brothers, Richie for WVU and Paul for Pitt, would play against each other. It was the modern day version of the Hatfields and the McCoys.
The two schools even went as far as contracting the West Virginia showboat Rhododendron to bring the Pitt team down the Monongahela River and depositing them off at the Pleasant Street landing on the day of the game.
The problem, according to Eddie Barrett, was the boat’s stacks were too tall for the Smithfield Street Bridge and putting hinges to get the stacks underneath the bridge took away some of the allure of the trip. So the Pitt team bussed to Star City and hopped on the boat for the short ride downtown. The Panthers were rewarded for their efforts when Martha broke off a 45-yard run to win the game, 13-10.
Eleanor Lamb, then assistant to the athletic director in charge of business affairs, remembers the school’s dire financial circumstances of the time. “We were broke. I remember on my desk I had two or three stacks of invoices and I would use priority as to which one I would pull off to send in for payment. It was that bad for a while.”
If Red Brown couldn’t get revenge against Pitt in 1964 (the Mountaineers again lost to the Panthers 14-0) then at least he could recover some of the expenses incurred the year before.
Barrett postulates that money may have even played a small factor in West Virginia’s horrible performance against Utah in the bowl game.
“At the luncheon for both teams, naturally the players were going to talk about what they got for the bowl game,” Barrett said. “The Utah players got sport coats and watches and were going to spend a couple of extra days in New York City. The West Virginia players were mad as hell because they didn’t get hardly anything. As a result our mind was not on that game.”
Young and Pastilong have a different recollection.
“It didn’t happen with any of the players I was around or the senior players I was associated with,” said Young. “In any situation like that when you lose a game there are always people looking for reasons why you lost, but I don’t recall that happening.”
“We got a watch and I still have it,” noted Pastilong.
Whatever the reason, Utah was clearly the better team. In an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune last year, Utah halfback Ron Coleman remembered watching film of West Virginia and realizing that the Mountaineers weren’t very good tacklers.
Dunlevy refutes that assertion: "I don't know how we could have won the games we won that year if we didn't have good tacklers."
The day before the game at the banquet for the two teams, Utah backup quarterback Bill Mott sat next to McCune and struck up a conversation with him. The late McCune began pumping Mott for knowledge and asked why Utah didn’t blitz the quarterback more often.
Mott explained that Utah had more time to work on things like that and in fact had added several blitzes aimed at him on Saturday.
“McCune had a fork of food to his mouth and when I said that he actually dropped it,” Mott told longtime Salt Lake Tribune writer John Mooney after the game.
West Virginia’s only score came late in the game when McCune hit Milton Clegg for a six-yard touchdown. By that time Utah was leading 25-0 and eventually won the game 32-6.
“You went in, spent the night, played the game, and then you left and you were thinking, what just happened?” laughed Pastilong.
“It was a stinking game,” said Barrett.
With the contest mercifully winding down in the fourth quarter, the well known and irreverent Philadelphia public address announcer Dave Zinkoff wisecracked, “Only two minutes left in the game … thank God!”
Mickey Furfari was more succinct: “West Virginia may not have to worry about football bowl bids for another 11 years,” he wrote two days afterward. “After Saturday’s sad, sad showing in Atlantic City, no invitations are likely to be forthcoming from anywhere.”
Bill Conlin, covering the game for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, called it “spectacularly dull” and wrote that West Virginia was “the only villain in the game.”
Furfari recalls riding the train back with Conlin through Philadelphia and the cantankerous writer complaining the entire way about how bad the game was.
Well known Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Red Smith perhaps captured the essence of the 1964 Liberty Bowl best when he wrote: “West Virginia chose to defend the boardwalk while Utah picked the Miss America Pageant stage.”
Even though only 6,059 showed up to see Utah rout West Virginia (4,000 less than the year before) Dudley was ecstatic, calling it “the finest camera coverage for any bowl game ever.”
He also revealed to Conlin that after receiving $25,000 from Atlantic City businessmen, $60,000 from the gate and $95,000 from television revenues, his bowl game netted a profit of $10,000.
It’s hard to believe Utah made any money off the game and went on a bowl drought that lasted 28 years. The victory over West Virginia is still considered among the finest in Utah football history.
West Virginia continued its resurgence under Jim Carlen and Bobby Bowden, and later went to 13 bowl games under Hall of Fame coach Don Nehlen. The Liberty Bowl is just a small footnote in West Virginia University’s illustrious football history.
The bowl performance proved to be an aberration in an otherwise fine football season put together by West Virginia in 1964, just four years removed from the school’s only winless campaign. West Virginia’s victory over Syracuse that season still ranks as one of the three or four best in school history.
But the Liberty Bowl in Atlantic City was memorable for the fact that it was the very first bowl game played indoors and set the precedent for the heavily produced television events that take place today. Back then it was referred to as an “indoor television production.” Those responsible for building the Houston Astrodome (completed in 1965) thought the game was important enough to send some representatives to Atlantic City to get a first-hand look at the event.
"I didn't like the fact that we lost the way we did but I'm proud to have taken part in the first indoor bowl game," said Dunlevy.
As for Dudley, instead of sticking around another year in Atlantic City, he decided to take his show on the road. His first stop was Memphis, Tenn., where his game drew 38,000 the first year there in 1965. The Liberty Bowl has been in Memphis ever since.
“After Memphis, I never got to the other cities,” Dudley said a few years ago.
He had finally found his lifeline.