St. Michael’s 1951 undefeated football squad story

A team for the ages

By Mark Gould

Published Nov. 7, 2007 in the former St. Michael’s College student publication, the Echo. The story won a Society of Professional Journalists award for online sports reporting. An abbreviated version also ran in the Winter 2008 issue of the Saint Michael’s Magazine.

SMC football

John Heggarty, right, dodges tacklers en route to the end zone during the Springfield game. Photo courtesy of the St. Michael's College Archives and Sports Information Office.

Before there was artificial field turf, plastic helmets, and sweat-repelling jerseys, there were men who played smash-mouth football on grass fields full of divots, grinding it out for 60 minutes, wearing leather helmets with no face masks.

The 1951 St. Michael’s football team fit this description. Those who saw the team play describe the group as tough, but there is a more fitting adjective for which these men are remembered and honored: Perfect.

Led by the disciplined coaching of George W. “Doc” Jacobs, the Purple Knights finished the season a perfect 6-0 with no ties. The ’51 team dominated opponents, outscoring them 145-26 during the 1951 season. On defense, the Purple Knights allowed just 314 yards passing, second best in the nation. The team was later declared both New England and State Champions.

For this achievement, the team was inducted into the St. Michael’s College Athletic Hall of Fame, an honor otherwise reserved for individual players.

But the blueprints for history were far from ready when Jacobs, a former Villanova University player and coach, was hired in 1947 to put St. Michael’s athletics on the map. In his first press conference, Jacobs told a Burlington Daily News reporter that it would take time to build a reputation for the college’s athletics.

“I know I’ve got a big task laid out for me, but I think that with the kind of cooperation I’ve already received from the officials here that we can build St. Mikes athletics up to a point where they can compare favorably to other small colleges,” he said. “But not big time.”

Four years later, Jacobs had taken over the head coaching duties, spending time recruiting a group of players to join what would become St. Michael’s only undefeated team ever.

On the 1951 team, there were players who had served in World War II. Some were already married and had children.

St. Michael's football touchdown Pete Plourde

Pete Plourde, '52, #35, dives in for a touchdown against American International College. Photo courtesy of the St. Michael's College Archives and Sports Information Office.

“The maturity level was a little different than it would be today,” Ed Markey, ’51, a basketball and baseball player says. “They were tough people.”

There was Jack Diamond, ’54, a sophomore walk-on defensive lineman who at 18 was trying to elude blocks from men five and six years older than him.

“I came in 1950, and I was 17, so I didn’t have to go to war,” Diamond says. “We had guys that were 23 as freshmen.”

And John Barbati, 54′, a sophomore second-string quarterback who was in awe of the view from his Founders Hall dormitory.

“I was from Everett, Mass., which is a city outside of Boston, so looking out the window and seeing a mountain was quite a thing for me,” he says. “I had never seen a mountain.”

There was Leo “Pete” Plourde, ’52, a stocky fullback whose between-the-tackles-run-style is immortalized in images on the front pages of yellowing Vermont and Boston daily papers.

“Most of my carries were trap plays,” the Bennington native says. “I was Mr. Inside.“

And then there was Jacobs, a coach so revered by his players that they “would do anything for him,” Barbati says.

“There was really a loving bond between the coach and his players,” he says.

St. Michael’s opened its 1951 season against The University of Vermont in September. Six-thousand-five-hundred fans piled into Centennial Field to see the cross-town rivalry.

“There was a real coming together of the entire Burlington community,” Barbati says. “It was either UVM or us, and it was quite a rivalry.”

The Michaelman, predecessor to The Defender predicted a St. Michael’s win by three touchdowns.

Several UVM turnovers yielded early points for the Purple Knights, who took the lead and never looked back. The Michaelman’s staff prediction proved modest, as St. Michael’s trounced UVM, 41-7.

The 1951 team continued its season, with a home opener against Norwich. St. Michael’s students, all male at the time, would host a pep rally and bonfire the night before each game.

At that time, the team dressed in locker rooms in the basement of the cafeteria. Following Jacobs’ pre-game speech, players were joined by the man for which Lyons Hall was named.

“The president of the college, Father (Daniel) Lyons was probably our number one fan,” Diamond says. “He always came in before and after the game, said a prayer, wished everybody good luck.”

After Lyons’ closing remarks, the Purple Knights were greeted by “a tunnel of bodies” lined up from the locker room to the field, Diamond says.

Markey, who sold programs during each home game, remembers the games as a bonding experience for the campus.

“It was a male-oriented atmosphere that created a love of the game, a love of the college, and a tremendous amount of camaraderie throughout the institution,” he says.

St. Michael’s picked up its second win, shutting out Norwich, 14-0.

Plourde scurried for six points after a fruitless first quarter. Drop-kick specialist Art Coggio, ’52, who also played quarterback, converted the point after. Coggio would position himself like a punter, and bounce the ball on the grass before booting it through the uprights.

In the ’50s, it was more common to see drop kicks for points after attempts, though Markey acknowledges that Coggio’s talent was rare.

“At that time, he was probably the last of the drop kickers,” Markey says. “Art was from Massachusetts originally and he developed that playing [in high school].

With help from its strong running core, (John Heggarty, ’53, Frank Simas, ’52, and John Provenzano, 52′ each finished their careers with net gains over 1,000 yards) St. Michael’s next defeated American International College, 20-13.

After each game, the Purple Knights would go out to eat at Boves Restaurant in Burlington, and then spend the evening at a lake camp together. A classmate would bring a piano, and the team would sing songs together, Plourde says.

“We’d go down there and go over the game, and sing songs, and just have a party,” Plourde recalls.

At a football party, Plourde met Margaret, a nursing student from Bishop DeGoesBriand Hospital in Burlington. Halfway through the season, the two started dating, and from then on, Margaret never missed a game. Years later, they would marry.

To prepare for the next game, Jacobs held light scrimmages during practice. With the momentum the team was building, students and priests began to watch even the practices, Diamond says.

“The veterans would be out there with their babies in strollers,” he says. “There was a tremendous crowd just for practice.”

During practices, players got to know their coach, who Barbati says was a perfect educator.

“He had an air about him,” Barbati says. “He was always impeccably dressed.”

Markey, who after graduation would eventually return to the college as athletic director, worked alongside Jacobs.

“The man was unbelievable,” he says. “Just to call him a coach would be unfair to him because he was a brilliant person.”

Jacobs, who earned the nickname “Doc” for his love of reading, insisted on excellence on and off the field, Barbati says.

“If you got any type of reprimand as a student or a resident, he’d be on top of you like a firecracker,” Barbati remembers. “He would call you in to the office and let you know where you stood, and he got you straightened out in a hurry.”

At his first press conference in 1947, Jacobs made it clear that he had no intent of sacrificing academia for athleticism when recruiting.

“Sure, we’re going to try to steer more athletes to this campus, but they’ve got to be students as well,” Jacobs told reporters. “I’ve turned down several athletes already who had plenty of ability on the field but far too little in the classroom.”

Jacobs lived in a house on campus at the College’s north entrance until he died there on May 19, 1968 at the age of 68, Associate Athletic Director Chris Kenny says.

The next opponent the undefeated Knights would face during the 1951 season was Springfield College, who had spoiled the Purple Knights undefeated record the previous year.

Michaelman writer Fran Hoben wrote a preview of the rematch.

“Ever since the Knights were trampled 23-0 last October, squad members and students alike have been licking their wounds and casting anxious eyes towards the next meeting,” he wrote. “And this is it.”

St. Michael’s students hung banners outside the dormitories boasting “We’ll beat Springfield,” and “Maroon Doom,” in reference to Springfield’s school colors. In its closest game of the season, St. Michael’s edged Springfield, 12-7.

The Friday before kickoff of the Nov. 3 match-up against Kings Point, (Kings Point, NY) a snowstorm blanketed the grass field with six inches of wet, heavy snow, Diamond says.

“The slush, it was really awful,” he says. “It rained, sleeted, snowed.”

The team gained its fifth straight victory with help from a Plourde run and a touchdown pass from Coggio to Simas. Tough defense caused turnovers, including a John Provenzano interception returned for a touchdown.

Nov. 18, 1951, 2,500 fans cheered as St. Michael’s took the field for one final home game. Arnold College, (Milford, Conn.) was no match for the Knights, who won 32-0. Plourde finished the day with four touchdowns to earn him the state scoring crown.

It would be the last time anyone saw an undefeated St. Michael’s team, and one of the last times anyone would see football at the college. In need of funds to expand campus facilities, the college would drop football after the 1953 season, Diamond says. The institution has not reinstated football since that time.

In December 1951, the Burlington Daily News hosted a celebratory banquet in which the undefeated gridiron-gang dined and received gifts.

Five months later, seniors from the team graduated and received diplomas. With the Korean War draft looming over their heads, there wasn’t much time to say goodbye to teammates, coaches, and friends, Plourde recalls.

“Most of us were heading for the service, and we didn’t have much time to say goodbye,” he remembers. “We graduated in May, and in July, we were in the service.”

The draft claimed 12 seniors from the undefeated team. And so upon graduation, these men traded in their leather helmets and grass-stained jerseys for fresh Army fatigues, and they were given a new mission.