THE YEAR THE CENTAURS PLAYED THE FIGHTING IRISH (yes, in football), OR: Predicting Tonight’s BCS Championship Game

Posted on Jan 07, 2013

A CENTAUR SEASONS prognostication for tonight’s BCS championship game. No. 1 Notre Dame will beat No. 2 Alabama, 24-23, on a last-second field goal. Yes, precisely. Fans of the favored Crimson Tide will be left in desperate disbelief.

If this scenario sounds familiar, that’s because it is. But it says here that tonight’s clash figures to play out much like a game once did forty-plus years ago, when the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame beat … the Centaurs of Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in a season finale that rocked the college football world.

“Stunned silence,” says Wayne Rizzo of the game’s aftermath among Centaur loyalists. Wayne was the play-by-play guy for the broadcast of that contest, paired in the booth with color man Gene Oreszak.

After all, who can forget that game? (Alabama better not!)

Though the better question might be: Who remembers it?

Since late September here at CENTAUR SEASONS I’ve been telling the story of my basketball-playing days at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales, a tiny-little, brand-new, barely there college in the middle of some cornfields in Center Valley, Pennsylvania. More recently, I’ve been posting in “real time” the diary entries of my 1972-1973 junior-year Centaur Season.

Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales opened in September 1965. That first freshman class graduated in 1969. I showed up in the fall of 1970. There were getting-started Centaur teams in cross-country, soccer, basketball and baseball.

There was no football team.

Except there was. There was because the sophomore Rizzo and the senior Oreszak (pronounced OR-zak) conspired in that autumn of 1970 to say there was. Well, actually, announce there was.

“There was always that thing: ‘Oh, if I only went to a ‘real’ college. Or a bigger college,” Wayne says of the Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales experience forty years ago.  “And there was always the sense that: ‘Boy, I wish we had a football team.’

“So,” Wayne says, “we invented one.”

This, too, has been part of the mission of CENTAUR SEASONS: explaining, if I can, what it was like to go to a college that offered little beyond two dorms, one school building and a gym for its 400 students (when everyone showed up). And why we decided to go there in the first place. The school is now called DeSales University and it’s as real as it gets (though still no football team). But it isn’t now what it was then, and what it was then made for a singular sensation of an education.

“There were no hallowed halls or ivy-covered walls,” says Nick Nardo. “Heck, there were barely any walls to put ivy on.” Nick was a basketball stats guy my first two years. It is he who reminded me of the Centaur football team — the games, the victories, the broadcasts, how important it all seemed. How like with everything at the school back then, because there was nothing, we had to make something.

And this was one of those somethings: the creation, out of whole cloth and clear blue, of a big-time college football program

In their one glorious season the gridiron Centaurs ran the table until that fateful game against the Fighting Irish.

“We played the toughest schedule in the nation,” Gene Oreszak says.

Name the college and the Centaurs probably played them. Penn State …  Ole Miss …  Ohio State  (the preseason AP #1) …   MichiganTexas (Coaches season-ending #1) …  USC …  Alabama …  Arkansas …  Oklahoma … Nebraska (AP season-ending #1) … Notre Dame.

“We weren’t afraid of anybody!” says Wayne.

And 1970 was a terrific year for college football, don’t forget. Archie Manning, everybody’s All-American and Sports Illustrated cover boy, at Ole Miss. Rex Kern and Jack Tatum, Ohio State. Dan Dierdorf, Michigan. Heisman winner Jim Plunkett of Stanford (whom the Centaurs might have played; records are sketchy). Jack Ham and Franco Harris, Penn State. Joe Theismann, Notre Dame.

 [Links in the above two paragraphs are to SI articles from the 1970 season.]

In my three years at the college with Wayne Rizzo, I got to know him real well. He was the college’s resident cut-up. But I remember once I was in the library when he called me over. He was looking at a book of Norman Rockwell illustrations. And for the next 15, 20 minutes he took me page by page through the book, telling stories of the paintings, pointing out details, reveling in the minutia of the master, revealing to me an entirely different Wayne Rizzo.

Gene Oreszak I didn’t know at all. He’d been in the Marines, done a tour in Vietnam. A senior to my freshman, he was probably six years older than me (in fact, his nickname was “Oldies”)  He had a fabulous announcer’s voice – deep, sonorous, mellifluous. He loved sports, any and all, and he was always running his mouth with announcer-like incantations that were both hilarious and spot on, ironic and sincere all at once. And he was enthusiastic about everything.

“Thank you,” Gene said in that voice of his when we spoke on the phone. “I think that’s what led Wayne and me to do the broadcasts. We both had a passion for it.”

Broadcasts. What? You were thinking maybe we Centaurs really had a team?

“The first game we did was Penn State versus Allentown,” Gene says. To fill out the team with players to talk about, they used the guys on the C.R.A.B.S. intramural flag-football team, which dominated the school league.** Together Wayne and Gene called the play-by-play into Gene’s reel-to-reel tape machine, which had trekked back with him from Vietnam.

At halftime they put a Mummer’s string band on the record player — that unique Philly sound of banjoes and saxaphones — and with this marching band in the background they went over the first half stats.

As for the game, John “Erkie’ Ercolani, the sophomore Centaur placekicker, won it on a field goal with time running out.

And that, sports fans, was to be the end of it. But when Gene and Wayne ran the tape for the team, the 15, 20 Centaur football mates crammed into a dorm room went crazy for it. (Something from nothing!)

“So we decided to do another one,” Gene says, “against Mississippi and Archie Manning. And it just grew from there.”

They got together in secret to tape the games.

“I’d script things out a day or two in advance,” Wayne says, “so I knew how I wanted the game to go.” During the taping Wayne would keep track on paper of downs and the score and all the rest, but Gene, Wayne says, he just kind of winged it.

“Gene had that perfect speaking voice,” Wayne says. “He was great at the color commentary, throwing in little facts and things. He could just do this stuff off the top of his head. He was great at adlibbing. He could just come out with stuff. And he sounded great.”

And so the Centaurs [insert Harry Kalas-like voice here] would take the field in blue helmets with a red stripe, red jerseys, and silver pants with red piping.

And Nick Nardo, for instance, was no longer just a kid from Wilmington, Delaware. He was Nick “Night Train” Nardo, Centaur lineman, out of Green Bay, Wisconsin’s Central Catholic High School, which beat Nebraska quarterback Jerry Tagge’s team in the 1967 Green Bay City title game.

Tackle Gene “Buck” Bradley, an Oblate Seminarian, hailed from the Great Plains of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

And Tony Mazzeo, Mississippi’s own “Tupelo Turpedo” finished second in the Heisman voting behind Stanford’s Jim Plunkett. And on and on it went, Wayne and Gene churning out a solid hour-long game once a week.

Yes, they could have spent their time more wisely. No, wait, they couldn’t have.

It was, Gene says,  fantasy football – before there was fantasy football.

It was also believable. Gene made it sound real, Wayne says, because, well, to Gene it was real.

“Yes! I was INTO it!’ Gene says, snorting a laugh at the memory. “I actually thought I was a color guy! We made it as realistic as we could. And it felt real.”

So real in fact that to hear him talk about it 42 years later — like he was back in the booth, calling the game —  it sounds so real you have to wonder if Gene knows it isn’t.

“Archie Manning was THE guy at that particular time,” Gene says. “But we played Ole Miss and we beat Archie Manning. I think we beat them in the last minute. Esse*** caught the winning touchdown pass, if I recall.”

“The coach of the team was John Compardo, our athletic director. He gets all the credit for turning the program around.”

“Everybody had a role. Everybody somehow, in every game, was a hero.”

And who doesn’t want to be a football hero?

“Mike Episcipo, he was an outstanding athlete. [In real life, too: Mike was the first baseman on the baseball team – with Gene in left — that went 7-and-4, the first winning team in school history.]  But the football team was so talented we had a hard time getting Mike onto the field! But we managed to get him on as a running back, and he played both ways.”

“Rick Facciola was a ‘prominent sophomore,’ part of a great recruiting class that year. Wayne Rizzo was a new quarterback, Jerry Flemming a running back. Tom Shagrin made the team as a sophomore. Blending the youth with the old. Absolutely! Walt Pfiel. They were DEFINITELY major contributors.”

See? Real.

Wayne and Gene played the season out like an old-time movie serial. One week the Centaurs would have to come from way back. The next they’d have to hold on and be saved by a game-sealing interception.

“We never steamrolled anybody,” Wayne says. That way no one left the room during the broadcast. Wayne remembers the lefty QB Jerry Wilkinson winning one game with a long pass to Jerry Fleming. Maz winning another with a 20-yard run with time running out. Often, it came down to a desperation kick. “Erkie won a lot of games for us with a field goal at the end,” Wayne says.

Yet still the Centaurs kept winning. One-and-oh. Two-and-oh. Three, four, five in a row. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten-and-oh!

And if it was real to Wayne and Gene, it was surely as real to all the players.

“If we had a guy drop a pass,” Gene says, “he might not talk to us for the rest of the day.”

Tony Mazzeo, Heisman candidate, brought pen and pad to the broadcast and kept track of his yardage. “You know, I might say, ‘Maz has 150 yards so far today,’” Gene says. “But I mean, I didn’t really know. And if I was wrong, Maz would correct me – ‘No, it’s 135.’  (In real life Maz played soccer, basketball and baseball, still one of the school’s most-accomplished hall-of-fame athletes.) Never mind that Gene and Wayne made sure every game that Maz wound up gaining exactly zero yards.

And then, at 10-and-0, there stood only Notre Dame between the Centaurs and a perfect Centaur Season. “When Gene and I sat down to tape the game,” Wayne says, “I asked Gene, ‘How much do you want Allentown to win by?’ Gene looked at me with the most serious face and said, ‘What do you mean, win?”

Like most of us, Gene had grown up cheer-cheer-cheering for Old Notre Dame. And Allentown itself had a one-degree seperation from the Indiana school: The Oblate priest Bob Devine had been a three-year starter on the ND basketball team in the late Fifties when the team was ranked  No. 7 in the nation. Fr. D was the Allentown recruiter — personally responsible for many of us (me included) being at this brand-new college.

“I was a huge Notre Dame fan,” Gene says, unapologetic about the outcome  even now. “Catholic kid. There was just NO WAY that if I was broadcasting the game, that I was going to broadcast a loss for Notre Dame. Even against my alma mater.”

Now THAT’S real.

“And there went our undefeated season,” Wayne says.

“We were heading for the upset,” Gene says, “but we pulled the plug and Notre Dame won.”

A last-second field goal did the Allentowners in. Final score, 24-23.

Alabama, beware.

“Gene just couldn’t let the Centaurs win,” Wayne says. “To him there was no shame that the Centaurs would get beat by a point to Notre Dame. I remember when the game was over the room was in stunned silence. That probably ended the football team, after that loss to Notre Dame.”

That and Gene and the voice graduated in May.

But, oh, what a glorious run it had been, that 1970 season! From nothing, something. Maybe everything

“When you first got to the school,” Wayne says, thinking back, “you’d look around and it was, ‘Geez, this really IS in the middle of nowhere! How am I going to survive four years at this place? But you did. And by my second year I wasn’t thinking about it being in the middle of nowhere anymore. Or that we were missing out on the stuff other places had. Don’t feel bad, fellas, we DO have a football team!”

Just a freshman that year, I actually never sat in on a broadcast, truth be told. But I do remember a couple of times being at the cafeteria after the team had listened to another game, another victory.  They’d all roll in, triumphant, sit down and hash over the entire game, hike by hike, play by play, talking about it all …

… AS. IF. IT. HAD. REALLY. HAPPENED.

And you know what, who’s to say it hadn’t?

**Flag-Football at Allentown was it’s own brand of something-from-nothing life-or-death importance. But that’s a different story. The C.R.A.B.S. were one of many social clubs that sprung up at the school in the early years, in the absence of frats and all the rest. But that’s another different story. It stood for CHRISTIAN REVIVAL of ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE SOCIETIES.

***Esse: John Esposito, senior English major and also a member of that 7-4, first-ever-winning-season baseball team.

On January 7th, 2013 at 11:25 am, George Pothering said:

Steve,

That series of “broadcasts” was one of my fond memories of my time at Allentown College. They were wonderfully realistic. After I graduated in 1971 I went to grad school at Notre Dame and enjoyed having Gene, Bill McCloud and and I believe Joe Schieber and Nick Nardo come out for football games — and having to scramble to round up student tickets and students IDs for them. Knowing Gene’s love for ND I was especially glad to give him the opportunity to catch some home games.

The 24-23 final score of the AC-ND game was amazingly prophetic as that was the final score of the ND-Alabama Sugar Bowl game in 1973 when ND won its national championship. I was tutoring one of the freshmen on that team (in calculus!!) and he gave me a football signed by the team and coaches that I still have.


On January 8th, 2013 at 10:26 am, bob devine said:

Steve, Great as usual…Bad day for Irish fans…Ouch!!
Wayne and Erkie…where are they??? Love to know how both are doing.

Keep up the good work…I really enjoy it.

Bob


On January 10th, 2013 at 7:22 am, Steve McKee: Centaur Season said:

[…] THE YEAR THE CENTAURS PLAYED THE FIGHTING IRISH (yes, in football), OR: Predicting Tonight’s B… […]



 
     

Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS: A ‘memory blog’ of the basketball beginnings of a half-good, half-bad, all-new college team.

Once, I was a Centaur.

I played basketball for Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, Pa. I was on four of the school’s first seven teams, was MVP senior year and in 1974 graduated in the fifth class.

My junior year I kept a diary: A History of the Events of the 1972-1973 Allentown College B-Ball Season, as Chronicled by, and With the Personal Memoirs + Occassional [sic] Philosophizing of the Author, One Stephen J. McKee.  One-hundred-forty-five hand-writ pages. (Yes, I was an English major.)

But it occurs to me now: Were I today a “Bulldog” playing for “DeSales University” (both mascot and name changed in 2000), my private “History” would be not a diary but a blog.

So starting November 30  “…Personal Memoirs…” will be re-imagined as CENTAUR SEASONS

A blog before its time, posted 40 years after in real time.

Meanwhile, beginning on September 24, here at CENTAUR SEASONS the preseason has already tipped off, with stories, interviews and reminiscences of the people, the place and the purpose of those early years of Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales.

Check back often. Sign up for CentaurSeasonAlerts. Email CENTAUR SEASONS to friends.

We were not a bad team, we Centaurs. We just weren’t very good. Winning was always the goal, if never exactly the point. How could it be, with victories so few?

Back then Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales was a couple of buildings in some cornfields.  Our commitment to the school’s basketball program was far greater than was the school’s commitment us. So what? We got to play college ball – and paid for the privilege! In return, we got to be part of a team, wear the red and blue, be Centaurs. And we got to create a place that was, right then, as much concept as it was college, making itself up as we went along.

What we got was a once-in-a-life-time chance.

All we had to do was keep showing up -- next practice, next game, next season. And so we did.

Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS.

×