Remember the Tartans

The remarkable tale of CMU football
Carnegie coaching // Chicago judge Walter Steffen, a former star player, served as head coach at Carnegie Tech from 1914-1938, commuting each weekend from Illinois. Carnegie coaching /​/​Chicago judge Walter Steffen, a former star player, served as head coach at Carnegie Tech from 19141938, commuting each weekend from Illinois.
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They ruined a perfectly good trophy case.

It used to sit there, self-​consciously, in Carnegie Mellon University’s Skibo Gymnasium. The items in that case were pretty much the only tangible stuff that remained of the glory days of football, back when the school was Carnegie Tech. The main trophies were some old footballs from the 1920s and ‘30s, wrinkled and sagging from loss of air, with the game scores painted on them — notably, the Tartans’ victories over mighty Notre Dame and the legendary Knute Rockne, and over mighty Pitt and the legendary Jock Sutherland. “Scalps,” Carnegie Tech used to call them.

At the nation’s football schools — the big marquee schools — trophies repose in grand, glowing shrines, with rich metal plaques bearing engraved messages. The Tech messages were typed on little strips of paper and stuck to pieces of illustration board, and they were tougher to read than carb content on a cookie package. Tech was once among the nation’s elite. Then late in the 1930s, the administration decided football was bad for academics. There went Tech’s big-​time football.

One day, in the late 1980s, a visitor familiar with the proper shrines of college football was puzzled by the meek Tech trophy case — about 8 feet long, 4 feet high, on a footed wooden base, with a sloping glass front, glass shelves inside on which the memorabilia rested, and a glass top.

This looks like an old penny-​candy counter,” he said at last to a CMU official.

Well,” said the official, “that’s what it is.”

Carnegie Mellon, known the world over for Nobel laureates, engineers, chemists, robotics experts, and Oscar and Tony winners from film, stage and television, had a policy statement on intercollegiate athletics in higher education. The penny-​candy trophy case said it all.

f las vegas was putting out a betting line in 1926, the Notre Dame-​Carnegie Tech game surely wouldn’t have been on the board. Smart money said this was a five-​touchdown game, minimum. Notre Dame came to Pittsburgh 80, had given up just one touchdown and was heading for the national championship. Tech was doing pretty well, 62, with six shutouts, including wins over Pitt, 140, and West Virginia, 200. But even ND’s great coach, Knute Rockne, knew this was no contest. He went to Chicago, instead, to scout the Army-​Navy game, and left Carnegie Tech to his assistants.

On that cold, snowy Nov. 27, there was no Grantland Rice on hand (“Outlined against a blue-​gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again…”) to immortalize the contest. The Pittsburgh Gazette-​Times writer tried his best, but where a poet was needed, a street car conductor answered: “Eleven scarlet-​clad Skibos, representing the football team of Carnegie Tech,” the writer trudged, “rose to their greatest heights before a crowd of 45,000 divided partisans at Forbes Field yesterday to spring the biggest upset of the season when they humbled the heretofore undefeated Notre Dame eleven, 19 to 0.”

After a tense, scoreless first quarter, Bill Donohoe and C.J. Letzelter each ran for a touchdown, and somehow Tech was leading at the half, 130. Then quarterback Howard Harpster kicked field goals of 41 and 35 yards — these were drop-​kicks — and with a 190 win, Carnegie Tech had what still ranks as one of the greatest upsets in college football. The Tartans started football tentatively in 1906, and had only two winning seasons in the first 10, and now were one of the big boys. They were in good company, right in their hometown.

CMU’s trophies were from a different era, back in the 1920s and ‘30s, when Pittsburgh was a fortress of college football. Carnegie Tech and Pitt, only a mile apart, and Duquesne only a few miles away — all three were national powers and played in post-​season bowls when there were only five of them, all of quality, not the fester of today. Then gradually, over the years, all three flamed out. Pitt, which had claimed eight national championships through 1937 (nine now), de-​emphasized football in 1939, mainly by ending financial aid for athletes. Pitt never left the big time itself but couldn’t get back to big-​time success until the early 1970s. Duquesne, nationally ranked in 1936, ’39 and ’41, dropped football during World War II to help the war effort, restored it afterward, then dropped it completely in 1951 because of the expense and the manpower drain of the Korean War.

It was largely success that ruined Carnegie Tech. In 1938, Tech thumped Pitt, 2010, and Duquesne, 210, and went 71 (the only loss was to Notre Dame), and Tech was invited to play in the Sugar Bowl against Texas Christian. The season ended late in November, but the Tech players had over a month to devote to the coming Sugar Bowl game on Jan. 2, 1939. Texas Christian won that game, 157, and the national championship. The Tartans finished at 72 and ranked No. 6 in the country, but President Robert Doherty was not impressed. The cost of football was still rising — this during the Great Depression — and football was taking time and attention away from academics. Doherty banned post-​season play. That ended Carnegie Tech’s days in the big time. The schedule had to cool, too. Eventually, Pitt was gone, Notre Dame was gone, and all the others. It was Marietta and Grove City and the like. Even against the lesser competition, Tech football turned lousy, producing records like 17, 06 and 17. Eddie Baker caused a flutter in his 11 years as coach, even going 701 in 1954 and getting an invitation to the Sun Bowl. The players cheered and voted to go. The administration voted no.

Carnegie Tech opened for business in 1905 and started football in 1906, by popular demand of the student body. A Dr. Challinor, the first coach, went 142 that year. Tech stumbled around for the first eight seasons, then decided to get serious and hired Walter Steffen as coach. Steffen was a star player, then assistant coach at the University of Chicago, took a law degree and then became a Chicago judge. He remained a judge even after getting hired by Carnegie Tech in 1914. He left the practices to his assistants and commuted by train on game weekends. In his 18 seasons, he ran up a record of 88536 against schedules that included such notables as Georgia Tech, Southern Cal, Army and Yale. His greatest trophy was the upset of Notre Dame.

Football fever was tripled in Pittsburgh in those days. The Carnegie Tech-​Pitt-​Duquesne rivalry was all the hotter for being crammed into the same town. But it was hottest between Pitt and Tech, the Oakland neighbors. There were pep rallies, parades, late-​night raids, things stolen — such as goal posts, signs, and even Pitt’s mascot, a goat. Things got so intense that in 1920, both administrations decided to break off athletic relations. The calm lasted for three years. The rivalry resumed in 1923, when Tech scored its first win over Pitt, and ended up with a 5241 record.

Two other coaches helped shape Tech-​CMU football — Joe Gasparella (196375) and Chuck Klausing (19761985). Gasparella, from Apollo, a former quarterback at Notre Dame, was an architect and also a professor of architecture. His coaching record was poor, a mere 45601. A good time was being had by opponents of football, and by Denison, Thiel, Rochester and all the others who were using the Tartans like the light bag in Manny’s Pugilism Emporium. Gasparella had only three winning seasons. He had one win in each of his first three years. That start got Dave Hart fired down the street at Pitt. But Gasparella was a hero to those who loved football. Tech football was sinking in a pool of disinterest. He refused to let it sink. The tributes were few, and late. One was in his obituary.

He really was at Carnegie Mellon at a time when there was not any type of emphasis on athletics, very little commitment…” said Rich Lackner, the future coach, a freshman linebacker under Gasparella. “Coach really kept Carnegie Mellon football alive during those lean years.”

There was embarrassment, however, and it clung like seaweed. Quit or get good. CMU opted for good, upgraded the program, and hired Klausing, who had won national fame for a stunning 5401 record in six years at Braddock High School. He went on to be an assistant coach at Rutgers and Army. In 1976, the season Johnny Majors was winning Pitt’s ninth national championship, Klausing debuted quietly at CMU with a 611 season. He would not have a losing season in his 10 years and would end up in the College Football Hall of Fame.

any college presidents back in the “Golden Age” of football were opposed to college football, but were stuck with it, given the temperament of the students and the alumni. But nobody matched the passion of Robert M. Hutchins, then the president of the University of Chicago, a Big 10 Conference powerhouse.

In many colleges,” he once wrote, “it is possible for a boy to win 12 letters without ever learning how to write one.” He bluntly ended football at Chicago in 1939.

The letters Hutchins mentioned are the varsity emblems of accomplishment, hard-​earned and proudly displayed. Display wasn’t always a good idea at Tech, however. Mel Cratsley, a starting end on Tech’s 1939 Sugar Bowl team, recalled the day a young player, bursting over the letter he’d just been awarded, wore his sweater to economics class one day. He barely made it through the door. “Do you play football?” the professor demanded, pointing to the letter. The kid sputtered.

Well,” said the professor, “you will never pass this course.”

And he never did,” Cratsley said.

Big-​time football was gone from Carnegie Tech, and it would be gone from many colleges. It was too expensive, in money, and for some, in academic integrity. Still, there’s something about football that feeds the American soul as no other sport does. So football long since has crept back, on a quieter level, to many former powerhouse schools — among them Georgetown, Duquesne and Chicago.

A new season is upon us, and this means screaming thousands, multimillion-​dollar coaches, lush TV contracts, and in the background, a Greek chorus moaning about the gross excesses of college football, along with college presidents nervously looking the other way. Lost in this swarm, Carnegie Mellon’s Tartans will continue to play happily in the obscurity of Division III, the NCAA’s lowest class, where there are no athletic scholarships and where aid is based on need, same as for any student.

Rich Lackner knew what he was getting into when he got on board. Lackner, a star at Mt. Lebanon High School and a star linebacker at Carnegie Tech-​CMU, stayed on as an assistant coach, and inherited the head coaching job when Klausing left.

We get kids who want to continue football after high school for the love of the game,” Lackner said. But he has one benefit his predecessors didn’t have.

There’s a trickle-​down effect,” he said. “When the NCAA established the three divisions and limited scholarships for Division I [in 1973], there were a lot of good players left over for Division II and Division III.”

Even so, recruiting hasn’t been without its problems.

I had a line on a great tackle once,” Lackner was saying. The kid was 6-​foot-​7 and 270 pounds — unheard of at CMU and most Division III schools. The kid also played the cello.

I had to be the only son-​of-​a-​gun in football history,” Lackner offered, “to lose a prize tackle to the Juilliard School of Music.”

Unlike the miffed economics professor, CMU’s faculty cooperates when possible, Lackner said. In scheduling classes, for example. It’s not as simple with the theater people, though.

They have matinees on Saturday,” he said, “and so do we.”

In his 27 seasons, Lackner has a record of 175852, and the Tartans have won one Presidents’ Athletic Conference championship and eight in the University Athletic Association — a kind of Ivy League of Division III, including Brandeis, Case Western Reserve and, ironically, Chicago. It’s not the Big 10 or the Southeastern Conference. It just feels like it.

The penny-​candy trophy case is gone, but CMU has its own kind of shrine: The Harpster Hall of Fame at Gesling Stadium. This place of honor is a yellow brick hallway about 10 yards long and four yards wide, and, like a Gothic cathedral, has a vaulted ceiling, if only 10 feet overhead. The glass cases hold the creaky old footballs and other things. Around the corner is the Academic Wall of Fame, listing the CMU players who have won Academic All-​America honors. Whoever isn’t an engineer — electrical, chemical, biomedical, mechanical — is in information technology and the like.

Nobel Prize winners?

Not yet,” Lackner said.

Marino Parascenzo

Marino, a freelance golf writer, has covered the game around the world. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, among other publications, and he is the author of “Oakmont, 100 Years,” the history of the storied club. He was a journalism adjunct instructor at Pitt, and was a sports writer and the golf writer at the Pittsburgh Post-​Gazette.

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