The Nevada Wolf Pack football program in the late 1940s was a shower of shooting stars, a streak of brilliant light across the desert sky, reaching heights never before thought possible in northern Nevada.
For the first time in its half-century of existence the Wolf Pack skyrocketed to national fame in the immediate post-World War II era, went to the program’s only New Year’s Day bowl games even to this day and made Reno famous for something other than casinos, neon and divorce.
But like all glorious meteor showers, it didn’t last long.
“Then, just as suddenly as it rose to glory, when the money ran out, to be specific, Nevada’s football bubble burst and plummeted to the ground,” wrote the Nevada State Journal in the fall of 1952. “But it was good while it lasted.”
The Reno newspaper warned Pack fans almost two years earlier of the pending doom.
“Schools in the same athletic position in many ways as Nevada are dropping out of the grid scene,” the newspaper wrote in February 1950, citing schools such as St. Louis, Canisius, Oklahoma City and Portland which dropped the sport in recent years. “Schools over-reached in an effort to play big-time football and came crashing down.”
The 1950 season was the inevitable crash for the Wolf Pack. The team finished 1-9 and there were reports all season long that the university wasn’t going to be able to find the money necessary to pay for its athletic scholarships. Those scholarships were likely the biggest single factor in the Pack’s ability to lure big-time talent from all over the country to build those powerhouse teams in the late 1940s.
In December 1950 the Nevada Board of Regents met to discuss the university’s entire sports program, which basically consisted of football, men’s basketball, boxing, track and field, skiing and baseball at the time. “We need to work out a financial program to support the football team,” university president Dr. Malcolm Love said in a 1950 newspaper account.
Before the homecoming game in 1950 the opinion of the Pack football program was not at its zenith. The Journal wrote, “Tomorrow is homecoming at the University of Nevada and Nevada and Loyola are going to play a football game about which not very much interest can be said.”
Coach Joe Sheeketski, who led the Pack to 9-2 seasons in both 1947 and 1948 and went to a bowl game each year, saw the ominous handwriting on the wall. The Wolf Pack’s attempt at playing big-time football in the 1940s, successful thought it was for a few seasons, was coming to an abrupt end.
The Pack coach also made some unfortunate national news, as well as a lot of enemies in northern Nevada, when he was the main source of a disturbing story in Sport Magazine in November 1950. The story was headlined, “The Football College That Turned Pro” and Sheeketski was quoted in the article as saying the Wolf Pack was “a semi-professional team.”
The university announced shortly before the 1951 season that football was dead.
“Nevada quit football when the bills run up by a scholarship system of recruiting players couldn’t be met,” reported the Journal in late 1951.
The “death” of Wolf Pack football actually lasted only about six months. It turns out it only went into hibernation. By January 1952 there were already plans of returning the sport to campus in the works and on Feb. 13, 1952, the university officially announced a four-game schedule in the fall of 1952.
“Nevada football may be down but it’s not out,” wrote the Journal in January 1952.
A big reason to bring football back so soon took place in the fall of 1951 when the university staged a “Homecoming” game on campus played by students. Over 60 students showed up to play the game.
“The students want football, the players want it, the regents are for it, the president is cooperative and the fans, are all for it,” the Journal wrote in January 1952. “The sport is on its way back but if you’re expecting any more of the high-pressure ball clubs, national publicity and ratings, 10-game schedules and talent recruiting backed by athletic scholarships, you can keep on dreaming.”
Yes, the Wolf Pack was bringing back football but it wasn’t the same sport Pack fans grew to love in the mid to late 1940s. It was going to be a glorified intramural program.
“It is low-pressure football played by and for students,” the Journal wrote, also citing the university’s enrollment of roughly 1,500 students in 1951.
One student told the newspaper in February 1952, “Football is fine providing they don’t get some other ambitious coach who wants to make this campus the poor man’s Notre Dame.”
That was a thinly veiled slap at former coach Sheeketski, a former Notre Dame player.
Sheeketski had already moved on to become an assistant coach with the NFL’s New York Yanks in 1951.
The new Pack football coach was a familiar face. In keeping with the new low-pressure, do-it-on-the-cheap nature of Pack football, athletic director and men’s basketball coach Jake Lawlor took over the program himself because, well, the financial problem that stalled Pack football in 1951 had yet to be solved.
Lawlor made sure everyone understood what type of football was going to be played at Mackay Stadium in 1952 and in the foreseeable future.
“All of the students have a good chance to play for their state school now,” Lawlor said.
But, still, there were grumblings. Some Pack fans, reported the Reno newspapers, didn’t want a sport played by and for students. They wanted a program that could bring national recognition to the area, just like they had merely a few seasons earlier. And they didn’t want the sport to return until it could resemble the high-flying days of the late 1940s with such talent as Bill Mackrides, Stan Heath, Tommy Kalmanir, Scott Beasley, Dick Trachok, Alva Tabor, Sherman Howard, Ken Sinofsky and others under coaches Jim Aiken and Sheeketski.
“Finances are at a minimum and potential expenses are trimmed to the bone,” the Journal reported. “The game will be played by student volunteers.”
Lawlor purposely kept the 1952 schedule at four games, playing UC Davis and Fresno State at home and Chico State and Idaho State on the road and turning down offers to play club teams, service teams and semi-pro teams.
“We’re starting something new here and I don’t want to put the boys under the gun the first year,” Lawlor said at the start of practices on Sept. 15, 1952.
The Wolf Pack, with its football for the students and by the students philosophy, had suddenly turned into a college football experiment in the fall of 1952 without even knowing it.
“As far as we can determine Nevada is the first school in the country to end the grid sport and then make an honest attempt to return the game to its rightful niche on campus,” the Journal’s Bill Gillis wrote in 1952.
The Salad Bowl days of the late 1940s were long gone. And Wolf Pack fans, for the most part, seemed to take a liking to their new, nearly all-local football team right away.
“This won’t be the first time Nevada ever fielded a team composed of members who weren’t slipped a few bucks under the table or who were openly rewarded for their efforts,” the Journal wrote. “Local residents won’t have too much trouble recalling the days when Nevada’s teams were simon-pure in the before-Aiken era, before the football program was built out of proportion.”
Lawlor and the Wolf Pack got what they wanted — a team made up of mostly Nevadans who wanted to play simply for the love of the sport. The Wolf Pack opened the 1952 season with a roster of 53 players — larger than any of the teams in the late 1940s — and no less than 43 of them were native Nevadans.
Most of them (25 to be exact) were freshmen right out of high school. Some of them had never played football anywhere at anytime. A handful of them, such as Neil Garrett, Ray Gonsalves, Tom Massey, Mert Baxter, Rollan Melton, Wes Ebel, Frank Leslie, Wayne Chapman and George Graham, were former Pack players left stranded when the scholarship money ran out after the 1950 season. One of them, Buddy Brooks, played in 1950, left school after the year and went back home to Minnesota to get married.
Baxter was a Pack basketball star for Lawlor. Massey was a boxing champion. Boyce Ford was in the marines in 1950 and 1951.
“The return of the sport is on a purely amateur basis and what kind of football this will produce — and what kind of crowds — will be in evidence tonight for the first time in years,” the Journal wrote the day of the Pack’s return to football on Oct. 4, 1952.
It was a historic day for Wolf Pack football for a lot of reasons.
First of all, it was the return of the sport that first graced the campus in 1896. That was history enough for any fall Saturday.
The second reason is that it was the football coaching debut of Lawlor, the man who already had eight seasons of coaching Pack basketball under his belt, including a just-completed 19-3 year in 1951-52 and 28-6 in 1945-46. Lawlor, though, didn’t feel any pressure coaching the Pack gridders. Expectations, after all, weren’t exactly sky high for the student body football team.
“Win or lose the wolves won’t be after my scalp,” said Lawlor, who had one assistant coach (Hugh Smithwick) on his bare-bones staff.
The third reason why Oct. 4, 1952 was a historic day for Pack football was because the Pack was opening the season with the first night football game on campus in school history. The current Mackay Stadium, which opened in 1966, didn’t host a game at night until the 2003 season. The old Mackay Stadium lit up the northern Nevada night for the first time a half century earlier with the wet-behind-the-ears student body team of 1952 against Davis. The Aggies-Wolf Pack rivalry started in 1915 and the two teams had last met a decade earlier in 1942.
“The lights look good,” Lawlor said after a night practice leading up to the Davis game. “The boys can see real well.”
The game was played at night for a lot of reasons. The biggest reason was because the Kerak Shrine Temple, which had hosted an annual circus at Mackay Stadium in recent years, was installing the lights, pole by pole, for years and by 1952 there were enough lights to stage a college football game.
Another reason was to kick off this new era of Pack football with something special to remember it by. And, yes, it also didn’t hurt that the Pack didn’t have to compete for the northern Nevada entertainment dollar with the opening of deer hunting season that day as well as an afternoon football game between Reno and Sparks High, which was always the biggest high school game of the year.
The Pack also didn’t have to compete with the sports fans who wanted to listen on the radio to Game 4 of the World Series between the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers that afternoon. Allie Reynolds would shut the Dodgers out 2-0 that day behind a home run by Johnny Mize to even the series at 2-2.
And when we say northern Nevada entertainment dollar we literally mean dollar. Tickets to the 8 p.m. game were $1.50 for general admission and reserved seats were $2. Everyone under 12 was allowed in for free and servicemen in uniform had to pay just 75 cents.
The first night game was a rousing sensation in every way imaginable.
One of the biggest crowds in Wolf Pack history, estimated at just over 6,000 fans, showed up to the artificially-lit Mackay Stadium to see their sons, grandsons, next door neighbors and guys who used to sit next to them in high school geometry class, take on the UC Davis Aggies.
Yes, “a lively portion of the crowd was the Aggie rooting section which followed their team from Davis,” according to the Journal, but everyone was pleased to see a packed house for the Pack’s first game in two years.
Davis, which didn’t arrive until the morning of the game by train, had already played two games that season and lost both, to Fresno, 41-7 and Occidental of Los Angeles, 22-6. But that was two games of experience that most of the Pack players didn’t have.
Baxter and Giles Altenburg started at wide receiver for the Pack. Leslie, Ebel, Ford, Melton and Bob Hallahan started on the offensive and defensive lines with Reggie DePaoli and Wayne Secrist in reserve. Graham, Joe Leal and all of the running backs and halfbacks were in the defensive backfield. Gonsalves, who was from Hilo, Hawaii, started at quarterback, with Garrett in reserve. Lee Schroeder, Massey and Brooks, were the running backs.
The first day of the rest of the history of Pack football was about to begin.
The Pack even debuted new uniforms. They were decked out in dark blue jerseys with white numbers and white stripes on their arms, beautiful black helmets and silver pants. The Aggies were dressed all in white except for their black shoes.
The Kerak Shriners dedicated the new lights before the game and the 5,000-seat Mackay Stadium, which was located in the bowl where the Reynolds School of Journalism is now located, was buzzing.
And the excitement lasted all night long.
The Pack jumped out to leads of 6-0 and 13-7 as Gonsalves connected with Altenburg for a 25-yard touchdown pass and Massey scored on a 3-yard run. Lawlor even had Gonsalves call a Statue of Liberty play that went for 13 yards and a first down on a run by Schroeder.
Davis, though, tied the game at 13-13 in the third quarter as Dick Raycraft, whose father Tom was a track star at Nevada in the 1920s, blocked a Garrett punt. Davis’ Leo Lynch fell on the ball in the end zone for the game-tying touchdown.
Gonsalves, though, found Altenburg for another score, this time from 11 yards out, to give the Pack a 20-13 lead. And Graham put the finishing touches on the improbable 26-13 Wolf Pack victory with a 4-yard run in the final quarter.
The Pack already had as many victories at it compiled in the entire 1950 season and it didn’t cost them one single scholarship dollar.
Massey had an interception for the Pack in the second quarter as the Wolf Pack defense frustrated the Aggies the entire game, holding them to just 150 total yards. The only touchdown the Davis offense scored came on a 24-yard run by Norman Dossa to tie the game at 6-6.
DePaoli, Brooks, Baxter and Leslie led the defense and controlled the “white-clad farmers” all game long, the Journal reported.
“The citizens got a chance to cheer for a lot of home state products,” the Journal said.
Football was back to stay.
The Pack would go on to beat Chico State on the road the following week, 34-2, and lose at Idaho State two weeks after that, 33-13. Idaho State was a team fueled primarily by transfers from Boise Junior College, the earlier version of the same team that will visit Mackay this Dec. 1. The season ended on Nov. 8, 1952 with a record of 2-2 after a 59-32 loss to Fresno State back at Mackay Stadium in the autumn sunshine.
But nobody seemed to care that the Pack lost. This breakthrough season, after all, was not about wins and losses. It was about bringing the sport of football back to northern Nevada in a form the university and community could support.
“Even in defeat Nevada was anything but disgraced on the Mackay turf,” the Journal reported after the Fresno game. “Local fans were shown a preview of bigger and better Saturdays to come in the future.”
It would be a while before the Pack would indeed get bigger and better and recapture some of its national glory of the late 1940s. Lawlor would coach football for just another two seasons, increasing the schedule from four games to five and then six. A series of coaches after Lawlor — Gordon McEachron, Dick Trachok and Jerry Scattini — would have some success and a lot of struggles over the next two decades before a former Pack quarterback by the name of Chris Ault turned it around in the fall of 1976.
But the 1952 season was the start. There might not be a 2012 Wolf Pack if not for the brave and eager students who brought the sport back to campus with their enthusiasm and grit. And by the end of that 1952 season nobody was considering dropping the sport ever again.
“This sort of spirit by the student body set an example for Nevada football in the future,” the Journal wrote.
That spirit lives to this day.