In this age of USF athletics, it may be hard to imagine a world where the Dons not only have a Division I football team, but one that is recognized as one of the best in the nation.
In 1951 that was the reality for sports on the Hilltop. Three years before Bill Russell and the Dons would make history by being the first NCAA basketball team to start three African-American players, the 1951 Dons football team would break barriers of their own.
Bob St. Clair, Ollie Matson, and Gino Marchetti, three future National Football League (NFL) Hall of Famers, led the team to a perfect 9-0 record, and to ranking as the 14th team in the country. They were coached by future NFL head coach, Joe Kuharich, and the team would soon send 10 team members to play professionally in the NFL. Along with these players and coaches, off the field, USF’s former athletic publicist, Pete Rozelle, would go on to become the NFL Commissioner from 1960 to 1989.
The Dons shared their home field, Kezar Stadium, with the San Francisco 49ers, whose arrival in 1946 contributed to a decline in attendance for the program. The Dons football team faced financial struggles, losing $70,000 that year — but the team’s strong performance on the field showed promise that the program would soon overcome these challenges.
That year, the team was invited to make their first bowl game appearance at the Orange Bowl in Miami. The invitation was sent under one condition: that the Dons would leave their Black players, Burl Toler and Ollie Matson, in the Bay Area and prevent them from participating in the game. During that time, bowl committees resisted inviting desegregated teams to participate in their games.
Matson was a star talent and a significant piece of the team. That season, Matson finished first in the country in rushing yards.
The Dons famously declined the invitation in solidarity with their Black teammates, an uncommon gesture in the height of Jim Crow. The Orange Bowl would go on to be played by Georgia Tech and Baylor University.
In 1990, former USF football player Joe Scudero told Sports Illustrated, “What I think we should have done is send Ollie and Burl to one of those bowls and leave the rest of us home. Hell, the two of them could’ve beaten most of those Southern schools by themselves.”
If the Dons had participated in the post-season bowl game, the program would have generated $50,000 in revenue, a huge step in saving the program.
After the decision to skip the bowl game, the football program would play its last season as a Division I team in 1951.
In 2009, the 1951 Dons football team was inducted into the USF Athletics Hall of Fame. In 2014, ESPN released a documentary about the historic team called “‘51 Dons.”