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The Finest College Football Team of All Time — Both On The Field and Off

In the view of many sportswriters and historians of the game, the University of San Francisco’s 1951 team is the greatest college football team ever. 

That 1951 team is perhaps the greatest college squad ever to play the game of football. But it is also the finest college football team — perhaps the finest college team in any sport — in one other respect:


A black and white photograph of a college football team posing for a team portrait in uniform.
1951 USF Football Team, Athletics Photograph Collection, Special Collections & University Archives, University of San Francisco.

At the end of its undefeated 1951 season, during which the Dons outscore their opponents by an average of more than four to one, the team is invited to play Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Playing in a major bowl game would showcase the team even more than its spectacular season already has, and would generate significant revenue for the university. 

The players, however, vote unanimously to reject the invitation. Their reason? A condition imposed by the Orange Bowl sponsors that the team’s two Black players be left behind in San Francisco. 

Ollie Matson Senior Portrait, 1952 Don, Yearbook Collection, Special Collections & University Archives, University of San Francisco.

The administration of the Jesuit university has the power to overrule the players and accept the invitation. They stand with the team. It is predicted that without the Orange Bowl revenue USF won’t be able to continue its football program. The prediction comes true as a few months later the university is forced to drop football.

To even the most casual fan of the game, the briefest recap of the Dons’ long ago season overawes. 

The Dons win all nine of their games — nine games being a typical college football schedule in 1951 — by an average score of 33-8. Their opponents are held to a net rushing average of less than 52 yards per game.

Their star running back, Ollie Matson, leads the nation in rushing with 1,566 yards — four fewer yards than what is then the record in college football. 

USF’s final victory of the 1951 season is a 20-2 thrashing of then-powerhouse Loyola of Los Angeles in the Rose Bowl. 

During the nine-hour bus ride back to San Francisco Nose Guard Vince Tringali strums ukulele and Linebacker Dick Colombini plays accordion as the players sing endless choruses of “Up a Lazy River,” and another song that has become their “anthem.”  That song is “Goodnight Irene”  by Huddie Ledbetter — Lead Belly — who is “discovered” in 1933 at the Louisiana State Penitentiary where he’s serving a stretch.

Arriving home in San Francisco, the players learn of the Orange Bowl “invitation” and its odious condition. They reject it on the spot. The teammates remain friends for the rest of their lives.

Eight of the team’s members go on to careers in the National Football League, a record at the time. There are only 12 teams in the NFL in the early 1950s with far smaller rosters than today.

Ollie Matson, Los Angeles Rams fullback, 1959

In addition to Matson, going pro are tackle Bob St. Clair, defensive end Gino Marchetti, Lou “Red” Stephens, quarterback Ed Brown, Ralph Thomas, Joe “Scooter” Scudero and Mike Mertens. A ninth player, perhaps the best, is drafted but never plays in the NFL, because of an injury. 

Five former Dons play in Pro Bowls. Three are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — the most ever from one college football team. The three are Matson, St. Clair, and Marchetti. A fourth “member” of the Dons is also in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is the team’s publicist who graduates from USF in 1950 but passionately promotes the team.

That publicist is Pete Rozelle, who becomes commissioner of the National Football League, and serves for nearly 30 years.

Burl Toler Senior Portrait, 1952 Don, Yearbook Collection, Special Collections & University Archives, University of San Francisco.

Coaches Sid Gillma and, Forrest Gregg and others call Marchetti the greatest football player of his era. At its 50th, 75th and 100th anniversaries, the NFL names Marchetti the best at his position ever. 

Matson retires from the NFL in 1966 with more total yards than any other player in NFL history, except for Jim Brown.

But by all accounts, the best player on the 1951 USF team is center and linebacker Burl Toler. At a 1952 all-star game between the best players of the previous year’s college season and the current NFL champion, Toler is the outstanding player until a blind-side block in the fourth quarter devastates his knee. 

Burl Toler, NFL Linesman

After surgery, he decides against playing professional football and becomes instead a top educator in San Francisco, chair of the City’s Recreation and Parks Department, and the first Black referee in the National Football League. 

in 2017, USF names a student residence after Toler.

Toler and Matson are the two Dons players the Orange Bowl insists not travel to Miami with their teammates.


John Briscoe

John Briscoe, winner of the 2020 Oscar Lewis Award in Western History, is a poet, author, and international lawyer. 

He is a Distinguished Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, which will publish his oral history late this year, and is president of the San Francisco Historical Society.