The 1948 Golden Eagles surprised many with their unbeaten season, except themselves.
The character of the Tyrone Area High School football team in 1948 began taking shape long before etched its name in the record books by winning 11 straight games and building a school-record 29-game winning streak.
Before the Golden Eagles dealt four unbeaten teams their first losses, before they won their second straight Western Conference championship, before the cheers and adulation, there was practice.
And there was Big Brother.
Big Brother was the Tyrone football team of 1947, the classic overachieving older sibling which finished 11-0 and won the Western Conference championship.
It was a team that set records that stand to this day, pitching nine shutouts and allowing only 13 points. Kenny Noel led the team offensively, becoming the program’s first 1,000-yard rusher.
Big Brother could do little wrong in the eyes of the ever-adoring Golden Eagle fan base, and on a daily basis during that magical run in 1947, he whipped up on the Kid.
“In practice, we ran the opposing team’s plays,” said John Romano, a running back in 1948. “We got beat up, but we enjoyed it. The guys just wanted to play ball.”
It was during those grueling practices, serving as skeleton squads and tackling dummies, that the 1948 team molded its craft. And it was there that the ’48 squad learned what it would take to be winners.
“Those guys were our idols,” recalled Elwood Reese, a junior quarterback in 1948.
It’s hard not to like a winner, and at that point winning football was at its apex in the borough. Through 1947 Tyrone had lost only nine games in the decade, even sharing a mythical state championship with Shenandoah in 1940 following a 0-0 tie in a East-West championship game in December of that year.
It was a tradition of excellence about to be handed down to a group of players with very little varsity experience, but none of that seemed to matter because seventy years ago, just as today, winning began at the top and filtered its way down, and in the 1940s there wasn’t a high school coach in Pennsylvania who had figured out the science of winning quite like Steve Jacobs.
The name Steve Jacobs is still uttered with respect within the circles of the Tyrone football fraternity. He was the seventh coach to walk the sidelines at Tyrone, and only John Franco has had more success. Jacobs coached 12 seasons and won 100 games, a number that would have been significantly higher had he not vacated his position for three seasons to serve in the United States Navy during World War II.
Jacobs’ teams posted four undefeated seasons and won eight total championships. His state championship team of 1940 won 12 games, a number that wasn’t equaled for more than 50 years, and over his 12 seasons his teams won had a winning percentage of .746.
“Jacobs was an outstanding coach,” remembered Joe Scordo, a senior running back on the 1948 team, who later served as a PIAA official for almost 50 years. “He was the kind of coach who would tell you exactly how it was. In those days, coaches didn’t have clipboards and chalkboards. Jacobs had it all upstairs.”
In short, Jacobs was a winner.
Prior to 1948, Jacobs had already coached six Tyrone teams to 10-win seasons and captured four Western Conference championships in seven seasons. Three of those teams had gone undefeated, while two others finished the season with just one loss.
But in the eyes of former players, Jacobs did more than just coach football games. He also taught players lessons they would use for the rest of their lives.
“In those days coaches weren’t afraid to set an example,” said Reese, who in 1950 won a PIAA wrestling championship in the 180-pound weight class. “I remember once during a game one of my friends came off the field and threw his helmet. Jacobs told him right then to hit the showers. You paid heed if you wanted to be on that team.
“It was the essence of what athletics should be about.”
Jacobs’ football know-how, combined with his military-like discipline and the undying respect he commanded from his players meant that if he had the “the horses,” as Reese put it, he could make them winners.
Early on in 1948, it seemed like he did.
DEFENSE STEPS FORWARD
Tyrone’s season in 1948 began the same as it has for generations, against neighboring rival Bellwood-Antis. At that time, B-A had won only once against Tyrone, 14-6 in 1946. However, the Blue Devils entered the ’48 season riding a 10-game winning streak.
It soon ended as Noel, the lone returning letter-winner from 1947, bulled his way to three touchdowns in Tyrone’s 32-7 victory.
The following week, in the season’s first true showdown, Tyrone’s defense again asserted itself as a Western Conference force in a 25-0 shutout of 2-0 Osceola Mills. The highlight of the game came when, with the Golden Eagles ahead 14-0 in the fourth quarter, Bob Lucas intercepted a pass and returned it 42 yards for a score, fitting for a team built on defense every bit as much as its predecessor.
The Golden Eagles would allow only one touchdown over the next two games, improving to 4-0 with wins over 3-0 Lewistown (13-0) and 2-1 Altoona Catholic (27-6). Meanwhile, Noel continued to stand out, scoring three touchdowns in the victories.
He scored two more times in Tyrone’s 39-12 win over DuBois the following week. In that game, the Golden Eagles defense forced three turnovers, and the offense cashed in on every one of them.
While Tyrone’s defensive unit averaged between 165 and 170 pounds, according to some accounts, it was beginning to raise eyebrows across Western Pennsylvania.
“We weren’t a big team,” said Romano. “But everybody wanted to win.”
Scordo said that, despite the impressive numbers, it wasn’t a dominant defense in the classical sense.
“We weren’t outstanding, but we got the job done,” he said.
The win over DuBois boosted Tyrone’s record to 5-0 and set the stage for the home stretch of the season, when the Golden Eagles would be challenged by three of the top teams in the Western Conference, beginning the following week with a showdown on the road against 5-0 Philipsburg.
MEAT OF THE SEASON
Against Philipsburg, Tyrone’s winning streak, which had reached 23 games, was in serious jeopardy by the fourth play of the game. The Mounties were on Tyrone’s 16-yard line, poised to put the Golden Eagles behind for the first time that season. But Tyrone’s defense held strong on four plays and took over on downs.
It was a precursor of things to come.
By the third quarter, with the game still knotted at 0-0, Philipsburg was again knocking on the door, inside the Tyrone 12, and again the defense was up tot he challenge. Jim Funk, who would go on to be named to the AP’s All-State team as an offensive lineman, ended the drive with an interception.
Philipsburg went deep into Tyrone territory one final time in the fourth quarter when Hugh Wagner made the biggest defensive play in a game built on big defensive plays, returning an interception to midfield. Just a couple plays later, Noel blasted 60 yards for the game-winning score, and Tyrone, with a 7-0 win, remained unbeaten.
The Golden Eagles would not surrender a point in their next two games – blowout victories over Clearfield (20-0) and State College (25-0).
Thus, the line was drawn for what remains, arguably, the most prolific game in Tyrone football history: unbeaten Tyrone hosting unbeaten Lock Haven at Gray Memorial Field in a game to determine the Western Conference championship.
It was a game the media began hyping as early as September of that season, with the Tyrone Daily Herald and the Lock Haven Express exchanging predictions moths before the showdown actually occurred. By game day, the hysteria had reached a frenzy.
A Gray Field record of more than 8,000 spectators attended the game. Juniata College and Bellwood-Antis High School each donated bleachers to be used as auxiliary seating for more than 1,200 people, but even with the extra seating it was estimated another 2,600 fans were left standing inside the playing field. According to eye witness reports, traffic was bumper to bumper from Mill Hall to Tyrone.
“That was the only game where we really felt any pressure,” said Scordo.
That was evident on the Bobcats’ opening possession, when they drove the ball down the heart of the Tyrone defense, orchestrating a 10-play drive that was capped by a three-yard run by Billy Snyder for a 7-0 lead. Minutes later, Lock Haven intercepted a Lucas pass and followed it with a 66-yard touchdown run from Snyder.
However, the Bobcats failed to convert the extra-point, botching a fake placement into a pass, opening the door for a Golden Eagle rally.
Tyrone’s offense got into gear three possessions later as freshman Dick Hippensteel connected on a 35-yard pass to Fred Hamor, setting Tyrone up at the Lock Haven 20. Two plays later Noel crashed in from eight yards out for the Golden Eagles” first score, cutting the lead to 13-7 at halftime.
Tyrone then took the lead on its first second-half possession when Lucas hit G.E. Wilson for a 47-yard touchdown pass two minutes into the third quarter. Noel’s pass to Wilson for the extra-point was good, and the Eagles had their first lead of the game.
Twice in the second half the Bobcats penetrated as far as the Golden Eagles 33-yard line, but each time they were turned away. On one drive Noel batted a pass into the hands of Gene Hagg for a drive-ending interception. On another, a Randall Carper sack near the goal line stymied the Bobcats’ last-ditch drive.
Tyrone held on for a 14-13 victory and remained undefeated.
“That was the very brightest moment of the season,” said Reese. “It was a game-and-a-half.”
Scordo felt the Eagles had a little bit of luck on their side.
“We played hard and we had a few breaks,” he said.
All that remained for Tyrone were games on the road against Hollidaysburg and Jersey Shore, and the Golden Eagles handled them in workmanlike fashion, dealing the Tigers a 32-6 shellacking before squeaking by Jersey Shore 6-0 in two inches of rain.
Tyrone’s dream season was complete. A team with one returning letter-winner had extended the program’s winning streak to 29 games and been crowned King of Western Pennsylvania.
After defeating Lock Haven in what amounted to the Western Conference championship game, the Golden Eagles were in need of a vacation, and they got one – an all-expense paid trip to New York City the nest day provided by a group of local businessmen. There, the team toured the city and took in the Army-Stanford game at Yankee Stadium, a game the Cadets won 43-0.
According to the Altoona Tribune, a crowd of nearly 3,000 fans greeted the team when it returned to Tyrone at 2 a.m. Sunday morning.
That was the icing on the cake for Tyrone’s young gridders, and it was an experience they never forgot.
“Going to New York was great. They’re memories none of us will ever forget,” said Reese. “I went on to play in college (first at Penn State, later at Lock Haven), but it never equaled high school.”
“My fondest memories are just working with the gang and being with the guys,” said Scordo. “They were a good bunch of guys.”
Eventually, the seasons changed. Senior members of the team graduated and went on to college, the service, or work. Underclassmen found it hard to recapture the magic of 1947 and 1948, falling to 5-6 one year later.
Jacobs’ teams continued to win, though never again on the same level as those of the 1940s, and after a 2-9 season in 1952 – the second sub-.500 season of the coach’s career, he was off to Lock Haven State University. There, he was an assistant football coach from 1953 through 1968, helping guide the Bald Eagles to eight straight winning seasons, including a PSAC championship in 1957.
Jacobs served as Lock Haven’s Athletic Director from 1953 until he retired in 1972.
He was given a day in his honor in the borough in 1987 and recognized at halftime of the Homecoming game that season. Jacobs was a member of the very first Monogram Club class in 1987 and was inducted into the Lock Haven University Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
As time passed, many members of the team kept a close eye on the progress of their modern-day counterparts.
By the late 1990s, when Franco had the program at the inception of a new Golden Era in the program’s history, the heroes of ’48 saw many similarities between the championship teams of the Jacobs Era and those of the new school.
“I watch them still,” said Reese in 1998. “They’ve got gret coaching and personnel. To win, you have to have the right attitude and good players, and Tyrone has that. They’re disciplined.”
Players like Scordo, Reese and Romano admired the athleticism of modern players. They appreciatively admitted that those athletes – naturally bigger, stronger and faster than those of the 1940s – may have physically overmatched those of the 1948 team.
But when pressed, they stopped short of conceding victory.
“You hate to compare teams,” said Reese. “But nobody could beat us.”
Steve Jacobs couldn’t have said it better.