Panthers of 1963 make no bowls about it

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On Dec. 7, 1963, the Pitt football team was locked in a tighter-than-it-should-be battle with Penn State at Pitt Stadium.

This game was supposed to be played two weeks earlier, Nov. 23. The day before, though, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, sending a country into shock and postponing many major sporting events, including the annual Pitt-Penn State matchup.

There was collateral damage for the No. 5 Panthers, too. Because most of the major bowl games were already extending bids, the Orange Bowl passed for fear that, by the time the game rolled around, Pitt could've suffered two additional losses.

The Panthers, meanwhile, were uninterested in any lower-tier bowl trips.

Trailing the Nittany Lions, 21-15, with 2:33 remaining, quarterback Fred Mazurek raced 17 yards and hurdled into the end zone for the winning touchdown.

There was one last hope that Pitt would earn a postseason opportunity. Across the state in Philadelphia Municipal Stadium, later named John F. Kennedy Stadium, Army and Navy were playing their annual rivalry game. The Midshipmen were No. 2 in the country and considered the likely opponent for No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl.

If Army pulled off the upset and dealt Navy its second loss, though, that could open the door for Pitt. Not only would the Panthers go bowling, they would play the top team in the country with, potentially, a shot at a national championship.

Pitt wasn't supposed to be this good in 1963.

Led by coach John Michelosen, the Panthers went 3-7 in 1961 and 5-5 in 1962.

They had experience, though, with 26 players who had already earned a varsity letter. Most important, they were a tight-knit group.

"I think that definitely helps. You're looking out for each other," said Chuck Ahlborn, a center on the 1963 team that will be honored Saturday at Heinz Field during Pitt's game against Virginia.

The Panthers started the season with wins against UCLA, Washington and California.

"We were hoping to get the West Coast Conference title," defensive end and captain Al Grigaliunas joked.

After a roller-coaster win against rival West Virginia, Pitt lost its only game of the season to then-No. 10 Navy, led by eventual Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach. The Panthers turned the ball over six times and lost, 24-12.

"Our worst game that we played in terms of mistakes was against Navy and Staubach," tackle Ernie Borghetti said.

The loss might have lingered into the following week, as Pitt trailed Syracuse, 21-8, at halftime. The Panthers mounted a furious second-half comeback in cold, wet conditions at Pitt Stadium to keep their bowl chances alive.

The Syracuse comeback is the game most of the team members point to as the most memorable of the season.

"We came back and just kicked their butts in the second half," Ahlborn said.

Wins against Notre Dame, Army and Miami set up the postponed end-of-season battle against the Nittany Lions.

Many of the 1963 players don't remember when exactly they found out they weren't going to a bowl that year, but it was effectively decided that afternoon of Dec. 7.

Navy held off an upset-minded Army team for a 21-15 win and secured a spot in the Cotton Bowl, where it would lose to Texas.

The Panthers might have had some other, less prestigious options but the players said they preferred to stay home. Pitt finished the year ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press poll and No. 3 in the UPI poll.

"I don't think just getting a bowl was that important to us," Borghetti said. "What we wanted was to be able to play Texas. That was the disappointment. If we couldn't play them, I'm not so sure that another bowl would've really been that important to us."

Of course, the consensus among the team is that if they had gotten the opportunity, the Panthers could've upset Texas and claimed the national title.

"We would've matched up with Texas better than Navy did, I think," Ahlborn said.

Around 30 members of the 1963 team will be at Heinz Field Saturday. Since graduating, nearly all have gone on to successful careers in their chosen fields.

"I always said I went to Pitt to become a dentist," Borghetti said. "We didn't think about national championships or things like that."

Borghetti was one of 15 eventual dentists on that 1963 team. Three went on to become doctors, five lawyers, five engineers and dozens of others into various aspects of business and industry.

"People knew what they wanted and went after it," Ahlborn said.

When they gather this weekend, many will wear matching gold watches with the inscription "9-1, Uninvited." The watches were given to the team by the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce to celebrate the impressive, if unusual, accomplishment.

Ahlborn doesn't have his watch anymore. About five years ago, he got it polished and gave it to his son, Jeff, a diehard Pitt fan, as a Christmas gift.

"He's pretty stoic, but I know he appreciated it," Ahlborn said.

And when Ahlborn thinks back to that 1963 season, he doesn't remember the disappointing loss to Navy or the disappointment of not getting a shot at a national championship.

"It was a fun season," he said. "Football's usually not fun. Seriously, those practices are brutal, but it was just a fun year."

pittsports

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.


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