If the University of Toledo head football coaching job were open — and it is not, which makes this entirely hypothetical — it is a safe bet athletic director Mike O’Brien would take phone calls with candidate recommendations from Tom Osborne, Bobby Bowden, Earl Bruce, Lloyd Carr, or Lou Holtz.
They are among the elder statesmen of American college football. When they call, you answer.
I imagine that must have been what it was like in the early spring of 1963 when the phone rang in the office of Toledo athletic director James W. Long, who had a sudden coaching opening to fill. On the other end was Col. Earl “Red” Blaik.
He was a college football legend of that era, the man who led Army to three national championships and coached as many Heisman Trophy winners. He also had upward of 20 former assistants who became head coaches. You might remember Vince Lombardi and Sid Gillman, to name just a couple.
Another was Francis Xavier Lauterbur, who had moved on to be an assistant coach at Pittsburgh. FXL once told me he had asked only one person, Colonel Blaik, to make one phone call to Toledo. Long isn’t around to ask, but it might be that Lauterbur was a lock from the moment Long set the phone back in its cradle.
Candidly, the Toledo football job stunk. The Glass Bowl was barely adequate, the practice field was like asphalt, there was no money, and about the same level of interest. The previous eight coaches had combined for a 57-79-4 record and teams had won just 17 league games in the first 11 seasons that TU, as it was called, belonged to the Mid-American Conference.
And then came Frank Lauterbur, and despite a few rough start-up years nothing has been the same since that spring day, exactly 50 years ago, when FXL stepped onto the Toledo practice field for the first time.
The Rockets celebrated that anniversary Friday night prior to the spring game. Former assistant coach Carty Finkbeiner and ex-Rocket Tom Duncan combined with head coach Matt Campbell to organize a pregame reception. Lauterbur later met with current UT players in the locker room and presided over the coin toss.
There were five UT head football coaches at the reception. Lauterbur and Campbell were joined by Jack Murphy, Dan Simrell, and Tom Amstutz. One of the assistant coaches on Lauterbur’s first Toledo staff, Mario Russo, drove in from Wisconsin to salute his old boss. About 50 of Lauterbur’s former players attended.
“I really believe this is one of the great football programs in America, one of the great traditions with 18 MAC championships [including divisional] and 14 bowl games,” Campbell said. “And in coach Lauterbur, we’re celebrating the foundation of all that.”
Simrell was the first alum to become UT’s head coach (1982-89), and his playing days at quarterback included a season under Clive Rush and two under Lauterbur.
“We weren’t tough enough to win,” Simrell said. “Frank changed that. He taught us toughness. He threatened us, and he intimidated us, but he showed us too. He said, ‘This is how you play the game. This is what you will do to win.’ Truthfully, we weren’t real good his first couple years, but that first group of players got this program to where it was ready to win.”
Or, as Simrell’s teammate, Don Baker, put it, “He gave the football program here the opportunity to dream.”
Lurley Archambeau was in Lauterbur’s first recruiting class and recalls that of 32 players, only “five or six were left by our senior year.
“Frank chased ’em off left and right,” Archambeau said. “It was a real sorting-out process. He figured however many stuck around were the ones he could win with.”
The survivors joke now about the so-called Mt. Suribachi, not where the U.S. flag was raised at Iwo Jima, but the steep hill next to the Glass Bowl where Lauterbur planted his flag and where the Rockets ran grueling and very physical drills, and a no-holds-barred indoor training method they call stick wrestling, which is almost too brutal to explain.
“We all got Suribachi Hill shirts,” said John Johnson, another of Lauterbur’s early recruits who became a successful high school coach locally. “I just recently threw mine out. It was falling apart after 50 years. What did it teach us? How to survive. Frank wanted people who wanted to win.”
There are a lot of memories now of a bad program that became better then good, then very good and, finally, unbeatable.
FXL’s first four Toledo teams won only 11 games, but along the way he stockpiled recruits like Tom Beutler, John Schneider, Paul Elzey, Roland Moss, Mel Tucker, and Don Wyper. The 1967 team won UT’s first-ever MAC title and then came Mel Long, Duncan, Curtis Johnson, John Niezgoda, Don Fair, Gary Hinkson, quarterback Chuck Ealey, and so many others, and the “Unbeatable Rockets” were born.
Lauterbur’s last four UT teams went 37-5-1, including 23 straight wins before he left after the 1970 season to become head coach at Iowa. Murphy succeeded him and completed the famous 35-0 streak with a 12-0 season in ’71.
George Keim, part of Lauterbur’s final recruiting class, said that by then, young players were in awe of the coach.
“It was like he walked on water,” Keim said.
Lauterbur, 87, has been in failing health of late, but was still able to enjoy the Friday-night festivities along with one of his daughters, Mary.
“Fifty years, it doesn’t seem possible,” the old coach said. “I can’t get over all these great guys showing up.”
They were there to say thank you, as did UT’s current administrators, coaches, and players. As Campbell said, there’s little question where, when, and with whom it all started.
“There’s something Frank said that sticks with me to this day,” said Don Baker. “He said, ‘Getting knocked down is not a sin; laying there is.’ This program has been getting back up for 50 years. And he started that.”
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.