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Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Great Upset of 1956

Monday, December 24, 2012

Coach Harold Bryan
Probably the greatest feeling a high school football player can have is to be a member of a championship team, undefeated, even unchallenged during the season. But perhaps an even sweeter sensation is to be a member of the team that cuts down the team that everyone has already predicted as the championship team -- against long odds. This is the position in which the McCook Bison footballers found themselves at the end of the 1956 season.

McCook was suffering through a very mediocre season, standing at 4 wins 4 losses and one tie going into the Big 10 Championship game with undefeated Hastings, at 9 wins and 0 losses, and standing as the No. 2 team in all the state. On paper it did look to be something of a mismatch. Hastings had averaged four touchdowns per game, and defensively, had been scored upon only four times all season. The Tigers outweighed the Bison by more than 13 pounds per man.

Coach Russ Sauter's 1946 Bison team had won the Big 10, in only the second year of the Big 10. Since then the Bison performances in championship matchups had been less than stellar.

1956 Bison football royalty, Dale Hofman, Bob Campbell, Ernie Hack.
In 1956 most state newspapers had been severe in their criticism of the Big 10 title game. Jim Donnely, of the Hastings Tribune predicted a massacre, pointing out that in three previous playoff appearances the Bison had scored but one, lone touchdown. He went on to point to Hastings' defensive record in '56 -- the Tigers had only given up 27 points, against quality opponents, in 9 games. For some weeks (with some success) he had been calling for a post season showdown, to determine a State Champion -- to pair No. 1 Omaha North with No. 2 ranked Hastings (the consensus ranking of the teams by the Omaha World Herald and The Lincoln Star-Journal. This was before there was a playoff system of determining a champion on the field.)

Doyle Smith, writing for the Grand Island Independent rarely had a good word for the McCook Bison. He pointed out that Lexington "skinned" the Bison 33-7 earlier in the season. Indeed, outside of Lexington in the West Division, he had little regard for any of the West teams. In a pre-game column Smith wrote, "Anything can happen Friday afternoon, but what will PROBABLY happen, is that Hastings will win its first ever Big 10 Championship and McCook will be trudging home sobbing. In fact, if McCook were to win it would be ranked as the biggest upset of the year! McCook comes to Hastings determined -- but undermanned. McCook has a 'dismal' record, and it is a mystery how McCook came up with that rare upset of Kearney, which has allowed it to 'back' into the conference title picture." "Actually," Smith continued, "the Hastings Tigers can probably choose the score of the game. Surely we can't miss on this one -- Our prediction is Hastings 38-McCook 0.

Paul "Dutch" Ernst, writing in the Columbus Telegram had similar thoughts. "I doubt very much that McCook can score on the Hastings Tigers. It is also very doubtful that the McCook forward wall can keep the Tigers from having a field day. I expect Coach Ollie Smith's Tigers to win by at least four touchdowns.

Happy Big 10 champs, right, Dick Kraft, Dick Jussel, Walt "The Toe" McGuire, Stan Wells, Tom Trail, Bob Campbell.
Jimmie Kirkman, of the North Platte Telegraph-Bulletin mused on the Big 10 Championship game, "There have been a lot of ups and downs for the West Division teams this season. Only in the remote instance that an enraged Bison eleven might somehow dull the claws of the Hastings Tigers Friday -- could there be an excuse for a playoff at all this year."

The other teams in the West Big Ten joined McCook in suffering the slights of the eastern press. Don Lindstrom wrote in the Holdrege Citizen, "Hastings sports fans are favoring the Tigers over McCook by five touchdowns. We hope at the end of the day they are surprised!"

In spite of the negative press clippings, or perhaps because of them, the McCook Bison football team was undeterred in their preparation for the big game., and the game did not go according to pre-game predictions. The Bison 8-man defensive line proved to be much stronger than Hastings had allowed and kept the Tiger runners bottled up most of the day. Both teams had trouble moving the ball, but toward the end of the first quarter McCook benefitted from a rare fumble by Hastings' usually reliable running back, Don Ellerbee, at the Tiger 34 yard line.

In just six plays, aided greatly by a Bob Campbell to Ron Callen 13-yard pass, the Bison moved to the Hastings'4-yard line, where the drive stalled. At this point Bison Coach Harold Bryan chose an unlikely hero to save the day for the Bison squad. Walt McGuire, 150 pound senior linebacker was called upon to attempt a field goal from the Tiger 15-yard line. McGuire had never even tried a field goal in a game before, and to compound his problem, he had left his kicking tee in McCook, and was attempting to use a piece of sponge rubber, wound with tape, as a substitute for his kicking tee. "The Kick" would be his first attempt. No problem! Jerry Vap was able to place the ball perfectly on the improvised kicking surface and McGuire's kick was right down the middle, clearing the crossbar with room to spare.

No one on the McCook team thought that one field goal would be enough to win the game, and the Hastings fans certainly had no doubt that McCook's lead would be short-lived, and the Tiger rout would quickly resume. However, when a Tiger drive from midfield to the McCook 1-yard line was thwarted by a valiant Bison goal line stand, as the time ran out on the first half, there was a feeling of an impending upset in the air. Tiger fans began to be concerned.

In the second half the two teams played one another on near equal terms. There were 10 fumbles in the game, but the fumbles hurt Hastings more than they did the Bison, terminating drives just when it appeared that the Tiger offense had started to jell.

In the second half, Bob Campbell's quick kicks caught the Tigers off guard and proved to be a key weapon in keeping the Tigers in check. There was no shortage of heroes on both sides of the ball. Bison Coach Bryan was reluctant to single out individuals for praise. It was truly a team victory. But names did surface during ensuing interviews. Quarterback, Bob Kitchen was "magnificent" as a field general and was a "defensive demon all afternoon." His vicious tackle at the McCook 20 yard line ended a promising Tiger 38 yard drive in the 3rd quarter. The McCook forward wall played their best game of the season.

Running back, Bob Campbell and a steady, aggressive, Dale Hofman provided the offensive spark that kept the Hastings juggernaut off the field, and Campbell's punting and quick kicks were definite highlights.

Ellerbee and the other fleet Hastings backs were not the same force that they had been in other games of the season. Some intimated that the slippery field "bogged down" the speedy Tigers, but "most McCookites agree that it was the Bison in general, and that terrific 8-man Bison line" that held the Hastings offensive to less than their storied best."

56 years later, in 2012, "The Game" still stirs vivid memories in the players who participated in the Big 10 Championship game. Don Ellerbee, the star Hastings left halfback, now of Lincoln, recalls bitterly, "We were 9-0. McCook was 4-4-1. We had written them off as inferior. It was a devastating loss and it still hurts to this day. On paper the teams were not even close. One thing that we did not pay enough attention to was that they had also upset Kearney to get into the title game -- which was Kearney's only loss. We thought that all we needed to do was show up. You know the rest of the story. McCook 3-Hastings 0."

The McCook players have a different take on the game. Recently, Dale Hofman, a lineman on that 1956 team expressed the sentiment that the team felt going into that game.

"It was no fluke. We had beaten highly rated teams, North Platte, Kearney, and finally, Hastings. We got off to sort of a slow start that season, but by the time of the Championship Game we were just hitting our stride." Yes, memories are sweet, even after 56 years.

Source: Les Spence in McCook Gazette, Stu Pospisil in Omaha World Herald

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By