The Toledo-Bowling Green football rivalry has not been this frozen since the early years of the Cold War.
If you judge a feud by its cover — with seven straight Rockets wins and the prediction of another one Wednesday — you might even call it dead.
I asked a former UT player the other day if he’d mind sparing the Falcons a win or two for the greater good of the series.
Keep things interesting, you know.
“Boy, that’s a stupid question,” he said, laughing. “Even if we’ve won 12 in a row, let’s win the next 12.”
I should have known better.
Better than anyone, John Schneider knows the Mid-American Conference’s best rivalry is just on a break.
Think seven years without the schools swapping bragging rights is a long time? Fans of a wiser generation know that’s nothing. Schneider was the Rockets’ star quarterback during the last years of the rivalry’s real dark ages — a series-record span of 12 straight Bowling Green victories from 1955 to 1966 — and their shepherd back into the light.
Let him tell you, all it takes is one special season, one secret play — surreptitiously called the Bowling Green Special — and one purging afternoon for an all-time drought to turn into a deluge, the effects of which remain felt today.
Toledo and Bowling Green will wage their latest showdown 50 years after the Rockets undammed three presidencies worth of frustration in a 33-0 victory at Doyt Perry Stadium that set off the rivalry as we know it.
“Beating Bowling Green was like lighting the fuse,” said Don Wyper, an all-league senior offensive tackle for UT, “because from there forward, this rivalry has really been something.”
Truth be told, the ’67 season — which brought Toledo its first Mid-American Conference championship — was also the birth of modern Rockets football.
The Bancroft Street school had the mechanics of a program down before then, with uniforms and everything. It acquired a rival (BG in 1919), a nickname (a pharmacy student named James Neal writing for The Independent Collegian labeled his leather-helmeted classmates the “Skyrockets” in 1923), a marching band (1929), a fight song (1932), a stadium (the Glass Bowl in 1937), and a league (the Mid-American Conference in 1952).
The only thing missing was a presentable football team.
Before Col. Earl “Red” Blaik phoned Toledo in the spring of 1963 to recommend his former Army assistant for its vacant head football job, the university’s previous eight coaches were a combined 57-79-4. The Rockets’ first 11 seasons in the MAC? They won 17 league games.
All that changed under Blaik’s understudy, Frank X. Lauterbur.
The hard-edged Marine veteran began hoarding talent — Toledo schoolboy stars like Schneider, Wyper, Tom Beutler, and Paul Elzey, along with New Jersey tailback Roland Moss and Cleveland defensive end Mel Tucker — and those who stayed became champions in 1967, in no small part because the Rockets handed Bo Schembechler’s Miami (Ohio) team its lone league loss.
A rebuild that began with four losing seasons gave way to a teardown ... of the rest of the league. After Toledo lost its opener to Ohio, the defensive-minded Lauterbur begrudgingly allowed his assistants to introduce a needed final ingredient: a decades-ahead-of-its-time offensive transformation.
“Between games one and two, we went away from the (I-formation) to three or four wide receivers and no tight end,” Wyper said. “It became much more of a sprint-out offense, where John was so effective.”
With a high-flying offense to suddenly go along with their hell-in-cleats defense, the Rockets (9-1) did not lose again.
Their adversaries down I-75? “They just got in the way,” said Beutler, the linebacker who became UT’s first All-American.
The teams then were friendly, both sides filled with players from Toledo. Many trained together back home in the offseason, including Falcons star passer P.J. Nyitray, a Waite graduate. Heck, the Rockets’ captain lived with a BG student. Schneider met his wife, Judith, in high school and they got married before his senior season. They were wedded 50 years before her passing.
“She would sit in the stands as a Bowling Green student and cheer for Toledo,” Schneider said.
But if the programs got along well, none of that mattered the second Saturday of October.
Never mind Bowling Green had blacked out the rivalry since Toledo’s seniors were in elementary school. A score-settling UT team traveled to packed Perry Stadium — the two-year-old venue named after the former coach who made BG the league standard — for the Falcons’ homecoming game with a swagger that belied the history. “When Bowling Green walked onto the field,” Wyper said, “they had more people there, but they were outnumbered.”
Toledo inflicted its biggest beatdown of the conference season, spurred by a clever new play. The Bowling Green Special — designed to torpedo the Falcons’ league-leading defense — featured two receivers out wide, slotback Dave Daniels going in motion right, and Schneider sprinting his way.
“It was like pitch and catch,” Schneider said. “Dave would go down 10 yards, catch the ball, and run another five yards. The whole game, they never adjusted.”
Schneider tossed for a then-MAC-record 271 yards, which in that day was as unheard of as, well, Toledo beating Bowling Green.
From there, the success of the 1967 team helped Lauterbur recruit the next wave of cornerstones — including a couple guys named Chuck Ealey and Mel Long — and soon enough, UT scaled from good to great to unbeatable, its 35-0 run from 1969 to 1971 enrapturing the city.
The fuse that lit the Rockets indeed.
“That’s one I want to forget,” Nyitray said of the ’67 game. “John Schneider had a hell of a game. That got the rivalry and the Toledo people fired up, but I sure as hell am not happy I was in the game that sparked it.”
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