Niles 1966: What should have been ...Published: 9/16/16 @ 12:10
In 1966, the Niles football team went undefeated, but got no recognition in the polls
By Steve Ruman
This is supposed to be a story with a happy ending.
This very well should be the joyous tale of a football team which ranks among the best from a program which is 118 years old.
Undefeated seasons shouldn’t end in disappointment.
However, the story of the 1966 Niles McKinley Red Dragons is in fact the bittersweet saga of a town which celebrated a 10-0 campaign, and agonized the realities of state championships which were decided by coaches and sportswriters.
Fifty years later, the ‘66 Niles team remains the last in school history to post an undefeated record. They are just one of three teams in school history which can claim an undefeated, untied campaign.
The perfect record led to an All-American Conference title. While Niles won state titles in 1961 and 1963, its schedule in those two years could be viewed as weak in comparison to the 1966 slate. In fact, the ’66 Dragons are the only team in Ohio history to defeat Canton McKinley, Massillon and Warren G. Harding in the same season.
Still, the perfection wasn’t enough for Niles to earn a third state title in six years. Instead, it finished second in the state behind Columbus Watterson in both the Associated Press and United Press International polls.
THE ROAD TO PERFECTION
In September of 1966, Niles unveiled its newly-renovated Riverside Stadium. Expanded by 4,200 seats, the home of the Red Dragons was now one of the largest and most impressive high school stadiums in the land.
The timing was perfect.
The ’66 schedule featured nine straight home games, including tussles with All-American foes Canton McKinley and Massillon.
Anchored by 22 lettermen, Niles was favored to win the AAC and contend for a third state title in six years. The Red Dragons were guided by second-year head coach Bob Shaw, who served under Tony Mason when Niles won its pair of state titles.
Niles opened its season at home against a Canton McKinley squad which outscored the Dragons 148-6 in five previous meetings. Senior quarterback Bob Leonard engineered three drives which helped lead the Dragons to a 22-0 win over the Bulldogs. Blowout victories over Cleveland John Adams, Cleveland East Tech and Cincinnati Withrow would follow.
The 4-0 start set up a showdown against Massillon in a game which most longtime Niles fans still regard as the greatest in school history.
Shaw would go on to serve as a college assistant at Michigan, Arizona, Southern Illinois, Arkansas, Akron and West Virginia. While at West Virginia in 1988, he was the defensive coordinator when the Mountaineers played Notre Dame for a national title.
Shaw also coached professionally in the United States Football League.
Yet when asked to pinpoint his single greatest night on the sidelines, without hesitation Shaw reflects back to Oct. 8, 1966.
In 1964, Massillon ended Niles’ 48-game unbeaten streak. The Tigers came to Niles in ‘66 defending state champs and riding a 32-game winning streak.
Trailing 12-0 midway through the fourth quarter, Niles seemed on the verge of suffering its third loss to Massillon in three years after committing seven first-half fumbles. But with 15,000 fans looking on, the Dragons scored three touchdowns in the final 4:44 to defeat the Tigers, 20-12.
“Unless you lived in Niles in that era, there is no way for anyone to understand exactly what football meant to the community,” Shaw said. “Niles football was the focal point. Life revolved around Saturday nights in the fall. You didn’t dare get married on a Saturday in September or October, because if you did no one showed up.
“The importance of that game from a community standpoint, and the way we rallied makes it the greatest game I’ve ever been a part of.”
Now 85, Shaw is retired and living in Iowa.
“High school football was big business back then,” Shaw said. “If Niles lost, you could bet our house would be egged that night. If we were lucky, fans just put ‘For Sale’ signs in the yard.”
Longtime area sportscaster Denny Liebert, a Niles native, was a teenager watching the victory over Massillon from the stands in the north end zone. He recalls every detail of the game “like it was yesterday,” in part because of his love for the Dragons, but mostly because of his disdain for the opposition.
“Oh, I hated Massillon, I still hate Massillon,” Liebert said. “They came to Niles with a reputation as the bully on the block. They had a sullied reputation because of their cheating and recruiting issues. To see Niles beat Massillon the way they did, to this day it was as big a thrill as anything I’ve witnessed in sports.”
Lopsided wins would follow over Toledo Libby (48-14) and Akron St. Vincent (20-0) before the Dragons received a huge scare from Steubenville Catholic Central in a 6-0 victory
Niles closed out its home schedule with a 52-8 rout of Toledo Central Catholic, setting the stage for the season-ending showdown at Warren.
With its sights set on an AAC and state title, the Dragons received rushing touchdowns from Bruce Simeone, Gary Bletsch and Ron Hallock in a 22-6 win over the Panthers. Interceptions by Jim Kines and Steve Mawby helped secure the 10-0 season.
“We weren’t the greatest of players, but we were absolutely a great team,” Kines said. “As a unit, we played so well together we couldn’t lose. We were so well-conditioned, so well-coached and we had a unity that made us special once we took the field.”
Simeone echoed the comments made by Kines, and pointed out that more than 20 members of the team recently converged at Bo Rein Stadium, where they were honored prior to the Sept. 2 Niles-Poland game.
“We’re still the best of friends,” Simeone said. “To this day, my high school teammates are probably the closest group I’ve ever been associated with. There was a bond which developed back then that still exists today. That bond led us to a 10-0 season.”
THE BUMP IN THE ROAD
Niles entered the final week of the season ranked second behind Upper Arlington in both the UPI and AP polls. While Niles was defeating seventh-ranked Harding, Upper Arlington was suffering a 32-0 setback at the hands of fifth-ranked Columbus Watterson.
“We came back from Warren that night basically celebrating a state title,” Leonard recalled. “We didn’t feel there was any way the championship could be taken away from us. We did everything asked of us against what most would argue was the toughest schedule in the state.”
However, the Dragons’ celebration was short-lived. Three days later, the UPI crowned Watterson state champs. Though Niles received more first-place votes (14 to 10), Watterson outscored Niles in total points 394-392.
“It was hard to imagine a fifth-ranked team could leapfrog all the way to No. 1, especially with Niles going on the road and handily beating the seventh-ranked Panthers,” Liebert said. “I remember the Watterson-Upper Arlington score being announced at Mollenkopf. Watterson 7-0, there was a huge roar. Watterson 14-0, an even louder roar.”
“As the game became a blowout, I think there was an uneasy feeling from Niles fans. But still, no one believed Watterson would move all the way to the top.”
It was later learned that two coaches left Niles completely off their ballots. The glaring omissions prevented Niles from winning its third title in six years.
Years later, Liebert interviewed Bill Shunkwiler, who coached Harding in 1966.
“At the time I talked to Bill he was an old man and in failing health, but he had vivid memories of that season,” Liebert said. “I had always heard he was one of the coaches who left Niles off his ballot, so I asked him if it was true. Sure enough, Bill confirmed. I asked why, and he simply replied, ‘I didn’t think they were that good.’
“You have to remember that even 10-place votes would have given Niles a title. No one can justify that Niles didn’t belong in the top ten.”
In the AP poll, Watterson received much of its support from the southern portion of the state. Watterson became the first non-Northeast Ohio school to win a title.
Again, two voters left Niles completely off their ballots.
“I remember being in the basement of Alberini’s the night of the voting,” Leonard said. “The entire team and coaching staff, we were there for what was supposed to be a celebration. I just remember walking up the stairs and out of the restaurant in disbelief. It was total silence. We did feel robbed.”
Shortly after the final polls were released, Shaw and other coaches pressured the Ohio High School Athletic Association to pursue a system where championships would be decided on the field. Six years later, playoff football came to Ohio.
“This is a tough pill for any Niles fan to swallow, but I truly believe that the ’66 season was good for Ohio high school football,” Liebert said. “The voting that year was such a travesty that it set in motion the system we have today.”
While the ’66 Dragons have no state trophy for their efforts, they do take solace in knowing they went 10-0 and won a conference title in a league which at the time was considered perhaps the best in the country.
“Players from that whole era, we still get together frequently,” Simeone said. “The older guys have their titles. We have wins over Massillon, Harding and Canton. Who were the better Niles teams? I guess that will always give us something to bicker about. That’s the fun of sports.”
Despite being snubbed by both wire services, the Dragons were named the top team in Ohio by the National Sports News Service. The service also tabbed Niles the fifth-ranked team in the country.