By Greg Gulas | firstname.lastname@example.org
The Struthers Wildcats first played football in 1916, going 6-2 under the tutelage of head coach Lawrence Stewart.
With head coach Denny Schill at the helm, the program recorded its first undefeated season in 1930. Those Wildcats went 9-0, recorded four shutouts, held opponents to seven points-or-less and boasted a defense that allowed just 38 total points. The offense was a juggernaut that rolled up 260 points.
However, it wasn’t until 1967-68 under the guidance of Bob Commings that the team posted back-to-back undefeated seasons.
When the Wildcats play host to Niles tonight in their All-American Conference White tier clash, Struthers will celebrate the 50th anniversary of those seasons with pre-game, halftime and post-game festivities.
The contest also is the first of four consecutive Touchdowns Against Cancer games for the Wildcats.
“With all due respect to the Struthers Wildcats’ undefeated football teams of 1930, 1981 and 1982, the undefeated teams, Steel Valley Champions and winners of 21 straight games of 1967 and 1968 were the greatest football teams that Struthers has ever produced in over 100 years of football,” said Rob Gelonese, Struthers Middle School principal and a member of the organizing committee.
Commings, who later coached at Massillon High School and the University of Iowa, came to Struthers in 1962.
In seven seasons at the helm, he posted a 50-16-4 overall mark. His only losing season was his initial campaign when the team went 3-6-1 to complete the transition from former head coach Ed Strauss.
After 7-2-1, 6-4 and 8-1-1 seasons, the Wildcats were coming off a 7-3 mark in 1966, In 1967, the Wildcats boasted just 36 players and the team was nicknamed the “Dirty 30.” They weren’t expected to make much noise according to quarterback Gary Zetts, who later served as head football coach of his alma mater.
“We weren’t very good looking on paper and back then, not many teams threw the ball,” Zetts said. “We were a Wing-T offense, but throughout the summer and into preseason practices we evolved into more of a passing team.
“Credit Coach Commings because he was a coach who adapted to his personnel,” Zetts said.
After knocking off Alliance (22-14), East (41-12), Brookfield (28-6), Girard (32-12) and Austintown Fitch (34-32), the Wildcats were 5-0.
Zetts said winning became contagious as the season progressed.
“I grew up playing receiver, but always wanted to be a quarterback and Coach Commings gave me that opportunity,” Zetts said. “All I had to do was get the ball to guys like Neal Lawn and Bob Muzina and they made things happen.
“Coach was unbelievable and I never wanted to disappoint him,” Zetts said. “The rest of the team felt the same way. He had so much charisma, we didn’t want to lose because we didn’t want to disappoint him in any way. You did what he told you to do.”
Struthers ended the season in much the same manner that it started, winning the final five games over Woodrow Wilson (26-20), Akron Archbishop Hoban (30-21), Hubbard (30-6), Boardman (34-0) and Campbell Memorial (12-6).
It was a run that found them atop the Steel Valley Conference while finishing 11th in the Associated Press’ Final Class AAA poll.
Dennis Bogdan, who played fullback and recently retired as a history teacher at Stow High School, recalled the no-nonsense practices and same regimen the team went through week in and week out.
“We all appreciated the fact that we went undefeated, but it didn’t come easy,” said Bogdan, who went on to play for Youngstown State and head coach Dwight “Dike” Beede. “It came with a lot of hard work and sacrifice.
“We played on Friday, watched game film on Saturday,” Bogdan said. ”On Monday, we’d get loose, did wind sprints on Tuesday and on Wednesday, went hard — sometimes too hard.
“On Thursday, it was just as hard if we didn’t do a good job on Wednesday,” Bogdan said. “By no stretch of the imagination was it a leisurely practice. On Friday night, we repeated the process.”
The Wildcats were winners of 12 straight contests as they won the final two games of the 1966 campaign.
Zetts said the chance to repeat in 1968 as SVC champs and duplicating the undefeated season became the team’s mantra.
Commings had a strict set of rules for his team.
“We didn’t have many players, but we had a ton of great guys,” Zetts said. “They were a special group both years with many future successes out of those two classes.
“Unlike 1967, in 1968 we were good on paper,” Zetts said. “Coach was very demanding in that we weren’t allowed in a car, making us ride a bike or walk.
“We couldn’t have a girlfriend and we weren’t permitted to go to Homecoming. He was very demanding and made it tough to be on his team.”
Zetts said the leader of the team was Dave Barone.
“Without question,” Zetts said. “He had Coach Commings’ charisma and was a very emotional player.
“He’d get so worked up, he’d end up throwing up,” Zetts said. “We never left the lockerroom until he settled down. When he finally did settle down, then that’s when we were ready to go.”
The Wildcats opened the 1968 season with a 34-6 victory over Alliance. They squeaked by Cardinal Mooney, 7-6, and then reeled off victories over Brookfield (55-0), Girard (48-6), Austintown Fitch (28-0), Cleveland Cathedral Latin (20-14), Hubbard (54-6), Boardman (40-30) and Campbell Memorial (36-0) to move to 9-0.
A season-ending contest against Ursuline at Rayen Stadium loomed. The game ended in a 6-6 tie against the Fighting Irish on a challenging, muddy field.
The Wildcats’ only score was a 7-yard touchdown pass from Zetts to Barone. The non-victory was the Wildcats’ only blemish in two otherwise perfect seasons.
For their efforts, the Wildcats finished fifth in the final AP Class AAA poll.
“We were a bunch of blue-collar guys, a close-knit group whose parents brought us up the right way,” Barone said. “I’d get so pumped up that I ended up with the dry heaves, but then was ready to play.
Coach Commings was our X-factor because he knew how to get the most out of everyone and we had a lot of fun in the process,” Barone said. “Coach was also a great motivator.
“He made the hair on the back of our necks stand up when he spoke.”
Jim Visingardi, who became a college football official, was a member of both undefeated squads.
“Both teams were very special in a variety of ways,” said Visingardi, who will serve as the replay official for Saturday’s Penn State-Pitt football game in Pittsburgh. “We played quite a few close games and won, battled back in others and played before what seemed like a packed house.
“We beat Cardinal Mooney, 7-6, at South High School and the stands were full before we got there,” Visingardi said. “The hills were packed and the track around the field was also full.
“Boardman had us down at halftime and we came back and won,” he said. “We only had four or five coaches but were a very close team. There was no dissension whatsoever, just great times.
Coach Commings only wanted to coach guys that wanted to be there. He made it difficult to be on the team.”
It wasn’t difficult for six sets of brothers that dotted the 1968 roster, each of whom made an impact over the course of the 1968 campaign.
The brother duos were Dan and Michael Morris, Bruce and Calvin Murphy, Vernon and Victor Murphy, Bill and Dave Pittman, Aaron and Pete Suber and Gary and Tom Zetts.
If you add Bill and Dave Barone from the 1967 squad, it truly was a “family act” for Commings’ Wildcats those two seasons.
Postseason honors poured in for each team.
In 1967, Lawn and Muzina were team MVPs. Lawn, Dave Smith, Zetts and Barone were Steel Valley Conference first-team selections. Charles Campbell, Bogdan and Muzina were second team picks.
Chris Ellis, who would also star on the basketball court for the Wildcats and later at YSU, earned honorable mention laurels.
Lawn was an all-Northeastern Ohio pick as well.
In 1968, Dave Pittman, Bill Pittman, Barone, Vic Murphy, Dan Morris, Dave Smith, Visingardi and Zetts were named to the all-SVC squad.
Zetts was team MVP, all-NEO and honorable mention all-state.
Dave Pittman was all-NEO and honorable mention all-state.
Vic Murphy and Smith were honorable mention all-NEO,
Barone was the most outstanding offensive player while Dan Morris was named most outstanding defensive player to go along with his honorable mention all-NEO selection.
“I am excited to acknowledge the members of these special football teams and hopefully they can recognize their impact on the Struthers football program,” said Nancy Knight, Struthers athletic director. “Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat.”
A commemorative ticket will be given to the players in attendance and was designed by Sarah Hall (Struthers Class of ‘95) at the Print Factory in North Lima.