Remembering the Titans

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the disbanding of the University of Detroit varsity football team. But for the former players, the many memories live on in vivid color.

For 68 years, dating back to 1896, the university had a team.

It is because of the football team that UDM student-athletes are today known as Titans. Until 1919, the teams were nicknamed the Tigers but that changed when Stan Brink, a Free Press sports writer, praised the size of the men who played on the football squad.

He began calling them Titans, and the name stuck.

As the university grew, so did the presence of the team.

Over the decades, U of D played against such schools at Notre Dame, University of Michigan, Michigan State, Arizona State, Army, Navy and many more nationally prominent teams.

“Just before I came to U of D, the school dropped out of the Missouri Conference,” said Ron Read ’64. “They wanted to play a higher level of football.”

The Titans had an ambitious schedule.

“It was a thrill and we all enjoyed it,” said Read. “My sophomore year on the team we went 7-2, which was the greatest record for the team since WWII. That team was inaugurated into the U of D Hall of Fame and it was also a great year for other sports teams. The baseball and basketball teams each went to their championships.”

Traveling to those games often meant flying, which was a first for some of the players, including Read.

“Back then freshmen were not eligible to play on varsity,” said Read. “When I was a sophomore, I was on varsity and we flew down to Xavier in Cincinnati, which was my first time on a plane. Many of us hadn’t been on a plane and we were kind of nervous. The pilot started to race the engines before takeoff and we could see the wings flapping. Soon I saw one of the players, Tom, get up and sit down next to Fr. (Norbert) Huetter. Fr. Huetter soon took out his stole and Tom started to have confession.”

Huetter, S.J., was the team chaplain and also the philosophy professor to many of the team’s players, including Joe D’Angelo ’66. 

“Fr. Huetter would travel with us and make sure we celebrated mass while we were on the road,” said D’Angelo. “I remember that while we were traveling, we would line up to go to confession in his room.”

Frank Heckler, who eventually left U of D to join the Navy, remembers Huetter as a good and kind man who was the glue of the team.

Read also has fond memories of him.

“Fr. Huetter maintained an office in the locker room with floor-to-ceiling walls of books,” said Read. “If you were on scholarship, your books were paid for. At the beginning of each semester, you would go to Fr. Huetter’s office and hand him your schedule so that he could see if he had a copy of your assigned books. If he didn’t he would give you a voucher to take to the school store.”

The players lived in the basement of Holden Hall, which was known as The Pit.

Read remembers Huetter coming to their rooms early Sunday mornings to wake them up for mass, which he celebrated in the chapel located in the dorm.

Huetter would also ask some of the players to serve mass.

“Fr. Huetter would come over every Sunday morning and say mass,” said Read. “He soon found out that my roommate and I could serve, so he would sometimes knock on our door and ask us to do so. Sometimes we did so in our pajamas. We all sometimes went to mass in our pajamas.”

The focal points on the team were the coaches and the bond between teammates.

“We had the finest coaches you could imagine,” said Heckler. “Head coach Jim Nore and freshman coach Jim Leary were some of the greatest parts of the team, but the biggest highlight for me were my teammates. I enjoyed playing with each of them.”

One team-bonding event turned into a spontaneous campus pep rally, recalled D’Angelo.

“Coach told us about how when he was in college, the school would create a large bonfire,” said D’Angelo. “One of the players brought a huge semi full of chopped wood and put it outside Shiple. Dean Emmett did not want us to have the bonfire, so we had to get creative. We poured gasoline onto the wood and had the bonfire. It soon turned into a huge, spontaneous pep rally that was very memorable.”

It wasn’t the only unforgettable experience for D’Angelo.

“Back in those days, the South was very racially divided,” said D’Angelo. “For one of our games, we traveled to Memphis and some people did not want us staying in our hotel because we had a number of African American players. At the game when there was two minutes to go, a fight broke out. Both benches quickly emptied and they called the rest of the game.”

The football team produced many NFL players, and Fred Lauck ’65 remembers playing alongside a few of them.

“There were some great athletes playing for U of D in that era,” said Lauck. “Every spring there was an alumni game and some of the pros would come back and play.”

A few of the players who went on to play professionally include Grady Alderman, who spent over a decade with the Vikings; Larry Bargo, who played seven years with the Vikings and Lions; Tom Beer, who was with the Broncos for seven years; and Michael Haggerty, who was Lauck’s roommate.

The football team recruited players from all over, not just the Detroit area.

Read said that players came from Indiana, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio and that during his freshman year 38 were brought to U of D on full scholarship and 12 were brought in on partial scholarship.

“I am originally from Flint and other schools were recruiting me,” said Read. “At first I did not know that U of D was a Catholic university, but once my mother found out that it was a Catholic University, the decision was made.”

Football games were played on Friday nights, after a team dinner and meeting, so that they would not compete with the Saturday games played by other teams.

Since the other teams had not played yet, the football team would assemble after its game to see the NCAA stats.

Lauck said that one player, Fred Beier, would be at the top of the stats and would remain there until the following day when Gale Sayers, a running back from University of Kansas, would replace him. (Sayers would go on to be one of the NFL’s greatest players.)

The football team faced some formidable competition, including University of Kentucky’s Thin Thirty coached by Charlie Bradshaw.

“They were called the Thin Thirty because they had 29 players” when many teams had two or three times as many, said Lauck. “We had a chance to play them here in Detroit in 1962.”

Bradshaw worked his team hard

“He had his players warm-up by doing a ‘bull in the ring,’ where one guy would be in the middle of a circle surrounded by the rest of his teammates,” said Lauck. “If Bradshaw called your number, then that guy would run and try to destroy the guy in the middle while the guy in the middle was trying to destroy his teammate racing towards him. It was basically like target practice except with human beings.”

Kentucky defeated U of D 27-8.

Some home games were so big that they had to be played at the Tiger Stadium (called Navin Field or Briggs Stadium in earlier days), home to Detroit’s major league baseball team.

The United States Naval Academy game was one such game, said Tom Arrowsmith ’64.

“We had the ball in the third quarter when a timeout was called,” said Arrowsmith. “When the timeout was over, Jerry Gross, my co-captain, started to call signals. One of the clean-cut cadets still had water in his mouth when we were lining back up, which he squirted on the ball. That was a pretty clever but obnoxious thing to do.”

Another major game was against Michigan State.

Arrowsmith compared walking out onto the field like being gladiators walking into the Coliseum.

Read recalls what happened after the game.

“The final game of the season my sophomore year was against State at State,” said Read. “That game drew 80,000 people and we had them tied at halftime. We would have held on, but our quarterback got hurt, which hurt our offense.”

Read still remember being on the bus after the game.

 “We were all disappointed,” he said. “John Mulroy, the vice president of finance for the university, got on the bus, sat down and told us that we played a good game. He continued by telling us that we had just made the biggest payday for U of D. He then pulled out a check from State. We made the university over $250,000 for that one game.”

Football brought the U of D community together, but during the 1962 season, Heckler started to notice that the Titans were drawing smaller crowds.

D’Angelo played as a halfback during the 1964 season. On Nov. 6 against Virginia Military Institute, he scored a touchdown, helping win the game, 28-7.

Little did he or his teammates know that it would be the last touchdown scored in Titan Stadium.

On Monday, Nov. 30, shortly after the end of the season, it was announced that the university would no longer field a football team.

Fr. Laurence Britt, S.J., president of the university at the time, blamed money and low home attendance as two reasons for cutting the program.

U of D had to pay major schools, like Navy, to come and play.

“We were disappointed but we knew that there were some troubles,” said Read. “I heard as a junior when we played Navy at Tiger Stadium that U of D lost money. … Fr. Steiner, one of the former presidents, played football here before WWI and he was very supportive. When he retired and Fr. Britt came, he was not so supportive of the team. Within four years it was dropped.”

Though this was a shock to everyone, the players did not know how to react.

Disappointment reigned, especially for D’Angelo.

“The seniors were not as affected as the underclassmen,” said D’Angelo. “The school still honored the scholarships and a few of the really talented players were picked up by other schools. Nobody anticipated the decision. If they had, I think that there may have been more support from everyone to see what they could do.”