The Uncrowned 1951 National Champions: The San Francisco Dons

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UCF claiming the 2017 national championship sparked conversation among the college football community about the fluid nature of titles in the sport’s history. Last week, I spotlighted a few teams that I felt worthy of making such claims, but I wanted to reserve special consideration for one program in particular: the 1951 San Francisco Dons.

I first heard of the 1951 USF Dons in 2007. I was still pretty fresh from college and had just taken a job as a web editor at CSTV, before its transition to CBS Sports Network completed. I edited and published a story on the network’s upcoming documentary, Undefeated and Uninvited, which focused on the ’51 Dons season.

San Francisco ran the table in the regular season, culminating in a blowout of Loyola Marymount. As the story goes, San Francisco coaches and administrators received notification upon their return from Los Angeles that the Orange Bowl wanted USF to make the cross-country trip for the New Year’s Day game — under one condition. San Francisco was to participate without stars Ollie Matson and Burl Toler, because they were black.

The USF football team passed on the invitation, a courageous decision in part because the paycheck the Orange Bowl offered might very well have saved the financially struggling program.

I wondered why the ’51 Dons didn’t receive the same attention as other social trailblazers in sports. They followed Jackie Robinson’s MLB debut by just four years, and predated the national champion Texas Western basketball team — which Disney immortalized one year prior to Undefeated and Uninvited with the film Glory Road — by 15 full years.

One reason might be that the Orange Bowl continued to deny the details of the story, as the author of book Undefeated, Untied & Uninvited Kristine Clark explained in a 2016 NPR segment.

The 1952 Orange Bowl controversy is tied to Atlanta, home of tonight’s College Football Playoff national championship game. SEC members Alabama and Georgia did not desegregate their football rosters until 20 full years after the ’51 season, and the Southeastern Conference at large did not see a black football player until 1967.

Atlanta-based Georgia Tech, which was an SEC member at the time, faced Baylor in that ’52 Orange Bowl. The Yellow Jackets finished the season 11-0-1.

And, less than two decades prior, Georgia Tech was at the center of a similar situation that involved future president Gerald Ford and the Michigan football team.

The Orange Bowl’s longstanding denial of San Francisco’s invitation means the prestigious game has never recognized that team for its excellence on the field, and it’s courage off of it.

Nevertheless, San Francisco’s 1951 season has garnered some more attention in recent years. In addition to the above-linked NPR segment, ESPN debuted a 2014 documentary entitled ’51 Dons, with Bay Area product Johnny Mathis providing narration. Before his music career, Mathis was an athlete at San Francisco State just three years after the Dons’ landmark season.

Of all the programs in college football history that could claim a retroactive national championship, San Francisco claiming the 1951 title might be the most significant. The Dons’ contentious Orange Bowl invitation denied them an opportunity to play a fellow undefeated, but also a chance against an elite-caliber program. Nearby power programs like Stanford and Cal purportedly avoided scheduling the much smaller University of San Francisco since there would be little to gain but much to lose. Sound familiar?

What’s more, the 1951 national championship is claimed by Tennessee — a Tennessee team that actually lost the Sugar Bowl to undefeated Maryland.

National titles were decided before the postseason in those days — talk about rendering the bowls little more than exhibitions, 2017 has nothing on this era in that regard — and the Vols were voted No. 1 before the bowls.