Remember the Program: Loyola Marymount Football

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Spring 2020 marked the 30-year anniversary of Loyola Marymount basketball going on a run in the NCAA Tournament as memorable as it was improbable. Playing for teammate Hank Gathers, who died on March 4, 1990, the Lions reached the Elite Eight with a high-powered offensive style.

LMU’s Tournament run includes one of the most enduring images of March Madness history: Bo Kimble shooting left-handed free throws to honor Gathers’ memory.

Another landmark anniversary for LMU falls in 2020. This autumn marks 70 years since the greatest season in Loyola Marymount football history — which, perhaps you read and asked, “Loyola Marymount has a football history?”

And the answer is…well, technically not. Not at the varsity level, anyway, and not as Loyola Marymount. Rather, Loyola University sponsored football long before the school merged its campus with Marymount College. The football program lived a turbulent existence that ended in 1951, just one season after the milestone ’50 campaign.

But first, on 1950. That autumn was just the second after Loyola restarted the program in 1949, having gone dormant for the previous six due to World War II. Loyola teams from the mid-’30s until the United States entered into the war were largely unremarkable. Upon its brief resurrection, however, coach Jordan Olivar oversaw teams rife with NFL talent. Ten Lions embarked on NFL careers between 1950 and 1952, chief among them Washington franchise legend Geno Brito.

Another, Cleveland Browns draftee Don Klosterman, quarterbacked Loyola during this stretch. In a 1979 interview with Orange Coast Magazine, Klosterman detailed his decision to attend the Marin del Rey-based university, and the author shares some details of Klosterman’s impact on college football.

“Notre Dame and USC were high on my list, but I wanted to get the education and religious training I knew I’d receive at Loyola. Besides, I really wanted to stay close to home. The Jesuits are famous for their teaching skills, and Loyola had some great football teams and were nationally rated (Editor’s note: The 1950 team reached No. 20 in the AP Poll).

…It was at Loyola that Don, nicknamed ‘Duke,’ became known as the ‘Duke of Del Ray [Editor’s note, sic: Del Rey].’ He led the Lions through their most successful athletic era, setting seven NCAA passing records, including one for career completions (368) which lasted 13 years and another for most completions in one season (159) which stood for 12 years.  One night against Florida, he set three records — 33 completions in 63 attempts for 372 yards.” 

Olivar’s forward-thinking offensive strategy gave Loyola its identity, and demonstrated Olivar’s willingness to adapt. His previous teams at alma mater Villanova emphasized the run and defense, two characteristics that defined the Wildcats’ win in the 1949 Harbor Bowl. All four of Villanova’s touchdowns in this San Diego-based ancestor to the Holiday Bowl came on the ground, including an 80-yarder by John Geppi.

The Villanova defense, meanwhile, stifled an offensive attack from Nevada that more closely emulated Olivar’s Loyola teams than it did his Villanova squad. Although not particularly germane to the topic at hand, this from the Jan. 3, 1949 Jackson (Tenn.) Sun college football column “Ham Lines” made me giddy. It’s positively Finebaum’ian in its They ain’t played nobody! tone; the SEC ain’t new to this dance.

Remember when the Associated Press poll used to vote Nevada fifth and sixth in the nation — and how the bettors were giving Villanova three points in the Harbor Bowl. Well, Villanova, a team that could only play Kentucky to a tie back in November, downed Villanova [Editor’s note: sic, the author meant Nevada], 27-7. And Stan Heath, mentioned on a number of occasions as the greatest passer (he led the collegiate nation during the season) could hit the strike zone only three times in 14 pitches. 

We are digressing here, but what a work of art the above graf is, hitting all the present-day SEC homer bingo slots: Disparaging both teams, bellyaching about the ranking of a non-power conference program, crediting woeful offense rather than good defense for an outcome, invoking SEC transitive property. Remove the team names, show me the exact same graf, and I would guess this was from 2019, not 1949.

Besides, while Villanova may have only tied Kentucky, the Wildcats finished that season 8-2-1, the program’s best record of the then-modern era. One of the two losses came against national powerhouse Army, and the wins included a 34-14 rout of Texas A&M. So what if the Aggies did not join the SEC for another 63 years thereafter? If SEC Network can claim Von Miller as an SEC alum…

https://twitter.com/SECNetwork/status/697871372194807808?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E697871372194807808&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.foxsports.com%2Fcollege-football%2Fstory%2Fsec-tries-to-claim-denver-broncos-von-miller-021116

…I can count Villanova’s 1948 win as a defeat of the SEC. But back to business.

Villanova was one of three programs Olivar coached to historic heights. A little more than a decade after the ’48 campaign, his 1960 Yale team finished 9-0 to stake claim to the mythical East region championship. The Elis’ No. 14 ranking to cap the season is the last time the Silver Age juggernaut finished ranked in the AP Top 25.

And between those stints, Olivar’s 1950 Loyola Lions similarly competed their best season.

Loyola finished 8-1, its only loss coming in a two-point heartbreaker against Santa Clara. Had it not been for that loss, Loyola almost assuredly would have landed a bowl bid. To wit, a Wyoming team that was also undefeated played Washington & Lee in the Gator Bowl.

Despite missing out on a bowl game, Loyola’s 1950 season came down to a high-profile final game. The Lions faced present-day West Coast Conference counterpart San Francisco on the first Saturday of December, tabbed 13-point underdogs.

From Jack Geyer’s preview in the Los Angeles Times:

University of San Francisco Dons, boasting the best team in their history, and Loyola University’s Lions, with the same claim, collidate at Gilmore Stadium today with the championship of the mythical Independent Conference at stake…

Coach Jordan Olivar has made no secrte of the fact that Loyola’s upset hopes are wrapped in the right arm of Quarterback Don Klosterman. Not even California’s Golden Bears, whose backs have made hamburger of lines up and down the Coast, could make much yardage through the large and capable Don forward wall. 

It’s doubtful if Loyola’s Musacco, Skippy Giancanelli and Neil Ferris can accomplish what California’s Johnny Olszewski, Jim Monachino and Pete Schabarum couldn’t. [Editor’s note: Cal reached the Rose Bowl this season after enduring a 13-7 grind against the Dons]

So Loyola will apparently follow the ancient football adage which says, ‘if you can’t go through, go over ’em.’ 

Kloserman is just the boy who can do it. Against COP [College of the Pacific], another team with a rugged line, Don threw 51 passes and completed 26 of them, an even more amazing feat considering that Don missed nine of the first 10 he attempted.

Geyer’s praise of San Franciso’s 1950 team as “the best…in their history” was short-lived: The 1951 squad finished ranked in the Top 25 and would have been Orange Bowl participants if not for racism. But against a lineup that a year later would carve its name into college football lore, the 1950 Loyola Lions shined.

Loyola put up 40 points on San Francisco’s ballyhooed defense, and won by 12 points — just one fewer than the point total bookies gave the Lions.

The win remains the high point of Loyola Marymount football history. The 1951 team regressed, and at season’s end, the university announced its intentions to shutter the program. Efforts to prevent the closure raised $50,000, per an Associated Press report, but the 25th hour push was unsuccessful.

Per the AP:

Alumni and friends of Loyola University of Los Angeles raised $50,000 at the annual football banquet Thursday night and it appeared today that the Lions may field a grid team this fall. Loyola abandoned football Sunday. The heavy financial expense was blamed for abandoment, but failure to land on the schedule of either Southern California or UCLA was suggested by some as a major factor. 

At least one modern closure echoed the underlining them of Loyola’s shuttering, with the refusal of prominent neighboring programs contributing to financial hardships.

Loyola football returned in the 1960s as a club sport, and fared quite well. Just as the 2020 signifies an anniversary for Lions football, so did too the 2019 campaign: It was the 50-year anniversary of the 1969 squad winning the National Club Football Association championship. The official LMU athletics website has an interesting look at the ’69 team from 2003, the year of its Hall of Fame induction.

Coach of the Loyola club football resurrection, Jim Brownfield, was a USC assistant to John McKay and is a National Football Foundation honoree. From Charles Wells’ column in the Dec. 6, 1969 Valley (North Hollywood) Times: 

In his own quiet, forceful way coach Jim Brownfield has put Loyola University back on the football map. It’s not a big time scale, nevertheless Brownfield, a former player at Hollywood High, has put the Lions back on the road to gridiron glory. After just three short years of hard work and sweat by Brownfield, the Lions were voted the No. 1 team by the National Club Football Association Friday.

…And Jim capped it all off with a brilliant 8-1-0 season this year to earn the coveted honor by nosing out St. Louis University [Editor’s note: The first college football program ever to attempt a forward pass!]. The only loss of the campaign was a narrow 21-20 setback by Claremont-Mudd. 

In making the announcement the other day, Roger Hackett, executive director of the NCFA, said: “The NCFA is very proud of the Lions. Very few teams in the organization can match contributions that Jim Brownfield and his group of assistants have made for the club cause. 

“Loyola played by far the tougher schedule than any other team. In fact, I would say their roster of opponents was one of the most competitive among all teams.” 

Once more, however, football was not long for Marina del Rey.

 

Image at top is via the UCLA digital library