|« ODU AD Jarrett: William & Mary Games "Will Probably be Played"||Carbone all smiles with college choice of Colgate »|
UB Looks Back At Historic 1958 Team
Members of former I-AA school Buffalo reminisces about their historic brush with the Tangerine Bowl scandal, racism, and their 1958 Lamert Cup trophy.
“Picture Buffalo as it is today…and then forget about all of the suburbs - they weren’t there. The nightlife downtown, you had a big nightclub called the Town Casino, you had all of these theaters downtown, it was just so different than what exists today that you can’t even imagine.”
Stanley Kowalski, left guard for the 1958 Bulls football team, said the above reminiscing about his memories of the city of Buffalo. While this image of Buffalo remains dear to him, another issue clouds his memories - the scandal of the 1958 Tangerine Bowl.
The 1958 football season at the University at Buffalo was one of extreme highs and even more extreme lows; marked by an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show after an 8-1 season, sullied by racism and segregation.
After finishing the season as the Lambert Cup champions, Buffalo was invited to play in the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, FL. However, after accepting the invitation, University Chancellor Clifford Furnas, along with the entire team, made the decision to not play in the game; they learned that their two black players, Willie Evans and Mike Wilson, would not be allowed to play as per the request of the hosting school district.
In a statement made about his decision, Furnas said, “They are two of our finest young men, and have greatly contributed to our fine showing this season. The possibility of discrimination against any member of the team prevents our appearance at the game.”
Being a member of the football team made Evans, the star running back for the team, a hot commodity around campus. The fact that he was one of very few minorities on campus made it tough for him at times.
“It was subtle. I didn’t have the luxury of cutting class, because having made a little name for myself in athletics, professors knew who I was. Not to mention, I was usually the only black person in the class,” Evans said.
One reason Kowalski believes there was not blatant racism within the team was that several players grew up without having relationships with minorities. Since there was no history of racism in their background, Kowalski believes it allowed the players to come in with open minds towards both Wilson and Evans.
“I grew up in a small mill town in Pennsylvania…we didn’t have any blacks living there, so you didn’t have prejudice built up ingrained in your head by your parents or your uncles,” Kowalski said. In the first game of the season, the Bulls were to face Harvard, one of the most respected teams in the nation at the time. Evans remembers this win being the first sign that the team could do something special.
“If you went back the year before, we were 5-4. I can remember vividly our coach saying before our last game versus Temple, he wanted us to win our last game so we could go in to the next season with a win, when we played Harvard,” Evans said. “[Beating Harvard] got us off to a good start - it was a different feeling. We had no notion of winning the Lambert Cup, we didn’t even know about it. We just wanted to win football games.”
According to Kowalski, the Bulls were in a unique position due to the fact that they were the only team in or near Buffalo. This gathered media attention.
“Most of the teams that played football after the Second World War had already dropped it,” Kowalski said. “We were the only game in town and the papers started to give us all kinds of press, which was kind of unique.”
“It was a big deal for Buffalo at the time,” Evans concurred. “Blacks weren’t included in the paper at all for any reason, yet we were on the front page. When we were coming back from Harvard, the pilot told us that there were a couple thousand students waiting for us at the airport. It was great support.”
It was not a coincidence that the Bulls were peaking in 1958; the senior class was the first class to play all four years on scholarship, meaning the team was as cohesive as ever and also had as much talent as possible. While Kowalski understands that football has changed immensely in the past 50 years, he is proud of the accomplishments the team made, and how they stuck together in the face of adversity that followed the end of the regular season.
“We stand very high, simply because of the celebrity that was given to us, that opportunity that we had to make a mark…we were the first team to go into the UB Hall of Fame,” Kowalski said. “Obviously the whole game of football has changed so dramatically…we couldn’t compare to the teams that are put on the field today, but at that time, we were a very respectable team.”
In the final game of the regular season, the Bulls defeated Bucknell 38-0 to earn their first Lambert Cup. This game was especially important for Kowalski, who played in front of friends, family and his old high school football coach. Kowalski did not disappoint, returning an interception for a touchdown en route to Buffalo’s victory.
After the victory, Buffalo’s co-captains Nicholas Bottini and Louis Reale appeared on the Ed Sullivan show to accept the Lambert Cup, a trophy for the top team of the “Eastern Small Colleges.”
Along with the victory came an invite to the Tangerine Bowl. When news broke about the Bulls being invited to their first bowl game, the team was skeptical, as it would have meant missing a week of classes and work. Several players on the team were married and needed to continue to work to support their family. After much debate however, the team decided to accept the invite.
The decision was quickly changed when Buffalo was informed that if the team was to play, they would have to do so without Evans or Wilson, who were both black.
“Our initial feelings were good. We never even thought about playing in a bowl game. The issue of race didn’t even come up in the beginning,” Evans said. “The only thing I recall is the first meeting we had where we decided we wanted to go as a team. I found out (about the racism issue) as I walked out of the house after Thanksgiving, and a neighbor said to me ‘I guess they don’t want you black boys down there…’ I got the newspaper and there was my picture on the front page of the Courier Express with Mike Wilson, outlining the position Chancellor Furnas took on the issue, where if myself and Mike couldn’t play, UB would not take part in the contest.”
The field that had been rented for the game belonged to an Orlando school district that had a strict rule that blacks and whites could not play on the field at the same time, the team discovered. In response, the Bulls held a second meeting where they decided not to play in the game if Evans and Wilson would not be allowed to play. While the Elks Club, the sponsor of the game, offered to find another field, Chancellor Furnas was the man charged with making the ultimate decision.
“Chancellor Furnas was a prominent individual…his credentials were impeccable,” Kowalski said. “He was a physicist. He was an Olympic sprinter. He was the assistant secretary of defense for research and development in the Eisenhower administration…there wasn’t anybody capable of criticizing him. The way he put it was he would not demean any of his players, or even present an opportunity for anyone to be uncomfortable in the Florida setting.”
As the image of Buffalo’s first bowl came and went, Evans carried the experience of racism with him after college. It followed him to the professional level, as he entered the American Football League. Evans had never visited any of the southern states.
“I had a chip on my shoulder from the experience. It was a matter of letting it beat you down or not. I saw it as an opportunity to show my athleticism. I eventually was drafted by the Buffalo Bills, which was also an experience. It was my first time playing with white ball players from the South. There were players I never spoke to, and they never spoke to me, yet we were ‘teammates.’ That hardened my attitude about the idea of racism. Our coach was from the South, and I didn’t appreciate being called ‘boy.’ He called everybody ‘boy.’ I ended up getting released right before the season began, but I wasn’t too upset about it.”
Since his playing days, Evans has remained active in the University community, holding several positions on the Alumni board and serving on the committees that brought both Athletic Director Warde Manuel and President Simpson to Buffalo.
“One reason why I’m still with the university is the way things have come,” Evans said. “Diversity is something that has caught on with the campus. We’re not there yet, but it has improved significantly since I was here. There are expectations that exist now that were not around when I was a student.”
A different time in a different world
Looking back at one of the most influential football teams in University history 50 years later
ALEX RUBIN AND STEPHEN MARTH - Senior Sports Editor and Asst. Sports Editor