Monday, January 5, 2009

American Bowl Debuts, 1/4/69

As 1969 began, Tampa Stadium had just completed its first full year of operation. The stadium played host that year to high school and college football games, and hosted an NFL exhibtion game as well.

The first major event of 1969 to be held at the stadium would be the first annual American Bowl. The game, sponsored by the West Coast Lions Club, would feature all-star college football players from programs around the country.

The game truly showcased a who's who list of college standouts who would go on to future glory in the NFL. The North squad featured Notre Dame linebacker Bob Kuechenberg, Kansas quarterback Bobby Douglass, and Penn State tight end Ted Kwalik, while the South team touted University of Florida running back and Tampa-product Larry Smith, University of Miami defensive end Ted Hendricks and running back Eugene "Mercury" Morris from West Texas State.

The coaching staffs of both teams were no slouches, either. Legendary Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant led the South squad, where he was joined by Ray Graves of the University of Florida, Fran Curci of the University of Tampa and College Football Hall of Famer Frank Broyles from the University of Arkansas.

The North was led by Purdue coach and 1988 College Football Hall of Fame inductee Jack Mollenkopf. His staff included coaches Pepper Rodgers of Kansas and Navy's Lee Corso.

At a Lions Club luncheon during the week, Mollenkopf praised the event and local hospitality.

"I've been to a number of bowl games and postseason all-star games," he said. "But I have never, ever seen so many great players in one place as we have here, nor such sound arrangements."

As a representative of the North, however, he cautioned his own squad that all goodwill would likely become irrelevant come game time.

"A word of warning: Saturday at 1 o'clock, you will all become damn yankees," Mollenkopf said.

Clearly, of the 16,380 in attendance on the afternoon of Jan. 4, 1969, a majority were rooting for the team representing a South squad - which boasted representatives from four Florida schools and several of the Southeastern Conference's top programs.

Although an estimated 20 million fans tuned in to watch the broadcast of the game, several factors perhaps affected the overall stadium attendance. Windy and rainy conditions on the day of the game nearly eliminated all walk-up ticket sales. In addition, a costly $7.50 ticket (nearly $42 in today's dollars) convinced an untold number of fans to watch the game on television, since there was no local blackout of the game.

A first-class halftime show featuring the Marching Southerners and Marching Ballerinas from Jacksonville State University, as well as the Kilgore (Texas) College Rangerettes, dazzled the drenched spectators.

In addition, Tampa Mayor Dick Greco presented the "American of the Year Award" to veteran Charles Woods, who suffered severe burns in a plane crash during World War II.

The game itself proved worthy of an all-star contest. The North owned a 21-0 lead by the third quarter behind the arms of Bobby Douglass and Greg Cook of the Cincinnati Bearcats. Douglass threw a touchdown pass and ran for another, compiling 111 all-purpose yards en route to being named the game's most valuable player.

With the win seemingly in hand, at one point television cameras panned to the North's sideline and captured Jack Mollenkopf coaching from the comfort of a chair.

On the opposing sideline, Bear Bryant rallied his troops and almost engineered a triumphant comeback. The South rallied for 15 points in the fourth quarter on touchdowns by running backs Dickie Lyons and Mercury Morris, but came up just short and lost to the North by a score of 21-15.

For Bryant, he lost for the second time in one week in the state of Florida - the University of Missouri had defeated his Alabama squad 35-10 in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 28.

"I wouldn't have thought that could happen," the proud coach said, "and I don't particularly like it."

Despite a few small glitches, the game was an overall success and set the table for a string of Lions Club-sponsored American Bowls that would continue until 1977.

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