Tampa Bay Sports Day

FEATURE: Nearly a Half-Century Since UT Football Played Final Game

Nearly a half-century since the University of Tampa’s football program played its final game, there’s more to the memories than faded newspaper clippings and a few reels of black-and-white game film.

So much more.

UT Spartan football once captured the Tampa Bay area’s sporting heart. Before there were Buccaneers, Rays, Lightning and Rowdies — or much of anything else on the local sports scene — UT’s giant-killing, star-studded program enjoyed a prominent pedestal.

Now it provides content for colorful history lessons. Each of UT’s incoming student-athletes receives an orientation in the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame area, which is still dominated by former football players. Even though UT dropped its football program following the 1974 season for financial reasons, its legacy remains strong.

“These football players are still part of the fabric of our university,” UT athletic director Larry Marfise said. “They’re still somewhat bitter that it ended the way it did. I’d feel the same way if my alma mater dropped football.

“But these guys did a great job building a foundation for us. We talk to all of our student-athletes about our history and football is such a huge part of that.”

Here’s what you should know about UT football.

THE STARS

Quarterback Freddie Solomon (1971-74) and defensive end John Matuszak (1971-72) are the two most notable football players to suit up for the Spartans.

Solomon, known as “Fabulous Freddie,” was a human highlight film, a blur of a runner. He rushed for a career 3,299 yards and 39 touchdowns — then NCAA records for a quarterback. As a senior, he rushed for 1,300 yards and 19 touchdowns, finishing 12th in the 1974 Heisman Trophy balloting. Solomon, a second-round pick by the Miami Dolphins in 1975, spent most of his 11-season NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers, where he became a big-play wide receiver and won two Super Bowls.

Matuszak (6-foot-8, 280 pounds), who played two UT seasons after transferring from Missouri, was taken by the Houston Oilers with the NFL draft’s No. 1 overall pick in 1973. After laboring with the Oilers and Kansas City Chiefs, Matuszak found a home with the Oakland Raiders, where he won two Super Bowls.

Other notable NFL draft picks:

  • Offensive tackle Darryl Carlton (1971-74) was a 1975 first-round pick of the Dolphins. He later surfaced with the Bucs and started during the 1979 NFC playoffs, when Tampa Bay finished 10 points away from Super Bowl XIV.
  • Guard Noah Jackson (1968-71) played in the Canadian Football League, but was a 1974 seventh-round pick of the Baltimore Colts. He played for the Chicago Bears from 1975-83, where he became one of Walter Payton’s favorite blockers.
  • Running back Leon “All the Way” McQuay (1968-70), a Blake High School product, rushed for 3,039 yards and 37 touchdowns with the Spartans. He skipped his senior season to play in the CFL. He became a 1973 fifth-round pick of the New York Giants and played 30 NFL games.
  • Fullback Paul Orndorff (1969-72), who scored 21 career touchdowns and accounted for more than 2,000 all-purpose yards, was a 12th-round pick of the New Orleans Saints in 1973. His pro football career was short-lived. He became an internationally known professional wrestler, going by the nickname of “Mr. Wonderful.”
  • Offensive tackle John Mooring (1968-70), a catalyst behind UT’s powerful running game, was a second-round pick (32nd overall selection) of the New York Jets in 1971. 

The Spartans had 17 NFL draft selections all-time — and 16 of them occurred between 1969-75.

THE COACHES

In the modern era of UT football, the program became a launching pad for its head coaches.

Fran Curci, who was 25-6 from 1968-70, had a 10-1 mark in his final Spartan season, then jumped to the University of Miami, his alma mater. After two seasons with the Hurricanes, Curci was hired at the University of Kentucky, where his 10-1 Wildcats finished first in the SEC in 1977, when he was voted the league’s Coach of the Year.

Curci was followed by Bill Fulcher, who left UT after just one season (6-5 in 1971) for Georgia Tech, his alma mater.

Fulcher was followed by Earle Bruce, who took the Spartans to a 10-2 mark and a Tangerine Bowl victory in 1972. But he was wooed away (sound familiar?) by Iowa State. After six seasons with the Cyclones, Bruce returned to his alma mater by replacing the legendary Woody Hayes at Ohio State. In nine seasons, Bruce was 81-26-1 with the Buckeyes, capturing a share of four Big Ten Conference championships, earning two Rose Bowl appearances and three times finishing in the final top 10 rankings.

In 2002, Bruce was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, along with another former UT head coach Marcelino “Chelo” Huerta, who was 67-33-2 with the Spartans from 1952-61. Huerta had three eight-win Spartan teams and a pair of victories in the hometown Cigar Bowl.

Frank Sinkwich, who won the 1942 Heisman Trophy at the University of Georgia, was UT’s head coach in 1950-51. 

THE BIG GAMES

UT began its football program in 1933 and largely competed against smaller colleges. There were five games against the Florida Gators (all defeats by a combined 135-12 score) and nine contests against the Florida State Seminoles (two victories).

Ambitions were heightened beginning in 1967 with the opening of Tampa Stadium, a 46,481-seat venue with two freestanding sides. The new stadium was ushered in appropriately with a game against the No. 3-ranked Tennessee Volunteers.

Tennessee 38, Tampa 0.

But when Curci was hired, the charge was clear. He wanted an upgraded schedule. He wanted to attract the very best players, some from the high-school ranks, but others through transfers from other colleges.

Over the program’s final seven seasons, the Spartans went 54-21, including a 21-18 Tangerine Bowl victory against Kent State to close out 1972. That Kent State team, coached by Hall of Famer Don James, featured middle linebacker Jack Lambert (a Pro Football Hall of Famer and four-time Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers) and defensive back Nick Saban (who has became a transcendent collegiate head coach at Alabama).

From 1967-74, the Spartans scheduled seven games against SEC opponents, getting victories against Mississippi State (24-17 in 1968) and Vanderbilt (30-7 in 1972), while dropping a heartbreaking 28-27 decision against Ole Miss in 1971.

Most notably, the Spartans had two victories against the Miami Hurricanes. UT won 31-14 at the Orange Bowl in 1969, then defeated the Hurricanes 7-0 (while corralling All-American running back Chuck Foreman) at Tampa Stadium in 1972.

In 1974, the Hurricanes returned to Tampa Stadium, which attracted a crowd of 40,678. Miami prevailed 28-26 in a back-and-forth thriller. A potential game-winning field-goal attempt by UT’s Kinney Jordan deflected off an upright, hit off the crossbar … and bounced out.

THE END

Following the 1974 season, which finished 6-5, Coach Dennis Fryzel knew the Spartans were in transition. For one thing, they needed a quarterback after the brilliant Solomon began his ascension to the NFL.

Fryzel also knew the landscape was changing. The NFL had expanded, granting a franchise that would become known as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That meant an expansion of Tampa Stadium to 74,000 seats and enhanced competition for the local sports dollar.

Just when Fryzel began wrapping his head around those possibilities, he was blindsided.

Acting on a recommendation from the school’s finance committee, UT’s Board of Trustees voted 16-9 to immediately drop the football program and cancel the 1975 season.

UT president B.D. Owens, who cited a debt of $170,000, said the school needed to raise $200,000 for football alone in 1975 with a firm guarantee of $500,000 per season after that in order to save the program.

UT honored the scholarships of returning players, but many opted to transfer.

There were intermittent attempts to revive UT’s football program through the years, but none gained much traction.

“We have no football homecoming to go to, so over time, things have faded and we’ve lost touch with a lot of people,” former Spartans tight end Vin Hoover said. “We’re in a unique situation with our football program just halting so abruptly. I think it makes us look back with even more fond memories.”

The University of South Florida began a football program in 1997, beginning cautiously at the Division I-AA level, then advancing to membership in three different major-college conferences.

Solomon, wearing his No. 3 UT jersey, executed the coin toss during USF’s inaugural game. For years, a handful of UT players gathered at USF games for tailgating and rooting for Tampa’s new home team for college football.

“I think dropping football was certainly a mistake and it caused a lot of pain, but what’s done is done,” said former UT defensive back Rick Thomas, a Tampa businessman. “I think we will always look back with fondness at what our program represented in this town.

“We are still Spartans. And we always will be.”

Joey Johnston has worked in the Tampa Bay sports media for more than three decades, winning multiple national awards while covering events such as the Super Bowl, World Series, Final Four, Wimbledon, the U. S. Open, the Stanley Cup Finals and all the Major bowl games. But his favorite stories have always been about Tampa Bay Area teams and athletes. A third-generation Tampa native, he was a regular in the Tampa Stadium stands at University of Tampa football games.