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College football

Streaking Rockets got breaks, a bit of respect

Toledo earned a place in history when it reeled off 35 straight wins from 1969-71.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2002

It was a big deal then. Probably not as big a deal as today, with the Miami Hurricanes on a three-season roll. Toledo was, well, Toledo. Ohio, after all, isn't Ohio State, Western Michigan isn't West Virginia and Miami of Ohio isn't, well, Miami.

The game before Chuck Ealey, Mel Long, Curtis Johnson and their Toledo sophomore teammates played their first game in 1969, the Rockets lost 10-3 at Dayton to end the 1968 season.

The game after Ealey, Long and their senior teammates played their final Toledo game in 1971, the Rockets lost 21-0 at Tampa to open the 1972 season.

Between those games, the Rockets were 35-0, a streak second only to Oklahoma's 47-game Division I football winning streak from 1953-57. Miami can muscle into a tie with Toledo by beating Ohio State to win the national championship Jan. 3 in the Fiesta Bowl.

That won't diminish what the Little School That Could did. "It's taken 30-something years to even tie our record," said Frank Lauterbur, coach of the Rockets for the first two seasons of the run, "and we're only going to slip down a notch. It's not like they're blowing us out of the record book."

* * *

The streak could have ended any number of times. More than one coach swore divine intervention kept it going.

On Oct. 11, 1969, Bowling Green led 26-24 with the clock winding down. "When Ealey completed a pass over the middle into the wind, I said, 'Thank God; the game's over,' " Falcons coach Don Nehlen said. "Then the clock operator, our clock operator, stopped it for some reason with two seconds left."

Toledo called a timeout and set up for a field goal. The wind died. Ken Crots kicked a 37-yard winner. Nehlen said to himself, "The good Lord wants Lauterbur to win another one."

On Oct. 16, 1971, Western Michigan led 24-14 after three quarters. Ealey rallied the Rockets to a 35-24 victory. He set five Mid-American Conference passing records that day, prompting Toledo Blade sportswriter Jim Taylor to label Ealey "The Wizard of Oohs and Ahhs."

"I think God was throwing some of those passes," WMU coach Bill Doolittle said. "I know (Ealey) had to have some help somehow."

Toledo is home to major glass companies and is called the Glass City. Naturally, the Rockets play home games in the Glass Bowl. When the streak began, the team might fill half of the stadium's 18,000 seats on a typical Saturday.

"We were probably more famous for basketball," Ealey said. "We'd been in the NIT a couple of times," when the National Invitation Tournament was more important then the NCAAs.

But Toledo was on a roll. The campus and community were taking notice -- but no Glass Bowl goal posts were being torn down. Because of a quirk in the MAC schedule, a team could win the championship before all its games were played. Not until the 6-0 Rockets played Miami (Ohio) with the conference title on the line did the campus even begin to coalesce behind its football team.

"Then they tore the goal posts down," said Long, the star defensive tackle, now a foreman for Marathon Oil in Toledo. "Thing is, we were at Miami. Our fans tore their goal posts down and brought them back. I think the idea was that they were going to cut them into little pieces and give them away on the campus or something. They wound up in some basement. For all I know, they're still there."

Lauterbur said Long showed up one day and asked if he could come out for football. "He was a sophomore; I didn't even know he was in school. He'd been in the Marine Corps two years," Lauterbur said. Long, a Browns linebacker from 1972-74, is Toledo's only College Football Hall of Famer.

* * *

Toledo ended the '69 season 10-0 and No. 1 in the nation in total defense. It beat Davidson 56-33 in the Tangerine Bowl. And for the first time, the Rockets were nationally ranked, 20th by the Associated Press.

The next season was no different. The wins kept coming: 35-2 over East Carolina, 27-6 at Buffalo ...

At the end of the '70 season, the Rockets were 11-0 and No. 1 in the nation in total defense. They beat William and Mary 40-12 in the Tangerine Bowl and were ranked 12th by the AP.

In 1971 John Murphy replaced Lauterbur, who left for Iowa. The winning continued. The Rockets routed East Carolina 45-0 to start the season. "By then, the streak was a big deal all over the campus," said Max Gerber, then Toledo's sports information director. "We began getting weekly visits by the national news media, the Sporting News, Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated. Everyone was pretty well worked up by that time. ... Even though the stadium still seated only 18,000, we regularly had crowds of 25,000. People were sitting on the fences and in the aisles."

The season's final game was at home against Kent State. "For the first time we were really feeling the excitement," Ealey said. "We were on the practice field and realized what a huge opportunity we had; we (seniors) could win every game we played." They did. Toledo won 41-6.

The Rockets finished 11-0 and No. 1 in the nation in total defense. They beat Richmond 28-3 in the Tangerine Bowl. The AP ranked them No. 14.

"We understood the politics of it," Ealey said. "We weren't an Ohio State, an Oklahoma, but we felt we could compete with just about anybody. When you've gone 35-0 people look back later and say, 'You should've been this, you should've had that.' I didn't take it personally."

Ealey, who was 30-0 in three seasons at Portsmouth (Ohio) High before going to Toledo, was eighth in the 1971 Heisman Trophy voting. In 1972 he quarterbacked the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to the CFL's Grey Cup. He is a regional manager of a financial planning firm in Toronto.

"When a streak like that is happening, you kind of aren't putting it together in your mind," Ealey said. "And you're not thinking about losing or 'What if ... ?' " You're just thinking about the next game. If we'd lost somewhere along the way I'm sure we'd have been upset, not because the streak ended but because we'd lost a game."

On Nov. 30, in its final home game of this season, Toledo defeated Bowling Green 42-24. Fifteen days ago, the Rockets lost to Marshall in the MAC championship game. Going into Thursday's Motor City Bowl against Boston College, Toledo's winning streak is zero.

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