After 55 years, San Francisco gives Dons due

Team was undefeated and headed for a bowl game but never received the invitation.

Published December 28, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO - In 1951, the star-studded University of San Francisco Dons were undefeated, untied and undoubtedly heading for a bowl game, a game whose payout might keep the debt-ridden program alive.

But the invite never came.

A soft schedule didn't help, but another factor, at least based on a story at the time, had to do with the southern-based bowls - the Orange, Sugar and Gator - not wanting teams with African-American players.

Two of the Dons' best players were African-American, halfback/defensive back Ollie Matson a future Pro Football Hall of Famer and center/middle linebacker Burl Toler. San Francisco coach Joe Kuharich had told his team the Orange Bowl was considering the Dons and asked the guys how they felt if they had to leave Matson and Toler behind.

"That was an insult. We didn't even have a meeting. That's it. No way we're going," said Bob St. Clair, an end and defensive tackle who went on to a stellar career with the San Francisco 49ers and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990, joining his collegiate teammates Matson and offensive/defensive lineman Gino Marchetti.

"We couldn't believe it," added Toler. "We were preparing for it (a bowl). ... It's something we'll never forget."

The Orange Bowl eventually asked Baylor, ranked No. 9 and five spots ahead of the Dons in the final AP poll, to meet No. 5 Georgia Tech. Tech won 17-14.

The Dons dropped the sport.

Now, 55 years later, San Francisco recognized the team for what it did on the field and off it. The city and country issued a proclamation marking Wednesday as the "1951 USF Dons Football Day," and that evening's Emerald Bowl between Florida State and UCLA also honored the men of that team.

"We all feel it's about time," said St. Clair, 75, who lives in nearby Santa Rosa.

"I'm glad. I'm happy," said Toler, 78, a center and middle linebacker whose NFL career ended before it started when he injured a knee in an all-star game but spent 25 years in the league as an official.

Matson could not attend for health reasons, but 19 of his surviving 31 teammates were there.

FSU coach Bobby Bowden, who was playing at Howard College in 1951, called the Dons' stand a "very important step in the development of our nation."

STAYING PUT: Though he requested his draft prospects from the NFL, junior defensive tackle Andre Fluellen said he's returning to FSU.

"I don't want to leave," he said. "Even if it does say, 'first round,' I really don't think I'll leave."

SEMINOLE ENTERTAINMENT: The rap-rock duo Seminole County, which features singer Jj, the sister of FSU freshman defensive tackle Budd Thacker, performed the national anthem and again at halftime. Fans booed them at the half.

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or at (813) 226-3347.