Most of the plays and games — legendary in Blugolds history — have been dimmed in memory over the past five and one half decades.
But one thing remains constant.
“The basic thing was and still is the camaraderie of the players,” said two-way end Gene Golden. “I was 28 and some of the others were just coming out of high school. I was darn lucky that they accepted me and we became a closely-knit unit. And that’s the way it’s been”
That seems to be the unanimous feeling of UW-Eau Claire’s only back-to-back conference football champions, of which 23 are returning to celebrate their 1963 and 1964 accomplishment in a 55th reunion Saturday as the Blugolds host UW-Whitewater.
“It was the relationship the players had with each other,” said linebacker and honorary captain Marv Hieptas. “It was always a team-first attitude. Geno (Golden) and Van (Jim Van Gorden) were outstanding but the rest of us were just average guys, over-achievers who looked to do what was best for the team.”
Van Gorden triggered several improbable – some even unbelievable – comebacks in the 1964 season on his way to leading the nation in NAIA total offense and gaining first team All-America honors. Golden was the enforcer on a defense that keyed an unbeaten season in 1963.
“We had a group, I was a little older at the time, that would stay in the huddle, tell jokes and even take a penalty because of it,” said Van Gorden. “It was the camaraderie of the guys that led them to keep up with each other. When Geno was on the field, I wasn’t afraid. He was our superman.”
But all of them were heroes. It was a homegrown squad with 10 players from Eau Claire, five from Chippewa Falls and 14 more from surrounding towns. It produced six players and three coaches who have been inducted into the Blugold Hall of Fame and two who had NFL tryouts.
The 1964 offensive unit featured Van Gorden at quarterback, Mike Devine and Harry Newman at running back with Gerry Gendron, Golden, George Bowman and Larry Drott as receivers. They worked behind a line of Ken Biegel, Tom O’Connell, Pat Page, Dick Olson and Chuck Emerson, the Memorial product who is in charge of organizing the reunions.
Defensively it was Golden, Don Betthauser, Harry Duranceau, Tom O’Connell and Gendron up front with Hietpas and Biegel at linebacker and Dennis Rivers, Pat Fraley, Barry Schultz and Ron Poquette in the secondary. Moving into the starting lineup later were Mike Kalinke, Wayne Martinko, Phil Stickler and Bob Rykal.
It was the same players who made up the nucleus of the two blue ribbon teams.
After getting a 1964 opening game wakeup call of 29-6 by UM-Duluth, the Blugolds stormed back to beat UW-Oshkosh 26-7, UW-Stout 51-20 and UW-La Crosse 25-14, then rallied from a 12-0 halftime deficit to win at UW-Superior 14-12 to move into the meat of the schedule.
Two of the next three games told the story of the team. After a comeback 34-28 win over UW-River Falls, they lost 21-7 at UW-Stevens Point, but in a battle for first place, rallied from a 33-19 deficit with 8:56 to play to score three touchdowns and beat UW-Whitewater in maybe the most memorable game in Blugold history.
Van Gorden, limping with an injured ankle, got some help from Gregg Zastrow to engineer three scoring drives and pull out a 37-33 win. The wins over UW-River Falls and UW-Whitewater came with just 16 seconds left.
“Whitewater had two little backs who piled it up on us,” Golden recalled. “But we came back with Van throwing to Bowman. The winner was a slant across the middle and he was all alone. Van threw a hard ball, but George had good hands, hauled it in and scored.”
UW-Eau Claire finished the season with a 13-7 win at UW-Platteville and coach Jim Rice’s team finished with a 7-1 record to 4-2 for UW-La Crosse, just ahead of UW-River Falls and UW-Whitewater.
Van Gorden, Gendron, Page, Emerson and Golden gained all-conference honors while Van Gorden, Biegel, Golden and Gendron were named to the NAIA all-district team.
“I was the spokesman for the team but I didn’t tackle or block,” Van Gorden said. “Those were the guys who should’ve got the credit. It was a game bunch that looked for a way to win.”
Unlike the 1964 team that won with a high-powered offense, the 1963 championship was won with defense as the Blugolds went 7-0, 6-0 in conference play, allowing a modern day record of just 8.7 points a game with wins of 27-8 over Winona and then mowing down conference foes Whitewater 14-12, River Falls 14-7, Oshkosh 19-13, Stout 12-2, La Crosse 22-13 and Superior 14-6.
The players are quick to credit coaches Jim Rice, Ade Olson, Link Walker and Frank Wrigglesworth — all deceased — for their success. Olson had coached the 1956 Blugold champions and Walker was destined to become their legendary coach in the future.
Golden called Walker the boss of the 1963 team who carried the big stick even though Rice was the head coach.
“Link left to work on his Master’s degree in 1964 and I think we called Colorado every day that year,” said Van Gorden, who became a highly-successful coach at Bloomer.
Rice was more of a conservative coach.
“We were a confident bunch,” Van Gorden said. “One game, we took over inside our five with the wind blowing against us. Rice called for a first down punt. We didn’t like that.”
On another occasion, Van Gorden said he was at the sideline ready to get a play and go in.
“Ade, Jim and Link all gave me a different play,” he said. “I ignored all three and called my own play.”
Whatever works. And everything seemed to work for these Blugolds.
Hietpas gained the respect of his teammates with his leadership and play but prefers to play down his role in being elected honorary captain.
“We had some great, big horses up in the line who took care of the job,” said Hietpas, back in his home town of Appleton after serving a long stretch at Uniroyal. “Ken and I just cleaned up and made the leftover tackles.”
Golden said at times he remembers lining up next to Biegel, who started a family tradition of collegiate stars as coach at Wisconsin Rapids.
“There were times when he would move up from his linebacker spot and play in the line,” said Golden. “He was always hitting somebody.”
The championship Blugolds produced two professional players. Van Gorden signed as a free agent for Vince Lombardi’s Packers while Gendron, a 6-4, 260-pound receiver, signed with the Miami Dolphins and later was acquired by the Detroit Lions.
In the Packers’ camp, unlike Bart Starr, Van Gorden showed a cannon-like arm that some receivers found the rockets hard to handle. And there was another problem.
“I would come up behind center and look across the line of scrimmage and see a toothless, grinning Ray Nitschke ready to put it on me,” Van Gorden said.
That may have been what opponents saw when they looked across at the Blugold defense. It was intimidating, the offense nothing short of miraculous.
“Everybody has a story from those days,” Golden said.
But it was one thing that stood out above all others.
“I can’t remember a time hearing somebody bitching or complaining,” Golden said. “We were teammates, friends and buddies.”