A half-century ago, University of Puget Sound president R. Franklin Thompson took one small step for the athletic department. It turned out to be a giant leap that underscored the benefits of dreaming big.
In 1967, the Loggers left the NAIA to compete as an independent affiliated with what then was called the NCAA’s “College Division.” The upgrade led to an era remembered for its unquestioned success and much lamented outcome.
First, about the success: Between 1967 and 1983, Puget Sound’s football team posted a winning record 16 times in 17 seasons. The Loggers’ superiority extended beyond football. They were crowned the NCAA Division II national basketball champions of 1976, and put together strong programs in wrestling, swimming, baseball and track and field.
But the genesis for the turnaround was the 1967 football team, which either tied or set 41 school records.
“We opened the door for all the other things that happened during the golden years,” Don Pulisevich, captain of the ’67 Loggers, said the other day. “We helped expose UPS to the rest of the country.”
Until 1967, UPS rarely played outside the state. Joining the NCAA required the team to venture as far south as San Diego. The ’67 Loggers ended up logging 5,200 travel miles, creating the kind of lifelong friendships that beg for a reunion every 50 years or so.
The consummate captain, Pulisevich has organized a golden-anniversary celebration of the ’67 season during UPS’ homecoming weekend. It’ll kick off with a 7 p.m. meet-and-greet event at the school on Friday, Oct. 6.
On Saturday, Pulisevich and his teammates will be honored at halftime of the Loggers game against Lewis and Clark, after which the party will relocate to Joeseppi’s Restaurant in Tacoma.
While the reunion will focus on 1967, Pulisevich is inviting everybody familiar with UPS’ 17-year “golden era” – athletes, coaches, staffers, fans – to participate in the festivities.
“We’ve got guys coming in from Florida, North Carolina, Texas, pretty much everywhere,” said Pulisevich. “There’s a lot of catching up to do.”
Stories typically are embellished after a few decades, from something resembling the truth to tall tales. But when the ex-Loggers gather to reminisce, their ’67 opener won’t need any exaggeration.
Jerome “The Jet” Crawford, a Lincoln High grad, really did take three punt returns to the end zone at Whitworth. The first went for 97 yards, and to prove it wasn’t a fluke, Crawford also scored on a 41-yard return and an 82-yard return.
Crawford’s achievements belong in an NCAA record book, but Whitworth was an NAIA school, so no record, only the memory.
Loggers halfback Al Roberts, a transfer from Washington, provided similar fireworks that day, running for a 90-yard touchdown. Roberts remained in football as a coach whose career included stints at high school, college and the NFL.
Other future coaches on that ’67 team included freshman guard Bob Lucey, who went on to lead the Curtis Vikings to four state championships, and a junior safety named Mike Price.
By the time Price stepped down as head coach at UTEP, 300-pound linemen were the norm in college football. The Loggers’ 1967 roster listed no player over 230 pounds.
Placekicker Clint Scott was the runt of the bunch – 5-foot-6, 145 pounds – but the Bellevue resident born in South Africa had a big-bang leg and a novel approach.
He kicked the ball soccer style, off the side of his foot. A trendsetter, perhaps?
But Scott kept kicking – given the explosiveness of Crawford and Roberts, he got a lot of practice at extra points – and the Loggers kept winning, year after year.
In the early 1980s, UPS determined itself at crossroad: Continue to emphasize sports as an NCAA school, or pump the brakes and retreat to the ranks of the NAIA?
UPS chose the latter. Meanwhile, its cross-state cousin Gonzaga, with a similar enrollment and campus-footprint size, went another direction. Gonzaga’s basketball team advanced to the 2017 NCAA championship game.
“It’s sad, in a way, how the good old days of UPS sports came to an end,” said Pulisevich. “There was some salt in the wound.
“But things have changed. The administration is honoring the past, and acknowledging how influence we had on bringing in students from out of state. It was a win-win situation for the school, and our 1967 football team was at the forefront.”
A toast to the ’67 Loggers seems appropriate, perhaps followed by another.
There’s a lot of catching up to do.