Pittsburgh City Title Series
Major College Football 1932-1939
(Pitt Panthers, Duquesne Dukes, Carnegie Tech Tartans)
The sports rivalry between the Pitt Panthers and Duquesne Dukes is one of the great eastern college matchups and one that is very special here in the City of Pittsburgh. The highly anticipated contests have, for years, been called the City Game. Players from both local teams compete for prestigious bragging rights locally, and these efforts have on occasion had profound impact on the national college level.
Most people would associate the City Game with generations of Panther and Duke cagers. Their 88-year rivalry has often been the talk of the town since the two universities first met in 1932. That rivalry now extends to women's basketball and at one time also included soccer and baseball.
Many local sports fans, however, have completely forgotten that, for a few years starting in 1932, this inner-city duel was also played out on the football field at the University of Pittsburgh's stadium. Although the Pitt-Duquesne matchups got most of the press, the gridiron competition grew to include the nearby Carnegie Tech Tartans, nicknamed the Skibos.
The saucer bowl high above Fifth Avenue was then simply called The Stadium as it was the home field for all three teams. These were highly-contested struggles between major college powerhouse clubs, and near the end of the decade their outcome often had national championship implications.
Despite the football games' importance, both here in Pittsburgh and on the national level, the Panther-Duke part of the three-way gridiron series ended abruptly after the 1939 season. Basketball competition between the schools was also suspended.
The reasons why were never really made public. However, odds are that an unspoken Cease and Desist Agreement between university officials was the consequence of a very memorable football game and the even more memorable post-game antics that followed, conducted primarily by the opposing student bodies.
To truly understand the situation, one must travel back to the late-1920s and look into the rapid emergence of the Duquesne Dukes football program on the national level, then examine the impact that ascension had on the balance of power here in the City of Pittsburgh.
There are plenty of Pittsburgh Press newspaper clippings included along with the text that can be enlarged and read to supplement the story. Enjoy this look back in time.
Click on images for larger photos.
DUKES BECOME CONTENDERS
By the late-1920s, the University of Pittsburgh Panthers had built a long and storied reputation as one of the country's premier football teams under legendary coaches like Joseph Thompson, Pop Warner and Jock Sutherland. The team had earned the #1 ranking in at least one of the various post-season polls in 1910, 1915, 1916, 1918, 1929 and 1931.
The Carnegie Tech Tartans, located a stone's throw from Pitt, had also emerged as a steady competitor on the national level. In fact, during the 1928 season the Tartans were late-season contenders for the top spot in the country after dispatching Georgetown, Pitt and Notre Dame on their way to a 7-0 record. A loss in the final game ended any hopes of a national title.
The Duquesne Dukes football program, on the other hand, competed off and on since 1891. While the other two local gridiron programs rumbled merrily along, Duke teams sputtered through the Roaring Twenties with a string of losing seasons against small college competition.
All that changed in 1927, when Coach Elmer Layden signed on as the Dukes head coach. He was already a gridiron legend as one of Notre Dame's famed Four Horseman as a collegiate player in 1924. Layden, who studied under Coach Knute Rockne, quickly transformed the football program.
Not only did the new coach bring instant credibility to the program, he also brought innovative concepts that revolutionized the game. Layden is credited with devising the system of hand signals that officials use today. The signal system was put to use for the first time on November 11, 1928, when Duquesne hosted Thiel College at Pitt Stadium. Layden was also the first coach to use two sets of uniform jerseys for home and away contests.
After a 4-4-1 record in that first season, the Beasts on the Bluff compiled an 8-1 slate in 1928 and followed up with an undefeated 9-0-1 mark in 1929, which incidentally was the last year that games were played on Duquesne's Bluff Field.
Another Layden-era innovation is credited to graduate student manager John Holohan, who conceived the idea of Pittsburgh's first night game at Forbes Field. Played on the evening of November 1, 1929, the Dukes made history by defeating Geneva College, 27-7, in front of over 27,000 spectators. This led to the Duquesne Football team's nickname "the Night Riders."
With their home games now played at either Forbes Field or Pitt Stadium, Layden's Dukes began to attract national attention, and games with some of the country's better independent teams. The team posted records of 7-3 and 3-5-3 in 1930 and 1931, all the while expanding their fan base and asserting themselves as a potential local rival to the city's established Panthers and Tartans.
Coach Layden wanted a chance to prove that his Dukes were ready to play on the big stage. He arranged a charity game on December 5, 1931 against Carnegie Tech. The contest was played to a scoreless tie in front of 50,000 fans at The Stadium. The Dukes solid performance had the intended effect on the local media and public opinion.
By the numbers, Pitt and Tech had already held mostly unofficial yearly city title matchups without much press coverage for the past decade, with the Panthers holding a 6-4 series edge.
THE CITY TITLE SERIES
By 1932, the University of Duquesne's basketball program had already built a fine reputation in the collegiate ranks under long-time coach Chick Davies while the Panthers had a solid program under long-time coach Doc Carlson.
Now that Duquesne's football team had emerged as serious competition, many collegiate fans in the area felt that the time had come for the Dukes to challenge the mighty University of Pittsburgh for bragging rights as the best college sports program in the city.
As a publicity gimmick, the two schools began what became known as the "City Title Series." For the first time their teams would compete against each other on the major college level both on the basketball hardwood and the football gridiron.
The local media and the Chamber of Commerce joined in the fun, providing all of the advanced publicity needed to get the student bodies and fan bases hyped up to a fever pitch. These games were serious business, and the opposing camps eagerly awaited the showdowns.
During the 1932 season, the schools split the series. The Duquesne basketball team scored a 28-21 victory at the Pitt Pavilion in January 13. Then, on October 9, in front of over 30,000 fans at Pitt Stadium, the football team fell in a 33-0 rout to Coach Jock Sutherland's Panther juggernaut.
Although the outcome was never in doubt, the significance of this first meeting between the two local teams was summarized in the October 10 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Al Abrams:
"That long-awaited moment - anticipated for years by Duquesne University students, alumni and followers - was reached at 1:59pm last Saturday afternoon. Here was their football team ready to meet the Pitt Panther on equal terms. What happened afterwards was not as important as the fact that the Bluff school had finally broken through the athletic barrier that its followers believed was held against them for years."
"Carnegie Tech first broke the ice in 1931 by graciously agreeing to meet the Laydenites in the highly-successful charity contest late in the season. The Dukes grabbed at their first big opportunity by holding the Tartans to a scoreless tie, thus paving the way for a real foundation for the Pitt-Duquesne battle. The upward march has been a long, difficult one for the Dukes, but they've made the grade to give Pittsburgh its third school with a Class A standing in the athletic realm."
Coach Layden's Dukes finished the season with a 7-1-2 record. They did not play Carnegie Tech. The Panthers finished 8-1-2, their only loss coming in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. During the regular season, the 1932 Panthers dispatched the Tech Tartans, 6-0.
TWO BEAUTIFULLY-DRILLED ELEVENS
The following year the Duquesne cagers garnered two exciting one-point victories over the Panthers, but the football team once again fell short. In abhorrent weather at the Stadium, Sutherland's Panthers ground out a 7-0 victory in front of 60,000 fans on November 11, 1933.
Columnist Chester Smith of the Pittsburgh Press wrote:
"Everything Pitt has at its command, both on the ground and through the air, was not one whit more than the Panthers needed to wring victory from Duquesne at the Stadium yesterday."
"Sixty thousand spectators filled all but a few scattered reaches of the giant saucer, and, although they were whipped by a cruelly-cold wind, drenched with rain and occasionally pelted with sleet, not a mother's son moved until the gun cracked out 'taps.'"
"That's the kind of game it was: too fiercely contested to provide more than an occasional spectacular episode, but from beginning to end a fight between two beautifully-drilled elevens that played as though this day was the Alpha and Omega of their campaigns."
"Wrapped in greatcoats and mufflers, feet encased in galoshes, blankets, newspapers - anything that would keep out the cold and wet - the crowd was a tribute to the two great universities."
The 1933 season was Duquesne's best so far. The loss to the Panthers was the only blemish on the Dukes 10-1 record. Again their schedule did not include Carnegie Tech. The team finished #8 in the Massey Ratings and boasted one of the nation's best defenses. The Dukes also won their first post-season bowl game, 33-7, over Miami in the Festival of Palms Bowl on New Year's Day.
It was also Elmer Layden's last as the Dukes head coach. The former horseman left the Steel City to accept the head coaching position at his alma mater, Notre Dame.
Nearby in the Oakland district, the Pitt Panthers went on to an 8-1 record and once again beat nearby Carnegie Tech, this time by the score of 16-0.
TECH VICTORY BRINGS RESPECT
The Duke and Panther basketball teams split their two-game roundball series in 1934 and 1935. The football teams, however, did not compete during those two seasons. Under coaches Joe Bach and Christy Flanagan, the Dukes posted 8-2 and 6-3 records, respectively, while Sutherland's Panthers went 8-1 and 7-1-2.
Instead of playing the Panthers, Duquesne met Pittsburgh's other nationally renowned team, the tough Carnegie Tech Tartans. In 1934 the Dukes lost a close game, 3-0, then rebounded the following season with a 7-0 victory. Pitt also played the Tech team during those two seasons, winning 20-0 in '34 and tying the Skibos in a scoreless contest the following year.
The win over Tech brought a large measure of gridiron respect to the hilltop institution. Duke fans celebrated their rise to prominence, and cries for another go at the mighty Panthers rang out from atop the Bluff. Almost within earshot, Pitt fans welcomed the challenge and called for a resumption of the Pitt-Duquesne backyard brawl.
BEST TEAM IN THE CITY
Clipper Smith took over the reigns as head coach in 1936 and led the Dukes on their most successful football campaign yet, with a renewal of the Pitt-Duquesne game on the schedule in Week #4. The school's basketball teams had once again split their two-game series, leaving no clear titleholder. It would be up to the Duke eleven to set the record straight.
Both Pitt and Duquesne entered their title series duel undefeated and unscored upon. The highly anticipated matchup took place in the afternoon of October 17. In foul weather similar to their last meeting, 25,000 spectators gathered at the Stadium to watch another bitter mud-bath.
A second quarter touchdown by the Dukes, their first score ever against Pitt, was all they needed as their defense held back the determined and increasing desperate Panthers. When the game clock expired, Duquesne had achieved what some thought impossible, a 7-0 humbling of the mighty Pitt Panthers. The Pittsburgh Press hailed the victory as the "Shot Heard 'Round the World."
After the game, Duquesne Captain Mike Basrak quickly scooped up the game ball and carted it off to the team's dressing room, storing it in his locker. Basrak, a four-year letterman who joined former Coach Elmer Layden in 1933, had come full circle along with his proud teammates.
Along the Duquesne Bluff, two new heroes were crowned. The first was George Matsik, whose 71-yard run was the dagger that slew the Panther. The second was Clipper Smith, the first-year head coach who completed the task set in motion a decade ago by Coach Layden, whose dream was to bring football glory to the Bluff.
Pitt finished the season with an 8-1-1 record and a 21-0 victory over Washington in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. The Panthers ended the campaign as the #3 ranked team in the nation in the first year of the Associated Press poll. Along the way the only blemish on the Panthers record was their shocking early-season loss to the Dukes.
It is quite possible that the loss to Duquesne cost the University of Pittsburgh the 1936 National Championship. In their annual contest versus Carnegie Tech, the Panthers won, 31-14. The loss to the Dukes was Pitt's first to an eastern college team since 1928, when they were defeated 6-0 by ... Carnegie Tech.
Duquesne finished the season with an 8-2-1 record and a 13-12 victory in the Orange Bowl. In the Associated Press poll the team ended the campaign ranked #14 in the nation with a Massey Rating of #2. Better yet, along the way the Dukes also dispatched the Carnegie Tech Tartans, 13-0, to complete the sweep and earn the prestigious title as the best team in the city!
ONE OF THE WOOLIEST CELEBRATIONS
The Pittsburgh Press reported that before the players had trotted off the field following the sound of the timekeeper's pistol, one of the wooliest celebrations the town ever goggled had begun. A rush of spectators spilled onto the sloppy turf and swallowed the detail of security police standing in a ring around the stands.
Soon the happy crowd of Duquesne fans rushed the endzones to claim the Pitt goal posts as their spoils of victory. They were met by over twenty determined policemen who, with flailing nightsticks, beat off the attack with ardor.
Nearly ten arrests were eventually made before order on the field was restored. The crowd of onlookers shouted "the cops are defending the goal better than Pitt did!"
The goal posts survived the wave of enthusiastic red and blue fandom, but not so the Pitt Panther himself. The Press reported that the mascot "fell before the Duke cheer leaders and had to be rescued by the cops."
The uprising at the Stadium, however, was just a tip-off to the day's celebratory escapades by the joyous Duquesne congregation. Soon frantic calls came in from downtown hotels and theatres asked for protection from the roaming horde of fans. A special squad of forty police were called into town with orders to disperse the crowd.
Police worked far into the night to peacefully contain the Bluffites, eventually herding the flock towards their hilltop home to continue the celebration into the wee hours of the morning.
Although in the end there were only minor mishaps reported around town, the exhuberance of the Duquesne roving celebration was somewhat unexpected. As things eventually turned out, it was a prudent measure for the authorities to file away any lesson's learned from the experience.
AN OFF YEAR
The season following Duquesne's rise to the top of the Pittsburgh collegiate gridiron elite was an off year, mediocre at best in comparison. The 1937 Dukes posted a winning 6-4 season, but the magic and good fortune that carried over from the previous campaign faded quickly after an early season run.
In the city basketball series, the Duke cagers were holding their own against the Panthers on the hardwood. The two evenly-matched teams customarily split their yearly two-game set in both 1937 and 1938. The Bluff's football players, however found that success on the Stadium turf can be as fleeting as it is elusive.
On October 9, 1937, the now-mighty Dukes and the always-mighty Panthers met for the fourth time in what had become the city's premier neighborhood scrum. This time both teams entered the contest as proud, talented and undefeated teams. It looked to be the game of the season.
As had become customary to their contests, inclement weather in the form of a steady drizzle and a brief thunderstorm made for less-than-ideal field conditions. Pitt jumped off to an early lead on a 77-yard run by Marshall Goldberg, then held off the Dukes. The final score of 6-0 was indicative of what a strong, defensive effort was put forth by both squads.
The Dukes gave as good as they got in this hard-hitting contest but, as opposed to the previous season, in this game the one big break (or breakaway) went a Panther's way. Another bitter 6-0 defeat, this time to Carnegie Tech in Week #6, was a critical turning point in the Dukes' season, which went downhill from there.
The good fortunes of the Panthers, on the other hand, continued on an upward trajectory. Pitt's 1937 team finished the season 9-0-1 and ranked #1 by the Associated Press. Their National Championship season included a 25-14 victory over Carnegie Tech. Not only had Pitt captured the city title, they were now the best college football team in the entire land.
From the beginning, the quest for the city title, despite its original gimmick intent, was always a three-way competition between the Pitt Panthers, the Duquesne Dukes and the Carnegie Tech Tartans, what some in major college circles referred to as the "Three Rivers Triumvirate."
Although Pitt was generally accepted as the best overall program with the strongest schedule of opponents and the loftiest reputation, the Dukes and Tartans had proven themselves opponents also worthy of time in the national spotlight.
The 1938 collegiate football season was memorable in many ways, and that went for the trio of national contenders based in Pittsburgh. The defending national champion Panthers began their season with an impressive string of six victories, including a 27-0 win over Duquesne on October 8. Pitt again held the #1 AP ranking going into their November 5 matchup with Carnegie Tech.
For the Tartans from Tech, the oft-ignored member of the triumvirate, the 1938 season was to be their miracle year. The Skibos came into their yearly contest against the #1 ranked Panthers with a 4-1 record, their only loss a 7-0 decision to #5 ranked Notre Dame. Carnegie Tech itself boasted a rare AP ranking, coming into the Pitt contest ranked #19 in the nation.
Thirty years later John Lennon would write "Remember. Remember. The Fifth of November." Well, on that day in 1938, before a stunned crowd of over 61,000 at Pitt Stadium, Carnegie Tech pulled off what sportswriter Chester Smith called the "football miracle of the age."
The earthly wonder began with a bit of late-night Tech mischief as Tartan students stole in quietly to the Stadium, pulled back the tarpaulin that covers the field and scrawled "Beat Pitt!" at midfield in white lime.
By game time the ground crew had restored the turf, but the on-the-field mischief that was to take place, in the form of the crafty Tech attack, would leave a more lasting impression.
Using a mix of speedy running and accurate forward passing, the gridiron scholars beat the Panthers 20-10. It was Pitt's first loss after a 22-game undefeated streak. The win propelled Carnegie Tech to a #6 ranking while Dr. Sutherland's Pitt team fell to #3.
In a fit of post-game mischief, a wave of tartan fans swarmed the field and quickly overwhelmed the security force. The winning goal post was torn from its mooring and carted off to the nearby Tech campus. It was retrieved without incident the next morning. When reinstalled later that day, the Tech student engineers used cement to secure the poles in their place.
TECH TAKES TITLE
The following week second-year head coach William Kern and his Carnegie Tech eleven rode their wave of success to a dominant victory over Clipper Smith's Dukes. The Pittsburgh Press headline the next day read "Tech Defeat's Dukes, 21-0, With 'Touchdown Passes.'"
It seems appropriate that the scholarly athletes from the elite technical school of forward thinkers would look forward mentally and move forward physically using innovative forward passing.
The decisive victories over both Pitt and Duquesne gave the Carnegie Tech undisputed claim to the City Title. The Tartans went on to finish the season with a 7-2 record and a #6 rank nationally after an appearance in the Sugar Bowl.
The Panthers went on to finish the season 8-2 with a #8 ranking. Duquesne struggled through the end of the season, with a final season victory enough to salvage a dismal 4-6 record, their first true losing season since 1926.
The 1938 season was memorable not only for the twists of fate and unexpected outcome, but also for the eventual loss of two legends of the City Title Series. Both Pitt's long-time legendary coach Jock Sutherland and Duquesne's recently-crowned legend, coach Clipper Smith, were both moving on, replaced by Charles Bowser and Aldo "Buff" Donelli, respectively.
STAGE SET FOR FINAL ACT
By the time the 1939 season began, Pitt had claimed five wins in the City Title Series while Duquesne and Carnegie Tech each earned one apiece. The stage was now set for what would be the final act in the Passion Play that had become the Pitt-Duquesne sports rivalry and, for that matter, the City Title Series as a whole.
In this final command performance, the Carnegie Tech Tartans were given a supporting role, enough for few headlines, but the stage lights shined brightly upon the drama's principle stars, the Panthers of Pittsburgh and the Dukes of Duquesne.
Each of the city contenders began their campaign with three-game winning streaks. Two were ranked in the AP poll, with Pitt holding onto its characteristic #1 ranking and Carnegie Tech sitting pretty at #15. The Dukes had yet to crack the Top 20 list but the team was looking good. It was shaping up to be quite a football season here in the City of Pittsburgh.
CLIMAX IN WEEK FOUR
Unbeknownst at the time, the 1939 season and the future of the City Series was sealed in a three-day climax during Week #4 that began on October 21 when the Dukes met the Panthers in their sixth prime time matchup.
On this day dark rain clouds at the start of the game tempted many fans to stay inside. So, in front of a smaller than normal crowd of just 25,000 at game time, Pitt charged to a 13-0 lead.
As the weather held and the crowd swelled, the Duquesne eleven overcame the early deficit and stunned the sports world by scoring three unanswered touchdowns. As Pitt fans stood silent and the Duke faithful burst into celebration, the Dukes left the Stadium turf with a 21-13 victory.
To add to their excitement, in a related game, it was announced that Carnegie Tech had lost, 6-0, at New York University. This left Duquesne as the only undefeated team in the city, with one leg up on the title.
The following week, Pitt's season began to crumble with a tough loss at Fordham while the Skibos lost another heart-breaker, this time a 7-6 decision versus Notre Dame at home in the Stadium.
The Dukes, on the other hand, continued to rack up wins. The November 25 meeting with Tech was a resounding 22-7 victory, their eighth in a row. Duquesne finished the season with an 8-0-1 record, a #10 national ranking.
To the chagrin of the players and student body, the school declined invitations to the Cotton Bowl, Sun Bowl and Olympic Bowl. No matter, the Night Riders had laid claim to the undisputed city title, their second in the now epic Pittsburgh collegiate classic yearly series.
The Panthers and first-year coach Bowser stumbled to a sub-par 5-4 record, with their only real success coming in a 6-0 win over Tech. The Tartans finished the season 3-5.
Two new legends were crowned high atop the Duquesne University Bluff. Coach Aldo "Buff" Donelli, the first-year head coach who brought glory back to the hilltop campus, and John Rokisky, the end who grabbed the go-ahead touchdown pass that put the feisty Dukes over the top.
REWIND TO OCTOBER 21
In order to understand the answer to the question of why the City Title Series came to an abrupt end after the 1939 season, one must first know the history of the Pitt-Duquesne matchup to date and then factor in the events of the Monday following the final game. We've provided the history, now let's rewind to the evening of Saturday, October 21.
Just like in 1936, after the Dukes surprise win against the Panthers, the Duquesne student body burst into a raucous celebration that reverberated throughout Oakland and downtown Pittsburgh. Drawing upon the lessons learned following that first encounter, Police were summoned to points throughout the Triangle to maintain order and keep the celebratory fans in a peaceable mood.
In an effort to prevent a battle for the crossbars immediately following the game, a detail of sixty officers surrounded the coveted goal posts. The Duke fans wanted those trophies in the worst way, but considering the massed security presence they withdrew in good order, leaving the poles in place.
The rest of the evening went rather well. Fifth Avenue was blocked off and temporary possession of the downtown business area ceded to the wave of revelers as they made their way peacefully through town to their home upon the Bluff. All seemed in good order as the evening wore on. The Dukes were #1, the city was safe and the anticipated disruptions kept to a minimum.
THE SNEAK PLAY
Later that evening, under the cover of darkness and while most of the celebrants were still making their way through downtown, about seventy-five Duke students returned to the Stadium. To their surprise, they found one gate open and a watchman who bid them good evening.
The students, undeterred by the presence of the watchman, quickly removed one of the posts and carried it outside. Then, recalling that it was not the goal at which Duquesne had made its touchdown, went back after the second set of poles.
The correct set of crossbars was the one cemented in place the previous year after the Tech game. This set required some additional effort to remove. A student was injured in the process.
While the students were loading the pair of goal posts into a truck, a police inspector happened upon the crowd and went so far as to give advice on how to properly transport their trophies. The officer even made arrangements for an impromptu parade route to the heart of the city to be displayed before the downtown crowds.
In a sneak play played upon the party of supposed sneak players, Duquesne university officials had arranged for the goal posts to be surrendered to the students without incident. The school agreed to cover the costs of any resulting damages.
The goal posts were then brought to the Duquesne campus, where they were scheduled to be the centerpiece of a huge celebration on Monday in front of the entire student body.
BATTLE AT THE CATHEDRAL
Sunday, October 22, passed without incident. Both the Duquesne and Pitt student bodies apparently needed a day of rest and recovery. In the case of the Barnstorming Bluffsters, it was more like a day to regroup and renew, for they had big plans for Monday morning!
As the sun rose on October 23, in what appeared to be a well-organized and even better supervised event, a 100 car caravan carrying over 700 students left the Bluff for a short drive to the Pitt campus, escorted by three motorcycle officers.
Bigelow Boulevard, from Fifth to Forbes Avenue, was blocked off to make room for the parade of cars to park. Under the watchful eyes of a number of uniformed authorities stationed along the sidewalks, the boisterous crowd quickly took over the lawn around the Cathedral of Learning.
While Duke bandsmen in mufti played school songs and the crowd answered in cheers, paper streamers were flung into the surrounding trees and somewhat derisive signs hung from the limbs. One sign along the stone railing of the proud building announced that the Cathedral itself was currently "For Sale." There was even a bugler blowing "Taps" in requiem to Pitt's hopes for an unbeaten season.
For over an hour things went according to plan, without incident, and then ...
A "Pitt pyre" was set ablaze on the Cathedral lawn. The crowd screamed as the wood box burned. As fate would have it, the clock struck 10:30 and approximately 100 Pitt students inside the Cathedral exited their classrooms. A climactic showdown was soon at hand.
The frenzied Pitt students quickly took charge inside their castle stronghold. A few threw pitchers of water from a higher floor. That bright idea set off an even brighter idea. Soon, with the aid of nearby fire hoses, the Pitt defenders began dousing both the flames and the crowd gathered on the lawn.
A wet, running battle of short duration ensued. Police, who were stationed a good distance from the building entrances and had watched their bold plans go awry, rushed through the crowd and up the stairs to shut off the hoses. While doing so, the connections were improperly terminated and the second floor of the Cathedral building accidentally flooded.
By now additional officers called to the scene had begun dispersing the soaked crowd of Duke fans, who returned to their cars satisfied with their mischievous accomplishments and ready to carry on with the day's celebration.
Through it all the pyre box continued to smolder. Near the end of the Battle at the Cathedral, a final group of diehard Dukes attempted to rush the glowing box and add a straw mattress and reignite the flames. They were turned back amid taunts and threats by an angry band of Pitt students who had emerged from the building.
As more and more Panther students left the building and others began to gather around the perimeter, authorities kept the rival parties separated until the Duke caravan had driven off towards the Carnegie Tech campus, where their celebration entered its next phase.
Following a short but sweet demonstration on the grounds of their other gridiron rival's turf, the motorized Bluff Brigade descended upon the Triangle. Special details of police were aided by mounted patrols, who kept the streets clear and the increasingly annoying "footsoldiers" moving along the sidewalks during what was now a busy Monday afternoon in downtown Pittsburgh.
ANOTHER SNEAK PLAY
While the Duquesne student body was parading through Oakland and downtown Pittsburgh, four carloads of Panther faithful dashed to the nearly deserted Duquesne campus and carted off the goal posts taken from the Pitt stadium.
The poles were transported to the university's State Hall, where they were propped up on a third floor ledge and guarded by a force of twenty student guards. There would be no further surrender of Pitt's Posts.
This time the gag was not pre-arranged and authorized by the university officials and law enforcement authorities. This sneak play was engineered and carried out by the proud students all by themselves.
CESSATION OF HOSTILITIES
It's hard to tell if the lack of competition between the Panthers and Dukes over the next several years was the result of the boisterous activities of the Pitt and Duquesne student bodies. What is for certain is that from that eventful weekend in October 1939, the acclaimed City Title Series came to an end, both on the football field and on the basketball court.
By the way, the Duke cagers won the final game between the two schools on January 28, 1939, but tensions in the Pitt Pavilion had also been brewing. After that first contest of the season, Pitt coach Jimmy Hagan announced a suspension of basketball relations with Duquesne following the development of what he termed "bad blood in the court."
That much said, the Dukes held an overall 9-5 series lead at the time the Pitt head hooper called for a cessation of hostilities.
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The truce between Pitt and Duquesne seemed reminiscent of a similar pact made two decades earlier between Pitt and Carnegie Tech. In 1920, football fever in Pittsburgh was hottest between the Panthers and Tartans due to the close proximity of the two institutions.
When the two schools met on the football field, there were pep rallies, parades, late-night raids, things stolen - such as goal posts, signs, and even Pitt's team mascot, a goat. Things got so intense that both administrations decided to break off athletic relations. The calm lasted for three years. The rivalry resumed in 1923, when Tech scored its first win over Pitt, and continued for another twenty years.
IN THE WAKE OF ...
In the wake of the decision to end the Pitt-Duquesne sports rivalry, the three universities continued as if nothing had changed. Life went on in the Steel City sports bubble and there was plenty of excitement along the way. Then World War II came along and settled the matter.
In 1940, Carnegie Tech lost 6-0 to Pitt and 14-7 to Duquesne. The Tartans finished their season with a repeat 3-5 record. After that season, a university decision to ban post-season play, trim the budget and redirect the focus of their athletic programs forced a Tartan exit from the major college ranks.
From the 1941 season onwards, Tech's competition included smaller schools from the eastern region. The Tartans met the Panthers a final three times, 1941 to 1943, losing 27-0, 19-6 and 45-6 respectively. The team disbanded in 1944-1945, then returned after the war. From 1980 to 1991, there was a brief resumption of the Tech-Duquesne rivalry, with the Skibos (now representing Carnegie-Mellon University) winning ten of twelve.
Across the way on the Duquesne Bluff, Coach "Buff" Donelli led his 1940 Dukes on another fantastic run, finishing with a 7-1 record. Pitt, on the other hand, faltered and fell to 3-4-1, their worst finish since 1912.
The following year, the Fighting Dukes returned to post their best season in school history. In eight games, the team posted its only unbeaten, untied record as a major college competitor. Their victims included Marquette, Villanova and Mississippi State.
Ranked as high as #5 in the AP poll, the Dukes led the nation in scoring defense, rushing defense and total defense. The team finished the season ranked #8 according to the Associated Press. On the other hand, the Massey Ratings gave Duquesne the #1 spot as best team in the nation. While the Dukes flourished, the now lackluster Pitt Panthers posted their first true losing season in thirty years, finishing 3-6.
In 1942, the Dukes posted a 6-3-1 slate in what became their final season before World War II prompted the team to disband. Pitt posted another disappointing 3-6 record.
It is interesting to note that, from 1933 to 1942, Duquesne had the sixth best winning percentage in the nation (71-22-2, .762) behind Alabama, Tennessee, Duke, Fordham and Notre Dame. Compare that to the Pitt Panthers (62-26-5, .694) and Carnegie Tech (27-36-4, .433) during that same time frame.
Once mighty Pitt was now all that remained of the proud Pittsburgh triumvirate that, only a few years before, were three of the dominant forces in major college football. The Panthers themselves had quickly been reduced in stature to a mediocre eastern college opponent. Pitt ran off a continuing string of losing seasons between 1943 and 1947, during which their combined record was 14-30-1.
The Panther program continued its steady decline until the era of Coaches Red Dawson and John Michelosen (1952-1965) when the team once again cracked the Top 20 ranks. The team won another National Championship in 1976 under Coach Johnny Majors and flirted with the #1 ranking in 1981 and 1982. In ten of the past eighteen seasons, the Panthers have spent time in the national rankings.
The Dukes resurrected their football program on the major college level for four years beginning in 1947. Poor records followed, and in 1950 the program was again disbanded. No games were played against Pitt or Tech during that time. The team was revived once more in 1969 on the club level and has since evolved into a top-ranked program at the FCS mid-major level.
THE CITY GAME
The current Pitt-Duquesne "City Game" is now associated with sports other than football. Mainly focusing on basketball, not until 1953 did the two schools agreed to resume roundball competition. Since then the two teams have competed nearly every year, and the game evolved into one of the most highly-anticipated matchups on the Pittsburgh sports calendar.
Statistically, through the game played in January 1982, the Dukes had managed to maintain supremacy over the Panthers, posting an overall 28-19 head-to-head record. Since that contest, the Panther cagers have dominated the competition, winning thirty-six of the last forty games to take a 55-32 series lead.
The City Series was expanded to include Women's Basketball in 1974. The ladies competition has also evolved into a Steel City marquee matchup, with Pitt holding a 21-16 series lead. The inter-school rivalry has, at times, also included baseball, with Pitt holding a 58-22-1 series lead on the diamond, and men's soccer, with Pitt holding a 7-0-2 series lead on the pitch.
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Note: In basketball circles, the Carnegie Tech Tartans competed for seven seasons (1932-1939) along with the Pitt Panthers in the Eastern Intercollegiate Conference, gaining conference championships in both 1936 and 1939.
We are not sure at this time if Carnegie Tech played any games against Duquesne during those years as head-to-head records against opponents are not available online prior to 1950, and the Dukes were not an EIC member school. We will look further into this at a later time.
RELEGATED TO THE ARCHIVES
And so goes the story of the short-lived football version of the Pittsburgh City Title Series, a short but glorious Depression-Era tale about the three universities that participated in what amounted to an epic saga to determine the best major college team in the Steel City. The story is old, the final game being played over eighty years ago, but the excitement still real.
The eight-year City Title Series, from 1932 through 1939, is now the stuff of legend, an important part in the history of sports in the City of Pittsburgh. Much of that legend had been relegated to the archives. Hopefully this helps bring some of that collegiate city lore back to life.
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Here's a bit of archived football legend made here in the Steel City the year before Elmer Layden took the reigns of the Duquesne Dukes and ushered in the new era of Pittsburgh collegiate football. It has to do with the Tartans from Carnegie Tech and Coach Layden's alma mater and mentor.
On November 28, 1926, the 6-2 Carnegie Technical Institute football team shut out the undefeated and unscored-upon Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 19-0, at Forbes Field. Many consider it the Tartans greatest victory and one of the biggest upsets in major college football history.
That Notre Dame-Carnegie Tech game also featured what one Associated Press columnist termed "one of the greatest coaching blunders in history."
Knute Rockne, coach of the Irish, was so confident that his team would defeat "tiny Carnegie Tech" that he skipped the game. Leaving his assistants to lead the team in Pittsburgh, Rockne traveled to Chicago to watch the Army-Navy game and "write newspaper articles about it, as well as select an All-America football team."
It was only later that day that the stunned coach learned via telegram that his boys had suffered their only loss of the season. Carnegie Tech used the coach's absence as motivation and the upset cost the Irish a national championship. Go Skibos!
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Here's a final thought that struck me while looking through the newspaper archives:
My grandfather, Dan McGibbeny, was a high school student at Carrick and later a professional sports writer during the principle timeframe (1932-1942) covered in this article. He would certainly have been at each of the highlighted games, along with his friend Dr. Hank Zellers, a distinguished Pitt alumni, City Game basketball participant and future Panther team physician.
It would be nice to have gotten a chance to talk to Pap and Hank about the games and the three-way rivalry. They would have been glad to reminisce for hours, and would surely have been privy to the behind-the-scenes drama that caused Coaches Jock Sutherland and Clipper Smith to lose sleep as depicted in the 1936 editorial cartoon shown below.
* Written by Clint Burton - May 22, 2020 *
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