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MCCOOK'S 1960 BIG TEN FOOTBALL CHAMPS by Larry Cain

When the Bison football team won the 2002 State Class B Championship (13-0), it was inevitable that comparisons would arise between that marvelous squad and the 1946, 1980 and 1994 Bison grid teams. Those teams were deservedly spotlighted in the previous Bison Alumni News Letter, but only fleeting mention was given another Bison team that deserves to be included among the finest of all time in the schools history. The10-0 1960 team didn’t win a state championship, but it was one of only three Bison football teams since World War II to complete regular and postseason play with an undefeated record.

 

There was little reason to believe that McCook’s 1960 season would be any better than 1959 had been, when the Bison were 6-3 and second to Scottsbluff in the West Big 10 standings. Coach Galen Moyer had left McCook following that season to take a coaching position at a larger school, leaving the Bison head coaching job to young assistant Andy Loehr, a Pennsylvania native and member of Nebraska’s 1955 Orange Bowl team. Bison players returning for the 1960 campaign discovered quickly that McCook High School football was going to be a lot different.

 

“It was sad to see Moe (Moyer) leave,” remembers Chuck Campbell (’61), a senior end and co-captain on the 1960 team, who claimed good personal relationships with both men. “We had played for him for two years and we were familiar with his approach. He was of the old school of coaching. Screw up and you heard about it. Andy was a young coach and not prone to chew you out on the field. He was energetic and could show us how to do things. He was tough and good and set a good example of what good football was. He encouraged us with praise and demonstrated the errors instead of telling us about them.”

 

Vince Wasia (’61), a 1960 senior fullback and co-captain, shared Campbell’s positive view of Loehr.

 

“He had the ability to recognize what each player did best, he had the ability to convey his ideas to the players and the assistant coaches, and he would get in with the players at practice, without pads, and demonstrate what he wanted,” Wasia recalled. “He has to be credited with bringing the players together in the right combination to have such a successful season. The talent existed but it was through his guidance that it was used correctly.”

 

In a radical move, Loehr revamped the Bison offense, scrapping Moyer’s single wing and installing a full-house T formation. As the opener with Gering drew near, Loehr and his assistants, Paul Forch and Ken Foster, decided on the starting lineup that would remain virtually the same for the entire season: Campbell and Tom Cotton were the ends, Howard Berg and Mike Russell were the tackles (Charles Real and Ken Osburn filled in for Russell when he was injured early in the season), Cliff Gibson and Leon Hoyt occupied the guard spots, and Larry Graff was the center. In the backfield were Dave Williams at quarterback, Duane Hein and Larry Thompson at halfbacks, and Wasia at fullback. Hein was the extra-point kicker and Campbell handled the punting.

 

McCook cruised to wins in its first three games, beating Gering, 25-2, and blanking Gothenburg and Lexington by identical 19-0 scores. The Bison opened the West Big 10 season with a rousing 25-0 win over three-time defending conference champion Scottsbluff and followed with a 48-6 romp over North Platte in a game that saw Wasia gallop for five first-half touchdowns against a Platter defense that had been designed to stop him.

 

“North Platte was probably our biggest rival, and had been for years,” said Wasia. “We were always up for them and what we did was really a team effort. I don’t remember that we prepared any different than we did for any of the other games, except it was homecoming and we were not going to lose it.

 

McCook rushed for 495 yards (195 by Wasia) and 23 first downs that night, while the defense jolted the Bulldogs loose from seven fumbles. But Chuck Campbell’s most vivid memory of that game was North Platte’s only touchdown, scored on the final play. Campbell, in the game at defensive end, remembers just missing tackling North Platte quarterback Terry Discoe before he fired an eight-yard scoring pass as time ran out, the first TD scored against McCook all season. The big Weiland Field crowd fell eerily silent. The only sound to be heard was the exultant celebration of the Bulldog players. “They were celebrating,” Campbell recalls, “like they’d just won the game.” 

 

There were no similar opponent celebrations for a while. Gaining momentum each week, the Bison crushed their next three opponents: Alliance (46-0), Sidney (41-0) and Kearney (39-0). The latter win clinched the West Big 10 Championship, the school’s first since 1956. By now, the team was up to No. 4 in the Class A AP rankings and had allowed just one touchdown in eight games. All this despite Wasia’s knee injury against Alliance that kept him out of all but the opening play of the next week’s Sidney game. But Thompson, Hein and junior halfback Bob Stuver took up the slack and the Bison machine rolled on.

 

“Each week there was a different back or lineman who was the star for that game,” Wasia remembers. “It was like we all took turns and that is probably what helped make it a winning season.”

 

The Bison concluded the regular year with a 45-14 win over Holdrege as the Dusters astonished the Weiland Field turnout by scoring twice, on a long pass and a kickoff return. Still the game was never really in doubt as McCook wrapped up its first unbeaten season since 1946, thanks in great part to spectacular touchdown runs of 86, 22 and 37 yards by Stuver. Meanwhile, Hastings was beating Grand Island to clinch the East Big 10 crown. The two teams would meet at A. H. Jones Stadium in Hastings the following Friday afternoon for the Big 10 title.

 

At this point, a bit of explanation is probably due readers under 40: The Nebraska Big 10 Conference was formed in 1945, and the initial alignment was to remain unchanged until the conference ceased operations in the late ‘70’s. McCook, Alliance, North Platte, Scottsbluff and Kearney, all Class A schools at the time, were in the West Division. Hastings, Grand Island, Columbus, Fremont and Norfolk made up the East Division. Each year, from 1945 through 1974, the two divisional football champions met on the field for the conference championship, a kind of postseason “bowl game” in the days before state playoffs. In those pre-playoff days, the Big 10 Championship game was the premier high school football event in the state, and was nearly always staffed by the high school sports reporters from the Omaha World Herald, Lincoln Journal and Lincoln Star as well as Lincoln’s KOLN-TV. The East champion hosted the football playoffs in even-numbered years, hence the Bison were set to travel to Hastings to play for the 1960 title.

 

“On the field, there was nothing out of the ordinary that week,” Campbell said. “We practiced against a hamburger squad that ran Hastings plays and we watched Hastings game films. I think Andy wanted it to seem just like any regular game. I don’t remember anything out of the ordinary as far as preparation. Maybe we were a little more thorough on the scouting.”

 

In the halls of McCook High School, however, the atmosphere was anything but ordinary.

 

“I remember the mood of the school was very festive and lively, and there was a lot of excitement,” said Campbell. “Andy did not want us caught up in all that, but it was impossible to ignore. None of the students could remember McCook getting that far in football. It was all very exciting.”

 

Hastings entered the game with a 7-1-1 record and the Queen City was still smarting over McCook’s 3-0 upset of the Tigers in the Big 10 playoff in 1956 that denied Hastings the state championship. No state title awaited this year’s winner, as the Bison entered the contest ranked No. 4 in the AP poll, two spots ahead of the No. 6 Tigers, but the game promised to be competitive. Coach Ollie Smith’s team boasted a sophomore quarterback, Wayne Weber, who was already being touted as among the state’s best preps, and the Tigers had plenty of big linemen and speedy backs and receivers to go with him.

 

“Hastings was the biggest line we faced all year,” Campbell said. “and they had the most talent. They were fond of end sweeps, student body right and student body left.”

 

It was cold in Hastings on the afternoon of Friday, November 18, so cold, remembers Vince Wasia (“it was the coldest game I ever played in”), that the Bison players all wore gloves, virtually unheard of in that era. The Burlington Rail Road even put a special train to Hastings on for the McCook fans and the high school band.

 

Neither team was able to score in the first quarter, but Weber shocked the Bison with an 18-yard touchdown pass in the second period to give the Tigers a 6-0 lead, only the second time McCook had trailed all year (Gering led briefly, 2-0, in the opener).

 

Unable to move the ball consistently on offense, the Bison punted from deep in their own end of the field in the second quarter. Campbell, who had boomed a clutch 69-yard punt against Scottsbluff earlier in the year, this time rocketed a 60-yarder that Hastings return man Randy Paymal fielded at his own two. According to newspaper accounts of the game, Paymal evidently thought he was five yards farther upfield when he gained possession. He sidestepped McCook’s Larry Thompson, first Bison down the field on coverage, but then took a step back to further avoid Thompson and was standing in his own end zone, evidently believing he was inside his own five yard line. By that time, Thompson had recovered from his initial miss and reached up and dragged the shocked Paymal to the turf in his own end zone for a McCook safety. The Bison still trailed at halftime, 6-2, but the safety had switched the force of momentum from Hastings’ sideline to McCook’s.

 

Though Hastings had scored its only first-half touchdown on a pass play, the Tigers had kept McCook’s defense on its heels with a powerful running game, pulling both guards and using all the backs to lead the ballcarrier on sweeps. “We had trouble getting the linebackers and (defensive) backfield to close on the play,” Campbell said. “It was almost impossible for the defensive tackle and the end, me, to make a tackle with all those blockers. I can’t remember if we made any adjustments at halftime, but they continued to be successful with that play.”

 

“I don’t remember what coach Loehr said exactly (at halftime),” said Wasia. “Except that he said it was up to us to turn it around, and that this is what we had worked for all season. I think the hype, the cold and the idea of a title game just got to everybody in the first half. I remember halftime was very sobering.”

 

McCook finally got its offense in sync in the second half and took an 8-6 third-quarter lead on Wasia’s 19-yard scoring dash. The Bison scored what appeared to be the clincher early in the final period, as Thompson found the end zone on a three-yard burst and Hein added the extra point to make it 15-6, McCook.

 

But just as the Bison thought they had finally gained control of the game, Hastings mounted a comeback. Picking up huge chunks of yardage on sweeps (“they kept running that play over and over,” Campell said, “It was brute force against brute force.”) the Tigers got back in the game on Jack Giddings’ five-yard TD run and the one-point extra point run by Paymal (High School Federation rules didn’t allow running or passing for two points until 1969). It was 15-13 now, but all the Bison had to do was hang onto the ball, grind out a few first downs, and the game would be over. No such luck. Before long, Hastings had possession again, and it was right back to the ground game for the Tigers.

 

“I was surprised that they didn’t try to pass on us more,” Campbell said of the Tigers’ fourth-quarter surge. “We were expecting the sweep and I think they could have surprised us with a pass at that point.”

 

Down the field the Tigers marched, Giddings right, Paymal left, six, eight, 10 yards at a crack as the clock ran down, far too slowly for the taste of the McCook contingent. Bison fans in the stands and those in schools, at work and at home listening on station KBRL, were all wondering the same thing: Would this game never end? 

 

Forty-three years later the images remain vivid, to those who were there and to those who listened on the radio. Hastings’ offense, in high gear now, another first down inside the McCook 20 yard line, The crowd yelling, players scrambling, scrambling, hurrying to get into position for the next snap. Ten seconds, nine, eight… The referee marking the ball ready for play at the McCook 16. Five seconds left, four, three… Hastings lining up, trying to get the play off. Two seconds, one second…and then, no seconds. It was over. Zeroes on the scoreboard clock.

 

The Hastings crowd fell silent, disbelieving. The McCook crowd, screaming in panic just seconds before, now let loose a roar of equal parts relief and celebration. The McCook Bison, unranked at the beginning of the season, with a first-year head coach and a brand new offense, had won the Big 10 Championship! More images. Bison players joyfully jumping up and down as only triumphant 15, 16 and 17-year-olds can on the greatest day of their young lives. Loehr, hoisted to the shoulders of his triumphant team, accepting the Big 10 Championship trophy.

 

The final AP poll left the Bison at the No. 4 spot, behind unbeaten Omaha Central (paced by senior halfback Gale Sayers), Creighton Prep (also unbeaten; Central and Prep fought to a 0-0 tie that year) and Lincoln High (8-1). Campbell and Wasia earned first-team Associated Press Class A All-State honors, and Wasia and Hein were named to the Woodmen’s All-American team. Wasia and Thompson combined for more than 2,000 rushing yards (each ran for more than 1,000) and 30 touchdowns, while Campbell led the team in receiving.

 

The 1960 Big 10 championship was the last one a McCook football team would ever win. The Bison competed in class A for 16 more years, dropping to Class B in 1977, where they have been a more-or-less regular playoff participant since. But not for another 42 years would a Bison football team finish a season unbeaten in all games.

 

Andy Loehr was McCook’s head football coach for four more years before moving to Lincoln High in 1965. He retired not long ago after a long and successful coaching and teaching career at that school, and Campbell says he is still living and active in Lincoln. “I ran into him (Loehr) at the International Golf Tournament in Castle Pines, Colorado, a few years ago,“ Campbell said. “He looked very much the same and he recognized me.”

 

Chuck Campbell attended what was then McCook Junior College before finishing school at Boise State University in Idaho. He worked in the computer industry for almost 40 years before retiring in 2002. He is now in the family chemical manufacturing business in Tempe, Arizona, with his only son.

 

Vince Wasia attended the University of Colorado and McCook Junior College prior to graduation from Adams State University. After a year in the insurance business in California, he joined the Air Force and flew C-130’s in Vietnam for two years. He remained in the Air Force for 22 years before retiring in 1988. He is currently the Director of Training for a charter aviation operator in San Marcos, Texas.

 

As for other teammates and classmates on the 1960 Bison, Campbell says “Some I have been in contact with over the years, some I have not seen since high school. Larry Thompson is in Cortez, Colorado. Duane Hein is in the Minneapolis area. Cliff Gibson is in Orlando, Florida. Bob Hackencamp is still in McCook, Larry Graff is in Windsor, Colorado, and Howard Berg is in the San Francisco area. I believe Mike Russell is in the Carolinas. Leon Hoyt passed away a few years ago.”

 

Incredibly, at least to those who were around at the time, 43 years have passed since the 1960 Bison made their claim as among the best to represent the school on the gridiron. But Chuck Campbell says there was no indication at the beginning of that season that the team would accomplish all that it did, though the team’s excellence became obvious to all as the season progressed. “We had a new coach, a new offense, a new team and a collection of guys that wanted to play football,” he said. “I think the lack of knowing or thinking we had anything special (in the beginning) made us play a little harder . The rest followed.”

 

The 1960 McCook Bison—(1960 class in parentheses): Howard Berg (12), Allan Bishop (10), Jim Brandt (10), Tom Buresh (11), Louis Burgher (10), Joe Burns (11), Chuck Campbell (12), Mel Campbell (11), Mike Campbell (10), Dick Cappel (10), Steve Carlson (10), Tom Cotton (11), Jim Decker (10), Gary Dolan (12), Jim Flaherty (10), Jim Gettman (11), Clarence Gillen (10), Cliff Gibson (12), Kenneth Graff (11), Larry Graff (12), Lenus Groves (10), Bob Hackencamp (12), Duane Hein (12), Mike Herman (11), Marty Hime (11), Terry Hoff (11), Milt Houghtelling (11), Leon Hoyt (12), Mike James (12), Gary Lamb (10), Buddy Lashley (10), Rich Myers (10), Bill Noll (11), Ken Osburn (12), John Ozanne (11), Daryle Pasquan (10), Charles Real (12), Walter “Corky” Rine (10), Marty Russell (10), Mike Russell (11), Terry Spratlen (11), John Steinke (10), Bob Stuver (11), Bill Thieben (10), Larry Thompson (12), JimTrupp (11), Steve Walker (12), Vince Wasia (12), Dave Williams (11), Roy Wolgamott (10).

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