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First Utah-West Virginia meeting was one of Utes' biggest football wins ever

SALT LAKE CITY — For a 53-year period between 1939 and 1992, the Utah football team made it to exactly one bowl game, the 1964 Liberty Bowl, when the Utes faced West Virginia. At the time, the Deseret News called the Utes’ 32-6 victory “certainly the greatest win ever for Utah football.”

Now, 53 years after that monumental bowl victory, the Utes and Mountaineers are matched up again in the Heart of Dallas Bowl the day after Christmas for the first time since that 1964 meeting. It will be just the second meeting ever between the two schools.

While the Dec. 26 game will be a big deal to the players and coaches and many fans, it isn’t on the same level as the 1964 bowl game. The '64 game was much bigger on many fronts, seeing as how there were just eight bowl games total, compared to 41 today (counting the football playoff championship game). Even with fewer major-college teams in those days, making a bowl game was a big accomplishment, while today any team with a .500 record is eligible for a bowl game.

And for Utah, it was a huge accomplishment because the team hadn’t been to any bowl game for 25 years since beating New Mexico in the 1939 Sun Bowl, its first-ever bowl appearance.

“We had a really good team with players like Roy Jefferson and Ron Coleman,” recalls John Pease, a longtime Ute assistant coach who played wingback and cornerback for the ’64 team. “It was a fun deal.”

Courtesy University of Utah Athletics

The Liberty Bowl was first played in 1959 at Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium. It was the only cold-weather bowl game at the time, but after five years of sub-freezing temperatures and low attendance, the game was moved in 1964 over to Atlantic City, New Jersey, at Convention Hall, where the annual Miss America Pageant was held annually.

It was the first-ever indoor bowl game, but a challenge in that artificial turf had not yet been developed. Actual grass was used, three-inch sod atop two inches of burlap on top of a concrete floor.

The Convention Center was tall enough, at 137 feet that punters couldn’t reach the ceiling, but the venue was not quite long enough and end zones were just 8 yards deep with a stage at one end. One set of goalposts was mounted on the base of the stage.

The Hall held 12,000, with fans right on top of the action, but only 6,059 fans were on hand that day, the majority from West Virginia, as not many Ute fans were able to make the long trip east just before Christmas. Maybe it’s because the tickets were so expensive — $10 a seat, one of the most expensive bowl games at the time.


Utah’s cheerleaders and songleaders accompanied the team, but the band didn’t make the trip and the Utes were represented by the Lebanon High School band from Pennsylvania, which learned the “Utah Man” song at the last minute, according to the Deseret News.

The Utes came into the game as three-point underdogs to the Mountaineers, who played in the Southern Conference and had beaten Syracuse and Kentucky that season for their biggest wins.

“There was a lack of respect for us on the East Coast,” remembers Pease. “They said, ‘the University of Who?’ I don’t think West Virginia had much respect for us either.”

The Utah team, called the Redskins as well as the Utes in those days, was 46 players strong with the majority of the players from California and the rest from Utah. The Utes came into the game with an 8-2 record, having lost at Missouri in the second game and at Wyoming 14-13 in the fourth game when a strong wind blew an extra point just wide.

Coach Ray Nagel’s crew was known for its defense, led by players such as C.D. Lowery and Frank Andruski, with four shutouts on the season. They held opponents to just 6.18 points per game, which is still a Ute record for fewest points by an opponent. During their seven-game winning streak to end the season, they allowed just 31 points total.

Most of the players played both ways and the Utes alternated quarterbacks Pokey Allen, known for his running, and Rich Groth, who was the passer. Jefferson, who would go on to a successful professional career with a Super Bowl victory, was the team’s placekicker in addition to being the top receiver.

Utah jumped out to a 3-0 lead on a Jefferson field goal and before halftime added an 11-yard TD run by Allen, another Jefferson field goal and a 53-yard scamper by Coleman for another touchdown, making it 19-0.

In the second half, the Utes added a 47-yard run by Andy Ireland and a 33-yard pass from Groth to Bill Morley, while West Virginia could manage just one late score.

The 1964 Liberty Bowl-winning team was honored at halftime of the Utah homecoming game in Salt Lake City, Utah Sept 25, 2004. | Tom Smart, Deseret News

Coleman, who has worked as a history professor at the University of Utah for decades, was named as “the most valuable backfield man” after rushing for 154 yards on 15 carries. In all, Utah more than doubled West Virginia in total yardage 466 to 228.

“I think Alabama or Arkansas won the national championship that year, but that day we would have been competitive with anyone,” said Pease. “It was about as good a football team as I’ve ever been around.”

Following the game, the Utes spent a day in New York City before returning home to a rousing welcome in Salt Lake City with a parade on Main Street and State Street and up South Temple to the university.