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A Look Back at the 1959 National Champion Syracuse Orange

Even after a disastrous performance against Maryland that took SU out of both the AP and Coaches’ polls, this Saturday’s matchup against No. 1 Clemson still has a ton of hype surrounding it.

The Dome is sold out and expected to be teetering on record-breaking numbers. Heck, the top team in the country/defending national champion is going to be in Central New York, but that’s not the only reason to be excited about this weekend.

Two more big honors are set to go down during the game as the program’s all-time leader in sacks, Tim Green (more on him later this week), is set to have his number retired at halftime, while the 1959 National Championship team will celebrate its 50th anniversary during the game.

It’s going to be a momentous occasion for the greatest team in the history of Syracuse football and the only champion in the program’s history. So with that coming up on Saturday, let’s give you a little primer and fill you in on exactly what that 1959 team was all about

The Coach

The only other head men that can give Ben Schwartzwalder a run for his money in terms of how much they meant to Syracuse football and what they accomplished at its helm are Paul Pasqualoni and Dick MacPherson and even they pale in comparison to Schwartzwalder. The College Football Hall of Famer is the program’s all-time leader in wins and has the second-best winning percentage among SU mentors who have coached at least 100 games behind only Pasqualoni. The 1959 season was Schwartzwalder’s 11th at the helm of the program and saw him win his lone National Coach of the Year Award. He’d coach some of the greatest players in SU history in his 25 years with the program with the likes of Jim Brown, Floyd Little, Ernie Davis and Larry Csonka passing through Central New York in his tenure. On top of all those accolades, he was a pioneer in the recruiting and development of black football players and was instrumental in molding college football into what it is today. He is a legend through and through.  

The Star

Gerhard Schwedes was an integral part of the offensive monster that led SU to the Cotton Bowl Victory which clinched the National Championship and actually led the Orange in yards from scrimmage, but far and away the superstar of the 1959 squad was Ernie Davis. Perhaps the second greatest player to ever don the Orange and White behind only Jim Brown. By modern standards, Davis’ 1959 numbers aren’t elite, but he still dominated every game he played in. The sophomore ran for 686 yards (7.0 ypc) and added another 94 on the ground. He’d go on to have even more impressive seasons as a junior and senior and became the first black athlete to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961. Davis was the 1st overall pick in the 1962 NFL Draft, but never took an NFL snap as he tragically died from leukemia just five months after being drafted. Much like Schwartzwalder, Davis’ impact goes far beyond what he did on the field and he paved the way for generations of black athletes that would follow him.

The Journey

Dominant. That’s the best way to describe the season leading up to the Orange’s run to the 1960 Cotton Bowl against Texas that would solidify their spot as National Champions. Syracuse didn’t even begin the season ranked, but after winning their first six games (all by at least two touchdowns and five by at least 25), Davis and company quickly catapulted themselves into the top 5 before a week 7 matchup against No. 7 Penn State. The showdown with the Nittany Lions would be the only challenge Syracuse would face up until the Cotton Bowl, escaping Happy Valley with a 20-18 win. A 71-0 win over Colgate in week 8 was the largest of the season and a win over No. 17 UCLA capped off an undefeated regular season, setting up one of the most contentious bowl games in college football history.

The Game

Racial tensions were at the forefront of the 1960 Cotton Bowl Classic as No. 1 Syracuse battled No. 4 Texas in Dallas. Incidents leading up to the game, coupled with perceived targeting of black players on-the-field set the stage for a dominant Syracuse win that was far more convincing than the 23-14 final indicated. Ernie Davis dazzled with three total touchdowns, running for a pair and catching an 87-yard pass out of the hands Schwedes for the third and final tally. That day in Dallas, the Orange beat every obstacle, both physical and societal in their way and capped off the most successful season in program history.

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The Fizz is owned, edited and operated by Damon Amendolara. D.A. is an ’01 Syracuse graduate from the Newhouse School with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.

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