Don Veller...A Good Hire
By Jim Joanos
It has been fifty-three years since Don Veller came to FSU. From 1948 through 1952, he was the head football coach. In that capacity, he led FSU to its first football victories since 1904, its first conference championships, its first undefeated season, and its first bowl appearance and victory. Those five years are a valuable part of FSU football history.
When Veller was hired by FSU in 1948, his sports credentials were exceptional. He had been a star halfback at the University of Indiana. In the last and most important game of his senior season, 1934, against hated instate rival Purdue, Veller had an 82 yard touchdown run. The score enabled Indiana to pull a 17-6 upset victory that day. Following the season, he received his team's most valuable player award. He was also selected for and played in the East-West Shrine game. Incidentally, one of his teammates on that all star team was another young man destined for future success, a center from Michigan by the name of Gerald Ford. An all around athlete, while at Indiana, Veller, had also participated in freshman or intramural basketball, wrestling, track and baseball.
Following college, Veller became a high school football coach in Elkhart, Indiana. He was very successful. In seven seasons his teams won eighty-five per cent of their games. His coaching career was interrupted by World War II. Like so many young Americans in the early forties, he responded to Uncle Sam's call and spent the war years in the U.S. Army serving in a number of assignments including ones with the Military Police, the Army Service Forces, the Infantry, and the Air Corps. By the time the war had ended he had attained the rank of major.
After his military duty, Veller had one year as athletic director, head football and track coach at Hanover College in Indiana. Then his old college coach, Bo McMillin hired him to be an assistant coach at his alma mater, Indiana. He served in that capacity for the 1947 season coaching the Indiana ends. He also coached the tennis team at IU as part of his assignment.
Then FSU came calling. But it was academics more than his football credentials that got Veller the FSU job. As a college student, Veller had been outstanding in the classroom. He finished at Indiana with a 91 grade average and in his senior year won the Big Ten Conference's medal for scholarship and athletics. Before FSU hired him, he had already obtained a Master's Degree and was finishing up in the Doctor of Philosophy program at Indiana. In 1948, FSU's coaches were required to teach. To some in the administration, that was the most important duty they were required to perform. Keep in mind, that in 1948, FSU's sports program was quite different from today's. There were no scholarships and sports were considered an extension of the physical education program. Coaching football was not primary in Veller's arrangement with FSU. His main job was to teach in the physical education department as an associate professor. He was also to serve as Chairman of FSU's Division of Athletics. For all of that he was to receive $5,400 per year. That Veller would more than likely receive his PhD degree in the near future was a major factor in his hiring. When he got his PhD, it was promised that he would get a slight raise. He could give up coaching football whenever he wished.
In announcing the hiring of Veller, President Doak S. Campbell stated that FSU would "go beyond" the NCAA "sanity code" and that the school was "going to do our best to be strictly amateurs."
When Veller was hired, FSU had just completed its first football season since 1904. In an abbreviated schedule, the Seminoles had gone zero and five. Despite the record, their was an air of optimism. The 1947 season was regarded as what it was, just a beginning. The first year had been totally makeshift. Head Coach Ed Williamson and his assistant, Jack Haskins, had been in charge on a temporary basis just to get something going. Neither came to FSU to coach football nor was it their intention to continue doing so. Both taught in the physical education department. Haskins' primary project was to establish a student circus at FSU as part of the physical education program. I might add, he soon accomplished that and was most successful in the endeavor. Before the 1947 season, there had been very little time for organizing or recruiting. The team was mostly made up of those who happened to be in school and wanted to come out for the team.
Veller could only get to Tallahassee for very short periods of time in the spring of 1948 because of his pursuit of the PhD degree. Consequently, he had to rely on his two recently acquired assistant coaches, brothers Charley and Bill Armstrong to conduct most of spring practice that year. The Armstrongs had been football players at Indiana. Despite, Veller's absence, the assistants went ahead and installed the offensive formation that FSU would run under Veller's leadership, the "Cockeyed T". Sometime after spring practice, he hired a third assistant, Bob Harbison. Harbison had also played football at Indiana. Harbison would be an FSU assistant football coach for many years thereafter. He also hired Eddie Kwest, who had been an assistant at Indiana as FSU's head football trainer.
By summer, with the new coach, the view toward Florida State's football team took on an increased air of enthusiasm. Florida State continued to be a very attractive place to go to college for the former military personnel who were returning to civilian life. Young men who had put down their m-one's and mustered out of the military forces, yearned for a college education. A campus that boasted about twenty-five hundred coeds was especially appealing. Some of those soldiers, sailors and marines liked to play football. Some had played in the service. Some had played at other colleges when the war interrupted their education. Some had only high school experience. Some transferred from other schools. FSU gave no scholarships, consequently there were no rules against playing transfers. The former military men were joined by high school graduates from north Florida and south Georgia and Alabama. According to a report in The Florida Times Union, one of the young men that Veller had invited to come out for the team replied that he would be there and added, "If I can't get a room, I will sleep in my car if necessary...I really want to play ball." Some wrote that they would report a day or so early.
About eighty candidates for the team, including twenty-two lettermen from the year before, showed up for the two-a-day practices that began at 9 a.m. on Monday, September 13, 1948. The men were in full pads from the opening workout. Charlie Armstrong and Harbison worked with the linemen while Veller and Bill Armstrong coached the backs. The workouts must have been pretty tough for in less than a week nearly thirty of the potential players had eliminated themselves from further competition. Fred Pettijohn, The Tallahassee Democrat sports editor wrote about it. "From the moans and groans issued by some of the former candidates you'd think that Veller was the ruggedest Indian chief in all the history of the ancient red man."
The preseason sessions lasted for nearly a month. Whatever Veller and his assistants did, it worked. For on Saturday night, October 9, 1948, Florida State won its first football game since 1904 by beating Cumberland University 30 to 0 before 6,500 fans at Tallahassee's Centennial Field. Two of the backs who starred for FSU included Ken McLean (146 yards) and Wyatt "Red" Parish (111 yards). Most of Parish's yards were gained on reverses. FSU completed as many passes as it intercepted, being successful on 3 of the 6 thrown, and intercepting 3 of the 18 attempted by Cumberland who completed 9. FSU scored five touchdowns. Interestingly, FSU missed on all five extra points.
The FSU team lost its next game at Erskine College 6 to 14, but then went on to win its last six games. One unidentified writer described what Veller had done: " Veller took a group of boys that didn't win a game in 1947 and vaulted them to the Dixie Conference championship. His team didn't lose a conference game while winning four. His overall record for the year was seven wins and a lone loss to Erskine College by the slim score of 14-6." The conference championship was the first in FSU's football history.
The second year under Veller was even better. The team went 9-1 concluding the season with a 19-6 victory over Wofford in FSU's first bowl game ever, The Cigar Bowl in Tampa. Incidentally, the only loss that season was at Livingston State College to a team coached by Vaughn Mancha, 12-6. Mancha, who later joined Veller as an assistant at FSU and then went on to become FSU's Athletic Director is quite proud of that game. However, he will own up to some rather interesting things that happened that night. One story that I have heard from him is that someone had forgotten to hire officials for the game. The problem was solved by Mancha going into the stands and recruiting some of his former football teammates at Alabama to officiate. They had come to the game to watch his team play. He claims that it did not have anything to do with the outcome of the game.
In Veller's third year, FSU had its first undefeated football season in the university's history when it went 8-0. The team also won the Dixie Conference for the third year in a row. Two other events made the year noteworthy. It was the first year that FSU had its new stadium. It was also the year in which Veller became Dr. Don Veller, as he received his PhD from Indiana University and became a full professor at FSU.
The last game of that 1950 season was especially memorable. I remember it as the coldest FSU home game that I have ever attended. It was sixteen degrees and the wind was blowing. There were long icicles hanging from the water tower in view from Campbell Stadium. I was shivering and kept moving about trying to find someplace where the wind was not blowing. Players on the field wore gloves. At halftime, Coach Veller took the team into the team bus, Old Ironsides, which was parked at the stadium and turned on the bus's heater. The new stadium had no warm room for them. In any event, FSU beat Tampa on a frigid day, 35-19 to complete a perfect season. One other thing happened that day that I will never forget. FSU's Tommy Brown set the school punting record with an 84 yard punt. I do not believe that record will ever be broken. That ball went over the defensive back's head and just kept bouncing and rolling, rolling on the cold ground. Eighty four yards is twice the length of a good punt.
The 1950 team turned down an invitation to play again in the Cigar Bowl. The year before, the team had expected to receive commemorative watches for playing in the bowl. Instead, they got miniature rubber toy footballs. It had left a bad taste in their mouths. In addition, since they had no scholarships to play football, many of the players had Christmas jobs that allowed them to make some much needed money for school. They voted against the return trip to Tampa. Incidentally, when the 1949 team attended a reunion last year in 2000, they were presented with long overdue watches commemorating that Cigar Bowl victory.
In 1951, Veller had another good season, going 6-2. The only losses were at the University of Miami, and to the University of Tampa in Tallahassee. The University of Miami had been scheduled to bolster the schedule.
Thus, in Veller's first four years as head coach, FSU had gone 30-4 and established a winning tradition. But time had run out. The mature military veterans that FSU had depended upon so much had graduated. FSU had moved to a major college schedule. The Miami team in 1951 had been the first of the big program teams to be added. The 1952 season included Louisville, VMI, North Carolina State, Mississippi Southern, and Georgia Tech. The step to the big time was too soon. FSU had only since 1951 begun to offer football scholarships. FSU's team was now quite young. The older programs had been at it a long time. The result was a disastrous 1952 season with FSU going 1-8-1.
The 1952 football season was the last that Don Veller would serve as head football coach. In January of 1953, he voluntarily stepped aside. But his football legacy remains. He was a winner and that tradition has remained with FSU football.
Since then Veller has gone on to serve FSU in a quieter but most important way. He continued his teaching and has taught hundreds, maybe thousands, of students. He has served the university in a number of other ways including Associate Athletic Director for a period of time. He has written extensively. For many years, he served as FSU's golf coach. His more famous golfers have included PGA golfers Paul Azinger, Hubert Green, Kenny Knox, Jeff Sluman, and Brian Kamm. He has been honored by a number of hall of fames including in 1980, the National Golf Coaches Hall of Fame. Recently, Veller, and his wife of 64 years, Frances, his former Indiana University campus sweetheart, made several generous financial contributions to FSU's sports programs. Don Veller has been and continues to be one of FSU's major supporters. He was definitely a good hire.