Replaying memories from the Peterson Years
By Jim Joanos
Bill Peterson became Florida State's head football coach in 1960. Under his command, FSU moved from a promising program to one that could win consistently against some of the better teams in the country. The Peterson years were fun years for FSU fans.
In the 11 seasons (from 1960-70) that Bill Peterson coached at Florida State, the team had a record of 62-42-11.
The team played in four post season bowl games. In those 11 seasons, some of the most significant events in FSU football history as well as national football history occurred. During that span, FSU attained higher rankings than ever before, secured its first consensus All-Americans and became a leader in changing the very manner in which college football was played. FSU, with Peterson at its head, led the movement that changed college football from a basic, conservative run-oriented type of game to one with a wide-open style in which the forward pass became the key ingredient.
A native of Toronto, Ohio, Bill Peterson was the oldest of six children born to a farm family. His father died when he was twelve years old. As a result, Peterson was required to assume the operation of the family farm and a major responsibility for raising his siblings. Under the circumstance, few would have believed that this young boy would eventually fulfill his boyhood goals of playing college football and becoming a coach. In his book, Building from the Start, that he wrote and published with his friend, C.A. Roberts, he described his demanding childhood and his dreams:
|Each Saturday I would round up all the available kids and we would choose teams and play football. Saturday night was always a bad night. I would come in from playing, do my chores and try to get some sleep. Visions of playing and coaching football would walk through my mind. I would bite my lip, fight back the tears and roll my face into the pillow. "Bill Peterson", I would say, "You have no right to think about such things. They are for other people." Finally, I would sleep, but the dreams would fill my young mind. I'm glad they did.|
Dream he did and the dreams came true. When he finished high school, he received what he described as a "work scholarship" to Ohio Northern University. He "picked up dishes for his meals" and worked as a "houseman" for a college fraternity, in addition to playing football at the school. He played well enough as an end on the team to be selected captain for his senior season. Keeping his childhood dreams alive to be a coach, he began coaching football at a small high school in nearby Forest, Ohio, even while he was still in college.
Coach Bill Peterson
Following graduation from Ohio Northern, he coached high school football for 10 years. His overall record as a high school coach at Forest, then at Wapakoneta and later Mansfield, Ohio, was an outstanding 51-22-3. His stint at Mansfield High included the winning of two state championships. His performance at Mansfield got the attention of a Mansfield native who was becoming quite successful at the college ranks.
In 1955, when Paul Dietzel became the head football coach at Louisiana State University, he hired Peterson to go with him as the Bengal Tigers' line coach. Dietzel and his staff, including Peterson, were quite successful and after four seasons, LSU won the national championship in 1958.
They followed that in 1959 with a 9-1 record and a third place finish in the country.
Peterson was credited with recruiting some of the outstanding players that helped LSU to do so well. Consequently, Peterson was there in Baton Rouge, a major factor in a very successful football organization, when FSU came calling and made him its head coach.
THE EARLY YEARS
Peterson, at first, had an uphill battle in Tallahassee. He describes it in his book:
|The fact is, when I came to Florida State, we had no male alumni over forty. Since Tallahassee was a small city of about 50,000 - although it was the capital - few alumni were still in the city. Also, the school was independent and therefore had neither a winning tradition nor an identification with a conference.|
The first Peterson year at FSU was filled with close games. Throughout the season, the team exhibited improvement and determination but did not total a winning season. An FSU media guide described that first year thusly:
|Peterson inherited a demanding schedule and a predominantly sophomore squad for his first season as a college head coach. After a Texas hatful of wrong way bounces and a deceiving 3-6-1 finish, FSU followers are convinced that Peterson has the Seminoles headed in the right direction. Three of the six Seminole losses in 1960 were by a total of six points. With 11 points spread in the right spots, FSU's record would have been 7-3.|
The next year, 1961, FSU went 4-5-1. There were two very memorable games in that second Peterson year. The first was a 3-3 tie at Florida. Peterson described the Florida tie in his book as "one of the few times in my career I ever treated a tie like a win."
The FSU fans did likewise. Many of those at the Gainesville game swarmed the field after the game to tear down the goal posts. A melee ensued. At least one report stated that it took a half hour to restore order.
The second big event in 1961 was a 3-0 victory over Georgia in Tallahassee. It had been a real achievement just to have an established team like Georgia come to Tallahassee. Beating them was an even bigger accomplishment.
Peterson's third year was a real break through year for the Seminoles. Although the record was a modest 4-3-3, it was Peterson's first winning season at FSU and proved that FSU could hold its own consistently against major teams. In his book, Peterson describes how special it was: "the team had a fantastic attitude and great desire. We played seven Southeastern teams and only lost to one: Florida. We tied Auburn, Georgia Tech and Kentucky, and beat Georgia."
FSU's victory over Georgia for the second straight year, this time in Athens, 18-0, was especially noteworthy. The amazing 14-14 tie at Georgia Tech was another high point as Georgia Tech was then among the country's powerhouses under legendary coach Bobby Dodd. A 22-yard run by FSU half back Dave Snyder was one of the spectacular plays of that game. Snyder would not be denied and shed several would-be tacklers on his way to the goal line for a touchdown. The 1962 season also ended on a high note with 14-14 tie at Auburn.
The 1963 season started out exceedingly well when the Seminoles defeated the University of Miami at their place, 24-0. One of the big plays of that game was Fred Biletnikoff's 99-yard pass interception run for a touchdown. But optimism was dulled the following week with the Seminoles unexpectedly loss to Texas Christian. Up and down the entire season, FSU finished the year with a 4-5-1 record.
THE 1964 SEASON - GLORY!
Since 1947, football fans of the recently converted coeducational FSU, had dreamed of the days when the upstart program would take a place among the major powers of the college football world. In 1964, the dreams came true. From that point forward, FSU would no longer be that fledgling football school seeking recognition among the old time programs. From that time forward, FSU would be considered as serious competition for all who would play the institution.
FSU's quarterback-receiver combination of "Tensi and Biletnikoff," its rock hard defensive front seven, known as "The Seven Magnificents," and "The Forgotten Four" defensive backs provided lots of pleasure for FSU fans that magical season. Even in writing about that season over forty years later, I still feel some of the emotion that came over FSU at that time.
Suddenly, our fans were wearing buttons proclaiming that "We are No. 1" and traveling in large numbers to away games. Suddenly, FSU had arrived in big time college football.
The season started with three straight shutouts, at Miami, 14-0, Texas Christian, 10-0, and New Mexico State, 36-0, at home. FSU had played three games without being scored upon, but its biggest challenge followed. Undefeated Kentucky, ranked fifth in the country, came into Doak Campbell Stadium as FSU's homecoming opponent.
The Wildcats had previously beaten Auburn and Mississippi. The game proved to be no real contest. FSU dominated from the beginning. When the 48-6 event was over, FSU had claimed a great deal of attention throughout the country. When the Associated Press poll was published two days later, FSU was ranked tenth in the country. It was the first time ever that FSU had cracked the Top 10.
The Seminoles followed the Kentucky win with a hard fought victory at the University of Georgia, 17-14. But then the bubble broke, at least temporarily. At Virginia Tech, the Seminoles could get very little going until very late and the Hokies found ways to score against FSU. The result was a 11-20 FSU loss.
In the next game, at home, FSU beat Southern Mississippi, 34-0. On the road, the following week, the Seminoles tied Houston, 13-13, without the most important services of the team's star, Biletnikoff, who had been injured in the Southern Miss game. The regular season ended with two victories at home, 28-6 over North Carolina State, and 16-7 over Florida. The Florida victory was the first ever in the modern era over the Gators.
Incidentally, it was the first time that "The Game" was played in Tallahassee rather than Gainesville. After the major win over Florida, FSU sported an 8-1-1 record and received its first ever bid to the Gator Bowl.
On January 2, 1965, FSU demolished the Oklahoma Sooners in Jacksonville, 36-19. The game was totally dominated by the Seminoles. Quarterback Steve Tensi threw five touchdown passes, including four to Biletnikoff. Following the season, Biletnikoff was selected as the first ever Seminole to be a consensus first team All-American. Soon thereafter his jersey with its "25" was the first ever retired at FSU.
The 1965 season did not have the emotion or the victories of the previous season.
The season got off to a bad start with a 7-3 loss at Texas Christian. There was, however, one big win that year. For the third year in a row, Peterson's Seminoles defeated the University of Georgia. This time it was 10-3, in Tallahassee.
Unfortunately FSU fans did not have long to celebrate. The next week, the Seminoles went to Alabama and got shut out 21-0. When the season ended, FSU had a record of 4-5-1.
Another roller coaster type year followed in 1966. FSU looked very good at times and if one official's "out of bounds" call in the Florida game had not occurred, it would have been a very special year.
FSU began the year by losing to Houston, 21-13, at home but followed with an away victory at Miami, 23-20.
In the closing moments of the third game against Florida, FSU completed what looked to be a winning touchdown pass from Gary Pajcic to Lane Fenner in the end zone. But, alas, an official ruled Fenner to be out of bounds, and Florida held on to give FSU a 22-26 loss. Photographs published the next day showed Fenner to have been in bounds. The debate over the catch has gone on to this day. Seminoles argue that it should have been a touchdown; the Gator position is that Fenner juggled the ball and rolled out of bounds before having full possession. The play is regarded by many FSU fans as the most controversial in the team's history.
The rest of the 1966 season went pretty well for FSU with the team going five and two during the regular season with victories over Texas Tech, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Wake Forest, and Maryland, while losing only to Virginia Tech and Syracuse. With a 6-4 record, FSU was invited to play Wyoming in El Paso's Sun Bowl. In the bowl game, FSU lost 20-28, to a Cowboys team led by Jim Kiick, who would later star for the Miami Dolphins.
1967 - ANOTHER SEASON OF GLORY
When Florida State began the 1967 season by losing badly at Houston, 33-13, things looked dismal. Very few expected that a special season had begun. In the very next game, FSU shocked the college world by going into Legion Field in Birmingham and tying, number two ranked Alabama, 37-37. The game became even more noteworthy in that ABC that year produced a documentary on Alabama's legendary head coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant which included some of the highlights of that game were displayed. There was a special piece in the film that showed Bryant yelling "What the Hell is going on out there?" as FSU's Walt Sumner ran 75 yards for a touchdown on a punt return.
I have special memories of that game that include watching the glassy eyed shocked Alabama fans staring straight ahead without making eye contact as they left the stadium. The memories also include observing an Alabama fan going berserk at dinner following the game when he did not get the service he wanted at a restaurant. It was very difficult for Alabama fans to endure the experience of that game when they had been so high in the football world but had to fight for their lives against a team that few would have expected would challenge them.
Football is a crazy game. In the very next week at home, FSU was beaten by North Carolina State, 20-10. But that was the end of the losing for FSU that season. After a 0-2-1 start, FSU won all the rest of its regular season games against Texas A&M, South Carolina, Texas Tech, Mississippi State, Virginia Tech, and the University of Florida.
The game at Florida is also regarded as a legendary one for Seminole fans. FSU led early in the game, 14-3. But suddenly, in the second quarter, there lay FSU quarterback Kim Hammond motionless on the sod with his head tilted in a twisted position. My thoughts at the time were that he had a broken neck. We cheered when he finally showed movement. He was led off the field. With Hammond out of the game, the Gators took over the momentum of the game. By the end of the third quarter Florida had cut the lead to 14-9 and it seemed to be only a matter of time before they would take the lead. But then in the fourth quarter, out of the locker room, Hammond, like a knight in shining armor, returned to the game. After only three plays, the first and third of which were 51 yard and 38 yard pass completions to Ron Sellers, FSU had scored another touchdown and re-established control of the game. The final score was FSU 21, Florida 16. It was FSU's first ever victory in Gainesville.
As a result of the very successful season, Florida State was matched against the nation's 10th ranked Penn State Nittany Lions in Jacksonville's Gator Bowl. That game that ended in a 17-17 tie was another classic. Penn State dominated the game early on and by the third quarter held a 17-0 lead. With the ball on Penn State's own fifteen yard line, with fourth down and short to go, its Coach, Joe Paterno, in a rare carefree moment decided to gamble and go for the first down. The FSU line stuffed the play and FSU took over. From then on, it was all FSU. The Seminoles scored the last seventeen points of the game to tie the game and complete the season, with a 7-2-2 record. At the end of the season, Ron Sellers became FSU's second consensus All American.
In the following season, the Seminoles did well again and went 8-2 during the regular season with victories over Maryland, Texas A & M, Memphis State, South Carolina, Mississippi State, N C State, Wake Forest, and Houston. The two losses were to Florida and to Virginia Tech. The 40-20 victory over number eighteen Houston in Jacksonville was a special treat for Seminole fans. Several thousand partied all the way over from and back to Tallahassee on a special chartered train for the event.
The season ended with FSU's third bowl trip in a row and the fourth in five years. Prior to Peterson's tenure at FSU, FSU had participated only a total of three bowl games. This time the Seminoles played the LSU Bengal Tigers in the inaugural Peach Bowl game in Atlanta. At Grant Field, FSU lost to LSU, 31-27. Quarterback Bill Cappleman made a heroic attempt to bring the Seminoles back late in the game passing to All-American Ron Sellers, but the effort fell short in the rainy and severely cold evening.
After the first six games of the 1969 season, FSU was 5-1, and it looked like FSU was on its way to another bowl season. But FSU won only one of its last five games and finished the season at 6-3-1. The won-loss was good enough but the upset loss to Memphis State and the lopsided one, 41-13, to Houston, in the last game of the regular season kept the Seminoles out of the bowl picture.
In Peterson's last year at FSU, the team went 7-4. There were some good victories over South Carolina, Miami, Clemson, and Virginia Tech, but they did not offset the losses to Georgia Tech, Florida, Memphis State, and Houston, and FSU stayed home again during the bowl season. Again a bad loss to Houston in the last game of the season, 53-21, especially hurt the Seminoles chances for a bid.
PETERSON MOVED ON
After the 1970 season, Rice University came calling with lots of money and a number of other incentives that amounted to too much for Peterson to turn down. He moved on to that institution where he stayed for a short while as their head coach before becoming the head coach of the professional Houston Oilers football team. After the Oilers, he later served as the athletic director at the University of Central Florida. After his retirement, he spent the last years of his life back in Tallahassee working at FSU in an administrative and fund raising capacity.
Following Bill Peterson's death, in 2002, his family made a generous memorial contribution to the scholarship program at Florida State in his honor. In recognition of his importance in the history of FSU football, "H" style goal posts were placed in Doak Campbell Stadium so that FSU players could "run through the goal posts" as they did during Peterson's tenure at the head of FSU football. It has been a fitting tribute to the man who many believe and as one fan put it, "was the first to really put FSU on the big time football map." For us old timers, it brings back a lot of great memories to watch our present day Seminoles run through "Pete's posts."