When Oswego was a football town

Empire Bowl XII

Oswego has gained a reputation as a hockey town on the strength of its minor hockey program and perennially strong high school and college teams.

But not very long ago, football was the talk of the town with two successful high school gridiron teams (the Oswego High Buccaneers and the Oswego Catholic High Crusaders). But how many locals recall the third successful football team in town — SUNY Oswego’s club football squad.

That’s right, college football right here in Oswego!

The year was 1973, and Oswego State had resurrected its club football team just one year before, after a 35-year absence on campus. The sport was received with large crowds of students and townies alike at home games, lining the sidelines of the South Athletic Field, where the turf stadium now sits across from Romney Field House.

The Lakers had a successful regular season in ‘73, sporting a 3-2 record with big wins over previously unbeaten St. John Fisher and Niagara University.

By virtue of winning three of its final four games, the Lakers received a bid from the National Club Sports Association to play in the eastern regional bowl game—the Empire Bowl. The Lakers were ranked #12 nationally, among the 212 college club football teams, so not only did they receive a bid to the post-season, but they had the honor of hosting the game. It was a big deal locally with plenty of pregame hype both on campus and in the community via this newspaper and WSGO radio, courtesy of amiable communications professor Lew O’Donnell and Sports Information Director Ross Aldrich.

So, on Saturday, November 17, 1973, Oswego State hosted American University from Washington, DC in Empire Bowl XII at Leighton Field.

There was nothing second-rate about the operation. The club produced a game-day program with plenty of photos and advertising from local businesses such as Tri-Lions Tavern, Gentile’s Camera Shop, and Shapiro’s clothing stores.  The Lakers’ uniforms resembled the classic Green Bay Packers, with gold pants, forest green and white jerseys, and gold helmets sporting the Oswego “O.” Adding to the college football atmosphere, the Black Knights Drum & Bugle Corps performed halftime shows.

The Lakers were coached by Danny Coughlin, Charles Davis, Jim Howard, Sr., and head coach Doug Rubenstein. “Coach Rube” was quoted in the Palladium-Times of November 13, “We want to bring a football championship to this city.” He went on to say that he had no fewer than 15 local players on his 50-man roster. Among the area players wearing the Laker green and gold were freshman tackle John Wallace, senior guard R.J. “Rotten” Reynolds, junior back Ted Palmitesso, senior tight end Mark Murray, senior lineman Roger Goewey, senior defensive back Dan Murn, junior tackle Hercules Master, senior defensive back Tim Donovan, sophomore fullback Rusty Crucitti, junior quarterback Billy Belden, and freshman halfback Vince Barone.

The Lakers made a name for themselves on the offensive side of ball running from a pro set. The outside running game was led by Ron Osinski from East Syracuse with inside power running provided by Oswego native Crucitti and Art Ivey. The run game was complemented by a passing game spearheaded by quarterback Billy Sparks. His favorite targets were lacrosse standout Travis Cook along with Oswego’s own Murray. Kicking specialist Dave Stankavage deftly handled field goals and extra points.

According to Murray, “Travis Cook was arguably the best athlete I ever saw. The entire offense revolved around him.” Cook was selected to the National Club Sports Association All-American team and was the Lakers’ offensive MVP after leading the team in scoring and receiving yards in both the ’72 and ’73 seasons.

Local sports historians will tell you that football wasn’t even Cook’s primary sport. The 6’ 3” Cook, from the St. Regis Reservation, was a standout lacrosse player, who eventually was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

The Empire Bowl game itself was an exciting affair that lived up to the week-long excitement that it generated in the community. It was a back-and-forth affair with several lead changes. The Lakers took 13-0 first quarter lead before surrendering three consecutive American University touchdowns. Facing a 20-13 deficit in the third quarter, Osinski (who was named the game’s MVP) scampered to the end zone on a 35-yard run to pull Oswego to within a point at 20-19.

The Lakers dominated the fourth quarter, taking the lead on a strong, 13-yard run by Ivey, and adding an insurance score on a 31-yard touchdown pass from Sparks to Murray. According to this newspaper’s archives, “Murray, enjoying his best game of the season, took a turn-in pass in the flat, spun out, and dashed down the sideline cheered on by the hardy Port City football fans who withstood a chilly wind.”

Final score: Oswego State 31 - American University 20.

The success of the ’73 team continued for a brief time at the club level, and even encouraged the administration to make the jump to Division III NCAA football, but the sport proved to be too costly in tough budget times, and it was eventually dropped.

But, for a time, the campus and the community were abuzz about the Laker football team.

Mike McCrobie is a retired Oswego High School English/Journalism teacher. His column appears here every-other Wednesday. His new book, “We’re from Oswego” is currently available at The River’s End Bookstore and at amazon.com. His writing has appeared nationally in Chicken Soup for the Soul Inspiration for Teachers, Chicken Soup for the Soul My Crazy Family, and Reminisce Magazine. Over 40 of his favorite columns are published in his first book, Our Oswego, which is also available at The River’s End Bookstore and at amazon.com

He can be reached at ouroswego@gmail.com or at mmccrobie@palltimes.com

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