‘A Perfect Football Machine’
Undefeated—and barely scored upon—the 1958 Yellowjacket football team rewrote the record books. Rochester celebrates a signature season.
By Ryan Whirty
On Monday, November 6, 1958, six days before the Rochester football team was to face off against perennial Northeast power Tufts University, Yellowjackets coach Elmer Burnham came to practice with a stack of new plays.
Burnham, the former Purdue Boilermaker head coach who had already made Yellowjacket history six years earlier by leading Rochester’s first undefeated and untied football squad, knew what the team was up against.
And he knew what the skeptics were saying. Despite a 6–0 record and despite outscoring opponents 177–6 so far that season, Rochester hadn’t really proven itself, said the off-campus doubters. Sure, the defense was ranked near the top of the national small-college charts, and the team featured an offensive juggernaut—led by quarterback Eugene Nicandri ’60, halfback John Parrinello ’60, end George Hole ’60, and team captain and guard Larry Palvino ’59—that was consistently lighting up the scoreboard.
None of that mattered to the critics who thought the Yellowjackets had beaten up on a bunch of patsies. Once the Tufts University Jumbos came to town, many observers believed, Rochester would get its comeuppance.
But Burnham and the Yellowjackets had a few surprises in store, including a brand-new set of offensive plays. The challenge? The team had less than a week in which to learn them.
Later immortalized by the newspaper headline “Mental Giants Proved Gridiron Toughies,” the Yellowjackets, nearly two-thirds of whom held an academic scholarship, were used to absorbing a lot of information quickly.
“If you had to start working on new plays, if you had to start practicing them and expect them to work, it helped for the players to be bright,” Nicandri says nearly 50 years later.
The team not only learned the new plays but mastered them. When game day rolled around, the Yellowjackets destroyed the Jumbos 46–6 in a raucous, overflow Fauver Stadium.
“Tufts never caught up with us the whole game,” center Carl Violette ’60 says.
The thumping of Tufts would become the signature win for what many remember as one of—if not the—greatest season in Rochester football history. In the ensuing issue of the Campus Times, sports editor Mark Weinstein Phillips ’59 called the contest “a great victory, a victory no UR student or player will ever forget,” adding that the game “was the most glorious two hours ever spent at the UR.”
The CT splashed an article by reporter Tom Asher ’60 across page one. In the story, Asher quoted Burnham: “This,” the coach said, “is the greatest team I’ve had at Rochester.”
The Yellowjackets went on to post an 8–0 record and outscore their opponents 257–19 during the 1958 season. By the end of that fall, Rochester had reached No. 17 in the national small-schools poll and was fifth in the prestigious Lambert Cup rankings, which measured the best teams in the East.
Says Dave Ocorr ’51, a former director of athletics and recreation at Rochester, who covered the 1958 squad for the Rochester Times-Union: “It was a remarkable year by a remarkable group of men.”
A half century later, the 1958 season retains an almost magical quality for those who lived it.
“Sometimes,” Violette says, “the cosmos comes together.”
The surviving members of the 1958 football team will once again come together in October, when they gather during Meliora Weekend to be honored by the University during this fall’s homecoming game. Entering the records books alongside the 1952 undefeated Yellowjackets, the 1958 team set a standard for achievement on the football field that has stood for 50 years.
Fabulous ’52: A Season of Firsts
While the 1958 Yellowjackets were the last Rochester footballers to go undefeated, they were the second to go into the record books. Just six years before, the 1952 team made Rochester athletics history by completing an eight-game campaign as the University’s first undefeated and untied football squad.
Also coached by the legendary Elmer Burnham, the 1952 team accomplished several football milestones: In addition to being the first to finish undefeated, it was the first Rochester team to defeat then powerhouse Williams College, and the first to place a player on the Associated Press’s Little All-America team with lineman and team captain Donald Bardell ’53. Three teammates — James Brennan ’53, William Secor ’53, and William Sharp ’53 — were named honorable mention.
“This is one of the happiest days of my life,” Burnham told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle after the Yellowjackets defeated Allegheny College 38–0 to cap the season in front of 7,000 at Fauver Stadium. “A great bunch of kids.”
“Those seasons—1952 and 1958—still resonate in our institutional mindset,” says George VanderZwaag, Rochester’s director of athletics and recreation. And while he notes that much about collegiate sports has changed over the past five decades, running the table in any sport is a remarkable achievement.
“It’s one of the marks of excellence that you can never take away from a team,” VanderZwaag says. “It’s one of those frozen-in-time moments that deserve recognition.”
Whenever a sports team sets out on a new season, the goal is to win every game, he says, but accomplishing the feat requires more than optimism and drive. A team needs talent, chemistry among teammates, and a little bit of luck. And attitude.
“Every season is defined by how a team overcomes adversity,” VanderZwaag says, listing injuries, unexpected performances, and other setbacks that can turn a season. “The question is how do you recover from it.”
The 1958 Yellowjackets can attest to the importance of all those elements. While the roster listed more than two dozen players, the team followed Burnham’s “one-platoon” model in which a core group of about 15 were expected to be able to play entire games in both offensive and defensive positions. None of the starting linemen weighed more than 200 pounds.
“There probably have been other teams with better talent but haven’t been able to accomplish what we accomplished,” says Parrinello, who is now a prominent Rochester attorney. “The successful teams have overall team chemistry, and we had great team chemistry.”
That chemistry was forged among young men from a myriad of backgrounds, Violette says, adding that Burnham and his coaching staff, especially line coach and defensive mastermind Paul Bitgood, were able to meld their talents into a cohesive unit.
“When you look across our roster, in many positions we just happened to have the mosaic of skills that the game demands,” says Violette, who made his career as an executive with Dupont. “Everybody had something unique for the role he played.”
As a result, heading into the ’58 season, the Yellowjackets knew they might be on the verge of something special. Many of them had played on the freshman team that went 6–0 in 1956, while the 1957 varsity team had gone 5–3 despite a slew of injuries. In addition, pretty much every key player from the ’57 team came back a year later.
But it took the Yellowjackets a little while to put the pieces together. The squad played inconsistently in preseason scrimmages against Brockport and Alfred, and injuries continued to dog them. In their season opener against Allegheny, the Yellowjackets played a sloppy, penalty-laden game on the way to a 20–0 victory.
However, in its October 7 matchup against Hobart—a team Rochester lost to 20–0 and 27–20 in the previous two years—the Yellowjackets showed glimpses of their potential in a 24–0 blanking of the Statesmen, who were rendered helpless by the Nicandri-led passing attack. The Campus Times called the win “truly a fine hour for all the Rochester fans and especially for coach Elmer Burnham, who was carried off the field by his athletes.”
After that win, the floodgates opened. The Yellowjackets crushed Union and Vermont by a combined score of 93–0, and heading into their Oct. 28 game at King’s Point, N.Y., against the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, the team led the nation in defense and remained the only unbeaten, untied, and unscored-upon team in the country.
“We’ve got a good thing going here,” Palvino told the CT after the Vermont win. “We don’t want to let it slip.”
Rochester beat the Merchant Marines 20–0 in a contest that included a brilliant goal-line stand that preserved the Yellowjackets’ unscored-upon record.
Giving up its first touchdown to DePauw the following weekend, the team went on to club the Tigers 20–6. Nearly 300 fans greeted the players at the Rochester Airport when the Yellowjackets returned from Indiana after the win.
Then came the Tufts upset. In addition to proving to the nation that the squad was for real, the victory also put to rest the notion that the Rochester campus didn’t support its athletic teams.
“This feat (the undefeated record) drove a huge spike into the coffin of school apathy,” stated the Interpres. “The school had a team that (students) could be proud of, and they spared no hardship to prove it.”
Game after game became a standing-room-only affair at Fauver Stadium.
“It was a great time,” says Nicandri, who retired in 2005 as a judge in New York’s St. Lawrence County. “There were close to 10,000 people at those games, and they got to see a good show on the field.”
The Yellowjackets capped off the season by crushing RPI on Nov. 18 and finished the campaign 8–0.
“This was a team,” the Campus Times proclaimed in a season wrap-up, “the most superb all around eleven in the gridiron history of the University of Rochester. It was a team that provided the University with the maximum in sports thrills—the football expert, with some of the finest plays in the book—and (the team’s) own members with a feeling of spirit and teamwork—the mark of a perfect football machine.”
When the players on the 1958 football team reunite this fall, perhaps the most important team member will be missing. Palvino, the team’s captain and spiritual center, died in 2003 after a long career as an attorney in Rochester.
“He led quietly, with overwhelming desire,” says Parrinello. Adds Nicandri: “Larry was our inspirational leader.”
Palvino, who as a linebacker is credited with spearheading the defensive powerhouse that held five teams scoreless, earned the Associated Press’s Little All-America honors.
Palvino embodied the entire spirit of a team that consistently proved its doubters wrong. What the Yellowjackets may have lacked in physical size, they made up for with conditioning, teamwork, and smarts. A dean’s list student, Palvino was one of 17 players who held academic scholarships.
Almost to a man, the members of the team excelled in the classroom and went on to distinguished careers in a variety of fields. That alone, Ocorr says, makes the 1958 team a special one.
“If you want to talk about role models for student-athletes,” he says, “those guys exploded the myth that football players couldn’t be good students.”
VanderZwaag says the academic and career success of the members of the 1958 team is part of a long Rochester tradition of fielding teams that balance academic and athletic prowess. Over the past 50 years, the celebration of the academic success of athletes has largely disappeared from American popular culture and the mainstream media, he says, but Rochester and its peer institutions continue to find ways to recognize it.
Rochester, for example, ranks seventh among the NCAA Division III schools in the country in the number of Academic All-Americans since the Academic All-America program began nearly 30 years ago.
“That’s a reflection of who we are and the people who go—and have gone—to school here,” VanderZwaag says. “It’s a reflection of who we continue to be.”
On top of the academic success and grueling practice schedule and team chemistry, the Yellowjackets made sure to simply enjoy the thrill ride the 1958 season became. Says Violette: “We just had fun and played to win.”
Because of that, the 1958 football season has made an indelible mark on the University and on the players who made it possible.
“It was something that never leaves you, that binds you to other members of the team,” Parrinello says. “It was an accomplishment that everyone on the team shared.”
Ryan Whirty writes about sports for Rochester Review.