50 years ago, Terps ruled

Time has smudged memories of '51 team, but not even '01 UM is match for its feats

College Football: 1951 Terps

November 23, 2001|By Bill Free | Bill Free,SUN STAFF

There have been amazing stories down through the years about football coaches staying up all night to prepare for games.

But Maryland coach Jim Tatum may have topped them all the night before his heavy-underdog Terrapins upset No. 1 Tennessee, 28-13, in the 1952 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

Tatum dared to break existing protocol by rooming with his star quarterback, Jack Scarbath, and going over every possible scenario Scarbath would face the next afternoon.

"Tatum would say over and over, `Now, if they do this, what will you do?' " said Scarbath last week. "I think I finally fell asleep. I never heard of a coach doing that before Tatum did it and I doubt if anybody's done it since."

Tatum never told any of his players or assistant coaches about what he did and Scarbath never revealed the lengthy strategy session with his coach. "That was Jim Tatum," said Scarbath. "He was always prepared for everything."

Scarbath, who lives near Rising Sun, compared Tatum to Ralph Friedgen, coach of the Maryland team that has just completed a 10-1 regular season. "They're both very thorough in their game preparation, leaving nothing to chance," Scarbath said.

In those days, no polls were taken after the New Year's Day games, so Maryland remained No. 3. The No. 2 team, Michigan State, did not play in a bowl game. So the nation and Volunteers readily recognized that the 10-0 Terps - though it was unofficial - were No. 1.

And although 50 years have gone by, no Maryland team since has had a perfect season. Those 1951 Terps thrashed the rest of the teams in the Southern Conference by an average of 34 points and shut out nonconference opponents Missouri and Louisiana State.

It all started with the team's 6-foot-4, 260-pound coach, a larger-than-life, Babe Ruth type of man who wasn't afraid to take risks.

Tatum was enticed by Maryland president H.C. "Curly" Byrd in 1947 to leave behind a strong Oklahoma program. He was brought in to lift the Terps into the national football limelight, and delivered with a 73-15-4 record over nine years. Besides the perfect season, Tatum took the team to five bowl games and one national championship (1953).

He left in 1956 to become head coach at North Carolina, which was closer to McColl, S.C., where he grew up. Tatum died at 45 after contracting Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

"By the time they figured out what was wrong, it was too late to do anything about it," said his son, Jim Tatum Jr.

Tatum Jr., 54, an attorney in Durham, N.C., recalled his father. "He was the kind of man who could fill a room. He had a presence. When people find out who I am, they still come up to me and hug me."

Tatum's assistant at Maryland was Warren Giese, now a South Carolina state senator. He said Tatum had a "family-like atmosphere" around the team and "if he erred in discipline, it would be on the stricter side."

Giese also said Tatum was a master recruiter and salesman. "He usually looked for kids who came from tough financial backgrounds and strong families," he said.

Tatum once was on the verge of tears as he delivered an emotional talk to the mother of a prospect. The woman was so moved that she turned to her son and said, "Son, you're going to Maryland."

The coach had been accompanied on the recruiting trip by his star defensive tackle, Dick "Little Mo" Modzelewski, who recalled what happened next.

Upon leaving the house, the player said, "Coach, I thought for a minute there you were going to cry."

Tatum responded: "It worked, didn't it?"

The success story in 1951 was based on a team-oriented group of talented players who perfected Tatum's choice of a rather new offense at the time, the split-T. In that formation, the quarterback lines up behind the center to take a direct snap.

The domination by Maryland's split-T in the Sugar Bowl matchup against Tennessee's renowned single wing contributed to the demise of the latter formation. In the single wing, the center snaps to any one of three backs - halfback, fullback or quarterback.

Baltimore's Scarbath quickly mastered the split-T, and he had plenty of weapons at his disposal. Modzelewski's older brother, Ed "Big Mo" Modzelewski, was one of the most feared fullbacks of the time. He overpowered Tennessee for 153 yards and was named Sugar Bowl MVP.

Halfback Ed Fullerton, who now lives in Pittsburgh, could also have been named the MVP as he played a major role in three of the four touchdowns against the Vols.

Fullerton provided a light moment during one of the Terps' huddles in the Sugar Bowl. After Scarbath called his number on an option pass at the Tennessee 6-yard line, Fullerton, who had small hands and had trouble gripping the ball, protested, "I'm not throwing that ... ball!"

But he did throw the ball, right to the late Bob "Shoo-Shoo" Shemonski for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead in the second quarter. Fullerton later bragged in jest: "Who's the greatest passer in Maryland history? Me, of course. I was 1-for-1."

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