Two years after Washburn University was devastated by the 1966 Topeka tornado, the school was still ailing from the aftereffects.
The period was also a dark time for the WU football program, which went 2-7 in ‘66 and followed with a winless season in ‘67.
“I think the average age of our team was about 19. We were a very young team. We had an 0-9 season and it was very discouraging,” said Bernie Bianchino, a defensive end at WU from 1966-69. “The university had been going through some pretty rough financial times because of the ‘66 tornado that tore through the campus.”
Prior to the ‘68 season, Washburn’s board of regents voted to drop football because of a lack of funding.
“It was pretty traumatic,” said Steve Alston, a running back for WU at the time. “What was really probably more traumatic for people in my class was my first day on campus was two months after the tornado went through Washburn. So the first challenge was, here I am at the university, there’s stones everywhere and everything was torn. Trailers were classes. From there, the school was trying to put it back together.
“Two years later, they’re taking away football. So it was traumatic, not just for me, but for all the guys.”
Almost immediately after the vote, a campaign was launched to convince the board to reverse the decision.
“The team members, the alumni, the friends and family of Washburn and a number of media people got together and petitioned, and the board of regents were called upon to discuss the subject,” Bianchino said. “When we went to the meeting, the board of regents challenged us to sell tickets to raise enough money to reinstate the program.
“Just about everybody in Topeka got together for a two- or three-week campaign.”
The effort was successful, with the players and community securing $21,487 in funding from public support to resurrect the football program.
Nearly 50 years later, about 30 members of the team that helped save Washburn football will reunite this weekend.
Commemorating a season-opening upset victory in 1968 over Kearney State College, now the University of Nebraska at Kearney, the 1967 and 1968 teams will be honored during halftime of Washburn’s 1 p.m. game with UNK on Saturday at Yager Stadium.
While Washburn was coming off a winless season and nearly had the program discontinued in the offseason, Kearney State was on the heels of an undefeated season heading into the ’68 opener on Sept. 14.
“We were decided underdogs and we knew that,” Bianchino said. “We had about seven thousand people come to the game, which I think was one of the largest crowds in Washburn history at the time. I recall that the horseshoe was full of people, shoulder to shoulder with standing room around the walkway of the stadium. I always say that they came to see how close we could keep the game. In fact, we did keep it close. We upset them 26-20. It was quite an experience for us and the fans. I think it really helped them understand how important football was to the university.
“I would say it was the greatest upset in Washburn football history.”
Alston said the WU players were out to justify the decision to bring football back.
“We had seen it taken away for us,” he said. “We had to have something to prove.”
Quarterback Dean Ferrell set a then-school record with 17 pass completions in the game, including 11 receptions from Irv McCoy. Bianchino, Don Prince and Jim Honn teamed up to make a key defensive stop on a fourth-and-1 with Kearney up 20-19.
Alston rushed for 94 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown on a 1-yard run with 2:53 left.
“As a running back, on a day when your line is controlling the other line and you come to the huddle, it’s fun. It’s absolutely fun,” he said. “We had a couple guys up front that were controlling their opponent. All day long, it just felt as though they would not be able to stop us from running. We were very successful that day.
“It was just one of those days where you go back to the huddle and shake your head at the guys opening the holes and say, ‘Let’s do this again,’ and that’s what we did. A good day for us.”
The team finished the season 2-7 under coach Bill Schaake, who passed away earlier this month at 87. WU progressed the next season, going 5-5 in its first year under Harold Elliott.
Alston, who now resides in New Jersey and listens to every game on the internet, said he and the other members of the late 1960s teams can take some pride in watching the development of the program under coach Craig Schurig.
“We were a base for where the school needed to go, and they did it,” Alston said. “It took a lot of years. They’ve consistently gotten better. They have a couple players in the pros. It’s a class organization. I’m just extremely proud of it.”
The reunion was orchestrated by Bianchino, who made the lead donation to the 2003 renovation of Yager Stadium and is the namesake of WU’s Bianchino Pavilion.
“Bernie has done a really good job of communicating when something happens to one of the players,” Alston said. “He keeps us informed.
“As I looked at the list (for the reunion), I had to smile because the list kept growing and growing. There are people on that list who were the veterans when I got there. I’m really tickled to go back and see those guys. I can’t wait to see them. There’s a lot of stories to be told.”