In October 1960, Omaha Central and Creighton Prep met for what many Nebraskans consider the greatest high school football game ever played. Future NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers scored seventy points while leading Central's powerful offense through its first four games. Prep's strong defense, on the other hand, allowed only twenty points all season. Legendary coaches patrolled both sidelines, and Prep was aiming for its third straight state championship. The stage was set for a Friday-night showdown.
Fifteen thousand fans packed into Omaha's Municipal Stadium to watch the early season championship clash. Stubborn defenses ensured parity. Back and forth the teams battled, mired around the 50-yard line, punt after punt soaring into the sky. With no overtime to settle things and the defenses holding fast, the game ended in a scoreless tie. When both teams won their remaining games, they shared the state title that year.
Scoreless retells the details of this legendary game, the buildup to it, and the story behind the teams and their renowned coaches and players. It is the tale of one of the most remarkable football games in Nebraska high school sports history.
READ AN EXCERPT FROM SCORELESS
(The following passage is taken from chapter 3 of the book, published in 2016 by the University of Nebraska Press.)
The smell of backyard barbecue at the annual Russell Sporting Goods coaches’ party became as familiar to intercity league coaches as checking out equipment or calling quarterback sneaks. There was hot food—lots of it—and cold beer, or soda pop if that was your preference. Many coaches brought their wives along to socialize. This yearly rite of passage signaled to coaches such as Frank Smagacz and Don Leahy that their favorite time of year, football season, was fast approaching.
Located at 1816 Farnam Street in Omaha, Russell Sporting Goods Company, having in 1960 been in business for more than eighty years, was one of two prominent Omaha sporting goods stores that supplied equipment to area high schools. The other was Hauff’s, located nearby at 13th and Farnam. Russell’s satellite operations in Lincoln, Grand Island, North Platte, and Scottsbluff—the latter located nearly five hundred miles due west of Omaha—were a clear indicator that the sporting goods business in 1960 was no sucker’s racket. A guaranteed constituency of high school athletes aided business. Russell and Hauff’s were the go-to suppliers of varsity letter sweaters, which cost a shade under $14.00 each. For another $2.25, a student could purchase the letter itself. Chevrons cost $0.45 apiece, the same amount customers paid for an All-American Meal at McDonald’s, “the drive-in with the arches.”
The Russell store’s proprietor’s annual gathering of the coaching fraternity gave coaches a chance to get acquainted off the field. Central’s Jim Karabatsos struck up a close connection with Prep’s Dudley Allen at a previous iteration of the Russell party, and they “became friendly,” said Karabatsos. That friendship continued to grow as time passed. They’d bump into each other, sometimes at the grocery store or other spots across Omaha, and always took time to chat with each other, sometimes about football, other times about family. Allen was also close with Frank Smagacz, whom he had first met while coaching Valley, whose league rival was Tekamah, where Smagacz had coached.
“He was a hard-working guy,” Allen said of Smagacz. “A fundamentalist.”
Jim Karabatsos knew Don Leahy from his days as a student at Creighton University, where he had shared a campus with Prep student and football star Leahy. Karabatsos in those days attended most Prep games played at Creighton Stadium and had seen Leahy’s playing career blossom before his own eyes. Now they were both coaches: competitors on equal footing.
“We had a high level of respect for Prep because we knew the quality of work that they did coaching their team. We knew we had to do a hell of a job to try and even keep up,” Karabatsos said.
That level of respect wasn’t reserved exclusively for Leahy and Prep. Clearly Leahy’s nearly unbeatable teams in his first five years at Prep had established his place among the statewide coaching hierarchy, but in 1960 there were others with lengthier résumés. Smagacz, for one, was entering his eleventh season at the helm of Omaha Central. Of Nebraska’s 208 high school football coaches, the longest-tenured was Ed Colleran of Spalding Academy, who in 1960 began his twenty-seventh season on the job. Ed Haenfler’s twenty-two seasons coaching Grant placed him second. Legendary coach Maurice “Skip” Palrang in 1960 began his eighteenth season at Boys Town. According to at least one account, Palrang’s tenure at Boys Town didn’t begin until Father Edward Flanagan was able to meet the coach’s salary demands, a figure that Palrang thought was beyond the means of the humble community for homeless boys. Flanagan called his bluff and asked him to start immediately. Under Palrang’s direction, Boys Town played a national schedule for many years that would have made many college coaches jealous, and the visibility earned the coach well-deserved recognition. Flanagan, a visionary in so many ways, appreciated the visibility the football team provided his orphanage. He also believed strongly in racial equality, and his football teams, with players of many races and colors, became symbolic of his own principles.
These long-tenured coaches proved to be the exception, not the rule. Turnover came with the territory. In 1960, eighty-five Nebraska high school football coaches were in their first seasons at their respective schools; forty-four were in their second years; and twenty-three were in their third years. The high school coaching fraternity wasn’t one of means, either. The pay was barely sufficient, and most coaches taught classes ranging from history to physical education. Many coached multiple sports, and others officiated games to bring home extra money. Some, including Frank Smagacz in his later years at Omaha Central, taught driver’s education during the summer. A group of Creighton Prep coaches including Jack Jackson, Tom Brosnihan, and Don Leahy did the same. Jackson recalls that he was the only one of the three properly certified with a driver’s education certificate. Brosnihan, who often chewed tobacco, marked his territory with tobacco spit stains inside the doors of most of his driver’s ed cars over the years. One particular night certainly could have brought his credentials under scrutiny, and the story, in one form or another, has survived in Creighton Prep lore ever since.