Forty years ago, a pair of young football coaches from the East Coast were preparing for their first season in the West. Their aim was to restore respectability to the Loyola University football program.
By 1949, the new Loyola head coach, Jordan Olivar, and his top assistant, Jerry Neri, both in their mid-30s, had enjoyed great success in leading their alma mater, Villanova College of Philadelphia, to a 33-20-2 record during the previous six years.
They were joined at Loyola by another former Villanova assistant coach, John McKenna, and by 1938 Loyola grad Harry Acquarelli, who also coached the Lions' freshman squad.
Olivar and Neri were the perfect pair to lead their type of team, according to retired journalist Chuck Johnson, for 40 years the sports editor of Tidings, a weekly newspaper serving the Catholic community in Southern California.
"Jordan was a very intellectual type of coach," Johnson said. "Jerry was the disciplinarian. If any player needed to be chewed out, Jerry did it."
They also brought Loyola a simplified T-formation passing offense that was revolutionary for that time in football.
Olivar and Neri were fresh from having led Villanova to a 27-7 victory over the powerful University of Nevada (now Nevada-Reno) in the Harbor Bowl in San Diego on Jan. 1.
In fact, it was during a stopover at Los Angeles' Union Station, while taking the train from San Diego back to Philadelphia, that a member of the team read that Loyola was conducting a search for a new head coach.
"Jokingly the remark was made, 'Hey, there's a job we ought to apply for,' " said Olivar. "We all loved the West Coast. We had an hour's wait at Union Station on our way back to the East, so I thought, 'What the hell'--it cost a nickel in those days to call."
Timing, at that moment, was on their side. "The gal who answered the phone said, 'The athletic department is closed today--it's Sunday.' That could have ended that, but then she had a second thought and said, 'Oh, maybe Father (John F.) Connolly is around. He's the chairman of the athletic board.' I said, 'That's the man I want to talk to,' " Olivar said.
"She called his room (on campus) and he was in. We talked and I told him why I was calling. He starts laughing like hell. I asked him what was so funny. He said, 'Don't you know who the leading contender is for this position? It's Joe Sheeketski (coach of the Nevada team that Villanova had just trounced). So I laughed. I said, 'Father, would that really hurt my chances?' He said, 'I've got to meet you.' "
Olivar, who was set to send his team on to Philadelphia while he traveled north to San Francisco to attend a football coaches' convention, was urged by the Loyola priest to alter his plans. Before going on to San Francisco, he met with one influential member of the search committee, Ted Von Der Ahe, who ran Vons supermarkets at the time and who was impressed with the Villanova coach. The committee asked Olivar to return after the convention.
"On Jan. 10, I flew back to L.A. and met with the committee on campus in St. Robert's Hall. It had snowed on the flats of L.A.--for the first time in 69 years--and I just said, 'You sure know how to make a guy from the East feel right at home.' They laughed and that sort of broke the tension. After the interview, I flew back to Philadelphia, and the next day they called to tell me the job was mine.
"I spoke to my wife for about five minutes and called them back and said, 'OK.' Jerry (Neri) was out scouting someplace. I finally located him and said, 'Jerry, stop recruiting. We've got a new job.' He just said, 'OK.' "
So both men moved their lives, families and futures across the country to a place where they'd have a significant--albeit relatively brief--impact. And although they would later move across the country again to coach at Yale University, they have since kept their homes in the South Bay, Olivar in Inglewood with his wife of 53 years, Stella, and Neri in Westchester with his wife of 48 years, Teresa.
Although 38 years have passed since big-time football was dropped at Loyola, the two coaches and many of their players remain close. The team members had their most recent reunion in July, and they get together at least once a year.
Many of the former players were also in attendance earlier this year when Neri was inducted into the Loyola Marymount University Athletic Hall of Fame, in the hall's fourth year of existence. He joined Olivar, who was inducted in the hall's charter year of 1986.
Neri, 74, is a special-assignment scout for the National Football League's Detroit Lions, which he joined as director of player personnel in 1969. He began his 27-year association with the NFL when he and Olivar decided to leave Yale after the 1962 season.
The energetic Neri--who resembles Pat O'Brien, the actor who portrayed Notre Dame's legendary football coach, Knute Rockne--looks and acts much younger than his age.
So does Olivar, soon to turn 76, who last coached as a volunteer in the spring of 1963 for UCLA, which considered him the foremost expert on the T-formation. Although Olivar has been away from the coaching ranks since then, he keeps a full business schedule as president of a pension administration firm in Beverly Hills that grew from his work as an insurance sales manager that began while he was still coaching.
During their coaching days at Yale, Olivar and Neri continued to live in Southern California for nine months of the year, living in Connecticut only during the football season.
Growing weary of the East Coast winters and the coaching commute for those 11 years, they chose to become full-time Los Angeles residents again, just as they had in '49.
In that year, Olivar and Neri took over the reins of a Loyola football program that enjoyed a fair-sized following in Southern California. College sports attracted fervent interest because there was only one major pro team in the area, the Los Angeles Rams.
USC and UCLA were the local kingpins of college sports, but there was plenty of room for schools such as Loyola, in Westchester, and Pepperdine, then in central Los Angeles, to earn attention from the media and the public.
The Lions had been coached the previous two years by Bill Sargent, winning only three games in each. The team had been playing its home games in 18,500-seat Gilmore Stadium, demolished in 1950 to accommodate CBS' Television City facilities.
While Loyola had had moments of football glory against USC, UCLA and others in games at the Memorial Coliseum, the Catholic school, like Pepperdine, had subsided to second-class status. By the time Olivar and Neri came to Westchester, USC and UCLA refused to play Loyola on the gridiron.
"When we came out here to coach Loyola, I called Jeff Cravath, the coach at USC," Olivar remembers. "I said, 'Jeff, how about scheduling us for a game?' He said 'Jordan, are you crazy? If we book Loyola, the alumni would fire me!' I said, 'OK, how about playing us in a scrimmage game?' and he said, 'Not even that!'
"The funny part was that if he had booked us, we would have beaten them the next year, because we had a good football team with (junior fullback George) Musacco and all of the guys," said Olivar, whose team had also benefitted from an outstanding recruiting effort by Sargent in 1948.
Then UCLA Athletic Director Wilbur Johns explained the interests of both the Trojan and Bruin athletic programs.
"He said there was no way that either UCLA or USC would ever play Loyola. He told me point blank: 'If we play you, you have a pretty good football team, and you would become a third recruiting power in this area. Right now we've got it all to ourselves. This area is UCLA and USC,' " Olivar said.
Such responses did not deter the new Lion coaches from taking on a tough schedule and gaining notice. They had faced a similar problem coaching at Villanova from 1943 to 1948.
"We had trouble getting games, but both Army and Navy played us," Neri remembered.
"If you were a big school that played us, there was a good chance you might get beat," Olivar said. "If you did beat us, so what? You beat a small school. So we had to play almost anybody we could."
Faced with the same kind of scheduling dilemma at Loyola, they still met a rugged list of opponents. Their first game wasn't encouraging, to say the least.
The night of Sept. 23, 1949, saw the Lions playing offensive powerhouse College of the Pacific, led by quarterback and future NFL star Eddie LeBaron, at Gilmore Stadium. It was a rude awakening for Olivar, Neri and their new players. Pacific routed Loyola, 52-0. Neither the Loyola offense nor defense could muster anything.
Olivar and Neri may have feared they'd be run off the campus and off the West Coast, but the school's moderator of athletics, Father Lorenzo M. Malone, told Olivar after the game that he could see improvement in the team's play from the previous season. Encouraged, Olivar and Neri struggled on with their young team, and lost their next game to the University of San Francisco, 27-12, in San Francisco's Kezar Stadium.
The tide turned dramatically the following week at Gilmore Stadium when the Lions blasted Fresno State, 52-13. After losing to St. Mary's and Santa Clara, the Lions won their last five games of the '49 season. The end result was the Lions' winningest season in 13 years, 6-4.
Talented young Lion players like sophomore quarterback Don Klosterman, junior halfbacks Skip Giancanelli and Neil Ferris, junior end Gene Brito and sophomore guard Maury Nipp matured and developed into stars during the course of the season.
At the same time, Olivar and Neri had proven their abilities to Loyola students, staff and alumni.
It was Harry Stuhldreher, the Villanova coach when Olivar was a freshman in 1934, and Stuhldreher's successor, Clipper Smith, who shaped the offensive philosophy employed by Olivar and Neri when they became coaches.
Stuhldreher first came to prominence as the quarterback of Notre Dame's legendary "Four Horsemen" in the early 1920s under Rockne. When Neri, who came to Villanova two years after Olivar in 1936, arrived at the school, Smith was the head coach. But it was Stuhldreher who hooked Olivar on coaching.
"Every once in a while he would, as a lot of coaches would do, take a couple of players to a restaurant for a decent meal, and I listened to him," Olivar said. "I listened to him talk at banquets. His behavior on the field didn't convince me to become a coach. His behavior in the banquet halls did.
"The way he was speaking, he had that Rockne influence and that's the way he spoke--very inspiring. When he gave one of his pep talks, you wanted to knock the (locker-room) door down if they didn't open it quickly enough. That was so you could get out there to engage the enemy. He had us scared stiff every game, and he kept repeating himself. We never caught on (to the fact Stuhldreher's talks were repeats). I never realized it till years later."
Smith succeeded Stuhldreher in 1936. He was an innovative offensive strategist for that era, according to Neri and Olivar.
"Clipper Smith was very ahead of his time with the throwing game," Neri said. "At the time he (Smith) played, it was nothing to throw the ball 18 times a game. Heretofore, had they thrown the ball more than five times a game, it was a miracle."
Former NFL and college coach Don Coryell had the reputation of promoting the pass offense, dubbed "Air Coryell." Olivar and Neri--the backfield coach for all the teams they coached together--could have earned a similar nickname in the mid-1940s when they made their Villanova offense heavily pass-dependent while their contemporaries were sticking to the ground.
"Being brought up with the offense of Clipper Smith, we were indoctrinated in the throwing game," Neri explained. "We used to see the pros on Sunday a lot. We were both believers in throwing the ball and we came up with our own pass offense. And it worked out very well for us when we put it in.
"It was a very simple offense, to the extent that I often wonder why some of the pro teams don't use it. What they use--it sometimes looks like they're reciting a sonnet when they call the damn play. I remember (Rams and Redskins coach) George Allen saying that he could tell when it's going to be a forward pass by the amount of time it takes in a huddle telling each man what to do. We simplified that.
"In our system, when we would call a play, (we) would only tell the receiver what to do. Everyone else knew what to do because of the type of pass that was being thrown," Neri noted.
Their system flourished with a great passer like Klosterman. Although Klosterman completed just 46% of his passes as a sophomore in in 1949, the 1950 Loyola football media guide noted that his 96 completions in '49 led all passers on the West Coast. The Lions' ground game didn't suffer too much either that year as Musacco, a rugged 6-foot-2, 212-pound fullback dubbed "Socko," gained a team-leading 881 yards rushing.
Although the Lions struggled early in that first season under Olivar and Neri, it was the 5-0 finish that was the true indicator of how the program had developed.
The Lions gained some national attention in 1950, going undefeated through their first seven games and earning consideration for a bid to the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day.
Bud Furillo, then a young sportswriter covering the Loyola football beat for the Los Angeles Herald-Express, remembers that Loyola had nine players on that year's team who went on to play pro ball. "They easily had the best (college) team in L.A. at that time. Olivar was then one of the greatest coaches in the game."
Loyola steamrollered most opponents (50-14 over Pepperdine, 48-0 over St. Mary's, 34-7 over Nevada, and 28-0 over Fresno State). Olivar's squad also got revenge against Pacific, 35-33. A narrow 28-26 defeat at the hands of arch-rival Santa Clara late in November--played before some Orange Bowl selection committee members--probably killed Loyola's chance to play in the prestigious bowl.
The Lions' disappointment from the loss was neutralized a bit by a dramatic 40-28 come-from-behind victory over another arch-rival, San Francisco, in the season finale.
For the season the Lions ranked first on the West Coast and fifth in the nation in total offense (420 yards per game), second on the coast and fourth in the nation in pass offense (186 yards per game and 20 touchdowns thrown, second on the coast and 10th nationally in rushing defense (106 yards a game), and second on the coast and 17th in the nation in total defense (217 yards a game).
Klosterman, as a junior, ranked second on the coast and fifth in the nation in passing, as he completed 54.6% of his passes for 1,582 yards and 19 touchdowns. He also was first on the coast and ninth nationally in points scored after touchdowns, completing 35 of 42 extra-point attempts.
"I was very fortunate to have played under their leadership and in their system," said Klosterman, who went on to serve as general manager of the Baltimore Colts and the Los Angeles Rams after his playing career ended. "We (Loyola) were doing things that no one else was doing at that time. We were the forerunners of the passing game used today."
The Lions' top receiver in 1950 was 6-2 junior Fred Snyder, whose nine touchdown catches ranked him second in the nation in that category and whose 36 total receptions for 596 yards ranked him second on the coast and ninth nationally. Musacco again anchored the running game, rushing for 866 yards, an average of 4.6 yards a carry.
After Gilmore Stadium was leveled in 1950, the Lions, buoyed by that season's success and the underwriting of opponent guarantees by Chevrolet, moved their home football games to the 100,000-seat stadium in Pasadena.
Chevrolet paid the guarantees to the visitors while commercially sponsoring each of the home games for telecast in Southern California on KNBH-TV, Channel 4 (now KNBC-TV). Thus there was no need for fans to drive across town to watch the Lions' exciting offense, and the team played in front of a relative handful of fans. An estimated 6,000 in the Rose Bowl, plus an unknown number of TV viewers, watched Loyola fall to Florida, 40-7.
After a disappointing '51 season that saw the Lions slip to 3-6 with victories over only San Jose State (13-12), Pepperdine (46-7) and Hardin-Simmons (14-13), Loyola dropped the football program.
With Chevrolet's financial backing apparently no longer available, the program was no longer viewed as financially viable. Although the finger of blame was pointed in many directions, it apparently was the Jesuit hierarchy that oversaw the schools that dropped football not only at Loyola but also at the University of San Francisco, whose powerful team went undefeated in '51. Within a few years, Santa Clara's program was dropped as well.
"Although he got blamed by everyone, it was not Father (Loyola President Charles S.) Casassa's decision," Olivar said. "The provincial of the diocese just decided that it was not profitable to play football at Loyola and USF. It was a financial thing. Loyola was fair enough. They gave us a year's pay."
"They (the Loyola administration) were great," Neri remembers.
"All the Jesuit schools throughout the United States (dropped football), except for Boston College. Georgetown gave it up, Detroit gave it up, Marquette gave it up. Santa Clara gave it up a year after Loyola."
Thirty-eight years ago, Olivar and Neri were not ready to give up their coaching careers, and they found no trouble resuming them again after another transcontinental move.
Olivar went to the Ivy League as head coach at Yale the next season. Neri, after a short stint with the Washington Redskins, rejoined his longtime friend and coaching partner at Yale in time for the '52 campaign.
They remained there through the 1962 season, leading Yale to a 61-32-6 record through 11 seasons.
The names of Jordan Olivar and Jerry Neri may not be as familiar to today's fans as Knute Rockne's, for their tenure in college coaching was relatively brief. But their influence on the passing game had a lot do to with shaping the game of football as it is played today.