USC and UCLA are, and have always been, big names in NCAA football. Both teams have produced professional coaches and players. Games deemed unforgettable have come out of matchups between the two rivals.
But it was this level of stardom that USC and UCLA garnered that overshadowed the little-known football program of one other Southern California school — Long Beach State.
“USC and UCLA had hundreds of years to build their program,” said Amen Rahh, a professor emeritus of African studies at CSULB. “We didn’t get a chance to build it; 10 to 12 years is not enough time.”
The 49er football team was formed in 1955. In the beginning, their games, held at Long Beach City College’s Veterans Memorial Stadium, drew only a couple thousand fans. Local high schools had much larger crowds.
The prospect of 49er football being short-lived seemed inevitable in the early years. The team never managed to exceed five wins under the coaching of Mike DeLotto and Don Reed during their first nine seasons.
But after finally landing significant recruits, the 49ers lifted themselves to records of 8-2 and 9-1 in the mid-1960s. Quarterback Jack Reilly stood out, setting multiple passing records in 1966. Wide receiver Billy Parks carried the team the next season, hauling in 79 passes for 1,294 yards.
The team’s momentum continued to rise upward as the decade went on. By 1969, with the addition of three key individuals, CSULB became a dangerous team.
Safety Jeff Severson earned All-Coast recognition and was a 12th round draft pick for the Washington Redskins. Star running back Leon Burns became one of the most celebrated athletes in CSULB’s history after being selected 13th overall by the San Diego Chargers in 1971.
“We heard all about Leon,” Severson said. “He was everything they said he was.”
Burns earned national fame by scoring 47 touchdowns over the course of his two seasons at Long Beach. He led the nation in both rushing yards and scoring his junior year and held the title of Southern California College Player of the Year in 1969 and 1970. He is the only football player in the school’s history to have his jersey retired.
“[Burns] played like a man compared to the boys he was playing against,” said Dan Olsen, who graduated with his master’s degree in 1984, and is the technology coordinator of the journalism and public relations department.
Severson held a national record of 15 interceptions in his first season and had eight more in the next.
“That was the pinnacle,” Severson said about his career at CSULB.
The football team was now intact, and to top off the freshly built team, CSULB hired coach Jim Strangeland to complete the new formed synergy.
“[Strangeland] brought his winning mentality,” Olsen said.
The 49ers finished the 1969 season with an 8-3 record. The following year, Strangeland coached the 49ers to 9-2.
In the postseason, CSULB faced San Diego State in a game where everyone wanted to see Ohio State play instead of the 49ers.
“That was the game of the year,” Severson said.
In the past, Burns had annihilated SDSU’s defense. The 49ers knew they would have to change their running game the next time around.
“Burns was used as a decoy,” Severson said. “They knew they had to stop Leon.”
The ball would instead be handed off to fullback Hans Albrecht, who ran over 200 yards in the 27-11 upset.
“We had it in the game plan forever and never used it,” said 1970 offensive guard Dave Brown. “The offensive players played an exceptional defensive game.”
It was a one-sided victory for the 49ers, who would advance to the Pasadena Bowl. They tied Louisville 24-24 in the only bowl game in CSULB’s history.
The football team fell into obscurity after the 1970 season, being restricted by three years of NCAA sanctions due to recruiting violations. Some fans criticized former President Steven Horn for contemplating ending the program in the ‘70s. Although alumni and community members raised money in an attempt to save the program, there was little hope for the 49ers.
In 1990, George Allen stepped away from coaching in the pros to join the 49ers. Hoping to keep the program alive, Allen kept a winning record until his death two-weeks before the end of the season.
Shortly after, former Oakland Raider and Denver Bronco Willie Brown took over as head coach. Brown finished the season with a losing record before the entire program began to wane.
Low attendance, a stronger presence surrounding local rivals and budgetary constraints were all factors in the program’s demise. Former president Curtis McCray officially terminated the program in 1991. Athletic director Perry Moore deemed it as “One of the worst mistakes we ever made” in the book “Long Beach State: A Brief History” by Barbara Kingsley-Wilson
“I feel sorry for [CSULB] students,” Severson said in the book. “There was a time that we were great.”
Any attempts to revamp CSULB football after 1991 were not successful, leaving a void in the hearts of football fans.
“It was such a beautiful experience we had in sports,” Rahh said. “We want to bring football back. Football carried all the other programs.”
Mark Lindahl, sports editor, and Ralston Dacanay, assistant sports editor, contributed to this article.