The Holiday Bowl
This special piece was written by Justin Parker – on the Davidson Wildcats Sports Information staff.
It was the 1960s, and the idea of Davidson playing in a bowl game initially sounded strange to Dave Fagg.
But once the then-assistant football coach understood that it was possible on paper, that there was a path, that the Southern Conference champion got an automatic bid to the Tangerine Bowl, he embraced the idea. Fully embraced it.
“If you want to go to a bowl, come to Davidson. I told everybody that,” Fagg recalled recently, while sitting in Davidson’s Nisbet Hall of Fame. “I meant it.”
It’s been 50 years since the Davidson Wildcats, champions of the Southern Conference, did just that — played in the Tangerine Bowl, which later became the Citrus Bowl. In fact, the Wildcats spent Christmas in Orlando, as they met unbeaten MAC champion Toledo on Friday, Dec. 26, 1969.
Later Davidson’s head coach in two stints, Fagg had put so much emphasis on the Wildcats reaching a bowl game that his excitement carried over to his young children as well. If Davidson makes the Tangerine Bowl, he’d told them, it means a week’s vacation in Florida. So he packed up his family, left campus two days early and met the team in Orlando. Gifts were packed into the back of a truck, so it was assured Santa would also visit the team hotel.
“We had a great dinner with food, gifts, all that,” said Fagg. “Everybody was excited.”
Fagg still wears the Tangerine Bowl wristwatch the team received as part of the celebration.
Figuring it out
Davidson returned a veteran team in 1969, but had gone 3-6 in 1968. Still, hopes were high that it would be a good year. And sure enough, things came together.
In September, the Wildcats scored seven touchdowns in the second quarter of a 77-14 dismantling of Furman, and October included wins over reigning Southern Conference champion Richmond and William & Mary, led by a first-year head coach named Lou Holtz.
The convincing 37-7 home win over Richmond stands out to Gordon Slade, Davidson’s senior quarterback, who ran for a score and threw for two more as the Wildcats built a 24-0 first-half lead.
“We thought we might be better than we had been the last few years, but that’s when we realized we might be better than we thought we were,” said Slade, named the Associated Press’ National Player of the Week for his effort against the Spiders.
Then, in November, Davidson rallied from a 27-0 deficit at East Carolina to win 42-27, improve to 7-1 and clinch the Southern Conference title.
The Wildcats scored just before the half to get some life, and as they walked to the locker room for the intermission, head coach Homer Smith calmly told Fagg of the Davidson offensive strategy, “I think we’ve got it figured out.”
On one end of the large locker room, Smith instructed the offense, while Fagg challenged the defense and smashed a blackboard. The Wildcats outscored the Pirates 35-0 in the second half.
“I’ll remember this comeback more than anything else,” Smith told the Charlotte Observer that night. “I can’t believe it. I just simply can’t believe it.”
Led by Slade, the even-keeled conference player of the year, the ’69 Wildcats utilized a possession-style passing game, similar to what was becoming the West Coast offense.
Slade was a two-sport standout, who hit a league-best .429 for the Wildcats baseball team in 1968. As a senior, he threw for 25 touchdowns and had a hand in 33 scores, and both remain single-season school records. Receiver Mike Kelly describes Slade as Davidson’s “Bart Starr.”
“Gordon didn’t get excited about anything good or anything bad,” said Kelly.
“He was strong and such a good football player,” added Fagg. “He could really throw the football.”
Later drafted by the NFL’s Baltimore Colts, Slade passed for 2,564 yards in 1969, including 305 yards in the 56-33 bowl loss to Toledo. Both were school records at the time.
He had reliable targets in Kelly, George Hannen and Mike Mikolayunas. Kelly was a first-team all-conference player and totaled 76 receptions for 965 yards and six touchdowns as a senior before playing three years with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Mikolayunas, eventually a draft pick of Baltimore, set a program record with 17 catches in the win over Richmond, and Hannen scored 14 touchdowns in 1969, including three in the bowl game. He also scored on three punt returns.
“We had some tremendous athletes catching the ball and running with it,” said Slade.
How prolific was the Davidson offense? No team scored more points — and only two others scored at least 20 — against unbeaten Toledo, which finished the season ranked No. 20 in the AP poll.
Defensively, the Wildcats were strong through the middle, with Ken Totherow and Sean McCormick anchoring the interior line and captain Steve Butler at middle linebacker.
“He looked the part,” Slade said of Butler. “He was fast and a great hitter, one of those guys nobody wanted to line up against in practice.”
Safety Whit Morrow, also a standout in track, was a first-team Southern Conference pick and set the program record with 17 career interceptions.
Now, it’s been five decades since the Wildcats won the Southern Conference title and spent Christmas in Orlando, where the hot topic of conversation in the area — aside from the holiday and the bowl game — was a planned theme park called Disney World.
“It was a magical time,” said Kelly.
On campus, you don’t have to look far to see a mention of the team. A sign honoring the Tangerine Bowl team hangs in Richardson Stadium, where the current Wildcats have found their own success. A team-signed football is displayed in the Nisbet Hall of Fame, and a team picture, with the bowl logo, adorns a wall in the Sheridan Brothers Football Suite inside the Baker Sports Complex. Players and coaches walk by it every day.
But as much as the teammates cherish the records and on-field accomplishments and enjoy revisiting the memorable moments of 1969, that’s not what they say stands out the most. They were reminded of what really resonates during a team reunion this fall.
“Lifetime friends,” said Slade.
The kind you can make only during a special kind of season.
Davidson’s 1969 Southern Conference Honorees
- Player of the Year: Gordon Slade, QB
- Coach of the Year: Homer Smith
- All Southern Conference First Team: Gordon Slade, QB; Terry Esterkamp, OG; Mike Kelly, WR; Ed Terry, PK; Whit Morrow, DB.
- Player of the Week Honorees: Ed Terry, PK (Sept. 27); Gordon Slade, QB (Oct. 11); Ken Totherow, DT (Oct. 11); Steve Butler, LB (Oct. 18); Gordon Slade, QB (Nov. 8); Ken Totherow, DT (Nov. 8); George Hannen, E (Nov. 15).