Duquesne University Football History
Duquesne University boasts a rich and colorful football history beginning with the school's first team in 1891. In 89 recorded seasons, Duquesne has played the role of innovator, won a pair of New Year's Day bowl games, disbanded, re-emerged as a club football power and, finally, established itself as one of the top NCAA Football Championship Subdivision mid-major programs in the nation.
The 2016 season marks the ninth of an exciting era as the program continues as a scholarship-granting, associate member of the Northeast Conference.
Bowl titles (Festival of Palms in 1934, Orange Bowl in 1937 and ECAC Bowl/Classic in 1995 & 2003), a club football national title (1973), a I-AA mid-major national championship (2003), Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Football League (1995, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007) and NEC championships (2011, 2013 & 2015) and the first FCS Playoff appearance in school history (2015) are all part of the winning fabric that is Duquesne football.
The most recent chapter of Duquesne's football history was closed in 2007 when the Dukes completed a 14-year run as a member of the MAAC - which was founded as one of the nation's few NCAA FCS non-scholarship conferences. From 1994 through 2007 the Dukes compiled a 75-9-0 MAAC record which included 11 championships, a 39-game league winning streak that tied the second-longest ever by an NCAA FBS or FCS school (Dec. 23, 1999 to Oct. 28, 2006) and brought home the first national championship in league history in 2003.
The Dukes carried on that tradition by winning a share of the 2011 NEC title, adding another co-Championship in 2013 and winning the conference outright in 2015.
Winning, however, is not new to the Duquesne football program.
From its meager beginnings, Duquesne football evolved into a national powerhouse in the late 1920s under the direction of legendary head coach Elmer Layden. Layden, who earned a measure of fame as a player as one of Notre Dame's Four Horsemen, quickly made a name for himself as a head coach. Under Layden, the Dukes posted a 48-16-5 mark from 1927-33, including an undefeated regular season (9-0-1) in 1929. In 1933, Layden's Dukes capped a 9-1-0 regular season by earning a berth in the Festival of Palms Bowl (which would be named the Orange Bowl the next season) where they defeated homestanding Miami (Fla.) 33-7.
Layden, who left Duquesne to take the head coaching job at Notre Dame following the `33 campaign, laid the groundwork for the most successful era in DU history.
In 1936, the Dukes made another national splash when head coach Clipper Smith guided Duquesne to a 7-2-0 regular season and a 13-12 win over Mississippi State in the 1937 Orange Bowl. Boyd Brumbaugh keyed the win with a late-game 72-yard (69 yards in the air) halfback pass to Ernie Hefferle for the winning score. Brumbaugh, an honorable mention All-American, went on to play professionally for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mike Basrak, the standout center for the `36 Dukes, became the first DU player to earn first team All-America honors.
DU finished the 1936 season ranked No. 14 nationally and enjoyed national rankings in the final Associated Press polls of 1939 (No. 10) and 1941 (No. 8) as well.
Former Dukes standout Buff Donelli took over as head coach of his alma mater in 1939 and posted a four-year record of 29-4-2, highlighted by unbeaten teams in 1939 (8-0-1) and 1941 (8-0-0). Donelli's 1941 Dukes - which finished the regular season as one of three undefeated, untied teams - led the nation in scoring defense, rushing defense and total defense on the way to being named the top team in the country according to that year's Massey Ratings. The '41 DU defense surrendered just 21 points. Only one other team - Mississippi with 21 points allowed in 1959 - has given up 21 or fewer points in a season since. In 1941, Donelli had the distinction of coaching two teams at the same time, as he also coached the Pittsburgh Steelers. Layden, who was by then the commissioner of the NFL, made Donelli choose between the two and Donelli elected to remain at Duquesne.
Duquesne's glory years ended with the onset of World War II, as DU was one of the first schools to cancel football to help with the war effort.
The war sidelined a Duquesne program that was among the nation's elite. From 1933-45, Duquesne (71-22-2, .762) had the sixth-highest winning percentage in the nation behind Alabama, Tennessee, Duke, Fordham and Notre Dame.
Duquesne is noted for establishing numerous "firsts" in collegiate football. Layden is credited with devising the system of hand signals that officials use today. The signal system was put to use for the first time on Nov. 11, 1928, when Duquesne hosted Thiel College at Pitt Stadium. Layden was also the first coach to use two sets of uniform jerseys for home and away contests. In 1929, graduate manager John Holohan conceived the idea of the city's first night game at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field. On the evening of November 2 of that year, the Dukes made history by defeating Geneva College, 27-7, in front of more than 27,000 spectators.
After competing for four years following World War II, Duquesne did not return to the gridiron until 1969 after a group of students formed a team at the club level. DU struggled to a 2-4-0 mark in `69 before Dan McCann took over and quickly made the Dukes a force to be reckoned with. McCann's 1972 Dukes finished the season 7-1-0 and were ranked No. 3 nationally by the National Club Football Association. The next season, Duquesne defeated Mattatuck CC in the National Club Football Championship game at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium. The title game victory capped a 10-0-0 season for DU. McCann added three more Top 10 national finishes before the Dukes elevated to Division III in 1979.
Following a leave of absence from 1984-87, McCann returned and finished his 19-year career with a 91-74-3 record. McCann is noted as having the third-longest tenure of any coach in Duquesne athletics history behind former rifle coach Dave Cramer (30 years) and Charles "Chick" Davies' 21 years as a head coach of the men's basketball team.
Greg Gattuso, a former standout defensive lineman at Penn State in the early 1980s, took over the program in 1993. The `93 season also marked the return of football to the Duquesne campus, as Arthur J. Rooney Athletic Field was dedicated on October 30 of that year.
Gattuso, who finished his 12-year career as the winningest coach in school history with 97 victories, didn't take long to leave his mark on the Duquesne program with conference titles in 1995 and 1996. His `96 squad scored more points (392) than any other team in school history and also became the first varsity team to post an undefeated regular season since 1973. In addition, Gattuso's 1995 and 1996 Dukes reeled off a school-record 19 consecutive wins. Under Gattuso, Duquesne continued to thrive, adding six consecutive MAAC titles between 1999 and 2004, including a mid-major National Championship in 2003.
Jerry Schmitt, who served as offensive coordinator for Gattuso's first championship teams, returned to the Bluff from Westminster College to take the reins of the program prior to the 2005 season. In his first three seasons, Schmitt guided the Dukes to three MAAC championships and extended the school's streak of consecutive league titles to nine. The 2006 season saw the end of a 39-game MAAC win streak for the Dukes. The 39-game conference win streak ranks tied for second among all FBS and FCS schools trailing only a 44-game streak by Oklahoma in the Big Eight from 1952-59.
Schmitt notched the school's first NEC title in 2011 and added a second in 2013. His 2015 Dukes won a third NEC crown and earned the school's first bid to the FCS Playoffs.
From its days as a national powerhouse, to numerous top 10 rankings as a club team in the 1970s to its emergence as a FCS mid-major force, Duquesne football has always been synonymous with one thing - winning.