By John Hollinger
Part I: Reliving the football days before the 60’s
It has been a decade-and-a-half since the Demske Sports Complex has had players suit up their pads and helmets for a Canisius College football game—the last being played in 2002.
In Part I of this two-part series we will relive the history of Canisius football prior to the 1960s—which included decorated crowds that exceeded 33,000 against rivals St. Bonaventure to much more.
The team goes way back, 99 years to be exact. The origin and creation of the Canisius College football team was in 1918, a year prior to women even had the right to vote. Two years after being founded, Canisius would square off against a cross-town rival in a game worth remembering.
It was November 13, 1920, and Canisius was set to take on the University at Buffalo for the first time in history. The game was played at the Canisius College Villa, which was located at Main, Jefferson, and Hughes streets in the city of Buffalo. Unexpectedly, the schools both showed extremely high interest leading up to the game. The fans brought an atmosphere of excitement as the Buffalo Express printed in its newspaper the following day: “The game was played with all the college trimmings such as bands, cheers and songs, with the colors of both sides waiving in profusion from both sides of the field.” Both schools even had its own parade down Main Street prior to the game. How big those parades were is unclear, but each school definitely showed high interest in the first game ever of this cross-town rivalry. The Villa had the capacity to fit 12,000 fans.
Canisius came into the game as heavy favorites as UB had not won a single game all year. Despite this, Canisius was unable to come out on top and fell 12-0.
Nonetheless it was the first game between the cross-town schools and surprisingly, the teams would not face each other again until 1977 due to different lapses of absences from the league and difference in conference. Canisius was not in an official conference until 1926, when they joined the Western New York Little Three Conference. The Conference consisted of St. Bonaventure, Niagara, and Canisius. Known as the Little Three, rivalries amongst these Western New York schools would continue throughout all sports and are still active today, nearly a century later. The existence of football in this conference would last 23 years with Canisius winning seven titles over that span before it was disbanded following the 1949 season.
One of its biggest games came against St. Bonaventure in 1947 which had over 33,000 fans at the game. In that game, Howie Willis took over and single-handedly scored every point for the Griffs as they defeated St. Bonaventure 17-14. Willis played at the quarterback, halfback, and kicker positions.
One who could attest to this is Dr. James Lauffenburger. A graduate of Canisius after earning his PhD in 1960, Lauffenburger has been regarded as the father of modern football at Canisius and has played an intricate part to the rise of the program. However, after Willis finished football in 1950, the team would ultimately disband from division I on Feb. 8 of that year and would not return until 1975.
Within this 25-year absence from division I Lauffenburger played an intricate role in reviving the program.
Lauffenburger was presented the Paul J. Dugan, S.J, award at halftime of the men’s basketball game along with others who were recognized for their induction to the Hall of Fame on Feb. 26, 2017.
Lauffenburger discussed how in 1946, Canisius was interviewing candidates for the head coaching position. On the short list of candidates who applied was Vince Lombardi, who was the offensiveness coordinator at Fordham University, a fellow Jesuit school. However, Canisius chose to not hire Lombardi and hired a lawyer instead.
In 1948 Canisius made it’s only bowl game in history, playing in the Great Lakes Bowl against John Carroll who was coached by Don Schula who would go on to have an illustrious coaching career in the National Football League. The 1940’s were notable as two Canisius players, Tommy Colella and Dick Poillon would go on to play in the NFL. Colella played for the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Rams (and Browns), and the Buffalo Bills. Poillon played as halfback for the Washington Redskins in 1942 and 1946-49.
Stay tuned for Part II which will cover the team from 1950 to the team’s last year of existence in 2002. Find out how the team got back to Division I status as well as what football alumni are doing today.