1979: Rice Meets Moeller in 'Biggest Game Ever'
August 30, 2019
By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half
DATELINE: Cincinnati, Ohio, 1979
“The Brother Rice-Moeller game is the biggest game any Michigan high school football team has ever played.”
Hal Schram - ‘The Swami’
Detroit Free Press
“I’m nervous as heck,” said Birmingham Brother Rice coach Al Fracassa to Free Press sportswriter Mick McCabe. “This is the biggest challenge of my life.”
On Saturday, September 22, 1979, Fracassa’s Warriors travelled 270 miles south from the hotbed of Michigan high school football to the hotbed of Ohio high school football for a first-ever showdown with Cincinnati Moeller. Heading into the 1980s, many would argue that Brother Rice was the top football (and perhaps the top boys prep sports) program in the state of Michigan. At the same time, many would say Moeller had replaced Washington Massillon High School as the premier grid program in the Buckeye State, and that Moeller also represented the nation’s top prep football team. To quote McCabe in his pregame write-up:
“Moeller had a 53-game winning streak snapped last fall after winning Ohio’s Class AAA state championship the previous three years. It also won the mythical national championship in 1976 and ’77. Seventeen players from (the 1978) Moeller team received college scholarships, including wide receiver Tony Hunter at Notre Dame and Larry Gates, the backup quarterback at Purdue.”
Moeller was coached by 44-year-old Gerry Faust – soon to become a Notre Dame legend. But in the fall of 1979, he was still building his impressive resume at Moeller.
While both were all-male Catholic schools and maintained three football teams – varsity, JV and freshman – there were stark differences. Fracassa’s varsity coaching staff at the time included three members: Mike Popson, Ron Kalczynski and Mike Cieslak. In comparison, Faust had 17 assistant coaches on his varsity staff (and 25 student managers).
“Every year is a rebuilding year for us,” said Faust. “We average between 24 and 38 seniors a year and about 20 of them start.”
“Their second team is as good as most teams around here, and I’m not exaggerating,” Fracassa told McCabe.
Entering the contest, Faust had posted a 152-17-2 record in 17 seasons at Moeller, while Fracassa, in his 20th year as a head coach, was 123-31-8. A former Detroit Pershing and Michigan State quarterback, Fracassa was named head football coach at Royal Oak Shrine in June 1960. After eight seasons at Shrine, Fracassa moved to Brother Rice and compiled an 86-14-3 mark, including a Class A mythical state title in 1974. His Warriors began an impressive 24-game winning streak in 1976, earning an MHSAA Class A playoff title in 1977, but the streak was ended by North Farmington in the Semifinal round of the MHSAA tournament in November 1978.
Faust arrived at Moeller in 1960 to start a football team and had guided the squad since the school began playing varsity ball in 1963. He first started bringing outstate teams to Cincinnati in 1977 with a game against Monsignor Farrell High School of Staten Island, NY. Jesuit High from Dallas, Texas, followed with a visit to Moeller in 1978.
Both Moeller and Rice were undefeated to start the 1979 season. Faust’s Crusaders had allowed only three first downs over three games, including a big 34-7 win over city rival Cincinnati Princeton, the school that had ended Moeller’s long winning streak, and a 30-13 victory over powerhouse Pittsburgh Penn Hills, a school with an enrollment of 4,200 that had compiled consecutive Class AAA Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League championships in the three previous years under coach Andy Urbanic. With the defeat of Penn Hills, the Crusaders were a flawless 3-0 against teams from across state lines entering the Brother Rice contest.
Undefeated in two games, Brother Rice was rated fourth in Class A in Hal Schram’s initial Top Ten rankings. Inexperienced following the graduation of quarterback Jon English (Michigan State) and receiver Marty Martinez (Stanford), the Warriors had downed St. Clair Shores Lake Shore, 21-7, then Grosse Pointe North, 13-7.
A crowd of 20,792 (including members of the Brother Rice pep band) packed the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium for the 8 p.m. prep version of the Michigan-Ohio State game. Moeller did not have its own field, playing games at Nippert, Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium (home to the NFL’s Bengals and MLB’s Reds), or a nearby high school field. Moeller dominated the first half with 282 yards of total offense to Brother Rice’s 64, but held only a 13-7 lead at the half. Senior wingback Eric Ellington awed the crowd with touchdown runs of 43 and 61 yards during the first quarter. Rice rebounded with a five-yard touchdown on a bootleg by 5-foot-11, 170-pound senior quarterback Brian Brennan following a fumble recovery by Emil Nagengast during the second period.
Starting their first possession of the third quarter on their own 33-yard line, Ellington ripped off a 34-yard run to the Rice 33 on Moeller’s first play of the drive. Three plays later, he went left for 10 yards and his third touchdown of the game. The Crusaders opened up a 33-7 lead in the fourth quarter before Rice got back on the scoreboard. Fracassa went to the playbook for some “razzle dazzle.”
Operating from their own 32-yard line with 2:19 left to play, “Brennan tossed a deliberate bounce pass on a lateral to reserve quarterback Dave Yarema,” wrote Randy Holtz in the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Yarema then fired a 68-yard touchdown to the wide open Steve Allen to finish the game’s scoring.”
“We’ve been using it a long time,” said Fracassa, commenting on the play with limited delight following the 33-14 loss. “We told the kids before the game that this would be one of the best teams they were ever going to play against. They’re really a tremendous team. If you can’t contain Ellington, you’re in trouble. You’ve got to be something else to catch this kid.”
Ellington ended with 178 yards on 10 carries.
“Eric really ran well,” added Faust. “He’s a great back, but you’ve got to give credit to (our) line up front.”
Due to the early format of the MHSAA playoffs, which were introduced in 1975, the defeat likely had eliminated Brother Rice from the state playoff picture. A 10-7 loss to Catholic League opponent Detroit Catholic Central in Week 5 of the season and a 6-3 regular-season record ensured no postseason play for the Warriors in 1979. Detroit Catholic would end the year as Class A state champ with a perfect 12-0 record.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association had begun its football playoff system in the fall of 1972. To little surprise, Moeller went on to win the state’s Class AAA title for the fourth time in 1979, defeating Parma Padua Franciscan 41-7. Moeller again was proclaimed national champion by the National Sports News Service. (For those interested, highlights can be found here).
College Comes Calling
Back in Michigan, in February 1980, Fracassa applied for the head coaching position at Michigan State to replace Darryl Rogers, but wasn’t interviewed. When Frank “Muddy” Waters was named as MSU’s new coach, he offered Fracassa the position of offensive coordinator. But Fracassa chose not to go. In the fall, his Warriors again won the Class A championship. It wouldn’t be his last opportunity to jump to the college game.
The Great Experiment
In Ohio, Faust’s Crusaders would win the state and national titles again in late November 1980. After more than a month of rumors, on the day after winning the state title, Gerald Anthony Faust was officially announced as “the only head coach Notre Dame has ever selected from the high school ranks.”
Another Chance at MSU
Fracassa was a back-up signal caller at Michigan State. “I was always stuck behind the All-Americans,” he told the Detroit Times in 1960 shortly after taking charge at Royal Oak Shrine.
“First, he understudied Al Dorow,” wrote Wally Dwyer in the Times. “Then it was Tom Yewcic and finally Earl Morrall.”
Morrall’s son Matt, Leon Hart’s son Kevin, Tobin Rote’s son, Rocky, Roger Zatkoff’s son David and Jack Simmons’ son, Terry, were the offspring of past Detroit Lions who played on Fracassa’s 1974 champion.
In December 1982, George Perles was named to replace Waters as head coach at Michigan State. A former teammate of Fracassa’s at MSU and, later, a coaching friend and rival when Perles coached Detroit St. Ambrose and Fracassa guided Shrine, Perles spoke to Fracassa about the possibility of joining the Spartans’ defensive staff. Again, Fracassa chose to remain at Brother Rice.
A Legacy Sealed …
In the fall of 1983, Fracassa’s Warriors grabbed another Class A title. It was the third of nine MHSAA championships his teams would ultimately earn. When he retired following the 2013 season, he was the state’s all-time winningest football coach with a 430-117-7 mark.
… and a Legacy Altered
In November 1985, Faust resigned from his position at Notre Dame.
“Faust said the job was ‘the fulfillment of a lifelong dream,’” wrote Mitch Albom in the Free Press, days after the announcement. “And he did it proud on most counts. He worked feverishly, turned out good men, a clean program. And technically, a winning program, 30-25-1. But nowhere near winning enough for Notre Dame.”
“Faust knew it.”
To the dismay of countless Irish fans, Notre Dame continued to honor its contract despite the losses. “No matter how loudly the fans yelled,” noted Albom, “the school would not fire Faust.”
“So, with a choked voice and moist eyes, he saved the university the ugliness of firing him by resigning with one game left on his contract.”
“We probably won’t see another Gerry Faust experiment again,” added Albom at the time. “Everyone will point out that it didn’t work the first time …”
“College football was once a game of its name. College kids playing football. That was long ago. Today it is a multimillion-dollar industry …”
The great experiment certainly altered memories of Faust, the structure of coaching contracts, and the path for all high school coaches who aspired to lead at a higher level. One might even say it was a turning point for winning and losing, and what would be ‘acceptable’ at all levels of sports across America.
P.S. Moeller and Rice again met in 2007, with the Crusaders again topping Brother Rice, this time 14-6. Both schools had entered this match-up with identical 2-1 records.
Ron Pesch has taken an active role in researching the history of MHSAA events since 1985 and began writing for MHSAA Finals programs in 1986, adding additional features and "flashbacks" in 1992. He inherited the title of MHSAA historian from the late Dick Kishpaugh following the 1993-94 school year, and resides in Muskegon. Contact him at [email protected] with ideas for historical articles.
PHOTOS: (Top) Brother's Rice's Brian Brennan looks for an opening while a Moeller defender pursues. (2) Brother Rice coach Al Fracassa. (3) Moeller coach Gerry Faust. (4) A Moeller bumper sticker tells of its many successes during the 1970s. (5) Eric Ellington starred for Moeller against Brother Rice. (6) Faust left Moeller for Notre Dame in 1980. (Photos gathered by Ron Pesch.)
Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing
By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor
May 26, 2023
Mendon’s run to the Division 2 Final last fall included some of the strongest rushing performances over the history of 8-player football.
The Hornets ran for 4,317 yards, second-most all-time, on the second-most attempts (520) and with a record-setting 682 yards Oct. 14 against Marcellus. Mendon also set the record for total offense with 692 total in that game, and made the single-season touchdowns list with 76 including 66 rushing (also second on that list).
Junior Jack McCaw made the single-season scoring list with 212 points, most coming on 29 touchdowns, and Evan Lukeman made the single-game rushing list with 401 yards against Marcellus. Mendon’s defense also earned praise, twice making the fewest-first-downs-allowed list with a low of three.
See below for more recent additions to the 8-player portion of the football record book:
Athens’ Landon Bennett earned a pair of record book entries after reaching the end zone seven times during his team’s 72-0 win over Burr Oak on Sept. 8. His seven scores are tied for third-most in 8-player history and included three rushing, three on punt returns and one on an interception return. The three punt return touchdowns are a record. Bennett is a junior.
On the night Powers North Central broke its 8-player record for consecutive wins, claiming its 28th straight, senior Luke Gorzinski tied Jets great Jason Whitens for the record for interception touchdowns in a game with two, scoring on returns during the second and fourth quarters. Gorzinski has signed with Michigan Tech, and North Central’s winning streak is 37 games and counting.
A pair of Atlanta offensive playmakers and a top defensive lineman earned a total of seven entries in the record book for achievements last fall. Senior quarterback Tyler Currie threw for 30 touchdowns over eight games, and also made the records for six touchdowns and 419 passing yards against Whittemore-Prescott on Sept. 23; the passing yards are second-most for one 8-player game. Sophomore Landon Galea was added for 263 yards and five of those touchdowns against the Cardinals, and also for 1,418 yards receiving and 23 touchdowns over nine games. Junior teammate Tucker Kendrick made the tackles for loss list with five against Hillman on Oct. 6.
Adrian Lenawee Christian senior Brady McKelvey became the first to make the career extra points list in 8-player football this past fall. He bettered his previous single-season record making 64 of 66 extra-point attempts over 11 games and finishing his two-year varsity career with 123 extra points in 127 tries.
Sam McKissack reached the record book showcasing multiple skills for Crystal Falls Forest Park during the 2021 season – twice for rushing attempts in a game including with a record 59 against Ontonagon that Sept. 10, and then with a record 70-yard punt Oct. 30, 2021, against Lake Linden-Hubbell. Teammate Devon Basirico also made the record book with six fumble recoveries over 11 games that season. As a team, Forest Park was added twice for single-game rushing attempts – including 73 total in that Ontonagon game – and for 424 rushes over 11 games for the season. McKissack and Basirico are seniors this spring.
Nikolaus Lewis tied for eighth-most rushing touchdowns in an 8-player game when he reached the end zone six times for Carsonville-Port Sanilac in its win over Caseville on Oct. 7. He’s a senior this spring.
Bridgman has won 24 straight games over the last three seasons, and an exceptional offense – and exceptional offensive star – have played major roles. The Bees were added for 658 total yards in a win over Lawrence last season, that total ranking third all-time, and also 613 yards in a win over Eau Claire. Those included totals of 575 and 547 rushing yards, respectively, and Bridgman was added for 3,598 rushing yards (sixth on the list), 59 rushing touchdowns (fourth) and 76 total touchdowns (seventh). Senior Reid Haskins capped his four-year, 32-game varsity career with 13 record book entries, including for 254 points last season over nine games (tied for fifth all-time) and a record 620 career points, 41 touchdowns last season (fifth) and a record 95 for his career, 2,344 rushing yards last season (third) and a record 5,206 for his career, and 41 rushing touchdowns last season (third) and a record 94 for his career. Senior teammate Tanner Peters made the records three times including for 50 extra points last season (fourth) and 99 over 26 games and three seasons (second on the career list).
Mio's Austin Fox rewrote the 8-player passing record book this past fall, with his 621 yards in a game against Whittemore-Prescott setting a single-game record as he totaled four of the five-highest passing yardage totals. He also set a record with 3,516 over nine games for the season, another record with 289 passing attempts over those nine games and a third record for nine touchdown passes in that game against the Cardinals. His 41 touchdown passes total rank fourth. Teammates Gage Long and Nathan Hurst also earned several record book entries on the receiving end of those passes. Long’s 297 receiving yards against Whittemore-Prescott were tied for third most, and Hurst’s 266 against Alcona rank eighth. Long set a single-season record with 1,739 receiving yards, with Hurst sixth all-time at 1,321, and Long’s 14 receptions against the Cardinals and 70 for the season also rank second on those respective lists. Hurst set a record for longest 8-player kickoff return with a 99-yarder against St. Helen Charlton Heston. All three are seniors.
Peck was one of the first MHSAA 8-player champions, claiming the title in 2013, and Cody Abrego one of the state’s first 8-player stars. The Pirates were added to the MHSAA record book 52 times, and Abrego 14 times individually. Among the most notable entries for the 2015 graduate were for 462 points scored over his two-season career (ranking sixth all-time), 74 career touchdowns (sixth), 2,202 rushing yards in 2013 (fifth) and 35 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (sixth). Current senior Caleb Lentner was one of the stars statewide this past season, and he was added eight times including for 50 points scored in a game (ranking second), 272 points for a season last fall (fifth), eight touchdowns in a game (tied for second), 42 touchdowns in a season (fifth), an 8-player record of 2,694 rushing yards from last season, and 38 rushing touchdowns also last fall (fourth). Others to make the individual lists were Nathan Robar, Caleb Dudley, Steven VanConant, Kyle Abrego and Nathan Neihaus, Dudley for a record 20 career interceptions over two seasons and VanConant for a record 12 tackles for loss in a 2022 game and 36 tackles for loss for the season last fall. The Pirates also are all over the 8-player team record book, including for a record 97 touchdowns in 2013, a record 5,895 yards of total offense that season, 528 carries, 4,346 rushing yards and 73 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (all ranking second); and 24 interceptions in 2014, which ranks second on that list.
Senior quarterback JR Hildebrand was one of the most dynamic players in 8-player football in the fall in leading Martin to the Division 1 title. He had one of his most exciting nights in a playoff opener against Tekonsha, making the single-game touchdown pass list with six in a 68-6 victory.
PHOTO Mendon’s Jack McCaw (21) eludes a tackle during the 8-Player Division 2 Final in November at Northern Michigan University. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)