STILL THE STATE’S BEST: Jefferson High holds Iowa’s longest unbeaten shutout streak
By BRANDON HURLEY
The most successful football team in Jefferson history embodied its rural Iowa community.
Brute strength, grit and precise attention to detail were lightning rods for a magical fall.
The Ramblers, which they were known by at the time, forever cemented their selves in the history books 65 years ago with a lengthy shutout streak.
The 1952 football team was the only squad in the entire nation to not allow a single point, rising to No. 4 in the state while securing an undefeated season, shutting out all nine of their opponents.
The nearly impossible 13-game shutout streak, which began late in the 1951 season, is tied for the longest such stretch in Iowa high school history.
The statistics from that tremendous season are quite impressive, even for the time period.
The 1952 Midwest Conference champions implored one of the stingiest defensive fronts of all-time, securing a plus-40 turnover margin, forcing a staggering 49 turnovers, including 28 interceptions and 21 fumble recoveries.
Jefferson, who was a high school of roughly 300 students at the time, outscored their opponents 152-0 throughout the nine game slate.
Not only did they keep their counterparts off the scoreboard, but most opponents could hardly gain a yard. The Ramblers gave up just 52 first downs, allowing less than 1,000 total yards (787 to be exact), including 321 yards passing and 466 rush yards.
Many of the Ramblers’ key players during that sensational run included ball-hawking linebacker Gary Clopton, the head-rattling Gordon McIlrath at running back (fourth team all-state), the speedy and multi-talented Clare Schroeder at quarterback and running back (Jefferson threw just 39 passes all year), the brutally strong Bob Gustoff, an all-state offensive guard, the behemoth Gary Hays, who approached 230 pounds, and the hard-hitting Ron Murdock, as well as Dale Buchmiller, Bill Morlan, Larry Matthews. Dick Fritz, Ron Murdock and Jerry Magill.
The 13-game shutout streak was part of a 17-game run that saw Jefferson win back-to-back conference titles (1952-53) spanning the final six games of the 1951 season and two games into the 1953 campaign.
If not for a late, fourth quarter touchdown by Lake City in the 1953 season opener, the Ramblers would have sole possession of the state’s longest shutout streak, at 14 in a row.
Jefferson received significant attention from outlets all over the state for that outstanding 1952 campaign.
Frank G. Menke from the Omaha World Herald heaped loads of praise on the 1952 team, as did a former University of Iowa coach.
“The zenith of football team perfection is an undefeated, untied and unscored on season,” Menke said.
Former Hawkeyes head coach Forest Evashevski touched on the Ramblers during a press-conference.
“They must really have a powerhouse up there and I’ll have to name coach Frank Linduska as the Coach of the Week and the Ramblers the Team of the Week,” Evashevski said.
Jerry Vincent, a 1952 Jefferson graduate and a senior during the magnificent run, remembers the season vividly. He still calls Jefferson home six decades later, living with his wife along Highway 4. The now 83-year old former Rambler and Army veteran took a few moments out of his day Tuesday morning (Oct. 31), to re-live the glory days.
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“For years, it was just another season,” Vincent said.
The Jefferson athletes of the 1950s were trained as humble foot soldiers, deflecting outside noise, focused on each week-to-week task, led by legendary coach, Frank Linduska.
The magnitude of their glorious run to perfection was rarely – if at all - discussed during practice or following yet another unblemished triumph.
Linduska embraced the typical, old-school football brethren mentality.
The Ramblers were only as good as their next opponent, he preached.
Midway through the 1952 season, the long-time coach shared his thoughts on the streak to that point. He brushed off the historical significance, as if the stifling defense was nothing special.
“I just haven’t given the shutouts any thought,” he said in the Jefferson Herald. “All I care about is winning each game as it comes along.”
Linduska’s offensive scheme was a simple one. Pound the ball on the ground while controlling the clock and tempo.
“Three yards and a cloud of dust,” Vincent said.
Star running back Gordon McIlrath was the perfect fit for Linduska’s game plan. Tough, strong, and a willing work horse. Linduska, a former principal and Jefferson superintendent, was a big proprietor of ball control. Keep it grounded and work your way down field, scoring methodically.
Linduska was a real football guy. Flashy wasn’t his forte. he was a grind it out, out-muscle and out perform your opponent kind of coach. He didn’t care what the final score was, as long as they came out on top.
“He always told us, if the other team doesn’t have the ball, they can’t score,” Vincent said. “Linduska would draw up plays that were designed to only get three-to-five yards.
He wanted us to score one touchdown a quarter, and take all quarter to score.”
The natural, physical make up of the Ramblers gave Jefferson High an edge. They overpowered their opponents with relative ease. It’s what gave Linduska so much confidence in his simplistic game plan.
“Our size was the difference. We had several guys over 200 pounds,” Vincent said. “Ron Murdock was 200 pounds and twice as strong. Big, strong farm boys.”
Though Vincent played sparingly his senior year, he was still a vital member of the sensational streak. Playing time was hard to come by with such a talented team.
“I did get to play some, but with a record like that, you have to be pretty good,” Vincent said.
That historic Jefferson defense was a tough-nosed bunch while star running back Gordon McIlrath was a physical specimen who never shied away from contact.
“I remember all the helmets he broke, he didn’t run around anyone,” Vincent said. “I remember him coming off the field needing a new helmet, a lot.”
The helmets at that time were in the early stages of safety. The sport had just transitioned to plastic head gear, and thanks to McIlrath’s bruising running style, he was often a victim of faulty equipment.
“He would just plain run through people,” Vincent said with a reminiscent laugh.
The smash mouth football took a toll on the Ramblers as well.
That historical season wasn’t entirely as magical as the final statistics indicate. Jefferson battled the injury the bug all fall long, as many as six players at one time had to shake off injuries.
McIlrath had a bum knee and Clare Schroeder nursed an injured ankle and pesky back problems. Dale Buchmiller even played with the flu against Denison, while Jerry Magill underwent surgery for an appendectomy.
Those setbacks did little to deter the gritty Ramblers. As players shuffled in and out, the mentality stayed the same.
“We took it one game at a time,” he said, remembering legendary coach Frank Linduska’s philosophy.
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Fifteen unbeaten, un-scored upon seasons are on record in the Iowa High School history books, but just four teams have produced a streak as long as the Ramblers. In fact, Jefferson lays claim to a pair of those unbeaten, un-scored upon seasons – the first of which occurred back in 1928, winning all nine games that year. .
In the early 50s, that’s when Jefferson football was really in its hey-day. The Ramblers produced a nearly impossible, 13-game shutout streak that spanned parts of 1951 and all nine games of the 1952 season.
The 13-game run is tied with Fremont-Mills, Garner and Traer for the longest such run in Iowa High School history. Neither streak was completed after the 1971 season.
Only three Jefferson teams in history have gone undefeated, the last coming in 1952, capturing just how unlikely that 13-game streak was,
The longest shutout streak in the state over the last 15 years was Treynor’s eight game run in 2003.
The 1952 schedule began with fury as the Ramblers blasted Lake City, 34-0, picking off six passes, three of which were hauled in by linebacker Gary Clopton. The offense, flexing its muscles, pounded home five touchdowns.
“I thought Lake City was a better team than the score indicated. A lot of credit should go to our quarterbacking,” Linduska was quoted saying in the Jefferson Herald. “Tom Rohovit saw their defensive right end playing too close to the line, which enabled Gordon McIlrath to run for touchdowns. The scores hurt the Eagles mentally and we were off.”
Jefferson recovered six fumbles in their 7-0 win over Sac City a few weeks later, with Jerry Magill courageously playing in his first game back following an appendectomy.
Ida Grove posed the Ramblers biggest threat of the year in week four, driving all the way down to Jefferson’s five-yard line. But the visitors were stuffed on three successive plays and the Ramblers held onto its undefeated record and shutout string with yet another 7-0 triumph.
JHS traveled to Guthrie Center two weeks later for a showdown between undefeated teams, which resulted in perhaps Jefferson’s most impressive shutout. An estimated crowd of 3,500 watched Jefferson dissolve Guthrie Center’s run, winning 20-0 on their homecoming.
Clopton hauled in three more interceptions in the 7-0 win over Rockwell City the following week, pushing his total to eight on the year.
The defensive highlights kept coming, with a commanding victory over Denison, which far and away was the most mind-blowing of them all. The Ramblers crushed the will of the Denison offense, holding them to unbelievable negative 18 total yards, which became an easy 20-0 victory. Jerry Johnson hauled in two touchdowns while the defense forced five Monarch turnovers.
The Denison Bulletin had this to say following the shellacking, “One of the real slick teams to come along in a long time.”
The town of Jefferson bristled with excitement for the season finale with Carroll. It was the big, annual rivalry and you wouldn’t dare miss it. The gridiron was the place to be, especially with an undefeated shutout streak on the line. History was about to be made.
“You could’ve dropped a bomb in Jefferson and not that many people would’ve gotten hurt,” Vincent said. “Everyone was at the game.”
Just like many of the previous eight games that year, it was a grind. Points were at a premium, but per usual, the Jefferson defense was suffocating.
“I remember the last game of the season against Carroll, their running back broke loose down the field late in the game,” Vincent said. “Ron Murdock chased him down and pulled him out of bounds near the 20. That was as close as they got.
Carroll knew coming in they weren’t going to win, so their goal was to score.”
The speedy Schroeder scored on fourth and goal midway through the second quarter, breaking a scoreless tie. McIlrath scored on a 63 yard run late in the third quarter to put the game away, securing a 13-0 victory and a perfect season. The Rambler defense once again was a ball-hawking menace, forcing seven turnovers (three INTs and four fumbles).
In a one class division, battling teams throughout western Iowa, Jefferson’s perfection was a remarkable feat that resonated across the state. The Omaha World Herald marveled at the level the defense played at.
“The Rambler records have been achieved against opposition of general high caliber,” one sports reporter wrote. “Sac City and Guthrie Center, averaging 22 points per game, each suffered only a single defeat this season, and Jefferson was the culprit.”
A perfect, unblemished season may have felt marginally incomplete following the Carroll victory, though. Because the Iowa High School Athletic Association had yet to implement a playoff system, that would finally come along in 1972. The Rams begrudgingly settled for a No. 4 ranking (there were no classes at the time), as the state’s best team was crowned by a vote. The Ramblers were left with a bitter taste lingering in their mouths. Dominating a schedule of good, but ultimately not the best competition the state offered, the Ramblers desired a chance to prove how good they really were.
Davenport was the class of the state at the time, and often held the number one ranking. Just one high school housed the entire metropolis population in 1952.
“They probably could’ve beat us by 30,” Vincent said. “But we also wondered how we would’ve done if there were playoffs. There would’ve been some good games.
In today’s class system, in 2A, we would’ve been state champions,” Vincent said confidently. “We would’ve been capable of winning it.”
Jefferson’s 13-game, unbeaten, unscored upon streak began with a 20-0 win over Guthrie Center in 1951. The last loss was to Sac City while the Ramblers tied Denison at 0 in the eighth game of the 1951 season.
Sac City, coincidentally, ended Jefferson’s 17-game win-streak (which spanned parts of three seasons) in a 6-0 triumph in the third game of the 1953 slate.
Linduska came in second in the state for 1952 coach of the year, behind Davenport’s coach.
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Coach Frank Linduska was a fixture in the Jefferson community for three decades. He was a Coe College graduate and later principal, followed by a stint as the superintendent for seven years.
The father of two coached football for 14 years until 1963, compiling a 52-22 record. He also led the basketball program for several years, engineering a 166-98 record.
When the undefeated 1952 season was finally complete, he was quoted saying it was “one of the greatest thrills of my life.”
Linduska was well-known for his work in the community, his passion for kids and the schools. He and his wife, Avon had two kids, Paul and Steve.
He retired as Jefferson superintendent in 1978. The current football field and track were named Linduska Field in his honor May 6, 1978, on “Frank Linduska day.”
The legendary coach died at the age of 66 in August of 1979, unexpectedly.
Vincent, following his marriage in 1956, was enlisted into the Army where he was a mechanic for two years, working on tanks and new machinery. He later worked as a plumber then as a fuel and feed supplier for midwestern farmers. Shortly after , Vincent built grain bins before owning the Greene County roller skating rink from 1983-2003 with his wife. In his spare time, Vincent likes to dabble in woodworking – he built his home’s kitchen cabinets and a few other trinkets around the house – and enjoys mowing lawns. He still gets in 15 lawns or so each year, even at 83.
Not many things pique his excitement quite like the perfect run of the 1952 Ramblers, though. They embodied the “Ram Tough” slogan.
“It’s fun to reminisce,” Vincent said. “They were good times. We were a tough bunch of kids”
Jeff 34, Lake City 0
Jeff, 26, Perry 0
Jeff 7, Sac City 0
Jeff 7, Ida Grove 0
Jeff 18, Harlan 0
Jeff 20, Guthrie Center 0
Jeff 7, Rockwell City 0
Jeff 20, Denison 0
Jeff 13, Carroll 0
JHS outscored their opponents, 152-0.