EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (blugolds.com) - The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire has had some powerhouse football teams in its 100-year history but one conference championship team stands out above the rest to many Eau Claire alumni—the 1956 Blugold squad.
It wasn’t that the 7-1 ’56 team had superior talent to the championship teams of the other years, but there was something unique and special about the ’56 title—the Blugolds weren’t supposed to win it, but they did.
The ’56 team will be remembered as a squad that would never say die, a championship team that couldn’t steamroll opponents but always rose to the occasion to edge opponents—and one that gave Eau Claire fans ulcers.
Coach Ade Olson returned 14 lettermen from a strong 1955 squad, but the Blugolds started the ’56 season with a poor scrimmage against Winona, MN, and a 26-7 thrashing at the hands of St. Norbert College in a non-conference season-opener. This prompted Olson to remark, “It looks like a long season.”
The Blugolds still looked unimpressive in an 18-12 conference win over Stout and the loss of halfback Jim Johnson for the season did not brighten the outlook.
But Eau Claire began to gain momentum by crushing Superior, 20-6, a game in which some freshmen, who would later play a big role in the championship picture, asserted themselves. They were end Jerry Berseth, halfbacks Ted Devine and Jim Gleboff, and tackle Ron Ganong.
Then came the first of four heart-stopping wins. Eau Claire beat Milwaukee, 20-15, behind the running of fullback Bob Hessler and a tough defense led by tackle Don Pierce.
The Blugolds peaked with a 35-21 upset of previously undefeated River Falls, which can best be remembered as the Jim Bollinger aerial circus. The senior quarterback threw four touchdown passes, including two in the final quarter, to break a 21-21 tie and lead the Blugolds to victory.
The most dramatic win of the year had to be a 12-7 win over La Crosse, in which the Blugold defense stopped the Indians four times from their three-yard line in the final minute of play. Bollinger, who also played defensive back, was again the hero as he stopped a La Crosse back on a fourth down end sweep.
Eau Claire then breezed by Oshkosh, 28-13, and the stage was set for the championship showdown with defending conference champion Stevens Point. The Blugold defense again prevailed as it held off a Pointer rally inside its own 25-yard line with less than a minute remaining in the game for a 13-7 victory.
The seventh straight win climaxed the first undefeated Wisconsin State College Conference season in Eau Claire history, an accomplishment outsiders hardly considered possible after the crushing by St. Norbert.
The Blugolds had many individual standouts: co-captains Bollinger and Pierce, Hessler, Berseth, guard Don Gudmanson, halfbacks Bob “Pinky” Schaaf and Pete Adler and guard Vern Olson. But the championship was a team effort—it was a combination of individual standouts, hardworking veterans and talented freshmen that pooled their abilities and consistently won the “big” game.
The game most remembered by team members is the River Falls game. “Everyone felt they were the team to beat if we were to win the championship,” said Devine.
Berseth, who caught a 40-yard touchdown pass that day, said the overflow crowd of more than 5,000 that jammed Carson Park and beating the undefeated Falcons which had such “super athletes” is what he remembers. The play remembered most by team members was Bollinger’s tackle of the La Crosse runner on fourth down.
Vern Olson said there was a great sense of closeness among the players that resembled a family. Jerry Person, an assistant coach on that team, said Ade Olson was “a great coach and did everything.”
Devine recalled once being admonished by Olson for missing a block in practice. “Devine, what the hell’s the use in weighing 145 pounds if you’re not going to use it.”
Vern Olson also recollected an Ade Olson favorite. “It’s a great day to be alive and to be able to play football.” And the 1956 championship team, celebrating its 60th anniversary, will be remembered for playing a special brand of football.
This article was first written by Sports Information Director Tim Petermann for the 1981 Blugold homecoming program as the 1956 team celebrated its silver anniversary. It was rerun in 1991 for the team’s 35th anniversary.