2007 ACC Football Legend: Virginia's Joe Palumbo
Oct. 16, 2007
By Wilt Browning
At age 78, Joe Palumbo finds that his memory seems to have faded not at all. He remembers a late autumn afternoon in 1951 when a hint of the approaching winter was in the air. His leathery helmet in hand, the big (for the time) 198-pound defensive lineman walked with quick step, sometimes breaking into a slow jog, toward the football dressing room on the University of Virginia campus.
The Virginia football team, of which Palumbo was an integral part, had just beaten William & Mary, 46-0, and the Cavaliers stood at 8-1 on the season. Only a loss to Washingon & Lee marred the slate "and, frankly, we just took them too lightly," Palumbo remembers.
But this had been no day like all the others in Palumbo's three seasons of varsity football at Mr. Jefferson's university. This game had brought to Palumbo the last day and the last play in the last season of his remarkable collegiate career.
And now, Palumbo's legendary coach, Art Guepe, was standing in the center of the crowded dressing room.
"Gentlemen," the no-nonsense coach said, calling the steamy post-game quarters to silence. "I want to congratulate you on a fine game. I just met with the folks from the Cotton Bowl, and they want us to come to Dallas."
It might have been a glorious moment. No Virginia football team had ever participated in a post-season game, and here was one of the original New Year's Day bowls placing an invitation into the hands of Guepe.
"But there was no shouting, no cheering as I recall," Palumbo said. "We knew we weren't going anywhere."
As expected, within hours, Virginia President Colgate Darden would announce that the Cavaliers' season, indeed, was over. "His answer was, `No, we don't want to go professional,'" Palumbo recalls.
Although Virginia had enjoyed one of its finest eras from a win-loss point of view under Guepe, losing only five games through the first three seasons of the 1950s, it was a team that hardly could be considered professionals. Like most college football teams of the era, Virginia was built in large measure on the talents of military veterans back from war and endowed with the GI bill, though Palumbo himself was an exception to that.
"But the truth is," he said, "we had only 13 football scholarships." Still, Guepe had built his powerhouse on that base and through his own no-nonsense style.
"We had a great running back named John Papit," Palumbo said. "He was maybe the best in the nation at the time. But Papit was having it tough and he went in to talk to the coach about it. At the time, Papit had just set a national rushing record."
Papit told Guepe, according to Palumbo, that "I just can't live on what you're giving me." He added that he needed a bit more or would have to take his considerable talents elsewhere.
"There's the door," Guepe had said darkly, pointing the way out of his office.
Defections in the college ranks were not unheard of at the time, but Papit stayed and along with Palumbo and Tom Scott became college All-Americans.
The irony of all this was that Palumbo played a major role in the football success that Virginia enjoyed under Guepe, yet the very presence of a football program at the school was being weighed.
According to Virginia football media guides, the Gooch Report declared that the school had succumbed to "big-time athletics." The report split the faculty, enraged alumni and perfectly set the stage for Darden's decision to decline the Cotton Bowl invitation.
Gooch himself had been an early-century football star at Virginia.
Guepe's magic would hold for another year after Palumbo had gone away to try his hand at the true professional game as a defensive guard for the San Francisco 49ers. In 1952, the Cavaliers would go 8-2, after which Guepe would depart for Vanderbilt. Virginia would not have another winning season until 1968, when Palumbo and his old teammates were scattered to lifetime professionals and bearing down on middle age.
And Virginia would not participate in its very first bowl game until it faced and defeated Purdue in the 1984 Peach Bowl in Atlanta. It was Virginia's 96th season in college football.
"That's what bothered us," Palumbo said. "When the school turned down the Cotton Bowl invitation, we didn't give it a whole lot of thought. We felt pretty honored (that the bowl committee would come calling), but we didn't expect to go.
"The longer it (the school`s absence from the collegiate bowl picture) lingered, the worse it got. Well, we knew we could have done that." Given the history of football at Virginia, snubbing the Cotton Bowl in 1951 became even more lamentable than the Gooch Report had been.
"But there was not a thing we could do about it. Except to forget it."
Forgetting has been difficult to do entirely.
This year, in late summer, Palumbo got his second post-season invitation, though it came long after his All-America season at Charlottesville had become a matter of history. He is one of 12 athletes from current Atlantic Coast Conference schools who will be honored as a part of the league's Legends program at the championship game weekend Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Jacksonville, Fla.
"I'm very humbled," he said. "But I still don't know why they picked me, there have been so many great athletes here."
Call it a little payback.
Wilt Browning is a special contributor to theACC.com. He spent more than 40 years as a sports editor and columnist in the Southeast. He worked for the Greenville News, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, the Charlotte Observer, the Greensboro News & Record and the Asheville Citizen-Times. His numerous awards include five North Carolina Sports Writer of the Year honors. He is also the author of five books, including Come Quittin' Time which was released this summer.
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