One win does not make a season. One defeat does not break a season.
It would be difficult to convince the members of the 1969 Canon-McMillan Big Macs’ football team otherwise, though.
Fifty years later, members of the team speak glowingly of a huge victory at Chambersburg – a highly-ranked team in the Eastern part of Pennsylvania. Those same men still feel the pain and sting of a 20-13 defeat at Mt. Lebanon High School the next week that thwarted the Big Macs’ chances of making a WPIAL championship game appearance and a shot at winning the crown.
“Back then, if you had a loss, you didn’t make the playoffs,” said Dr. Stan Ostrowski, a member of Canon-McMillan’s vaunted backfield. “We felt we were one of the better teams around and we didn’t get (a second) chance.
“We played at Mt. Lebanon a second straight season on their field. They had a psychological edge on Canon-McMillan. That was on a lot of players’ minds and it was difficult to overcome.”
The win over Chambersburg and loss to the nemesis Blue Devils shaped the season but did not define the 1969 Canon-McMillan football team.
The 8-1 record was good enough to earn them the Western Conference championship – which is incredibly the lone outright conference championship in Big Macs’ football history. Canon-McMillan has shared conference titles, but the 1969 Big Macs stand alone.
Canon-McMillan was led by All-State running back Doug Kotar, who went on to play at Kentucky and in the NFL with the New York Giants.
The late Kotar is one of the greatest athletes in state, Washington County and school history.
He and head coach Raymond Campanelli, along with a talented coaching staff, fueled the Big Macs in 1969.
“We were fortunate to have a group of good young men who were good playing the game,” said Bob Johnson, the team’s defensive coordinator in 1969 and former Trinity head coach and Washington & Jefferson College assistant. “We had great leadership. Everyone got along and stood together. And of course, Doug Kotar was an amazing focal point.
“Ray was an excellent coach. He would listen to other people’s ideas and incorporate what was best for the team and the program.”
What the late Campanelli did was install the wishbone (triple-option) offense that gave opponents fits. Canon-McMillan was a difficult one-week adjustment because it was one of the few teams to employ that offensive attack.
“Ray’s coaching came to a zenith,” said assistant coach Frank O’Korn. “We had an unusually talented football team for Western Pennsylvania.
“It was a great time. We were blessed with an outstanding coaching staff. Bob was a big part of it and Ray did so many great things. I lay the success at the foot of Ray Campanelli. He was dedicated and detailed.
“Unfortunately, Mt. Lebanon – our nemesis – had a better day than us the day we played them. The 1969 team was one of the greatest all-time in Canon-McMillan history. It was the culmination of a lot of good things.”
While they didn’t reach their goal of winning the WPIAL championship – Gateway won the title with a win over Altoona, the Big Macs gained much recognition and earned some honors.
They finished ranked No. 2 in the state by Dr. Roger Saylor, a professor at Penn State and noted Pennsylvania football historian and authority. At the time, his rankings were the only ones recognized by the WPIAL and PIAA.
Three players – Kotar, running back Stan Ostrowski and quarterback Mike Smutney – played in the Big 33 game. Two others, running back Ray Gessler and defensive end Mike Hamschin were Big 33 nominees.
The Big Macs had 10 players gain Division I scholarships and eight Canon-McMillan players were named to the Western Conference All-Star Team.
Canon-McMillan scored 282 points in 1969 – 31.3 per game – and yielded 134 – 14.9 per game.
The Big Macs opened with a 40-7 pasting of Montour and followed by pounding Trinity, 40-0.
They defeated Uniontown, 22-14, and Washington, 43-7, before playing Chambersburg and Mt. Lebanon.
Canon-McMillan finished the season with consecutive victories over Bethel Park (29-18), Baldwin (20-16) and Chartiers Valley (49-30).
In 1969, the two participants in the WPIAL championship game were determined by Gardner Points. Any loss, or a tie, virtually eliminated a team from championship contention.
In the current era, the WPIAL has taken, and advances, in some classifications, four teams or more from a particular conference to the postseason.
That is not lost on the 1969 Big Macs, who never had a chance to redeem themselves for the loss to Mt. Lebanon.
The win over Chambersburg, in front of 12,000 people, was emotional and dramatic.
A back-and-forth game was decided on a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Kotar.
While that victory was exceptional, it came with a cost. The game was physical, and it took a toll on the Big Macs. Campanelli gave his team Monday off to recover. The emotional and physical strain of that win and the fact that Trinity, a team the Big Macs easily handled, tied Mt. Lebanon might have led to some overconfidence in preparation.
“The Chambersburg game was one of the most intense games I was involved with,” said Ed Monaco, a defensive lineman for Canon-McMillan. “There were a lot of penalties and the game was physical. The crowd made it look like a small-college game.
“After the game, I saw grown men, come out of the stands and some of them were crying. They couldn’t believe we won that game. There was definitely a letdown. It’s not an excuse but we let down. We were ready and prepared. But we were overconfident.”
Mike Kusturiss, a split end and backup running back for the Big Macs, said he still gets “sick when he thinks about the loss.”
“Nothing clicked for us,” Kusturiss said. “We got beat up (against Chambersburg) and I think it affected our play against Mt. Lebanon.
The Chambersburg game was the highlight of the season. Then we played a terrible game at Mt. Lebanon. It’s a shame. We had one of the best teams ever in this area and the best athlete Canon-McMillan ever had in Kotar.”
Don O’Hare, a linebacker for Canon-McMillan, said the defeat was stunning for a number of reasons.
“We came together from two successful junior high programs at Cecil and Canonsburg,” said O’Hare, an All-Conference performer. “Every time we stepped on the field, we felt we would win. We had a lot of togetherness and everybody had the same goal.
“Unfortunately, our big win at Chambersburg was followed with the upset loss to Mt. Lebanon. We had a big letdown. Once you lost, you were done.”
The quality of the 1969 Big Macs was not lost on opponents or area fans. They played in front of an estimated crowd of between 11,000 and 12,000 people at Mt. Lebanon Stadium and in front of 9,000 at Baldwin.
“To say the least, they were formidable,” said Tom Hull, who played against the 1969 Big Macs as a middle linebacker and running back for Uniontown. “We knew we had to play our best to stay on the field with them. Unfortunately, we ended up on the bottom of that game.
“I ran around with Doug Kotar and spent a lot of time with him. He was so good. The kind of offense they ran really started to come into play in college football. You had to key players and stay with them. You just hoped you were prepared for it. (The offense) was a lot different than others we saw. I thought we handled it fairly well. You assigned people to a man and that man was their responsibility.”
Ray Dallatore was quarterback for Trinity in 1969. The Hillers finished 4-4-1 that season. While it was an improvement over a winless 1968 campaign, Trinity suffered its toughest defeat against Canon-McMillan.
“Obviously, they were a well-rounded team,” Dallatore said. “They pounded us. They were a powerhouse offensively and defensively they were pretty tough.
“We had a decent team that year, best team we had in my three years there. We had (John) Bimbo Chatman at running back and we did some good things. They took us to task.”
The team was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, Washington-Greene County Chapter in 2005.
Canon-McMillan’s Division I players, in addition to Kotar, included: Gessler (Indiana State), Ostrowski (Pitt), Smutney (Indiana State), linebacker George Antoinette (Arizona State), Hamschin (Duke), tackle Phil Sollon (Temple), defensive end John Miller (Richmond), center Chad Leonardi (Nebraska) and split end-defensive back Jerry Castafero (Delaware).
In addition to Johnson and O’Korn, the other assistant coaches were Jim Cavanaugh and Bill Newell.
Despite nearly 50 years passing, the memories of the 1969 Canon-McMillan football team are vivid.
“Fifty years later, people still talk about that team,” Monaco said. “From my perspective, it was a team with 10 Division I players, eight All-Conference players, three Big 33 players and was ranked No. 2 in the state at the end of the year despite not winning the WPIAL title. That’s my take on it.”
O’Korn summed it up: “Ray built it up. He was just a good guy and a good coach. He probably didn’t get his fair share of recognition. He had a tremendous staff and great players. He was brilliant at the basics and with a systematic approach to the game that was superior. The players took advantage of it and became a great team. It was a fun time, a heady time.”