Juniata’s trip to Tangerine memorable

Shortly before New Year’s day 62 years ago, Juniata College’s undefeated football team embarked on a two-day train journey to Orlando, Florida, where the Indians played Missouri Valley College in the 1956 Tangerine Bowl.

The game was the culmination of the 1955 season but played on Jan. 2, 1956.

Juniata was coming off its third consecutive undefeated season, riding the crest of a 23-game winning streak. It lost only two games in 1952, the year before the unbeaten streak began. Thus, the mid-1950s could be called the “Golden Age of Juniata College Football.”

The Indians (the nickname was later changed to Eagles) earned a berth in the postseason game by virtue of an unblemished season in which they outscored their opponents 240-32, including four shutouts. The team was coached by Bob Hicks and assisted by former player and recent graduate Chuck Knox, who would go on to fame as a head coach in the National Football League.

The quarterback for Juniata was Ron Bechtel, a 1952 graduate of Roaring Spring High School. Juniata used the single-wing offensive formation, in which the quarterback was primarily a blocker, rather than a passer.

Bechtel’s football career at Juniata had an unusual beginning.

“I was not recruited by Juniata, but was taken by my father to the Huntingdon campus one weekend where I met with (then) head coach Bill Smaltz, who had experience with other Roaring Spring players like Julius “Squeeze” Long,” Bechtel recalled.

Bechtel did not have to run wind sprints or demonstrate any other athletic skill. The interview by the coach was the only hurdle to join the team and get financial aid. He suited up but played sparingly.

Knox was a junior lineman on that first squad, playing tackle on both offense and defense.

Bechtel did not play in either of the team’s losses that 1952 season, but was a starter for the next three undefeated seasons. He could later boast that in four years, he never played in a losing game for Juniata.

Knox remembered Bechtel as both a teammate and someone he coached.

“Ron was a tough, competitive, hard-nosed player right from his freshman year, and he also had a sense of humor that teammates appreciated,” Knox said in a recent interview.

The Tangerine Bowl has been the only appearance by Juniata in a warm weather, holiday setting. The 10,000 spectators that January day saw all the scoring take place in the first quarter in what turned out to be a 6-6 tie.

Both squads scored on passing plays, and both missed extra points.

Juniata’s score come on a 30-yard pass play from tailback Pat Tarquinio to Barry Drexler, who was named the game’s MVP.

Keith Birmingham’s kick was wide. Juniata was unable to convert on two first-and-goal chances in the fourth quarter.

Knox remembers that Juniata was a seven-point underdog and was outweighed by 20 pounds per man, but he said the tie still hurt.

Celebrities like Knox closely guard their privacy, making it difficult to get their addresses and telephone numbers. When I wanted to contact Knox for this column, I remembered that a Juniata College classmate of Knox’s during the early 1950s was Anna Lee (Over) Martin from Woodbury, whom I knew at Morrison Cove High School. She now lives in Manhatten Beach, Calif.

I asked if she knew Knox’s whereabouts and, sure enough, she exchanges Christmas cards with the Knox family and supplied his telephone number.

Knox, now 85, was very helpful with the quotes and took time later to relate memories of visiting the Memorial Park skating rink in Martinsburg for religious meetings during the 1950s.

The Tangerine Bowl got new sponsorship and changed its name after 1968. It is now called the Fiesta Bowl and is played in Glendale, Arizona. This year’s game will feature the University of Washington and Penn State.

Knox, dealing with health issues, lives in Palm Spring, Calif. Ron Bechtel lives in Chantilly, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., and is retired from a career in the U.S. government.

Jim Wentz is a Cove historian and a periodic contributor to the Mirror. He resides in McLean, Va.