Sept. 21, 2011
By Bruce Madej
The tradition of Michigan football is not carried by iconic figures alone.
There is a strong lineage of Wolverine football players that dates back 132 years. Unfortunately, as time passes only the iconic names are remembered and many of the players of yesteryear are rarely mentioned.
This Saturday (Sept. 21) at the Michigan-San Diego State football game, an outstanding player nicknamed 'Bugsy' by his dad and also called the 'Canonsburg Comet' by the media will be honored for his contribution to the U-M football legacy.
Leo Koceski was a small 160-pound halfback out of Canonsburg, Pa., in 1948. Recruited by approximately 25 teams, he decided on U-M at a very early age.
"When I was in sixth grade, I said I wanted to go to Michigan," said Koceski. "The other thing I wanted to do was to go to Bermuda. When I married my wife Gloria in 1965 she had no choice for our honeymoon. We went to Bermuda."
Even today at the age of 82, the 'Canonsburg Comet' is still a ball of energy.
"Gloria and I go to Ballys every day to work out and we do a lot of swimming to keep ourselves in shape," said Koceski, who still lives in Dearborn Heights, Mich., and regularly attends Michigan games."When I returned to Michigan after working in Cleveland, I bought season tickets to Michigan football in 1960. I know the ticket office doesn't keep records that go back that far, but that's how long I've had them."
At U-M, Koceski was in the middle of an amazing era.
The diminutive speedster not only played and contributed as a sophomore on the 1948 national championship team, he also found himself in the middle of a Big Ten investigation. He completed his football career bouncing back from an injury to play one of his best games as U-M defeated California in the 1951 Rose Bowl.
"I was coached by four different coaches in four years at Canonsburg and when I got to Michigan, Wally Weber was my coach and in 1948 I ended up playing for Bennie Oosterbaan," added Koceski. "That was at least six coaches in my first six years of my formative football career."
In 1948, Kocescki scored three touchdowns against Northwestern and was ready to go into score his fourth when he fumbled the ball. U-M recovered for a TD, but the fourth touchdown would have been special.
"I was having a pretty good day, but I fumbled the ball on that play as I was going into score," said Koceski. "If I would have scored that touchdown it would have tied me with Tom Harmon for the most touchdowns in a game at that time."
As for the Big Ten investigation in 1949, which was brought about by a Detroit newspaper, Koceski still bristles why it was an issue.
"It has been said the Big Ten brought in FBI agents to look at some improper employment benefits that they thought Chuck Ortmann and I were getting," said Koceski. "First, they weren't FBI agents and second, Chuck and I were working. We weren't getting anything we weren't supposed to be getting. Nothing came of it."
While Koceski played hard, injuries beset the halfback. In 1949, three days before the Minnesota game, Koceski broke three ribs in a practice scrimmage. He came back a month later to play the 1949 Ohio State game.
"That was quite a game," said Koceski. "It was a 7-7 tie, but we had them 7-0. They scored and missed the point after. However, the refs claimed we were offside. They made the extra point to tie the game, but we should have won 7-6."
Koceski remembers the wins, the 1950 Snow Bowl, the two losses, the '51 Rose Bowl and one special play all loom big in his memory bank.
"There were two losses that stand out in my mind. It was the loss to Army in 1949 that broke our 25-game winning streak and the loss in Yankee Stadium in 1950 when I hurt my knee," said Koceski. "We should have won them both."
Koceski worked through the injury to make it back to the '50 Snow Bowl game against Ohio State and then went on to play in the Rose Bowl against California.
Going into the '51 Rose Bowl game, Koceski's knee was still a problem. When it was time to play, he was ready. Koceski was one of four players noted by Coach Oosterbaan for their standout play in Michigan's 14-6 win over Cal.
"The one play I always will remember was the 1948 game against Minnesota," he said. "We were ahead something like 27-13 and we were backed up on the three-yard line."
On the next few plays, U-M lost yardage and had its back to the goal line with the line of scrimmage on its own one-yard line.
"Oosterbaan looks over at Pete Elliott our quarterback and signals him to punt, but Bennie didn't realize our punter Wally Tenninga was sitting on the bench," said Koceski. "Elliott goes into the huddle and he knows I'm the only one who has ever even tried punting.
"I recited a short Polish blessing, went back into my position and punted the ball 50 yards," adds Koceski. "(Dick) Rifenburg got out there and made a great tackle and Minnesota was at midfield and we were out of trouble."
Koceski still follows college football closely and is amazed by the speed. He also believes defense still wins games.
"I know the game has changed, but when we won the national championship in 1948, we had five shutouts and two teams scored less than 10 points against us."
Not only was Koceski an outstanding football player, Don Canham wanted him to run track. In addition, he not only played baseball for U-M, he was captain of the 1951 team.
After graduating from U-M, Koceski sold Buicks for General Motors in Pittsburgh then moved to Cleveland before joining Westinghouse, where he sold plastic laminate for 17 years. He then joined Ralph Wilson Plastics and represented Wilson Art and its counter top material.
"Everyone asks me if this is the Ralph Wilson that owned the Buffalo Bills," laughs Koceski. "The answer is no. This company has its headquarters in Temple, Texas."
But Koceski is quick to point out that his brush with iconic names is not just from U-M.
"Perry Como and Bobby Vinton are both from Canonsburg," says Koceski. "I never met Perry, but his brother Al Como was one of my football coaches.
"Vinton and I went to high school together, but I really didn't know him," added Koceski. "Then several years ago, John Ghindia along with Herb Smith, a friend of mine who has now passed away, took our wives to Branson (Mo.) to see Bobby Vinton."
Koceski had passed some notes to Vinton in his dressing room and unbeknownst to Koceski and the group, Vinton walked down into the audience and introduced the 'Canonsburg Comet' to the audience.
"He had an idea where we were sitting and when he had me stand up and introduced me as a great Michigan football player, it was something," said Koceski. "Then he said that when we played high school football together that I hit him so hard one day at practice I made him see stars!
"I took the mike from him and said 'No, I made you a star!'"
Now, Koceski will be honored for helping a team make U-M football the real star of the game of college football.