It’s football reunion weekend at Shawnee Mission North High School. Among the alumni who will gather Friday and Saturday and reminisce are a handful of players from the Indians’ 1969 state championship team.
SM North was a football powerhouse in the late 1960s. But there was something unique and magical about the 1969 season. It was highlighted by an infamous game that ended in a score of 1-0. It also was the first season in Kansas that featured a high school football playoff system.
First and foremost, SM North’s winning tradition in the late 1960s had a name and a face. It was Larry Taylor. In 1964, Taylor was 24 years old when he was named head coach of the SM North football program. His first team went 3-5-1. A year later, the Indians were 9-0 and state champions.
The tradition had begun.
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It was a different time, and high school football hardly resembled today’s game. Of the 33 players on the SM North varsity roster, only five weighed 200 or more pounds. The biggest player was offensive tackle Gary Rider, who was 6 feet 3 and 217 pounds. Taylor’s SM North teams relied on quickness, angles, leverage, and discipline.
The 1969 team was not the best SM North football squad of that era. It might have ranked fifth or sixth best from the glory years of 1965-71. The three greatest teams arguably were the ’65, ’67 and ’70 squads. But the stars just seemed to align for the Indians in 1969.
Entering the season, Taylor changed the standard slot back formation to a formation featuring a wide receiver on the weak side opposite the slot back and tight end. By being proficient at the passing game, Taylor reasoned, the Indians would have an edge through the air.
SM North instituted a fullback option toward the wide receiver side of the formation. Quarterback Steve Howard would either run inside or pitch to the fullback going wide. Once Dave Specht was moved from halfback to fullback for the fourth game of the season, the option became the Indians’ most potent weapon.
The 1969 season started with a 63-0 win over SM Northwest. An 18-6 loss to SM South followed, the Indians’ first loss to a Shawnee Mission school since 1964. The humbling loss for SM North was a catalyst for major changes that were instituted for the season’s fourth game.
SM North scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to survive 27-20 over SM East in the third game, then notched easy wins over Washington (40-8) and Wyandotte (39-7). A memorable kickoff return by the late Mark Gaul highlighted SM North’s next victory, an 18-6 win over SM West.
The Indians then defeated defeated Topeka West, 13-6, in the mud, and perennial power Lawrence, 13-6, as Specht rushed for 194 yards in 25 carries and defensive end Dan Shoup intercepted a pass inside the SM North 25-yead-line with 12 seconds remaining to preserve the win.
On Saturday, Nov. 15, 1969, the 8,000 or so fans crammed into the Shawnee Mission District stadium were treated to the first state semifinal playoff game — between SM North and SM South. When the game ended, the scoreboard read 1-0, leaving most fans bewildered.
The SM North players ran jubilantly off the field, knowing they had won 1-0 on penetration points. They knew they were headed to the state championship game. It is still one of the most memorable games in history of Kansas high school football, known simply as the 1-to-nothing game.
In 1969, the high school large class (Class 5A then) playoff system featured the champion of the Sunflower League, which included teams from Kansas City, Topeka and Lawrence, against the Wichita champion. That season SM South won the Sunflower League Eastern Division title and SM North won the Western Division title, setting up the state semifinal, a rematch of the second game of the season.
In a team meeting prior to the state semifinal, Taylor said to his Indians: “I don’t think this will be a factor, but I wanted you to be aware of it.” He then read the playoff rules to the team.
If the game ended in a tie, points would be awarded for the number of times teams got inside the 5-, 10- or 20-yard lines. Those would be called penetration points. If the teams still remained tied after the penetration points had been determined, the tiebreaker procedure was alternating scoring opportunities for each team from the 10-yard line.
While SM South led in almost every statistical category, the Raiders never advanced beyond SM North’s 28-yard-line. In the third quarter, SM North’s Specht broke loose for a 53-yard run to the SM South 5-yard-line. North pounded the ball inside the 1, but failed to score. Based on penetration points, SM North was declared the winner, 1-0.
The following week, Sunflower League coaches and executives met and declared both teams co-champions of the Sunflower League. SM North, though, advanced to the state championship game, based on the 1-0 penetration score. Had Taylor known a tie would be the outcome, he admits he would have been more aggressive to win the crown outright.
The penetration-points rule stood for the 1969 and 1970 seasons, before being eliminated before the 1971 season. For 44 years since, the alternate possessions rule in overtime has been in place for Kansas high school football playoffs.
Next up for the Indians was the state title game against Wichita North. And on Nov. 21, 1969, before 10,591 fans in Cessna Stadium in Wichita, SM North played its best game of the season.
While the SM North starting offensive line averaged about 175 pounds, the Wichita North line averaged 210 pounds. Wichita North just looked more like a championship team, leading Taylor to observe: “I think they may have taken us a little lightly.”
SM North received the opening kickoff, went 16 plays and scored the game’s first touchdown. The extra point failed, and the first quarter ended with the Indians ahead 6-0. SM North added two more scores late in the second quarter, and again both extra-point attempts failed.
With the score 18-0 and less than a minute left in the first half, Wichita North fullback Don Calhoun returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. Halftime score: SM North 18, Wichita North 6 .
Wichita North fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half, and SM North recovered on the 4-yard line. A touchdown and two-point conversion made it 26-6, and another touchdown midway through the fourth quarter gave SM North a 32-6 lead with 8 minutes, 38 seconds remaining.
Less than 2 minutes later, SM North fumbled a punt at its own 4-yard line. Wichita North scored two plays later and added a two-point conversion to make the final score 32-14.
There is little doubt that the best football player on the field that night was Wichita North’s Calhoun. He went on to star at Kansas State and played nine years in the NFL. He rushed for 27 yards in 14 carries, but failed to get the 29 yards he needed to break the Wichita city rushing record.
In the state title game, Wichita North had 35 total yards of offense in 44 plays. That included 31 net rushing yards. SM North countered with 220 yards of offense in 64 plays.
“I give a lot of credit to (pulling guard, defensive back and co-captain) Pat Murphy,” says Taylor. “He was smart, and he knew what we were trying to accomplish. He was able to call out the plays based on the formation.”
The state title victory gave SM North the first state championship determined by a playoff system.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul Kincaid grew up in Mission, Kan., and was a 1970 graduate of Shawnee Mission North High School. He played center and defensive tackle on the 1969 state championship team. He recently retired from Missouri State University in Springfield, where he worked in public relations, marketing, governmental relations and as chief of staff to the president. He now owns and operates his own consulting firm, Kincaid Communications, LLC, located in Springfield.