For most people nowadays, the words "Denver" and "football" mean one thing, the Broncos. The gold and brown-clad Broncos were charter members of the American Football League's, suiting up in those hues for another year before switching to the now familiar orange and blue.
Before the Broncos arrived, however, the city's gridiron fans followed the Denver Pioneer University football team when they played in the Skyline Conference along with Utah State, Colorado State, BYU, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Montana. The Pioneers played the equivalent of Group of Five football until they dropped the sport after the 1960 season for financial reasons.
Denver began playing football in 1885 with varying levels of success. Early on, they played off-campus at University Park’s grandstand until the school built an on-campus stadium in 1926.
Denver's last conference championship came in 1954 under Bob Blackman, who left Denver and took Dartmouth to seven conference titles before having less success at Illinois and Cornell.
Still, despite losing Blackman after a 9-1 record in 1954, Denver rightfully looked forward to a strong year in 1955. They had some returning vets, newcomers coming up from an undefeated freshman team, and they faced their three most formidable opponents at home.
Besides finishing the 1954 season ranked #18 in the UPI poll, Denver managed to hire John Roning and his Split T offense away from conference rival Utah State. (Regular readers will be thrilled to learn that Roning was an assistant with the North Carolina Pre-Flight Cloudbusters, featured in a story two days ago.)
Roning assembled a solid staff, providing an additional reason to fill the season ticket mailer with optimism. D.U., or Hilltop Stadium, sat 30,000 and was built in 1926 with a crescent design to maximize the number of good seats near midfield. Attendance new heights in 1954, and little could stop it from climbing higher in 1955. With a fine slate of games that fall, fans could expect a fun set of Saturday games.
Sure enough, those who bought season tickets for 1955 enjoyed a good show. The Pioneers won on the road at Iowa State, Montana, and New Mexico, while losing at Colorado State. At home, they won five of six, with their only loss coming to Utah, resulting in a third-place finish in the Skyline.
They went 6-4 the following two seasons before winning only two or three games in 1958, 1959, and 1960. Following the 1960 season and citing $100,000 losses each season, Denver joined a lost list of colleges that dropped football.
The AFL Broncos played seven exhibitions and two regular season games at Hilltop Stadium over the years, including a 1967 exhibition game against the Detroit Lions that marked the first time an AFL team beat an NFL team.
Hilltop Stadium was demolished in the early 1970s. Now memories of Denver's days playing football with the big boys fade further away with each passing year.
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Bob Blackman was a genius.
It takes a special person to succeed in the Ivies. Not too many have gone elsewhere and done the same. Likely two sides of the same coin.