1960: Navy 26, SMU 7
The Naval Academy has produced two Heisman Trophy winners. While Joe Bellino was the first to win the award in 1960, he tends to be overshadowed some by Roger Staubach. Staubach’s professional accomplishments certainly contribute to that, as does the fact that he played quarterback, football’s most celebrated position. The 1963 team’s legendary status among Navy fans also plays a part. Navy has been blessed with other fine running backs, too, like Eddie Meyers, Napoleon McCallum, and several fine runners in the current triple-option era, making it more difficult for some of Bellino’s statistical accomplishments to stand out. As ridiculous as it may sound, one could say that Bellino– the Heisman Trophy winner, Maxwell Award winner, and consensus All-American– is actually underrated.
It shouldn’t be that way.
If there is a modern comparison to the way Joe Bellino ran the ball, the only player I can come up with is Barry Sanders. Not that it’s a conversation I have all that often, but on the few occasions where I’ve mentioned the resemblance, I’ve always been met with more than a little skepticism by those who haven’t seen Bellino play. Watch some footage of Bellino with the ball in his hands, though, and you’ll understand.
Both Bellino and Sanders were listed at either 5-8 or 5-9 in height, depending on how generous the person filling out the roster felt. Their low centers of gravity and large, powerful legs (Bellino’s calves were said to have measured 18″ around) gave both players the ability to cut on a dime and run laterally almost as quickly as they could get up and down the field. It made them both extremely difficult to tackle.
Sports Illustrated once brilliantly described Bellino’s running style as that of “a berserk butterfly that happened to grow up to weigh 180 pounds.” Against Boston College in 1960, he had a 50-yard touchdown run that Eagles coach Mike Holovak called “the greatest do-it-yourself run I ever saw.” Two weeks later, Washington coach Jim Owens said of Navy’s star halfback, “Bellino made us look like we hadn’t practiced tackling.”
One exasperated coach instructed his team:
Let the little guy have the short yardage, but don’t let him get past the line of scrimmage or he’s gone. And because he’s small, don’t underestimate him when he’s coming right at you. If you do, he’ll be running over your chest while you count clouds.
As spectacular as he was running the ball, what was even more remarkable was everything else he did. He excelled at catching the ball out of the backfield. Missouri coach Dan Devine called this over-the-shoulder catch in the Orange Bowl the greatest he had ever seen:
Navy’s opponents would do anything they could to stop Bellino, often having two or even three players covering him on every play. When teams would get overly aggressive in pursuing Bellino on sweeps, he was an effective passer:
He was an ace special teams player as well, returning both punts and kickoffs. His quick kicks helped give Navy better field position. Defensively, Bellino patrolled the field as a safety and collected key interceptions against Army in both 1959 and 1960. In his Heisman winning senior year, he had: 834 rushing yards and 15 TDs; 280 receiving yards and 3 TDs; 112 passing yards and 2 more TDs. He averaged 22 yards per kickoff return, 19.4 yards per punt return, and 47.1 yards per punt. He had two interceptions and kicked two extra points. Bellino, quite literally, did everything, and he won the Heisman Trophy by what was at the time one of the largest margins in the award’s history.
Wayne Hardin spoke of Bellino’s value to his team:
I think any coach in the country would trade half his team for a breakaway runner like Joe. But that’s only part of it, believe me. For one thing, he’s among the best pass catchers I’ve ever seen, and he’s an excellent passer. Witness the 64-yarder he threw for a touchdown in our first game with Boston College this season.
As a matter of fact, if you saw that game, it goes a long way to tell the Bellino story. He ran for one score, passed for a second, and was on the receiving end of another touchdown toss from quarterback Hal Spooner. Incidentally, he got off quick kicks of 64, 50, and 51 yards!
It took a while for Bellino’s career to reach its full potential. As a plebe, he averaged 11.4 yards per carry for Navy’s freshman team. He entered his sophomore year expected to help fill the void left by the graduations of Ned Oldham and Harry Hurst, but nagging injuries kept him from playing his best. The story was similar in 1959, with Bellino suffering a leg injury against Southern Methodist in week three that forced him out of the game and hampered him for weeks. The injury had a devastating effect on the Navy team; they were 5-0 with a healthy Bellino, but 0-4-1 when he was injured.
Nowhere was Bellino’s impact better demonstrated than in Navy’s biggest game, the season finale against Army. The Cadets were 4-3-1 and had just come off of a close game against Oklahoma two weeks earlier. Despite their own injury problems early in the year, Army entered the game as a slight favorite.
Apparently, neither the prognosticators nor the Army team accounted for Joe Bellino. Navy’s 43-12 victory was a stunner. The 43 points were the most in the history of the series up to that point. Bellino scored three touchdowns, including one run of 46 yards, and intercepted a pass that he returned for another 37 yards.
The performance was so dominating that it convinced the Liberty Bowl that Navy was worthy of an invitation to play in their inaugural game. However, Navy officials felt that the team’s 5-4-1 record would not be a proper representation of the program in the national spotlight, and turned down the invitation.
There would be no such problem in 1960. Navy entered the season unranked, but the lopsided win to end the ’59 season combined with another 2-0 start convinced enough AP voters that the Mids should be awarded with the #17 spot in their poll. That ranking appeared tenuous with a trip to #3 Washington next on the schedule, but the Mids, thanks to a late drive led by Bellino, pulled off what is arguably the greatest non-Army win in Navy history, 15-14. All of a sudden, Navy and its star halfback were catapulted to #6 in the nation. How would they respond to being in the national spotlight? Would there be a letdown after such a monumental victory?
The answer would come the following week against Southern Methodist. The Mustangs were not as strong as they were when they, led by star quarterback Don Meredith, defeated Navy a year earlier. However, there were a few factors that they had working in their favor. The game wasn’t played in Annapolis or even Navy’s home-away-from-home of Baltimore, but in Norfolk; the city hosted an annual charity game called the Oyster Bowl. The weather also seemed to favor SMU, as a driving rain and a muddy field would serve as an equalizer in slowing down Navy’s best player.
That was the theory, anyway. It didn’t play out that way. While both teams had trouble handling the ball all day (losing two fumbles apiece), Navy won 26-7 thanks to what was essentially a one-man show. Bellino had a hand in setting up every Navy touchdown. He started by throwing a 6-yard TD pass to fullback Joe Matalavage. 12 of his 93 rushing yards came on Navy’s next touchdown. Their third was set up by a Bellino punt return that went 63 yards. The Mids wrapped up their scoring with a run by Matalavage, preceded by a leaping 14-yard catch by Bellino for a key first down. He even added in a 55-yard punt for good measure.
Joe Bellino is as complete a football player as has ever played the game, and his performance against SMU that day helped to make him a national phenomenon. Navy’s do-everything man lived up to the label, and in doing so he kept Navy’s momentum going and made himself a candidate for the school’s first Heisman Trophy.